An Indies Introduce Q&A with Victoria Blanco

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Victoria Blanco is the author of Out of the Sierra, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce adult selection, and June 2024 Indie Next List pick. 

Blanco's writing has been published in the New York TimesCatapultGuernica, and others. She holds her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She is from El Paso, Texas, and now lives in Minneapolis with her three sons.

Luis Correa of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, served on the panel that selected Blanco’s book for Indies Introduce.

“A delicately told account of the Rarámuri, a native people of Mexico, that honors their history, traditions, and culture while recounting one family’s story as they adapt to modern Mexican life. Out of the Sierra emphasizes the small resistances of the family and their community as they fight to preserve their traditional way of life in an often hostile world," said Correa. "Simultaneously poetic yet journalistic, dramatic yet quiet, devastating but ultimately hopeful. Victoria Blanco, with the collaboration of the Gutiérrez family, has struck a balance that invites readers and uplifts the Rarámuri with dignity.”

Here, Blanco and Correa discuss the making of Out of the Sierra.

Luis Correa: The history of writing about other cultures is rooted in exploitation. What care did you take when writing Out of the Sierra to avoid these pitfalls?

Victoria Blanco: I think for the writing to avoid exploitation, the research methods need to also be respectful. In my field research, I prioritize building relationships and am very careful to not be intrusive. Early on, this meant that I didn’t record many conversations, since many people in El Oasis weren’t comfortable being recorded. I didn’t even have a notebook out while I was doing field research, because I didn’t want people to feel that they were being watched. This meant that I needed to write down my notes as soon as I get home in the evening — a process that typically took a couple hours. After some months in the community, when I felt that people were beginning to trust me, I asked for permission to photograph some cultural events — the dress-betting and the races, for example. I also handed my camera over to children and adults to photograph whatever they wanted.

The way I wrote the book naturally followed from the care that I take in my field research. I felt comfortable writing in a third close person precisely because my relationships in El Oasis are deeply rooted in trust — not in extraction.

LC: What books helped guide and inspire you during the writing of Out of the Sierra?

VB: I couldn’t have written this book without Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, was tremendously helpful in shifting my perspective from the mestizo to the Indigenous. And, of course, I studied many of the books that employed similar research methods to mine, and that are written in a close third person: Evicted, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Invisible Child, to name a few.

LC: How did you become so close to the Gutiérrez family to be able to write so vividly about their personal lives and traditions?

VB: I followed a very important piece of advice that was given to me by an anthropologist: spend as many of your waking hours as possible on your field site. That’s what I did — I arrived to El Oasis mid-morning and stayed until the evening, or sometimes even later. My intention was to show the people of El Oasis that I was there to build relationships, not to merely extract information. My relationship with the Gutiérrez family grew so deep because Lupita and Martina, for some reason, liked having me around more than other families. Lupita especially grew very attached to me early on — and I got very attached to her, too! Soon, I was sharing stories about my own life, and they were inviting me into their home to share meals. The friendship grew through openness and reciprocity.

LC: How did Out of the Sierra change over 10 years of writing?

VB: Oh, it changed A LOT! The first couple of drafts of the book had me in the book as a character. Those versions of the book focused more on the relationship-building process, power imbalances, and my process of unlearning the mestizo perspective of Indigenous history. It was much more focused on my personal journey through the field research. Ultimately, I decided that was not the book I wanted to write. I wanted a book that centered Rarámuri people and had me much farther in the background. In the end, the final version of the book is written in a close third person — a decision that allowed me to reframe my storytelling to focus on their lives and their resistance to the many forms of violence they face. I think this is much more compelling than the first two versions of the book I wrote!

LC: What is the greatest takeaway that you would like readers for Out of the Sierra to consider or take action on?

VB: If my book helps readers reframe their thinking around Indigenous history and lives, then I think that’s a huge step. I think that worldwide there’s a perception that Indigenous cultures are dying out, without much attention paid to the ways that Indigenous peoples resist cultural and physical death at the hands of colonizers. If this understanding leads readers to take action, in whatever form that might be, I will be so thrilled. Action can be as simple as becoming educated of the Indigenous cultures in your community, and supporting their businesses and cultural events.

Out of the Sierra by Victoria Blanco (Coffee House Press, 9781566896535, Paperback History, $19.95) On Sale: 6/11/2024

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