Last month, on August 3, Angela M. Sanchez of Highland Park, 27, stood at a lectern center stage in the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, reading from Coyotes in Amarillo Heights, her fantastical, yet gritty young-adult novel about gentrification and a young Latina’s struggle to be true to herself amid conflicting expectations from her family and community.
The occasion was the Final Reading of works by Ms. Sanchez and four other writers who participated this year in “Emerging Voices,” a seven-month program that provides mentors, classes and networking opportunities to promising new writers who feel isolated from the literary establishment.
To see Ms. Sanchez at that lectern, on that stage, telling that story was to watch destiny unfolding.
She came of age in the Great Recession of the late 2000s and her writing is informed by her experiences of that debacle. Namely, in 2007, when she was a junior in high school in Glendale, her father, a single parent, lost his job as an architectural draftsman. Soon after, father and daughter were evicted from their Glendale apartment, the only home Ms. Sanchez had ever known. They lived in motels and then in a homeless shelter in Pasadena until the spring of 2009, when a Section 8 voucher allowed them to rent an apartment in Highland Park.
That is where they were living when Ms. Sanchez graduated from high school, with stellar grades and an acceptance letter to UCLA. It is where they remained after their rent was raised to a market rate in 2013. It is where Ms. Sanchez still lives, but now without her father. He died of cancer in 2016, though he lived long enough to see her graduate from UCLA, with a bachelor’s degree (in History) followed by a master’s degree (in Education).
How did she do it against the odds? One way was through stories, said Ms. Sanchez in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. In their homeless years, Ms. Sanchez and her father told one another stories to pass the time, refresh their happy memories and give each other hope. “The stories were always based on things from our real lives, but with an element of fantasy,” she said. “They helped me feel safe, but without ignoring what was really happening.”
Those stories became the basis of Scruffy and the Egg, a children’s story about single parenthood and homelessness, written and illustrated by Ms. Sanchez and self-published in early 2017.
Scruffy and the Egg received good reviews, including profiles of Ms. Sanchez in the Los Angeles Times and L.A Weekly that emphasized the overlap of the Scruffy tale with her personal story of homelessness. It was also a stepping stone to the Emerging Voices fellowship, which has shaped and propelled her writing of Coyotes in Amarillo Heights; she hopes to see the novel published in the near future.
Her mission is clear: “I want to make sure that young people of color have their stories told,” she said. It is a vital undertaking. Of 215 books published in 2017 featuring “significant Latinx characters and/or content” only one-third were written by Latino or Latina authors, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Lilliam Rivera, the author who mentored Ms. Sanchez during the Emerging Voices fellowship, cited that statistic in her introductory remarks at the Final Reading. “Who gets to tell our stories?” asked Ms. Rivera, answering, “It is critical that Angela takes up as much space as possible.”
In fact, creative writing is only one way that Ms. Sanchez is trying to expand the space where people who are marginalized can be seen and heard. She is also a Program Officer at ECMC Foundation, a national grant-making educational organization, where she works on improving college graduation rates for underrepresented students.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunity created for me,” she said, adding “I feel a responsibility to create even greater opportunity for others.”
Creating a Community of Writers
PEN America, an advocacy organization for writers, has sponsored the Emerging Voices fellowship since 1996. The five fellows of 2018 will join 141 other writers who have completed the fellowship and gone on to publish more than 50 books and countless articles, in addition to earning hundreds of honors and awards. “This is a more successful record than some MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programs,” said Michelle Franke, the executive director of PEN America’s L.A. office, in remarks delivered at the 2018 fellows’ Final Reading in August. “I never waste an opportunity to say [this] publicly, mostly because we’re so proud of this community of artists and friends.”