Break the Rules Like ... Celia C. Pérez
Not all Wonder Women wear capes, and not all Unladylike role models need to sit in the C-suite to spark change. We want to introduce y'all to rad women and nonbinary folks we admire. They'll offer up pointers on how we all can #breaktheruleslike they do and help them make the world a better place. If you have a role model to shout out, send hot tips to email@example.com.
1. Introduce yourself: Who are you, where are you from and what do you do?
I'm Celia Pérez, a mom, the author of two novels for young readers: The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, and a community college librarian. I live in Chicago and, having lived here for 18 years, I consider myself a Chicagoan, but I'm originally from Miami, Florida, and also consider myself a Floridian. I'm the daughter of a Cuban father and a Mexican mother.
2. When did you first realize this was the right path for you?
I grew up a reader and knew pretty early on that whatever I did as an adult would somehow involve books and writing. I've spent most of my professional life as a librarian and writing on the side — making zines, writing book reviews. I think I always imagined that I would some day at least attempt to write a book. A few years ago, I enrolled in a post-graduate certificate program with a focus on youth services in libraries at the University of Illinois. It was this experience, combined with being a mom and reading to my son all the time, that made me think about writing for kids. I was reminded that my favorite reading memories are from my childhood. Reading to my son every day also made me think a lot about representation of Latinos in children's books and how much had changed or hadn't changed since I was a kid. All of these influences seemed to be pushing me along the path that I'd long been seeking.
3. What’s unladylike about you and what you do?
I don't think I've ever really ascribed to the concept of being "ladylike," so I guess everything about me? As far as my books go, I like to write female characters, specifically brown girls, who challenge stereotypes our society has about girls and about Latinos in general. Some of those stereotypes fall under what I think people would consider unappealing in girls — being assertive, being risk takers, being grumpy and unlikable at times.
4. Which of your heroes or role models would you immortalize in bronze?
I think my mom and my older sister, who died seven years ago, deserve bronze statues. We need more bronze statues of the people who make our world good by just being good people.
5. What was your feminist aha moment?
I think my childhood was a feminist aha "moment." I grew up with a Cuban father who had very old-school ideas about the roles of men and women. My mom had a very "traditional" (traditional being relative to specific cultures, of course) role in our home. She was a housewife and was financially dependent on my father. As an adult, once I left home for college, I could see the duality of my mom's role. She was at once what I didn't want to be — financially dependent on anyone, someone who put aside her own dreams and desires in order to take care of everyone else's needs —but also what I wanted to be — someone who is incredibly strong, who doesn't take shit from people, and who perseveres despite a life of challenges. My mom has had a hard life, and I know my life has been easier, in part, because of her.
6. What’s the best advice you’ve received? The worst?
Best: When I was in high school my goal was to leave home, leave Miami, and have my own life somewhere new, away from a place that I felt was full of limitations. My parents are both immigrants, and neither of them had completed schooling beyond the high-school level, and I think they couldn't quite understand why I would want to leave home. When it came time for me to leave for college I panicked and decided I wasn't going. I was already making plans to enroll in some school in Miami that I'd never given any thought to when a classmate offered me a ride to the state school I was originally going to attend — a second chance to leave. At some point in those days of indecision and fear, my mom, who never really chimed in on the decision making, said to me: “Si fuera yo, ya me hubiera ido.” Which translates to, “If it was me, I'd already be gone.” So I left.
Worst: I try not to listen to people. Mostly because I'm what my mom would call "cabeza dura" and I like to learn things the hard way. Also because I'm very distrusting, which I guess comes in handy sometimes because I hear there's a lot of bad advice out there.
7. What’s bringing you joy right now — or at least keeping you sane?
Podcasts of ghost stories, all the Northern Cardinals in my neighborhood this summer, the survival of my remaining succulent (I hope I didn't just jinx it), watching my son play baseball, getting rid of stuff, and collecting Nancy Drew books to balance out the getting rid of stuff.
8. Aside from keys/wallet/phone, what do you never leave home without?
I never leave home without my ear buds. I listen to a lot of podcasts and music when I walk my dog or ride the bus to and from work. But I also use them to pretend I'm listening to music while in reality listening in on conversations around me.
9. How can unladies help you and/or your mission?
Support independent bookstores, your local libraries, your local public schools, and other places of learning in your area by investing your time and money. I know from personal experience that it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the idea that in order to do good and work toward change we have to make huge, sweeping gestures. I think starting locally can create a ripple effect that eventually goes beyond our own communities.
I would also love for people to read my books and then to share them with the people in their lives. They're considered "middle grade," which in the world of publishing and libraries means the target audience is young readers ages 9 to 12, but as an adult reader of middle grade myself, I recommend them for the whole family. I often tell kids that people are like nesting dolls and inside every adult there is still a 12-year-old ready to discover something new about themselves.