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'Words Have Power'

Julian Delgado Lopera looks at the camera in front of a yellow an black background
Photo: Courtesy Black Mountain Institute
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Illustration: Ryan Vellinga

Language, religion, and sexuality collide in Julián Delgado Lopera's Fiebre Tropical

To fully appreciate Julián Delgado Lopera’s voice, one must hear it — with their ears, preferably, not just their mind. A fascination with the way certain people sound when talking propels Lopera’s own inventive use of written language, a Spanglish whose vibrant orality makes their characters leap off the page. This helps explain why Lopera chose to narrate their own novel, Fiebre Tropical (Feminist Press, 2020), for the audiobook. For the fourth installment of Black Mountain Institute Conversations, Lopera reads a selection from the novel’s second chapter and talks with Desert Companion editor Heidi Kyser about reading, writing, winning, losing, American capitalism, evangelical Christianity, and more. An excerpt, edited for length, follows.

Julián how are you enjoying your time in the Nevada desert? It's so dry here compared to where you're from.
I love it. I am surprised about how much I like it here, because I didn't know anybody in Vegas, and it's very different from San Francisco, or where I'm from, which is Bogotá and Miami. But I have had such a wonderful time here. I've been meeting really beautiful people, I've been going hiking, I've been going to queer things, I've been reading, I’ve been eating food. I love the kitsch signs everywhere. I live for signs, you know. I've talked extensively about how much I love signs and written language. And I think Vegas is so excellent for that.

In Fiebre Tropical, you made the choice to draw the reader through the story using the main character Francisca’s voice talking directly to the reader. Sometimes she sounds like a reporter; sometimes she seems to be channeling a game show host; and other times a telenovela narrator. The way that narrator engages with the reader is playful, almost enthusiastic, like a friend telling someone else a juicy story. Why did you make that choice?
So I grew up in Bogotá in the ’90s, and there's something on the streets where everybody's trying to hustle you, you know? … I remember going to different places and different markets to buy things and having those voices. There was so much, sonically, happening when I was growing up. And so, when I was writing this book, I was pulling in from many different influences in my life, one of which is the streets of Bogotá. And so, this kind of fourth wall Francisca breaks in calling the reader like mi reina (“my queen”), or cachaco, please (“dude, please”), and this way of luring you in — it's very much influenced by the way that I grew up and by street vendors and people in my city, walking around and always trying to be hustled for something. But they do it in a way that is really sweet, and so, you pay attention.

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This story has so much going on with language; for instance, how churchgoers use English to wield power, and how Miriam, or Mami, uses silence to manipulate her daughters, and her telling Francisca not to curse because words have power. And then, of course, there are the Holy Rollers speaking in tongues.

You've spoken and written quite a bit about the hierarchy of language, notably in your 2019 TED talk, “The Poetry of Everyday Language.” How did you convey your main theory about language in this novel?
Some of it wasn't intentional. For instance, there’s a lot of really big language that Francisca is using, and I wanted to figure out how to bring in some of the silence. I grew up in a matriarchy, where silence is very important, because it's rare. And when it comes, it comes with its own power. I think that I am just very attracted to language that is unfamiliar, that lives in these liminal spaces, which is what I talked about a little bit in the TED Talk. And part of that language is, for instance, the people who are speaking in tongues, or the way that English is used as a weapon. For people in immigrant communities, people who speak English are seen as better than the ones that don't, but it's within your own community, right? And so, there's all these ways in which language is like exercising its own power, and Francisca's just kind of watching it happen, but also is participating in all of this in a way. So, she's both a spectator, but also participates in it — and sometimes enforces some of those same hierarchies, you know, or pushes against them. I just wanted to have this kind of sassy teenager who was able to see some things, but at the same time also being in the soup of everything.

When I got to the end of the book, I felt that it was also largely about what goes unsaid. The characters are unable to speak their feelings, to say, “This is what I need.” There's a stark example where you write “a pink house of Colombian chicken ghosts roaming in and out as we pleased, sometimes not even a Buenos dias, not even a Did you eat, mimi?” How was that kind of silence part of what you're talking about with language?
In a novel, things that are not said but are expressed in other ways create so much tension, right? There's all this tension, because as a reader, you know that things are not being said, but you know that people have needs, and you know that people want to be closer together, but they don't know how to say it. There's this moment, for instance, where the grandmother and Francisca are watching TV, and it's raining really hard outside. And the grandma kind of thinks that she knows a little bit of what's happening with Carmen, but she doesn't say anything straightforward. It's all subtext. And that is my favorite kind of expressing emotions, because it's not straightforward. It comes with all this other baggage underneath. And it’s very much something that is real. … I think that in a household where everybody is so close knit together, you become so attuned with each other. And that's what happens in this house. Francisca is so attuned to the little ways in which her mom and her grandmother and her sister communicate to her via gestures, via silence, all these other ways. I love being able to like write that in a novel.

I noticed there's a running metaphor of competition throughout this story; for instance, in Miriam winning at religion during Sebastian's baptism. But it's also sad, because it arises from a profound sense of loss. Miriam is an educated, upper-middle class woman who has given up her profession, her income, her home, her stability, everything, to bring her daughters to the U.S. And that's throughout the book. Are you saying something broader here about competition and American capitalism?
I think that there's something about winning at really sad things. This is the only thing she has, right? Like, the only thing they have to win at are these very depressing things, very small things in life, one of which is to have this perfect baptism for her baby that's been dead for 17 years. And then her daughter's watching her like, What's going on? Why are you losing your mind? You used to be this woman in your office … I think that underneath that there's this really deep level of sadness of someone who's just trying her best to excel at whatever it is that she has available. And what she has available really is this baptism and religion. And she goes into that very strongly.

I noticed that, when I came to the U.S. and my family became very Christian, we would go to church, and everybody was competing about who was the perfect Christian. It was a competition of Christianity and Americanism. But it was like people who just got here. Like, they were getting jobs at 7-Eleven and Walmart and buying cars on credit, and everybody was up to here in debt. So, we all had these very working-class lives. And yet there was this huge competition, even on things that were so sad. And I think that at the end, it is a little bit around what the American Dream coupled with capitalism does. … In the book, some of the things I built from my imagination, but being the best Christian was very much a thing. And I always thought it was ridiculous. It was so tied to how people were dressing and being a newly immigrated person to this place, you know. But the only people that you're competing with are the same people that you left Colombia with. It's just so nuts, you know, because Americans are not looking at us. Nobody else was looking at us. It was just this insular community.

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You use bodily sensations so much — smells, textures, colors, sights —  to convey what the characters are experiencing. And you use bodily functions and fluids powerfully as well. There's a lot of sweat, menses, food smells, things that convey what the characters are experiencing.
Yeah, it's also just the idea in the mainstream that women are not supposed to have sweat or body hair or yearn for certain things or smell in a certain way. And the dehumanization of how women's bodies are supposed to work. I really go in there and try to highlight a lot of that, because it's a reality. And also, I grew up around so many women who were smelling and doing all these things, but also hated a lot of this, because they were women and they were not supposed to. I wanted to go in there and kind of blow it up a little bit more, precisely because I was also told all my life, having grown up socialized female — like, I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so it was very intense — I couldn't feel certain things and I couldn't basically have a human body, you know. I couldn't want, I couldn't be horny, I couldn't have hair, I couldn't wear my hair in a specific way. It was just so much control around body. And Francisca yearns to be free, she’s a little rebellious, and she wants to go against the grain. I think that's why we like her.

We can't really talk about Fiebre Tropical without talking about American evangelism. And as someone who grew up in a religious family that spent some time in the ’80s in an Evangelical Christian church, I felt that your description of the church services, the politics, and all that rang true. How did you research the church in the book, Iglesia Cristiana Jesu Cristo Redentor?
Unfortunately, a lot of it, I researched by experiencing it firsthand. My mom did join the Evangelical Christian church when we moved to the States, but I couldn't do everything from memory. And so the churches started having live virtual screenings, basically, so you could see them online. And so I would watch them. It was really triggering, it was really intense, you know? I would go on the website of the church that we went to when we were in Miami, and I would watch the whole service and take notes on the language and the things that they were saying. And also, my mom — bless her soul — she loves me and she would indulge me in all these questions that I had around certain things that they believe in that I couldn't remember. Like, we don't believe in images, versus Catholics believe in images. So there are no images of the Virgin Mary, which, you know, I grew up with a bunch of images of the Virgin Mary, because I grew up Catholic. And so there were all these little things that I needed to finesse.

So what's next for you Julián? You're working on a memoir, is that right?
I'm working on a novel based on my trans mom. So, it has some nonfiction elements to it. But that's what I came here to do. It's my third book. The second one is getting wrapped up right now. So hopefully, it will be out in the next couple of years. The one that I'm working on right now is based on my trans mom — who's a trans woman from Cuba, who came here in the 1980s — and our larger queer family, so I'm doing some research on that. And then the second book that I just finished, is a story about a father and a daughter in Bogotá. And the father is a closeted gay man who's kind of raising this girl. And there are a lot of really horrible things that (have) happened, because he's closeted. So, that's the one that is finished and hopefully, it will be out. I don't know when. But it's called Pretend You're Dead and I Carry You. It's very different from Fiebre Tropical. It's not as funny. It is very Spanglish. It's all set in Colombia.

I have a month and a half left in Vegas, and I'm very excited. I've loved it. I'm even sad that it's just a month and a half that I have left, because I've had such a sweet time here.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.