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Arts & Culture

Miami's Newest Young Literary Hero Takes On Development

Arturo Zamora is 13 and ready for a relaxing summer. His plans are quickly shattered when his family's business is threatened by a developer,  he loses one of the most important people in his life and he has to find the courage to express his feelings to a girl who has swept him off his feet. 

This is the plot of a new children's middle grade novel out now, the ‘Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora,’ by Pablo Cartaya. We spoke with Cartaya about the experiences he had growing up that inspired much of the story.

WLRN: The story takes place in summertime and Arturo is working with at the family restaurant, called La Cocina de la Isla. We find out quickly that the business faces a threat from a mysterious man named Alfredo Pippo. He’s a developer. Why did you want to make a developer the villain?

CARTAYA: It's that David versus Goliath thing. There’s this guy who doesn't have any link to any community. He just wants to come in and he's for the profit center. He's smarmy. He doesn't care. He just wants to put up a building, put his name on it and just move on and he could care less about what happens in the community in his wake.

Miami is a city that’s constantly growing, but it also has a lot of history, with neighborhoods that celebrate old traditions. But, with that growth there’s always the fear that traditions could be wiped out by development. Can you protect those neighborhoods and still have growth?

Development is good. It's the natural evolution of a city that is growing. But don't just build for buildings sake; don't build just to put people inside an apartment. When I was a teenager I would go to Van Dykes Cafe and listen to jazz. And now it's gone.

One of the most important characters in the story is the Abuela. What role did your abuela play in your life?

I say in the first pages that this book is a love letter to both of my abuelos.  In all the iterations of this story it was always going to be the relationship between this boy and his grandmother and how one has carried the mantle of the family history for all this time, and it will fall on this young kid to then take it up.

I thought what was more fascinating was the relationship he had with his grandfather, who had passed away years before. They were communicating with each other through letters. The Abuelo had written letters to Arturo, sharing a perspective from the past, while Arturo wrote letters back.

My grandfather used to write in this very tiny little book and I was always very fascinated by this. I thought that he may have been writing to his family in Cuba or his family that stayed behind. One day I took his notebook from him and realized that he had gotten newspaper articles from the day and he would just write down his take on those stories. He had three or four booklets of this that he'd done every day. And I found that so fascinating. It was his way of just documenting history. And so when I was conceiving the idea for that communication between abuelo and Arturo, I thought of those booklets.

How much of the book is autobiographical?

Insofar that I'm a Cuban-American, I have a big loud colorful family. I loved my Abuelo dearly. As a teenager I had that awkward love thing going on. But it’s not autobiographical. My family never owned a restaurant. We didn't all live in the same apartment building. But I think the idea of bringing a personal connection to your stories is in many ways what a writer brings to their work. It is a work of fiction that has many elements of my own personal history and things that I've seen along the way as well.

Why write this for young people?

You know they just get things better than we do. We're like all complicated and mixed up and we don't know what the heck is going on most of the time. You know, kids, young people, I should say are the keys for us because they're discovering the world and they're forming themselves and they're allowing themselves to have experiences that will shape them. And so this book, which will mostly go to young people, is a way to say - look I trust you way more than I trust myself, or any old person. The ‘Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora,’ by Pablo Cartaya is a truly lovely story.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.
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