Local author Alana Quintana Albertson spins a modern-day Shakespeare tale set in Barrio Logan
The San Diego-set “Ramón and Julieta” deals in issues of race, machismo, class and gentrification
It’s hard to believe that most writers are still working within the same rules William Shakespeare perfected in the 16th century. Alana Quintana Albertson, however, is more than willing to acknowledge this fact.
“He’s the basis of everything,” says Albertson, who has penned dozens of romance and thriller novels over the past 15 years. “But for me, I always came back to what is the crux of the plot? What are the main conflicts, both internal and external?”
Albertson, speaking from her home in Poway, is asking these questions about Shakespeare’s most beloved play, “Romeo and Juliet.” These are also questions she asked herself while penning “Ramón and Julieta,” a modern-day take on the classic romance set in San Diego and featuring Latinx protagonists. For Albertson, it wasn’t enough to simply retread the same material that others have attempted to update, but rather she wanted to incorporate contemporary issues that are prominent in the Latinx community.
“‘Romeo and Juliet’ doesn’t deal a lot with issues of class, but ‘West Side Story’ does, but that retelling doesn’t deal with issues of race, so I wanted to incorporate some of that in there as well,” Albertson says.
“Ramón and Julieta” does take some liberties with the original story, but it is one that should appeal to San Diego readers. By combining elements of romance and young adult fiction, along with her love of telenovelas and classic literature, Albertson taps into something that, while familiar, doesn’t feel forced or appropriative.
“I just wanted to portray Latin joy,” says Albertson, who adds that, like many, she was disturbed with books such as “American Dirt” and how it portrayed Mexican culture. “I wanted something that was a fun and festive showing of our culture and through food and love. I’m sure I might get some criticism by not dealing with themes that are dark and heavy, but I really wanted this to be a celebration of Mexican culture and San Diego.”
While Albertson grew up in Marin County, she has lived in various parts of San Diego off and on since the late ’90s. She originally moved to San Diego after visiting for a ballroom dancing competition and returned after completing her master’s degree at Harvard. Once here, she briefly started her own test prep company and while she’d taken fiction classes in college, she didn’t begin to dabble in writing until she began reading “chick-lit” novels such as the “The Dirty Girls Social Club” series by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. She says she initially wrote a “ totally awful chick-lit version of ‘Dancing With the Stars,’”, but she kept at it and has since released multiple series of romance novels and thrillers.
“I just threw myself into it. I started learning the craft and I got addicted to it,” Albertson recalls. “When my third book did well, it occurred to me, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my career. I can live and write. So I just started pumping out all these romance books. I loved the community, but I always had this fantasy of this book I wanted to write and that’s ‘Ramón and Julieta.’”
Albertson calls “Ramón and Julieta” her “love letter to San Diego,” and that’s clear from the outset. The novel’s first page opens with Ramón Montez contemplating the purchase of a block of Barrio Logan real estate near Chicano Park. From the comfy confines of his La Jolla office, he is having reservations about the purchase, but feels obligated since he is now in charge of his father’s fast-food corporation. Of course, that same Barrio Logan block is where Julieta Campos runs Las Pescas, her family’s sea-to-table taquería. The two star-crossed lovers eventually have a meet-cute at a Día de los Muertos party in Old Town, where Ramón hopes to schmooze local politicians and Julieta is there to serve special edition fish tacos and to honor her dead father.
Readers familiar with the source material can likely guess as to how the story unfolds from there, but what separates “Ramón and Julieta” from other modern retellings is how Albertson deftly deals in issues of race, machismo, class and, perhaps most pressingly, the subjects of gentrification and gentefication. The latter term is a relatively new word referring to gentrification by people who have the same ethnic background or, in some cases, people who are from or familiar with the neighborhood. Albertson does admit that she does empathize with the Ramón character. While Albertson’s mother is Mexican, the author says she has often felt like an outsider among her mother’s relatives.
“I can conjugate any verb and read the original ‘Don Quixote,’ in Spanish, but when I order a burrito, I almost have a panic attack because I think I’ll get made fun of,” Albertson says. “And they’ll answer me in English and I’ll explain to them, ‘I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican.’ Ramón is Mexican, but he has some of that struggle.”
“Even with this, I almost didn’t want to sell the book, because there is that fear,” Albertson continues. “That people would think, ‘She’s not Mexican enough. She doesn’t deserve to write this.’”
But write it she has and hopes that readers will embrace her version of the classic tale. Hollywood already seems to have embraced it. “Ramón and Julieta” was recently picked up for a TV series produced by Gina Rodriguez and Kristen Campo. And Albertson already has a Latinx version of “Taming of the Shrew” (“Taming the Señorita”) and a revamp of “The Merchant of Venice” (“Merchant of the Barrio”) coming soon. The hope is that she can write six Shakespearean novels and, possibly, more after that.
“That was definitely something I always had in mind,” says Albertson. “I love taking the elements that I like from the story and making it modern and fun.”
“Ramón and Julieta,” by Alana Quintana Albertson (Berkley, 2022; 304 pages)
Combs is a freelance writer.
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