Lilliam Rivera’s The Education of Margot Sanchez is a bold coming-of-age story set in the vibrant — and rapidly changing — community of the South Bronx. After 16-year-old Margot steals her father’s credit card in order to buy the wardrobe she needs to fit in at her mostly white prep school, her parents sentence her to a summer working at their family-owned grocery store. At first, Margot doesn’t understand why she’s in trouble. Papi told her to fit in, so, really, she was just trying to do what she was told. As the summer unfolds, family secrets are exposed, the effects of gentrification hit the grocery store, and Margot begins to question the ideal of assimilation that she was raised with. Inspired by elements of Rivera’s upbringing in the South Bronx, this YA debut is an illuminating look at gentrification, dysfunctional families, dealing with peer pressure, the desire to fit in, and ultimately finding your own voice.
Lilliam Rivera chatted with MTV News about the inspiration for The Education of Margot Sanchez, gentrification, Latinx representation in literature, and her hopes for The Education of Margot Sanchez during this political moment.
When reading The Education of Margot Sanchez, a vivid picture is painted of life in the Bronx. Can you tell me a bit about your background and what it was like growing up in the Bronx?
Lilliam Rivera: I grew up in the South Bronx in the housing projects on 183rd and Webster Avenue. I come from a big Puerto Rican family of five kids. My whole family lived in that area. Growing up, one of the places that my mom always used to take us was the Fordham Public Library, and that was where I got my taste in literature. We would walk — and it wasn’t a close walk — to Fordham for its library. That’s where I fell in love with Judy Blume books and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and just really fell in love with young adult literature.
Though you are a Bronx native, you have lived in Los Angeles for many years. How has living amid both communities influenced you as a storyteller?
Rivera: I love the fantasy of living in L.A. Like, I live in a movie-making city, you know? There's something fantastical in that everyone is creating and, similar to New York, a lot of people move out here just trying to make it. So many people in L.A. are creating amazing works of art. And that's encompassing everything — stories, literature, artwork, organizations. Not everyone is talking about industry or being an actor or being a screenwriter. You find so many people living their life and creating outside of that industry, and that’s why I like L.A. But, you know, I go back to New York all the time, and I always know what’s going on in New York. You can’t leave home, in a way.
The term "education" is so multifaceted in the book. Though Margot attends a prep school in Manhattan, her true education comes from family, friends, and members of her South Bronx community. What does education mean to you? In regards to your writing, where did you get your education?
Rivera: I went upstate to Binghamton University, which was about four hours away from the city. I was the first person to go to college in my family, so it was just a challenge in that I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't rely on my parents to help me in the way of navigating whatever I was going through in college because they didn't know what that life was like — they just saw it as an opportunity. And I couldn't mess it up. It's just like Margot, she can't mess up her prep school opportunity. We don't have room for failure. So I felt that pressure. It wasn't like something that they told me, it was just an unspoken pressure, but it was really hard for me that first year of college. And I think that's something that a lot of young people go through.
In the book, one of the most powerful images is watching Margot assimilate to societal standards of white beauty — from straightening her hair to adjusting her wardrobe — in order to fit in. I think it’s something every young woman can identify with.
Rivera: I definitely wanted to bring that up because I feel like her parents gravitate toward this sort of assimilated beauty, or even just how to align yourself with those in power. They're teaching Margot that you've got to align yourself with the people who stand out, and she’s just trying to be a good daughter. It backfires because she steals money just trying to get a new wardrobe just to fit in with these girls ... but that is what her parents taught her that she has to do. I also wanted to write about a character who is flawed in the sense that she hasn't come into her own when it comes to loving her curls, loving her body shape, and loving just being Puerto Rican. She has to come to that point and that is her education, in a way, because it's a summer of her just loving who she is.
Gentrification is a major theme in the book. Learning about gentrification through Moises, a boy who cares so deeply about preserving and protecting his community from corporate interests, was both educational and highly illuminating. Why was it so important for you to include discussions of gentrification throughout the novel?
Rivera: Even though I live in L.A., I go back to the Bronx all the time and I see the changes. To me, it's so drastic. I was there just a couple of months ago and I was floored by all the new stuff: the new supermarket that looks fancier or the new hotel that's opening up. So I see it, and of course my family sees it too. There is no way I could write a novel about the Bronx without bringing up the fact that it's changing and gentrification is happening right now. I'm concerned, but what I love about Moises — which is true of a lot of people who are living there — is that [he is] not sitting down. [People are] really vocal about it. They're really trying to stand their ground and save spaces and be part of that — be as vocal and a part of that community as possible. There are also those discussions that maybe this is a good thing. So there's that struggle of like, you want that Starbucks, but then your mom-and-pop café is going to be closed down, and how do you feel about that? Obviously in the novel there's no solution, there's only the fight. How do you save people who are going to be pushed out soon?
While The Education of Margot Sanchez is your debut novel, you’ve been a writer for many years, winning awards such as the Pushcart Prize. What prompted the shift from literary fiction to young adult, and did you find it challenging to make this move?
Rivera: The first short stories I wrote were always young voices. The Education is my first novel published. I wrote another novel before, and it was in response to the Twilight movie. I was like, I don't want to see any more vampire movies without any Latinx people in them. I wrote it basically out of spite. I didn't know what I was doing, but it was a really good exercise, and I wrote the first novel. I sent it out to a couple people, but it wasn't ready. So then I put that novel away and I wrote The Education of Margot Sanchez. And as I wrote the draft of that, that's when I was submitting short stories. Once my short stories were getting accepted and I was winning awards, I was like, OK, I'm on the right path. I can do this.
As young adult literature has become an increasingly diverse space, what do you think is the most important issue surrounding diversity in YA and in the general media landscape at this particular political moment?
Rivera: It’s an exciting moment to be a young adult author. You're seeing more people getting book deals [with] their own voices, different voices. So I'm happy about that. I just think that more needs to be done. I want — specifically for the Latinx experience — I want it to be so varied [to] where it doesn't matter. It shouldn't be just one story. Like, my story is just one story and it's not even, like, the Puerto Rican story, you know? She just happens to be Puerto Rican. I want it to be so varied that we can have romantic comedy, or lightness, or fantasy, or hardcore science fiction. I want that to happen and I don't think we're there yet. Publishing, who are the gatekeepers, needs to hire more people of color so it just becomes easier. It shouldn't be like, “Oh, one person is through! Now we're good!” That should not be the case. People do that in literature too. It's just like, “Oh, Junot Díaz! We're good.” He covers all the Latinos, you know?
It's like you're the token Latinx.
Rivera: Yeah, no. That's not the way it should be. It shouldn't be everyone focusing on one person and elevating one person. I'm always active on Twitter and like, “Here, check out this new person. Here's another author, here's another.” Like, here are all these new Latinx people. Or just people of color. Let's support these authors who aren't getting much play. I think that is my role.
Do you have any recommendations you’d like to share with us?
Rivera: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a vampire story set in Mexico, and it's amazing. I could see it as a movie. There's also Gabby Rivera’s YA novel Juliet Takes a Breath. That came out a while ago, but the cool thing about Gabby is that she's also writing America Chavez for Marvel. Also, Adam Silvera is really great. He's from the Bronx and Puerto Rican, and it's just really great to see Bronx authors getting some recognition.
The YA community has become both a resource and advocate for teens in this political climate. What would you say to teens, especially young people of color, who feel targeted by the Trump administration?
Rivera: I've been doing a lot of school visits since the book came out. Recently, I was invited to talk to high school kids at an East L.A. school. Afterward, one kid came up to me and asked me how I felt about the administration. Of course, I asked, “How do you feel?” My answer: We all have to resist. The boy said, “You know, he just doesn't live in reality. That's just not the world that we're living in. That's not my world.” And I was like, YES. That's not my world either. There's definitely fear, especially for kids whose parents are immigrants, their fear of deportation. I see that even more so living in Los Angeles.
To me, my biggest fear and concern are the kids who are being deported, because that's happening everywhere, and there are great repercussions because of that. Kids aren't applying to certain scholarships because they're afraid that their family is going to get caught, you know? Even if they're a citizen, maybe their mom isn't. How is that affecting all of these kids? They're going underground in a way. And who's speaking for those kids? Those are the things I keep thinking about because that is real.
Finally, you without a doubt are an advocate for your community and for Latinx representation in literature. What do you hope young Latinx readers, or young adult readers in general, get from your book?
Rivera: I hope that readers come away just knowing that there is no one set path when it comes to growing up. I want readers to have the freedom of, like, here's one girl who's kind of messy, she's flawed, but you can relate to those kind of issues that she's dealing with: assimilation, gentrification, and just trying so desperately to fit in. So I just want readers to come away with [knowing] there is no set rule. No one has the manual for how to live this life. You just have to find your own path, find your own voice, and, you know, just feel comfortable. It's not an easy task, but if you keep doing it, you'll find your voice. Growing up is hard, and I just want people to come away with that from reading Margot. Here's one girl, and she's figuring it out. It's not easy, but it's OK.