When we make it

Elisabet Velasquez

Book - 2021

Sarai uses verse to navigate the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, questioning the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives.

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Novels in verse
New York : Dial Books for Young Readers 2021.
Main Author
Elisabet Velasquez (author)
Physical Description
375 pages ; 22 cm
Ages 14+.
Grades 10-12.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

The question of what it takes to make it in a challenging world is a recurring theme in this gorgeously written novel in verse, which wakes readers up to the realities many Puerto Rican teens might face in New York City. Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican living in nineties-era Brooklyn and attending eighth grade, while dealing with the gentrification of her neighborhood and housing insecurity. She's also confronted with the realities of toxic masculinity and a society that does not seem to understand her. While there are some tough themes explored in the book, such as surviving sexual assault, they're all treated with poetic grace, and readers will easily become invested in Sarai's journey to find herself and the strength she shows in the face of adversity. Velasquez's debut will teach young women, in particular, that they can make it through tough times and learn to embrace their identities and backgrounds, face society, and put themselves first. A beautiful story with deep messages that will have lasting effects.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 8 Up--Sarai is a Nuyorican (Puerto Rican born in New York City) teen growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with her sister, Estrella, and their Mami. Seeking clarity about her identity, she wonders if she is Puerto Rican enough since she wasn't born on the island. Her Spanish is a work in progress. Although she doesn't always have the words to express herself, emotions are bubbling at the surface as she struggles with poverty, Mami's mental illness, gentrification of her neighborhood, and more. In this novel-in-verse, Velasquez provides a candidly fierce voice as Sarai finds her own. The author celebrates the teen's story unapologetically, with passion and respect. Exquisite poetry portrays not only anger and fear, but also hope, as "making it" may encompass a range of results. Layered themes unfold as Sarai's sojourn continues. Readers will find themselves empathizing with certain characters at different times and will root for Sarai to survive and proclaim her own story with intention: "Mami taught me how lethal a woman's mouth could be. How my mouth is an open wound. A pocket that stores the weapon." The book explores mental illness, poverty, misogyny, colorism, sexual assault, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, gun violence, and pregnancy loss. VERDICT Gripping and soulful, this dynamic debut novel-in-verse is a must for every collection.--Lisa Krok, Morley Lib., Cleveland, OH

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Review by Horn Book Review

Drawing on her experience growing up in 1990s Brooklyn, debut author Velasquez paints a complex portrait of a strong-voiced teen in this compelling verse novel. Sarai, thirteen when the story begins, is poised to be the first person in her family to "make it" -- to reach her potential, finish school, and leave Bushwick someday. But Sarai is skeptical: "If we can't take no one with us? / Isn't that just running away from everything that / made us?" The candid, clear-eyed poetry contains powerful inquiries about her diasporic Nuyorican identity and canny observations about the endemic social and racial inequities that surround her. As Sarai moves on to high school, her single mami shuffles their family from address to address, and the refrigerator is rarely full. Sarai and others in her family have unintended pregnancies, which bring complications including postpartum depression. Frank, provocatively titled poems chronicle the family's struggles ("We're Sorry the Welfare Office Is Closed and Will Reopen When You Have No Bus Fare to Get Here"), while others capture everyday joys with a buoyant, electric energy ("If Being Boricua in Brooklyn Is a Feeling -- It's the Best Kind"). Together, these vignettes capture Sarai's multilayered, heart-rending, and hopeful coming of age. An afterword identifies those poems written in conversation with works by Cisneros, Woodson, Mariposa, and other greats. Jessica Tackett MacDonald January/February 2022 p.125(c) Copyright 2022. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

In 1990s Bushwick, Brooklyn, 14-year-old Sarai tries to make sense of herself, her neighborhood, and the world she is growing up in. Sarai is the youngest of three kids born to a single mother who survived domestic violence and who fights tooth and nail to keep her kids fed and alive. Velasquez's debut novel is a collection of raw ruminations that together form Sarai's heart-wrenching, honest, and critical narrative. With an in-your-face, call-everything-out flavor, the poetry begs to be read out loud to appreciate the full force of its rhythmic cadence and thought-provoking, sophisticated critiques. These include pointed commentary on teachers who work but don't live in Bushwick and newspapers that only tell one side of the story. Velasquez, a Bushwick native herself, tells a real, on-the-block narrative of the neighborhood through Sarai, with biting pieces that masterfully weave themes of religion, street life, sexual assault, language, poverty, the complexities of Boricua/Puerto Rican/Nuyorican identity, and so much more. Nine of the pieces are "poems in conversation" with ones written by Jacqueline Woodson, Sandra Cisneros, Nikki Giovanni, Nuyorican poet Mariposa, and others. This element, coupled with the diversity of poetic forms, from blackout poetry to stream of consciousness, makes this a gem for pleasure reading as well as classroom use. All primary characters are Puerto Rican. Raw, breathtaking, and brilliant. (author's note, "poems in conversation" credits) (Verse novel. 14-adult) Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

How I Got My Name Sarai Let's start the story where abandon meets faith. Aight, so, boom. Check it. I'm named after a homegirl in the Bible who couldn't have kids. Her man Abram was all like: Yo, Sarai, God promised me I would be the Father of Nations. Sarai was all like: Nah B, you must be buggin', you know I can't have no babies. Our pastor says faith is believing in something you can't really see. According to Mami, we should never put our faith in men. Mami was pregnant with me when Papi bounced for some new chick & told Mami to have an abortion. Abram got himself a new chick, too. Got her pregnant and all that. I guess Mami identified with Sarai's fear and doubt-- & so I was born out of Mami's faith & hope. Mami Mami is a round woman. A square by any other definition. No-nonsense, Pentecostal with no patience for her own children most days. There are three of us in total. Danny, Estrella & Me. I am the youngest. My sister Estrella said Mami's depressed. File this under "shit we don't talk about." Pentecostals, we're just supposed to pray the sadness away. ¡Fuera! The pastor demands on prayer night. ¡Fuera! I imagine sadness is a bad singer being kicked off the show by el Chacal on Sábado Gigante. Apparently, Jesus & Don Francisco can save anything. Once during church testimonio, Mami gave Jesus mad credit for saving her from Papi's fists. ¡Amén! ¡Aleluya! Now, Papi lives in the Bronx with his new wife. Estrella uses the payphone to collect call him all the time. She says Papi is also Christian now & that God forgave him for beating on Mami & so we should too. But Mami's eyes never close right during prayer service & I wonder what kind of God you have to be to receive praise from the hands responsible for that. How We Got Our Names Estrella Estrella was named after another woman Papi was cheating on Mami with. Nobody says that out loud though. But I can tell by the way my sister's name jumps off of Mami's tongue like one of those side chicks on The Ricki Lake Show . On my father's tongue, Estrella matters. Her name is a sloooow dance in Brooklyn. Her name is a bullet that didn't kill nobody. Her name is the beeper alert that gets a call back. Estrella is three years older than me. She is sixteen but her body is not. She got that it's not my fault, I thought you were older kind of body. She is the kind of beautiful that dique puts men in danger or that makes men want to be dangerous. The kind of beautiful Mami always wanted to be. When we walk down Knickerbocker Ave., the men hiss like they are deflating at the sight of us. They call Mami suegra. Mami can't stand it. Qué ridículo , she says. She ain't old enough to be nobody's mother-in-law. She shifts her body in front of Estrella's, to protect her or maybe so she can be seen first. Papi Estrella races to the window and pulls back the curtain, which is really just a fuzzy blanket with a lion print that Mami ordered from Fingerhut, a magazine that lets Mami own nice things and pay for them slowly. Papi parks outside and makes his station wagon cry until it guilts Mami into letting us go downstairs. I examine my father until he is human again. When he hugs me, I want no parts of his hands. I become Mami the last time he hit her. Leave me alone. Don't touch me. Estrella laughs at my fear & tells Papi Mami is brainwashing me into hating him. Papi says he hopes I'm not becoming an angry bitch like Mami. Men don't like angry bitches. Men leave angry bitches. All Mami was ever good for was kicking him out. He can't remember the last time her mouth made a home for him. That's why he left and didn't come around for a few years. Now Papi comes by every weekend & gives us five dollars to split. Estrella & me argue over how to spend it. Five dollars can buy us mad chips, quarter juices, Now and Laters, Devil Dogs. Or we can use it to share one ham & cheese hero and a two-liter. When I look up at the window you can't see Mami peeking but the lion's mouth is open and roaring for me to come upstairs. Lucky In Bushwick, the reporters double park to shoot the latest crime scene & then bounce quick before their news vans get tagged up. The teachers find their car radios missing and blame the worst student they have. Pero, the teachers and the reporters, they get to leave. Back to their "good" neighborhoods with boring-ass walls and vehicles they don't have to piece back together like a puzzle. They'll have a nice dinner with their predictable family and talk about their wack-ass day in Bushwick & somebody will say: You're lucky you don't live there . Someone else will echo: Imagine?! & they think they can imagine because fear got them believing they know what it means to be safe. I mean, it's one thing to feel danger. & maybe it's another thing to work in it. & maybe it's another thing altogether to live with it. But it's something else completely to be the thing everyone is afraid of. We Ain't Afraid Estrella says: We ain't afraid of nothing. We ain't afraid of nothing. We ain't afraid of nothing. I say: Some days though, shit is scary. Not gonna front like shit ain't scary. Estrella says: Damn, yo, what's so scary? That's just Corner Boy Jesus and his friends. I say: Shit. That's 5-0. Ayo! They're creeping around the corner. I tell Estrella & the corner boys to run. Run! Estrella & the corner boys say: Run? We ain't running. Snitch? We ain't snitching. Estrella says: Yo, chill, we'll be aight. Yo, chill, we'll be okay. & even when we not we are. You know what I mean? & I know exactly what she means 'cause it's just like being afraid. Even when we not we are. Even when we not we are. But I don't say that. Nah. I don't say that. Neighbors Bushwick is full of hip-hop & salsa. Cuchifritos & soul food. Nail & hair salons. Bootleg CD vendors & tamale ladies on the corner. We are all the same in our difference. No matter how we got to be neighbors here We all know we lived somewhere else first. I know this because on the occasion that Our eyes lock for more than a moment Our mouths ask each other the same question. Where you from? Like nice to meet you. Where you from? Like what block? Where you from? Like what country? Where you from? Like what God? Where you from? Like where you been? Where you from? Like where you going? Where you from? Like who you missing? Where you from? Like why you here? Where you from? Like have you gone back? Where you from? Like what did you leave behind? Curiosity Killed the Cat Satisfaction Brought It Back Mami says ¡que soy entrometida! & she's right, I'm always asking about things I shouldn't be. Estrella thinks I ask a lot of questions 'cause I'm dumb. Being a dumbass has its rewards though. She laughs. She means that in Bushwick, there are some things you just don't wanna know. That way you sound believable if the cops ever ask you something where the answer could get you locked up or killed. But I know asking questions is sometimes the smartest thing I could do. It gives me permission to not know everything. Besides, answers are just questions that haven't been discovered yet. I Ask Questions About Puerto Rico When I ask Mami to tell me about Puerto Rico she says it's none of my business and that I should focus on school. How is where I am from none of my business ? I decide to talk back today. You are not from Puerto Rico. You are Nuyorican, Mami says. A Puerto Rican born in New York. Does that make me less Puerto Rican ? I wanna know. Sí. No. ¡Qué sé yo! Mami is annoyed & tells me to stop asking questions & pack my clothes. We are moving. Again. Leaving Gates Avenue Mami never has money for the bus or cabs so we walk our belongings to the new spot on Knickerbocker Avenue. We gotta stop at the Check Cashing to get a money order for the week's rent. I'ma miss writing Gates Avenue on the money order. It always felt super appropriate considering that everything in Bushwick looks like it could hurt you if you crossed it. All the buildings are built like weapons. Even our schools are gated & the welfare office is spiked as if to let you know that you are entering a war zone. We order Chinese food through glass that might stop a bullet but can't stop a kid with a blade and a dope tag. Windows are secured with metal bars & roofs are fenced in with barbed wire. In this way even the sun becomes a criminal if it sneaks into an armored building. At the Check Cashing spot the pen is chained to the counter & today I stole it just to say I set something free. How We Got Our Names Hookerbocker Ave is what everybody calls Knickerbocker Avenue. & since names have a way of making things true Mami has a warning for Estrella & me as we leave the new room we're staying in to go buy pizza for dinner. She tells us to come straight home & not to stand on the ave. for too long. Si te coge la jara no hay dinero pá sacarte. Which is to say you can't even trust the cops to tell the difference. Which is to say Puerto Rican girls always look like they're for sale. & for a brief second I wonder what I'm worth. What it would cost to keep me for a night. What it would cost to set me free. Today in Bible Study Trinity We learn: God the father. God the son. God the Holy Spirit. Are all the same. Are all different. I'm not even gonna front like I get how that shit works. But if I had to share my identities with two other people I'ma pick the underdog. The one who flies mad under the radar but does some powerful ass shit. That's the Holy Spirit in this case. I mean, sure, Jesus turned water into wine and did the whole I'm dead. . .SIKE! I'm not dead bit but have you ever seen the way the Holy Spirit possesses a body and makes it dance across the room without hitting any of the furniture? That's talent. I guess what I'm saying is that I think I'm talented enough to make it out of here while avoiding everything that tries to get in my way. Sarai's Got Talent Actually, I don't really know if talent is the way out of the hood. There are mad talented people in Bushwick who are still here. Like the ladies who make the toilet paper doll covers made of yarn & the hood musicians who record then hustle their mixtape on CDs on the ave. & the street chefs who make the most bangin' empanadas and tamales that you'll never find in any restaurant & the acrobats who swing their bodies on an L train pole in the name of showtime. & the writers who tag up the walls with their names so colorfully that you couldn't ignore them if you wanted to. Mami says my talent is being nosy. I say my talent is paying attention. Roster I know the moment right before the homeroom teacher is about to call my name off the roster. A brief silence stings the air while all the kids with heavy names sink their bodies into the chair. My best friend's name is Lauricia, which people always wrongly pronounce Larissa or Laurish-a. So she just tells people to call her Lala to avoid the exhaustion that comes with correcting people. Lala & I can tell who has a "good" name by the way they chew their Bubble Yum mindlessly or scratch the date on the wooden table. Our mouths do not get the luxury of rest. Our mouths must always be war-ready, which means, sometimes we rip our names from the teacher's mouth before she has a chance to kill it, but other times we wait. After all, the teacher is human, like us, but more real. Maybe we wait to see if this time, she will get it right or maybe we are waiting to see if our name can be held in a mouth that is not our mother's. The Cool Puerto Rican English Teacher Ms. Rivera looks & talks wild familiar. Like she could be my cousin or something. How funny it would be if Ms. Rivera was really just a cousin I didn't know. Ms. Rivera could even be me. Yo. Maybe she is me. The me that finishes school & gets a college degree. The me that learns how to talk proper and shit. The me that owns a car and lives in a good neighborhood. The me that makes mad money, or at least enough to make sure we always got food in the fridge. The me Mami couldn't be. The me Estrella doesn't want to be. The me that makes it for everybody that couldn't. How We Got Our Names Mami's Job When Ms. Rivera asks me what Mami does for a living I don't know how to make her sound important enough to mention. You know the kids who have parents with good jobs by the way their hands shoot up and shake until they're chosen. Let's hear from someone we haven't heard from yet. Ms. Rivera scans the room for those of us hiding our hands, our eyes, our lives. Mami sews people's clothes, I say. A seamstress . Ms. Rivera gives Mami's job a name that sounds valuable. Names can do that, you know. I shrug. All I know is that she works in a factory making clothes & she'll never know the people who wear them and they'll never know the lady who made them. Excerpted from When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.