Ray Salazar's The Hot Mix will be released in 2019 and is a coming of age story that chronicles a young man's struggles with his father and the community they live in. Through music themed chapters, Salazar reveals the heart of Chicago's 26th Street neighborhood.
1. Could you explain your style and approach to telling this story?
When I started writing The Hot Mix around 2001, I knew wanted to tell a story that was inspired by music popular around Chicago’s 26th Street during the mid-1980s. For my old neighborhood, that period of time arguably held the most promise. Families owned many of the homes and quite a few of the business on the main street. The middle-class experience seemed to so many of us as something attainable, secured.
Music was everywhere. Parents played cumbias from records. Or they listened to norteñas on 8-tracks. A popular Spanish radio station played the ballads and pop songs that celebrated a comfortable reality for many residents. A local Boys & Girls Club radio station caught the ears of young people—especially when the DJ announced dedications of love and friendship teenagers phoned in. So I started thinking about the musical styles that defined this era: house music mixes, cumbias, norteñas, slow jams, boleros, R&B. I thought about the personalities of the people who listened to each type of genre: what that said about their status, motivations, dislikes. And I began to shape characters around each type of music.
I thought a lot about the conversations these characters would have with others who listened to their music. And what they would think of those who listened to “esa otra música,” that other music.
I started thinking about what these musical preferences revealed about class, status, aspirations, and decisions because I started seeing the socio-economic clashes among Latinos as I became a teenager.
But my childhood was ideal in many ways.
When my mom would take us to the record store on 26th Street, it was always a big deal. I remember when I was kid, my mom bought my siblings and me a 45 of the Spanish remake of ABBA’s “Chiquitita.” I still remember her voice, her singing in the kitchen. Then, after we heard it at a cousin’s party, she bought us a 45 of the S.O.S Band’s “Take Your Time.” My sister and I played it over and over. My mom liked records.
I remember hearing a norteña about a man who wanted a “chubasco” to encircle his girlfriend. I asked my dad, a norteño, what a chubasco was. He told me it’s a swirl of air and dust. He used to see them on his ranch in Coahuila, Mexico. So (in the classic machista tradition) the singer wanted to encircle his girlfriend with wind and dust so no one else would get to her. The poetry of that image stuck with me.
So I started thinking about the poetics of that 26th Street era. I heard poetry in the expressions people used, in the put downs at school, in the adult conversations I overheard at families parties, and in the lyrics of all the songs in almost every genre. Certainly, people had to think in poetic forms—at least I wanted my characters to. So poetry from the minds of the benevolent characters who share insight and wisdom appear on the pages of The Hot Mix.
I wanted to find a way to mix the musical styles and poetic forms into the story so they drove the characters’ motivations and aspirations—and contributed to the conflict.
I decided on a working-class 20-year-old Latino who is not a gangbanger, not an immigrant as a protagonist. Then, this grew into a father and son story. Luciano, “Lucky,” works to make sense of his ambition by searching for guidance from an unambitious father who is a functioning alcoholic.
Lucky also looks to conversations with his best friend who enjoys house music, the older African American man training him as a mechanic and who digs funk and R&B, and eventually, his mother, who, long ago because of her selfish husband, abandoned her love of Mexican rock 'n’ roll. But he struggles to find the words to connect with his father and, often, with his girlfriend who clearly does not believe in Lucky’s ability to succeed without her.
2. What ideas drove you to write your story and what do you hope readers take away from your book?
I started this novel when I was in my late 20s and a student in DePaul University’s graduate writing program. I didn’t know much about novel writing. I just had this idea.
By the late 1990s, the Latino boom in music, art, and literature solidified our presence in this country. The literature of that decade contributed to our advancement as a writing community. But it also spurred stereotypes that remain expected in Latino literature: the quiet, young Latina with a creative mind, the angry young Latino who lives misunderstood. So many stories focus on immigration. So many stories deal with characters straddling an identity between another country and this one.
While some Latino and Latina writers push the writing in their books in artful, unexpected ways, too many times the writing in many popular Latino novels remains ordinary, superficial. As a high-school English teacher, I kept thinking, “What else is out there?”
So I began writing this novel. All I knew was that it needed to be about music and 26th Street. Over the last seventeen or so years, the novel grew into something so different from the first few pages I wrote when I was a twenty-something. I’m in my mid-40s now. My life and writing experiences guided me to, hopefully, create something that resonates more intensely with readers than what I envisioned originally.
I hope readers with a consciousness of Latino issues deepen their understanding of what it means to want to achieve something others do not encourage. Readers who are less familiar with the Latino experience will, I hope, take away an understanding of the complexities of our communities and an appreciation for the aspirations within our communities that go much deeper than wanting the American Dream. Most importantly, I hope readers of The Hot Mix reflect on the role music plays in our decision making as they follow Lucky's modest journey.
3. What character/section/story challenged you the most and why?
I remember learning in a screenwriting class that “dialogue is something you wish you would have said.”
I struggled with social skills when I was a kid, a teenager, and even in the early years of my adulthood. Now, to make this book realistic, I needed to write all these conversations between all these characters—all with different personalities, with different passions for musical styles. Maybe this is one reason I stepped away from the book many times and why it took me so long to write it. I didn’t know what I wanted the characters to say.
In my late 30s, I started a blog about Latino and education issues mainly because I felt voiceless in my profession and my community. I wrote editorials about the injustice students faced. I challenged political and district leaders—sometimes even my union leaders—when decisions proved to be unfair to students and unreasonable for teachers. I commented on the traditions that could help our Latino community move forward and those that hold us back.
Whatever I said, I needed to be able to stand by it. I didn’t have an editor. I didn’t have a publication or organization to defend me. So I became more thoughtful about what I needed to say and how I said it.
As the blog gained some recognition and a following—and opened more opportunities for me to share my ideas, some voices agreed with me. Some did not. I thought a lot about how voices bounce off one another, how they collide, and how they surge. I also remembered how much silence shaped parts of my life. I listened a lot. I observed a lot growing up. I thought to myself a great deal. I think this is how I found the dialogue I needed and pulled it from, what felt like, thin air.
I remember one summer day I was writing in my backyard. I found myself in a groove that moved something inside of me. I knew I was in that place where the words were just falling like raindrops pushed together by the wind. And I came up with a line, a closing to a chapter that surprised me, moved me, affected me. I pushed the computer away from me a little freaked out. “Where the hell did that come from?” I thought.
The truth is I don’t know. Maybe reading something, living something, wanting something, avoiding something, hearing something helped me find the words. I don’t know. What I do know is all the conversations in The Hot Mix are imagined interactions that present what I think people striving in those situations wish they would have said.
4. What is your literary philosophy?
I never thought about this before. I know what I expect the literature I read to be. I think of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Sandra Cisneros’s early works, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit—all works that moved me, that challenged me to think in new ways.
So I believe literature should go beyond the obvious. Literature—especially if we’re familiar with the setting—should expose new experiences: a sight, a sound, a scent, a sensation. The writing itself should also make us follow each word carefully so that we experience new relationships between words, among sentences, throughout paragraphs and pages. This is how we gain a new perception.
Finally, I think literature should make us feel comforted and uncomfortable. Without intense feeling, we cannot contemplate. The writers I mentioned did this for me. So this is my ideal philosophy, my vision for what I aspire to create.
5. What is your advice for young writers?
Near the end of this school year, I posted this message in my high-school classroom:
Do you want to feel smart and be smart? Then read! Read books, magazines, poetry, print or online. But read. If you don’t, then don’t sit around moping talkin’ ‘about “I feel dumb.” Read—and you won’t.
We have to do with others’ writing what we want others to do with ours. I read a lot as a kid. As a teenager, I liked magazines. I couldn't afford a lot of them so I’d save and re-read the ones I bought—especially GQ.
For writers, reading is essential.
Let me clarify: reading writers who write better than we do is essential. These days, I subscribe to the Atlantic. And young writers, whether young because of age or experience, need to write publicly. With that comes a responsibility that we will write something that carries meaning for people other than ourselves, that we write responsibly without intending to destroy or demean others, and that we expect that not everyone will agree with us. That’s the hardest part.
Whatever becomes public should meaningfully answer the question: who cares? Young writers should also believe in the power of rewriting. Sharing our writing with people we respect and who see value in our effort provides insights that can guide us to eloquence and clarity.
We need a strong filter, too. We cannot act on every piece of feedback. But writing with the expectation that people will react to our words contributes to our courage and development as writers.