Nina Moreno is the author of the well-loved Don’t Date Rosa Santos, which has become a staple among Latinx readers. A tender story of family and loss, of love and all it entails, along with a prose that’s as sweet as the movement of the waves on the beach, I thought this would be the best way to begin the Latinx Heritage Month series. Read along to learn more about Rosa, her origins, and High School Musical 2.
How did you come up with the idea for Don’t Date Rosa Santos (DDRS)? What was the first spark of inspiration?
Rosa showed up for me as a girl who sat on a bench at a harbor every morning with her breakfast pastelito. And every morning she stared at the sea and imagined she was somewhere different and exciting. I wanted to write something soft, funny, and romantic, but the more I dug into Rosa’s character and motives, I realized I had to confront what it would mean for me to write about Cuba. Rosa made me brave enough to do that.
DDRS, though lighthearted at times, has a theme of loss running throughout: loss of parental figures, loss of identity, loss of history and culture, as well as a loss of purpose, when Rosa’s dreams of going out-of-state for a study abroad program in Cuba. How did you manage the balance between the light and the dark throughout the book?
That’s the dance, right? How do you balance them when they’re both so tangled with what it is to love something, whether it’s a partner, family, home, or ourselves. It’s complicated to be an exile and love your island. It’s not always easy loving our own family because life is messy and our best doesn’t always look the same. To love is to risk loss and grief, and yet we do it over and over again. Those are the high stakes we live with even in our small, seemingly ordinary lives, but this is also a romance, and as a writer, I get to always make sure the sun rises when the storm clears.
In the book, Rosa mentions that she had a crush on a girl working at an ice cream shop, which is mentioned offhandedly and casually, but she doesn’t really use the word bisexual. Was Rosa always queer when you first got the idea for the character?
There was a lot to learn about Rosa as I wrote her, but I knew right off the bat that she was Cuban-American, organized, retro, and queer. The one thing she and I debated on a lot was whether she had bangs, but that was just our mutual stress probably.
DDRS is set in the town of Port Coral, FL. Florida is one of the U.S. states with a large Latinx population and you’re from Florida as well. What makes Port Coral, a fictional town, a Florida town at its soul?
I love Florida stories so much. My state is a weird, quirky, hot mess, but it is a setting with a whole life of its own. Port Coral is my ode to sleepy, seaside towns and communities, but with all the comforts of home and for me, as a Florida girl, that means cute festivals and small-town hijinks, but also fruit trees, small colorful houses, a paletero, neighborhood curandera, and viejitos outside the ventanita that serves the best Cuban food.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
I hope for so many things. I hope they laugh, fall a little in love. If they’ve experienced loss, I hope that by the end of this story, it eases a tiny corner of it. Most of all, I think, I just hope that Port Coral feels like it’s a little bit theirs, too.
What movie would you pair your book with?
I really love the Practical Magic comp. I also recently heard Mamma Mia, which is amazing, and I know Rosa would love a sing-along. So, in that respect, my answer would be: High School Musical 2.
A publisher gives you free reins to collab with another Latinx author and the author is free and on board as well, who are you picking and what are you writing?
Tehlor Kay Mejia and I have this idea we’re obsessed with, and we're both hoping to find the time to run away to our magic village and write it soon.
Shoutout a Latinx writer or creator whom you admire!
I think Celia Pérez is the absolute coolest. She’s also a University of Florida alum with a deep love for Gainesville, and her book, THE FIRST RULE PUNK, was amazing, but her next STRANGE BIRDS is the exact story I needed when I was younger. How cool to know she’s out there making words and zines that I can read now and share with my daughter.