Modern-day Latinx romance novel set in Barrio Logan remixes Shakespeare
Alana Quintana Albertson has written 30 novels, all in the romance and mystery genres. Her latest, "Ramón and Julieta" — subtitled "love and tacos" — was selected as one of NPR's Best Books of 2022, and it will be featured at Saturday's San Diego Union-Tribune Festival of Books.
"Ramón and Julieta" is a Latinx spin on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" story, set in San Diego's Barrio Logan, with two feuding families, a taco chain, and star-crossed lovers.
Quintana Albertson was raised on Shakespeare — first as a self-declared "drama nerd" in high school, and then as an English major in college. As she began writing this story, she started with a few bits of information: a couple meets at a Day of the Dead celebration, wearing masks.
"My thoughts immediately went to masks, masquerades and 'Romeo and Juliet,'" Quintana Albertson said. "And of course I write romance, so unfortunately no one dies. No, it is happily ever after."
At the center of the story is a chance, clandestine meeting between a taco chain heir, Ramón, and Julieta, a chef at a restaurant in Barrio Logan. Unbeknownst to the lovers, Ramón and his father are about to buy the entire block and become Julieta's landlord, ultimately with the plans to raise the rent, kick out all the existing businesses and open a chain taco shop in its place.
"What's at stake is if Julieta can't work in her neighborhood — and her restaurant is more than a restaurant. She gives children free meals and it's a gathering thing. So to take them out because she's priced out, she can't afford it, really kind of destroys the seam of the community," Quintana Albertson said.
In the book, after she finds out who the alluring stranger really is, Julieta describes Ramón as a "gentefier," where the term "gentefication" uses the Spanish "gente," which translates to "people." Quintana Albertson said it's a type of gentrification where the development is coming from people within the same or similar communities.
"The owner of the block, one of the reasons he chose Ramón and his father to sell the thing, is because they were Mexican, he kind of felt that maybe they would preserve the culture. And then Ramón didn't care, he was just going to come in and put his restaurant in there. So gentefication is when someone from their own culture who is coming in to gentrify the neighborhood," Quintana Albertson said.
"And of course, this is a book and there's business decisions and so Ramón is trying to justify it, and I was trying to make him understand what he was doing to his community and that he had been detached from his community since college."
Using such a complex theme in an otherwise light-hearted, steamy romance novel is Quintana Albertson's intent as an author.
"I know I write romance and it's a genre that people sometimes don't see a lot of value in it. So on the surface, of course, I want this book to be just this fun romance. But all of my books are about deeper issues," she said.
In writing about gentrification, she wanted to make the story about the people and communities affected by development.
"Especially when you look at a place like Barrio Logan where the community fought so hard to preserve it, was forced to live where, you know, it had two freeways splitting it — it makes it even more tragic."
Quintana Albertson didn't set out to write romance at all. Unlike her love for Shakespeare, she hadn't previously given the romance genre any attention, until earlier in her career when her agent suggested she rewrite a book as romance to help it sell.
"I never grew up reading romance, and if anything, I was a snob about it," she admitted. "So I read a book and it blew me away, and then I got really into the genre and now I'm obsessed with it. I see romance as female empowerment, especially now more than ever."
Given Julieta's role as a chef, and Ramón's work with the taco chain, food plays a big role in the book — and Quintana Albertson gives as much graphic attention to detail to food as she does the book's intimacy scenes.
Plus, many of the authentic dishes and tacos were inspired by real businesses. "All the tacos are based on Salud, which is my favorite place in Barrio Logan," Quintana Albertson said.
Food can also be gentrified, she added — illustrated in this book through the lens of a single fish taco recipe stolen from Julieta's mother decades ago and ultimately transformed into an "Americanized" version.
Fans of the book can also look forward to a television adaptation of "Ramón and Julieta" in the near future, though details are still forthcoming. Quintana Albertson has another Latinx retelling of a Shakespeare play in the works; "Kiss Me, Mi Amor," a resetting of "The Taming of the Shrew," will be published next spring, and features characters from this same series.
Alana Quintana Albertson will appear at Saturday's San Diego Union-Tribune Festival of Books, in the "Romance, Remixed" panel at 10:45 a.m., also featuring authors Rebecca Serle and Taylor Hahn and moderated by me. Find the full panel schedule here.
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