Madison Magazine published this Author Q&A in the March 2023 edition.
Sara Alvarado is probably best known for her real estate business, and more recently as the co-founder of non-profit OWN IT: Building Black Wealth. But she’s also a writer who dreamed of publishing a book since her early 20s. “I always loved writing, but from 2002-12 I was head-down running our real estate business and raising little kids,” Alvarado says. When her kids got a bit older, she enrolled in her first writing retreat and began blogging. She also started writing a memoir, but got sidetracked working on a business book — and then suffered a series of life’s blows. The harder things got, the clearer it became how fragile it all was.
“In 2020, after recovering from a fire accident and watching Alzheimer’s slowly take my mom away, I decided not to wait any longer,” Alvarado says. In March, Alvarado published her memoir, “Dreaming in Spanish: An Unexpected Love Story in Puerto Vallarta.” It is a journey through Alvarado’s experiences with substance abuse, sexual trauma, unexpected partnership and a multicultural marriage. “This is the story I didn’t want to die with me,” she says.
What is this book about, for you?
It’s about listening to my intuition and trusting that this is the story that wanted to be told now. It’s also about finding the courage to shine a light on what usually stays hidden, to normalize conversations about tough topics like substance abuse, sexual trauma, white privilege, mixed families and more. It’s also about sharing the magic I received from mom. She has a lot of wisdom that others can benefit from. This story models the possibility of healing. We don’t have to be defined by the traumas in our life, but we do have to be intentional in creating change, facing the hard stuff, and being willing to choose differently. That is not always easy, but it is where we can begin to experience liberation.
This story is also about challenging our culture’s obsession with only showing what’s great and hiding what’s not. I believe the human experience is messy, life is messy, and there is beauty in the mess of it all. I’d rather be a part of telling the “real” real, even when it’s hard. When 1 out of 3 women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, wouldn’t it be reasonable for us to hear more of the stories? It impacts everyone. So does substance abuse. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
What parts of your story did you find most challenging to write about, and then to share?
My whiteness was the hardest thing to share. I have been actively studying racial justice since the Race to Equity report came out in 2013. The stories I tell in my memoir are from the years 2000-02. There was so much I didn’t know or understand about my white privilege. The book is about what happened during that time, not about what I didn’t know during that time. To tell those stories honestly, I had to show who I was back then, how I thought, and what my reactions were to what was happening. That was challenging.
I wanted to tell this story without erasing the hard truths (and without pretending I was someone I wasn’t) and at the same time be in service of acknowledging and shining a light on whiteness and the problematic ways it shows up. We can’t change what we refuse to accept. I had to accept my ignorance and face it before I could work toward being a better version of myself. Again, that’s not what the book is about, so telling this story became tricky and I had to do a lot of consulting and editing.
You’re writing about real people and real-life events, was that tricky?
It is very tricky to tell your story without involving other people’s stories. Having taken numerous memoir classes and studying the art (and the challenges) of memoir over the years, it was clear that I was taking a risk in telling my story. Truth is tricky. We can be in the same room, witnessing the same event, and tell completely different stories the next day. This book is my truth and my story.
When people tell me I’m brave for telling my story, I agree with them. Alex Elle said, “You’re not a victim for sharing your story. You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. And you never know who needs your light, your warmth and raging courage.”
How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
In deciding what to include and what to leave out, it helps to share my process. It started with the first draft. When you write it all out — everything — you give the story space to come to life. After that, as I worked with editors, writer friends and coaches, it became clear what needed to be edited out and what should stay. One question that I asked myself throughout was, “Is this essential to the storyline for the reader?” If it’s not essential, delete it.
How long did you work on the book and what did that look like? Did any local resources aid you in your experience?
I had a solid start when I re-committed to this book in October of 2020 because I had consistently been attending classes, writing essays and articles, and reading writing books. There was a moment when I was going to shelve it again, but my husband (bless him) challenged me to finish it before starting a new venture I’d been pitching him. So I would say it was one of my main focuses for the past two-plus years.
There were a number of folks that I worked with to make this book what it is today. Susanna Daniel helped me at two very critical points — the very first draft and the final draft. She referred me to her business partner, Michelle Wildgen, for a course called The Second Draft, where I met other writers who became my first beta-readers (and new writing friends). She also connected me to Kristin Mitchell at Little Creek Press. Joanne Berg at Mystery to Me became a great resource as well. What I’ve learned in my 20+ years in real estate is the value of connections and learning from others who are where you see yourself going. I am new to this industry but I feel like I had a head start because, perhaps surprisingly, there are many similarities between the real estate industry and the publishing industry.
Was there anything about examining your experience through the lens of memoir that surprised you?
I wasn’t surprised as much as I was grateful for the experience. There were times I needed to take a break and do some deeper healing work that ultimately made me a stronger, healthier person today. That was unexpected and I give a shout out to my therapist for holding space and challenging me along the way. There is always a benefit to examining ourselves more and writing a memoir is the ultimate challenge in that regard.
What are you most proud of about this book?
That I did it and that I did it with great care, curiosity, and respect. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed every aspect of this process, from the first draft to the different editing stages. How to navigate feedback, and practice discernment when I would get contradicting feedback from different people. I loved the developmental editing as much as the copy editing and I had a lot of fun working with Kristin at Little Creek Press creating the cover. I absolutely love the final product and that feels really good. I know I wouldn’t be able to say that if I would have gone the traditional publishing route.
What are you working on next? Is there a takeaway from this experience that will influence your next manuscript?
I would like to tell more stories about what it’s like working in the real estate industry with a racial justice lens as we work to address racial inequities in housing. I would like to share more stories about my mama love and the impact of Alzheimer’s, and the light that keeps shining.
Mostly I’ve learned I want to keep writing stories that remind people that what they’ve experienced in life and who they are is sacred, important and beautiful. Exactly as it is, exactly as we are. Above all, “Dreaming in Spanish” is a reminder that the unexpected can be magical, too. I want to keep writing those kinds of stories.
“Dreaming in Spanish” can be found at online retailers, locally at Mystery to Me and A Room of One’s One, and at SaraAlvarado.com.