With ‘Chula,’ Amanda Alcantara Redefines Latinx Womanhood

“Chula” is a word most Latinx are familiar with. When we are kids, it’s all “Ay, mira que chula.” When we are teenagers, it’s all “Chula, ayúdame a lavar esos trastes.” As grown women, it’s mostly, “Mira, mami chula, ¿tó eso es tuyo?”

In Spanish, especially Caribbean Spanish, most words are polysemic. This was Amanda Alcantara’s starting point when she decided on the word “chula” as the title of her first book. As a Dominican writer, she was aware of the word’s equally empowering and demeaning symbolisms.

This is also why she decided to self-publish her debut work and hired an editorial team to help her, including editors Isabelia Herrera and Jacquie Jiménez Polanco. The result is a mezcolanza of Spanish, English, and Spanglish that dives into Alcantara’s childhood growing up in the Dominican Republic and coming of age stories in the United States from the lens of an unapologetic woman, who finds herself in the word “chula.”

Amanda Alcantara talked to Emperifollá‘s ediorial director Frances Solá-Santiago about her debut book and why digging up your inner child is a way to find yourself.

Why did you choose the word “Chula”?

Towards the end of 2017, I started using the word chula to describe myself and use it kind of in an empowering way. I had taken a lot of time during that year to focus on myself, my healing, my self-esteem. I started using the hashtag #LaMásChula. I even started this Instagram page where I was going to start a whole movement, but that’s a process that’s incomplete. And, then I realized that was the title for my book, “Chula.” I wasn’t even sure what form the book what going to take yet, but I realized I had all these short stories, poems, essays, and journals about my life, how could I bring them together in a collection that is cohesive? I realized under this word, like a banner, and this feeling that the word evoked to me, I could create something. 

To me, the word “chula” means both beautiful and cute, like when you see a little girl or boy. But it’s definitely also sexual. When a guy calls you “chula,” I’m like, yes, please. At the same time, it does carry some negative connotations, like when you walk down the street and a guy calls you, “Mami chula.” That’s offensive. I think it’s okay that the word carries that as well because that’s part of the experience of being a woman– being labeled. 

I don’t remember when I first started hearing the word chula. But I remember the feeling of it growing up, more than the actual word. 

The book embraces your childhood and your experiences growing up, how much does your inner child figure in this work and who you are as a writer today?

I think I acknowledged that the inner child was there, that she needed care, that she needed love, that she needed attention. Sometimes people hear that and they’re like, “What does that mean? Como que eso es una vaina espiritual.” But, no, what that means is the part of ourselves that wants nurturing, that wants to feel taken care of, the part of ourselves that’s vulnerable.

In the book, I do celebrate who I was as a kid because those experiences helped me tell my story. 

When I moved to the US, at 15, I kind of had to forget about where I was coming from in order to survive. For me, what helped me remember who I was, for example, was a lot of these songs that I used to sing as a kid, that were really silly. Some of them were not even appropriate for a kid to be singing, but it’s what we do. 

I loved when I wrote about how I used to be curious about what sex was as a kid. I feel like, as little girls, we are not allowed to feel that. Once a little girl shows any curiosity towards sex, she’s immediately labeled as “ella sabe demasiado.”

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I did it for two reasons. One, I was worried that my voice and the style in which I wrote the book, which is very bilingual. I am unapologetic about that, about some of the ways that I spelled some words that are very Cibao. I didn’t want to have to work with an editor that wasn’t going to understand that and the importance of that, just for the purpose of selling it to the masses.

Another thing was urgency. Honestly, I didn’t want to have to wait two years to get this published. It was going to take me forever to find an agent and, then, forever for the agent to sell it to a publication and, then, go through all of this editing. Basically, I wanted to own every part of the book. 

You’re also a journalist. How did your creative process for Chula differ from your work as a journalist?

It was very scary, to be honest. It made me think if me writing about these topics was going to take away from the work that I do as a journalist. People being like, “She can’t be taken seriously, look at what she wrote!” I was worried about the perception for a little bit. But then, I thought it’s the age of social media. People are creating as they go and a lot of writers in the past have also been journalists. It’s not even something new. 

When it comes to the process, it’s very different because you talk about having creative freedom and, sometimes, in journalism, we are allotted creative freedom in some parts but not entirely. You need to tell the story in a way that’s factual but that also is within AP style. There’s a bunch of different things in journalism that, I think, work because you want to convey truth and you want to write in a way that people can read it and understand. When it comes to the book, it’s very different. You can throw in different forms of storytelling. But what I think informs both of them is this inquietud for storytelling.

The way that I connect everything is that I am a storyteller.

As Latinx women, we grow up with style and beauty super ingrained in who we are. Did that figure in the stories that you dig up to write the book?

It’s almost like we have to redefine it for ourselves because we are not all going to fit in the standard of what being a beautiful Latina woman is. I definitely don’t feel like I am the face of Latinidad. When I think of the word “chula” and me trying to take it for myself, it definitely is about me reaffirming my own beauty in my own way and about me making that sort of affirmation as a child as well.

That’s what this book is for me– an affirmation of that, inner and outer beauty. It’s about redefining what beauty is. 

In the book, I talk about the word “mulata” and I dig into this colonial history that made up this word. I also talk about how women in my family depending how light you were and how dark you were, it was celebrated or not. I was always compared to my sister who has a different father. She has green eyes and used to be called “la gringa.” I was always told, “Why are you not as beautiful as your sister?” 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Frances Solá-Santiago

Born in Puerto Rico, based in New York City. She is the editor-in-chief on Emperifollá. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, Glamour Magazine, Numéro, Refinery29, Remezcla, and Bustle.

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