Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez has seen a lot of tribulation in her life. From sexual discrimination to racial stereotypes, she’s been through her share of ups and downs.
Wednesday night, the author best known for her book The Dirty Girls Social Club, spoke to a crowd of about 100 at the Marshall Center. She spoke about issues of sexism and racism in society that have affected her life. She works those issues into Dirty Girls, which has sold over 300,000 copies. Valdes-Rodriguez came to USF as part of a tour to promote her new book, Playing with Boys.
Valdes-Rodriguez started her lecture by talking about the influence her father, who raised her mostly by himself, had on her. She talked about his impoverished Cuban upbringing, his arrival in America just before the revolution, and his climb from poverty to professorship.
Valdes-Rodriguez started college as a saxophonist at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was met with blatant sexism, including sexual harassment. After her classical music professor did not mention any famous female composers, she said she started dropping note cards with information about famous female classical composers into his mailbox.
Another music teacher, she said, told her and another female classmate he was disappointed to have to work with two girls because he didn’t “know how two chicks (were) going to get enough air through those things.”
That other female saxophonist is now an extremely successful jazz musician.
Valdes-Rodriguez said she brought these and a host of other sexist issues to the school’s attention numerous times but nothing changed. After one of her letters was printed in The Boston Globe, she said she could see changes within days.
That led her to a career in journalism.
Valdes-Rodriguez wrote for The Boston Globe and then later the L.A. Times. She encountered similar issues of sexism, but a bigger issue then was racism. She was stereotyped as Hispanic and stuck with that label. She was met with comments such as “you speak such good English,” and questions such as “my son is having a bar mitzvah, where can I get Mexican jumping beans?”
She had trouble registering to vote, even though she was born and raised in America. She was from New Mexico and people looked at her and thought she was a resident alien.
“They didn’t know New Mexico was a state,” she said.
Another issue Valdes-Rodriguez took up was newspaper terminology. Newspapers each had a different definition of “Latino” or “Hispanic,” usually physical. They would use Hispanic as a synonym for the adjective “brown-skinned” even though the first word described someone’s background.
“‘They looked Hispanic,’ really, is that Sammy Sosa or Christina Aguilera?” Rodriguez said. “The only time they describe someone as white is when they commit a hate crime or they are a rapper.”
She tried to bring this issue up to her bosses but was met with a deaf ear.
“The media was trying to put all Latin Americans into a small box,” she said.
Sexism was another issue Valdes-Rodriguez encountered in the workplace. An employee with no college degree and less experience was making $15,000 a year more than her because he was male. Valdes-Rodriguez eventually received a raise, while the other employee received special stock options.
Eventually, she resigned from her newspaper job to go back home to New Mexico to write a book. The resignation letter was printed by the St. Petersburg Times with significant changes she did not consent to, she said. She claims she has been blacklisted in the journalism world from then on.
Valdes-Rodriguez’s first novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, took many themes from her life experiences. It is a story of six upwardly mobile Latina women, and has been often compared to Sex in the City.
“Every time I picked up a book to read, I never found a name like mine, so I wrote one,” she said.
The book has sold over 300,000 copies and all the major television stations are now courting Valdes-Rodriguez to do a television series, she said.
She says she hasn’t picked a station yet, but she knows she won’t do CBS.
“The president of CBS asked ‘can we add a white girl?'” she said.