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Latina pride, writing is in their blood

Trio battles stereotypes with 'Sister Chicas'

When Ann Hagman Cardinal, Lisa Alvarado, and Jane Alberdeston Coralin met at Vermont College as adult students six years ago, they felt an instant connection, a sisterhood as Latinas and fellow writers.

Between classes, they met at restaurants and coffee shops in Montpelier to gab about their experiences of growing up biculturally, as Puerto Rican, or Mexican-American, speaking English or Spanish or both, and how those memories helped shaped their creative writing and Latin pride.

So when Cardinal came across a listing looking for proposals for young adult novels for Latinas, she dialed up her college chicas. They began writing a book they hoped would portray the everyday cultural and familial challenges of young Latinas in a way that many adult contemporary man-hungry chica lit novels do not.

The threesome sold their book to New American Library/Penguin with the title ``Sister Chicas," something the women consider themselves to be.

The novel, published this spring, follows a trio of Latina teens who meet every week at a Cuban restaurant to catch up on their lives, a lot like Cardinal, Coralin , and Alvarado did in Vermont. The young chicas deal with overprotective mothers, the loss of a parent, interracial dating, a love of writing, and boy crushes as they plan the youngest girl's quinceanera (``sweet 15" party.)

The women developed the kind of book they wished they could have found in their youth. Publishers are catering to that genre, calling it chica teen lit. It's been a growing market with the demographic explosion of young Latinas and an interest among Anglo kids as they graduate from ``Dora the Explorer" stories to more mature material. Think: an all-Latin version of ``The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."

``There is so much out there that talks about either the pregnant teenager or the local gang member or the consumerist-backbiting-after-the-man Latina," says Cardinal, who lives in Morrisville, Vt. She is Puerto Rican and Swedish, similar to Leni O'Malley-Diaz, the punk rocker rebel in the book who tries to come to terms with her Puerto Rican-Irish heritage. ``We didn't feel they represented our stories."

Cardinal wondered what her life might have been like had she met Alvarado and Coralin as teenagers, and that became the guiding spirit of the book.

``We wanted to hold up a mirror for other Latinas to see themselves outside the stereotypes," says Alvarado, who is a first-generation Chicana in Chicago, like the character Graciela . ``This was a bridge, a way for others to understand our culture. It's not just the hype you see in the news about who is crossing the border. The actual relationship between the three young women is the crux of the novel."

Each writer took on the voice of one of the characters and told her story in alternating chapters. The authors wrote the book via e-mail and phone over the span of a year because they moved to different places after graduating . Each character is loosely based on each of the Latina s' personal experiences.

Alvarado, an administrative assistant in Chicago, was the voice of Graciela, the Chicana daughter who does everything to please her family and friends and must choose between her commitments to her family and the opportunity of a lifetime to attend a young writer's retreat. Like her character, Alvarado is the eldest of the girlfriends and ``pulls rank. I'm like the mother hen, the big sister," she says during a lively three-way phone interview with her amigas.

Like the three characters, the authors affectionately interrupt one another and complete one another's sentences. There's constant banter during the interview, in both English and Spanish. That energy also carries over into the novel, which is peppered with Spanglish. The book also features a glossary of Spanish terms sprinkled throughout the text so that readers can follow along.

Because of their close ties, the women were able to channel one another through the various characters in writing their individual chapters without being in the same room.

Cardinal, 43, modeled the Leni character after herself, a former punk rocker of mixed heritage who said she didn't identify with her Puerto Rican heritage until she was 30, when her mother died.

``I wanted to deal with the dual heritage," says Cardinal, a national marketing director for the Union Institute & University in Montpelier, where she also writes a monthly Latin-esque column called ``Cafe con Lupe," for Vermont Woman magazine.

Coralin, who is pursuing doctoral studies in English, was the voice behind Taina , the youngest character, who is a painfully shy Puerto Rican girl. Her mother forces her to straighten her kinky hair regularly at the corner salon and to practice for her upcoming dreaded ``sweet 15" party, when all she wants to do is date a handsome Jamaican boy and write poetry. Like her character, Coralin was also ``crippling shy" growing up as a military brat and who used her poetry to speak volumes. At 37, she is the youngest of her writing partners.

``I was coming from a shy background, where a woman can be heard but a woman cannot be heard a lot," says Coralin, who teaches creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton . ``In addition to being shy, was that I never fit in really, being Puerto Rican and in the military where everyone is supposed to be the same."

She and her writing partners hope younger Latinas see themselves and their families through the sister chicas.

``We wanted to represent something about friendship," she says. ``We wanted to show that girls can be friends and they can love each other and that they don't have to back bite."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

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