TCR Talks with Ashley Granillo, author of Cruzita and the Mariacheros

By Kevin T. Morales

Ashley Granillo delved deep into her family and the community of Pacoima, California, for her debut middle-grade novel, Cruzita and the Mariacheros, the compassionate and humorous story of a seventh grader who struggles with grief while trying to reconcile the conflict between her dreams of pop stardom with her family’s need for her to participate in the day-to-day operations of their bakery. Cruz, the story’s heroine, feels like she doesn’t fit in at home because she wasn’t raised speaking Spanish, an increasingly common issue for today’s American Latinx people. The Coachella Review spoke to Ashley about her wide-ranging inspirations—from Disney characters to music to her own childhood in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley—and where she thinks they might take her next.


The Coachella Review: Cruzita reminded me of iconic characters who are big dreamers—whose imaginations interfere for better or worse with their relationship to reality or their family. I thought of Po from Kung Fu Panda and Ariel from The Little Mermaid or even Remi from Ratatouille. Were there any characters from fiction or real life who inspired Cruzita?

Ashley Granillo: Oh, I love that question.  I love that you mentioned characters from animation, because I definitely grew up a Disney kid. Ariel was probably my first encounter with a Disney character that had big dreams. She wanted to go out and discover a new world. My family jokingly says that I make Ariel faces and I look like her and I act like her because she would always stand up to her father and say, “You can’t reprimand me. I’m gonna run away.” I adopted some of those traits when I was younger, but I have always identified as a large dreamer, too…. Even Miguel from Coco had big aspirations, too; he wanted to immerse himself in the world of music, but wasn’t allowed to. Those kinds of characters speak to me because I’m that kind of character myself. I have big, lofty dreams.

When I was in middle school, I thought I was going to be Britney Spears. When I was fifteen, my grandpa laid some concrete in the backyard, and he had to have everyone’s handprints in it. After school I went and I put my handprints in it and he said, “Don’t forget to sign your name.” Above my handprints, I put Ashley “pop star” Jean. And that was it. I was like, if you cement it, you’re manifesting it, and you will become a pop star. I had big dreams that one day we would all live on a ranch together and I would be the one financially carrying the burden for everybody. In some ways, my hopes as a child went into Cruzita because I do feel like there are a lot of children that still have big dreams like that, and we need to encourage imagination and play.

TCR: I really liked what you said about having these big dreams but seeing the reality of your family in need of help. So we merge that dream but end up putting even more pressure on it, right? I’m gonna be a big pop star and pay for my entire family to live happily ever after. I see a lot of children doing that, and it’s probably not healthy.

AG: It’s probably not healthy as a young kid. That was my hope and my dream. I’m going to be a big star, but also I’m going to make sure everyone is fine. It shouldn’t be a child’s burden to carry, but in certain circumstances, that does happen, whether or not their parents or their family intended for them to have that goal. I also think it shows how children are so sensitive and empathetic to adults and respect them enough to want to help them.

TCR: Cruzita’s neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley is not only the perfect setting for the story because of its majority Hispanic population, but also because that area has been historically derided by newspapers and city planning reports for being a low-income, Latinx community. I saw a quote in an article from the nineties that it had “no vital community image.” Did you set out to demonstrate pride in the community you grew up in, in addition to Cruzita’s finding pride in herself?

AG: I longed for home. I grew up in Pacoima. I lived there for a little bit with my grandparents when our home was being built. But before that, I was at my grandparents’ house in Pacoima every weekend, every Christmas holiday. I… never found that place to be “dangerous.” My grandpa would frequently take me walking around the neighborhood. We would walk to our favorite breakfast spot. Years later, as a teen, I did my first volunteer job at Telfer Elementary, where I also went to school for preschool and kindergarten.  I also worked at Mend Poverty as an ESL teacher.  I  found myself coming back to that community because it always felt safe and it always felt like home, despite [the] realities that some bad things happen there—but [don’t bad things] happen in any neighborhood or in Los Angeles as a whole? It’s a large city, and bad things can happen anywhere.

I live in “the safest place” in Los Angeles. But just two weeks ago, my car was broken into. I don’t like these stories about where I came from because I just don’t think they’re true. They’re those surface-level generalizations. And I think it’s also just meant to isolate a community, which then reinforces the stereotypes surrounding that community.

I set out purposely to create this story to show what this community is and that it’s not a newspaper headline. It’s so much more than that. But I love Pacoima.  I’ve been writing about Pacoima since I was five. My first book that I [wrote] was called A Special Tree Grows in Pacoima. Even at five years old, Pacoima was always a special place where I planted my roots, for a nice literary pun.

TCR: Before the story begins, Cruzita’s grand tio, Chuy, has died, and she and her family are wrestling with this challenge for the family business while also wrestling with their grief. How did you approach writing a sixth grader’s struggle with grief?

AG: As a kid, I was fortunate not to experience death, not to the point where I was grieving myself. My grandparents had a lot of friends who passed away, and I was frequently at funerals for people I didn’t know. And funerals…just felt very normative in my childhood upbringing. It’s like, “Oh, we’re at a funeral.” It wasn’t until 2008 that I experienced my first big loss. [At the time], I felt like a child in some ways. Because it’s weird to have this naive sense of thinking: family members are forever. Suddenly, they’re not forever. And that just felt like a very childlike wonder. Like, everyone’s gonna live forever, right? Because, you’ve been here forever. You’ve been with me for the last twenty years. Of course, you’re going to be with me until I die, too. I channeled those first experiences with grief into Cruzita. [Locating] what I felt when these people who passed away died and seeing how it made me regress in some ways. So when my grandparents did pass in 2016 and 2019, I found myself being five years old again. Where’s Grandma, where’s Grandpa? Where are those safe places? This has to be what a child feels like, too, especially if it’s a really important someone.

I thought a lot about animation, too. I don’t know if you remember [the animated series] Bobby’s World. It has an episode where this really important character to Bobby, the crossing guard, passes away, and it is the most devastating episode I watched as a child. Watching Bobby lose his special person made me cry and made me really feel what loss is… as a five-year-old, it shocked me to the point where I remember going to my grandpa and telling him he “wasn’t allowed to die.” He said, “But I’m old.” I said, “But you’re not allowed to, I forbid it.” So yeah, I definitely saw death a little bit represented in nineties TV. I viscerally was able to experience that.  When I became an adult, I [thought], it’s never touched me before. Then it touches me. [I thought], “Oh my god, this is what death is like. This is what those stories have been preparing me for.” Now I channel that grief through Cruzita. How would she navigate that, knowing that this is her special person? What does she do without her special person now? I would be just as angry at that age…you’re so much more vulnerable, and those special people really do help you navigate life.

TCR: I thought it was wonderful how Cruzita just keeps coming back to it. She’s not trying to think about it, but everything—every smell, the car, the fruit tree—reminds her of Tio Chuy, and the problems in the bakery are compounded because of what happened. Like everything’s making this a horrible summer for her.

AG: It should be a great summer, but it is the worst summer ever. Not just because she has to work, right? Grief lives viscerally like that, where you’re like, “Oh, that smell reminds me of XYZ.” I have a jewelry box that when you open it, it still smells like my grandma. So, kind of channeling, what are my experiences with grief? And then multiplying that times ten because as a kid, again, you don’t really think these things can happen to you. [So]what do you do? The adults around you don’t want to help; they have to self-soothe. When you think about it, it’s really sad.

Is there a family member or loved one who’s no longer with you who you wish could see this book?

AG: Oh my God, my grandparents. My grandma, whose name is Cruz and her friends called her Cruzita. I named Cruzita after her. And Tio Chuy is named after my grandpa. My grandpa’s name is Jesus or Jesse. If you were my grandma, you called him Chuy. They always encouraged me to be really good in academics. And also encouraged my imagination. I would mess up their backyard with little towns and things I would make out of my grandpa’s tools. Even though he needed the tool, he would never take them down because he knew I’d get pissed. He wanted to maintain my creativity. Then later on, as I started growing up and publishing things, they were always eager to read.

My grandma was an avid reader and would force me to read stories she found interesting in the Reader’s Digest. While we were waiting to pick up my cousins from school, she’d say, “You’re bored? Here’s this story, read it.” And I’d say, “Oh my God, I don’t want to read this. This is for adults, it sucks.” Or she would force me to do crossword puzzles and word games and things like that. Whereas my grandpa was a really amazing storyteller and would tell some of the funniest, best stories. In a lot of ways, they helped [me] make this, and I’m sad that they can’t see it because I think they would be really proud and braggy. And they would probably read it to each other. Just thinking about them makes me a little teary-eyed because I wish I would have done this sooner. And I’m sorry that I didn’t.

TCR: Cruzita wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. Were there specific factors that helped you decide how much Spanish would be in the story and when to use it?

AG: I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. My dad loves to remind me that I was the only kid in kindergarten that was doing her alphabet in Spanish while the other class…was doing their alphabet in English, because my school was a bilingual school. So I was always by myself and everybody else was learning English and I was like, “Cool, I love being a loner.” But I frequently heard Spanish at home because of my grandparents and their exchanges with the neighbors and their friends and their family. Spanglish was integrated into our everyday conversation. For a long time, I only used the word mosca instead of fly. There are little things that my family would say in place of an English word that I would use in Spanish. That felt natural. But to me, that’s not speaking Spanish, that’s speaking Spanglish. I tried to think, “How would my family say this sentence if I was sitting in a room with them? What words would they take out and what words would just be Spanish?” I only used the words that I was comfortable with … Like, I never called pan dulce “sweet bread.” I [thought], “Oh, it’s pan dulce.” “That’s a concha.” “Those are zapatos.”

TCR: So your family was the guideline for when you would have Spanish language in the text?

AG: Yes. And during the drafting stages of writing Cruzita, I read The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea. When I read his book, I felt like I was sitting in a room with my family because all of the characters interpreted and spoke Spanish on the page in a totally different way, but also in a lot of ways that reminded me of my family. And in some instances, he even phonetically spells out what something sounds like, [for example,] “Sprite” being “es-sprite,” but the way he spelled it on a page would just crack me up. [I thought,] That’s how my grandpa was. After reading [Urrea’s] book, I had the freedom to express myself that way. And I just remembered texting my mom lines and she said, “What the hell are you reading?” Because I don’t think she ever saw us on the page quite like that before. I said, “I’m reading this amazing book, and it just sounds like us. Isn’t that crazy?”

TCR: Your book has ten discussion questions at the end. I can see this being a fantastic book for classes, especially for students also learning Spanish. I know from my own children, teachers are often asked for book recommendations for middle-grade readers. If a teacher or anyone was concerned about suggesting your book to a young reader or using it in the classroom because of the Spanish, what would you say to them to help encourage them to reconsider?

AG: If they were just afraid that maybe the reader wouldn’t know the language or understand some of the cultural cues? I think this is why a lot of my Latine fellow writers struggle sometimes, because [they think], “There should be a dictionary at the end.” One big consideration that I took when I wrote this was, who is this book for? It’s for anyone who’s Mexican American, who is Latine. Everyone else’s concerns come second.

If I was going to address their concerns, I would probably say “It’s better that students get cultural exposure at a younger age…because one of my biggest regrets in life is just not knowing myself and the language a lot sooner than I did.” It’s actually better for your child because they’re gonna have that cultural knowledge, they’re gonna feel more connected with their peers, they’re gonna start appreciating people’s differences and experiences. That’s what we should all be aiming for.

My students just wrote a paper in my College English 101 class where I asked them, “Was there ever a time when someone said you shouldn’t listen to a specific genre of music because you’re not part of that culture or that demographic?” A lot of my Hispanic students love K-pop and or J-pop—Japanese or Korean music—and a lot of people discourage their being fans. But one of their arguments was, they have so much more cultural knowledge now. If I immerse myself in listening to music in another language, I get to learn about another culture and experience…how they experience it through language. I said, “Yeah, that’s a really good point.” And I feel the same with Cruzita. You’re adding more knowledge. You’re not taking away or challenging. I mean, you are challenging someone, but you’re not taking away from somebody by giving them the gift of your experience.

TCR: Music is important to Cruzita and important to you. A number of songs are mentioned and referenced throughout the book and I appreciated the playlist you provided at the end. You put out an album recently. Tell me about your music background, and is writing about music difficult?

AG: Writing about music is not difficult. Music is actually my first language and the first way I told stories. Again, I grew up on a big Disney buffet of song and dance, so singalongs were always playing. If I ever wanted to convey a message to my parents when I was mad at them, my first thing was to sing obnoxiously loud, to songs that have lyrics specifically about angsty kids and angsty feelings. Music is my first method of expression. In that sense, music is not hard to write about.

Sometimes, it is hard to accurately express the candor of the music because you just have to hear it. You just have to feel it. So thinking about it in words is, in some senses, challenging, but also fun. Because how else can you convey this? I also know American Sign Language. That’s my second language, technically, after English. Our class would translate a lot of music for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. So I got to learn a lot about how my body, my facial expressions, my hands communicate. I can channel [that]when I’m playing a song or I’m singing a song. What does that look like? I have a little bit of that background knowledge from expressing myself non-verbally. I think that’s really cool to have in your toolbox.

Aside from Disney, I joined choirs in elementary school because there would be a choir teacher [who] would come to campus and say, “Let’s audition you for choir. Let’s see if you’re an alto or soprano.”  I would do this without my parents’ knowledge because anytime I asked my parents for an instrument or lesson, they always said no. It wasn’t because they didn’t want me to learn. It’s that financially we didn’t have the capability to do so. So, I took matters into my own hands. When anyone said, “[This is] free, would you like to join?” I was like, ”Absolutely.”  I joined a bunch of choirs in fourth and fifth grade. And I had a little bit of a latent period in middle school. Because I was not interested in orchestra. I was not interested in band. Coincidentally, that was around the time my grandma wanted me to pick up the violin and become a mariachi, to which I told her no many times. I was against the idea completely. It felt embarrassing. In high school, I was able to join three choirs, and at that time, the software GarageBand came out, so I had to do a music tech class and a guitar class.

As a child, I was very industrious in how I wanted to navigate the resources that were available to me so I could pick up any musical knowledge.  When I got to college, I thought I was not going to be in college forever. I thought I was going to join a band. It didn’t work out.

TCR: When you were in the early stages of developing the story, was it always clear what age you wanted Cruzita to be?

AG: I wasn’t somebody who wanted to write middle grade. I wasn’t interested. It was my friend Sheila Colón-Bagley who thought I was funny in a way that would work for middle grade, just my [sense of] humor. She said, “I think you should write a middle-grade novel.” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know how that will work. I am working right now on this really angsty literary project for UCR. I don’t know how well that would translate.” And she said, “I think you should just let go a little bit and have fun.” So, I made Cruzita twelve years old. I was like, okay, what happens when you’re twelve? Again, it’s like going back to your own experiences as a kid. How did you feel when you were [that age?] It’s a lot of reflection.

Prior to penning Cruzita, I had the amazing opportunity to work with a group of middle-school creative writers in 2017 for a summer school program in La Crescenta. We compiled all of their short stories into these little zines. I was able to reference that to see how they conceptualize their world at eleven, twelve, thirteen. I just wanted to get a sense of what they were writing. All of them wanted to write about love triangles and death. Of course. They said, “There’s a love triangle.” I asked, “Why is everything a love triangle?” “Because it’s fun and dramatic.” Or it’d be like, “Someone has to die.” “Nobody has to die.” “Yes, they do.” It was a constant battle…can we have a nice, happy story? I think getting to work with middle graders and to see their humor and just being themselves also really helped.

TCR: Was writing her voice in first person always the plan?

AG: No. This was the most exhausting part of writing this novel. She was initially written in third person present, like a film script. When I handed her off to a couple of critique partners, they were like, “Oh my God, you can’t write like this.” I said, “What do you mean, I can’t write like this?” They said, “Because in middle grade, it has to be from the perspective as close to the character as possible. You need to change the perspective completely.” I said, “I don’t know how to do that.” I’ve never written in first person. Because having a literary background, I’ve always written in third and, if I’m getting really spicy, I’ll write in second person, which also nobody does… So I had to change my entire manuscript from third person present. It went to third person past and then it went to first person.

If I go back to the early versions of my manuscript, I can see where I was trying to make the changes. And my agent would say, “Do you mean this? What are you doing here?” I’d say, “I was trying to change it to first person, but it’s not working. Sometimes, she talks about herself in the third person.” Which I used to do as a middle schooler. I would exhaust my parents. They would say, “Why are you talking in third person?” I’d say, “AG’s tired.” They hated me that whole time. I was never comfortable with first person. And I think this goes back to your English 101 Comp [teacher who] never allowed [students] to use the “I,” and then eventually taking graduate and undergrad studies in creative writing where [professors] frowned upon that, too. So it was not a comfortable zone for me to be in, but now that’s all I write in. So there we go.

TCR: Do you plan on writing more middle-grade fiction?

AG: I do. I have another project in the works that is really fun, also musical-oriented. It’s more about my emo days. So, infusing some emo music and band punk-rocky stuff, but also some choir stuff. ’Cause I was a choir person. I thought, This is fun. How can I merge these two things into one child? What would that look like? Also heavily inspired by all of the band dudes that I know [who] are now dads [with] middle-grade kids. What does it look like if your dad’s in a band and he wants to be young again? Are you gonna tell him to stop? I’m heavily inspired by that. I also am planning on writing another manuscript, but it’s not gonna be in the realm of music. I think I’m gonna pivot it into the world of sports, which is not my forte. I have a lot of experience being an awkward softball player that I want to use in some way. I was a bad softball player. But I wanted a trophy. So, I threw myself into it anyway.

TCR: Do you see yourself staying in this neighborhood of characters and community, or will these books be totally unconnected, other than being written by you?

AG: I would say that I tried to make a little connection in my second novel with Cruzita. Just to have a little cameo. I think those little Easter eggs are a lot of fun. Connecting them that way, but not so much that you have to read one book to understand the other. They’re cameo appearances. I love how Disney does that, Marvel does that. All these little appearances that call back to your first creations and things. But obviously, they’re going to be standalone. It’s a lot of fun to [think], “How can I write this in here?” Your best fans will get it. It’s fun for them.

TCR: Do you see yourself setting any of these stories outside Los Angeles? Or are you happy with building in this sandbox right now?

AG: I think I was triggered by a conversation on Twitter many years ago. Someone said, “I’m tired of books about Los Angeles.” I’m like, yes, but every book that I’ve read about Los Angeles is absolutely fabricated. It feels like I’m watching Hollywood Boulevard through a filter. It’s just pretty and clean. If you’ve ever been to Hollywood, you know what actually happens on Hollywood Boulevard. I was tired of this misconception that everybody knows Los Angeles.  I wanted to explore those little parts and pockets of the valley that people don’t know about.  I’m a little San Fernando Valley nomad. I’ve been everywhere. I’m in Santa Clarita Valley. I work in Woodland Hills. I went to school in Northridge. I went to school in Granada Hills. I’ve been to Porter Ranch. They’re all very different communities with different vibes. I think it’s fun to work that in there so that people get a better sense of what Los Angeles is. But I do love New York. Like a lot. Obsessively. One day, I would like to immerse myself in the New York setting. People are tired about books from New York, too, so I’ve heard, but I think there’s a lot to explore there that maybe people don’t know about.

TCR: I could totally see Cruzita being a stage musical. Are there other iterations of this story that you see or hope for—future TV or film or stage [productions]?

AG: The musical person in me, the screenwriter in me, wants it to be everything and anything it could possibly be. I think when I pitched this, everyone said, “I could see this as a television series.” I’m like, “Yes, but I can also see it as a movie.” And then my agent, Hannah, said, “Hey, you wrote this book the way that someone would block [it] on stage or theater. Did you mean to do that?” I don’t know. That’s how I think about stories and storytelling. It’s very malleable in that way that it could be moved to whatever medium. And I could see this as an album, a concept album. If I wanted to use my musical background to make this a concept album, I could.

TCR: I think that’s a fantastic idea.

Kevin T. Morales is a writer and filmmaker from California working and living in New York. He is the former Artistic Director of two professional theater companies, has directed over thirty productions regionally and Off-Broadway, and had several of his original plays and musicals produced. His first feature film, Generation Wrecks, played several festivals, winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Florida Film Festival. A graduate of NYU, Kevin is currently pursuing his MFA at UCR and in pre-production on his third feature.