Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Katherine Gillen, Adrianna Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos take us through their presentation from our discussion of Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Ay, Dios mío. Her pulse ratcheted back down. Did he really just quote Romeo and Juliet? What a player. She looked up.
Woah – sexy dead mariachi alert! Was she dreaming? Her heart stuttered.
–Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quinana Albertson, page 19
In Alana Quintana Albertson’s Ramón and Julieta, the lovers meet at a Día de los Muertos celebration in San Diego, California. Ramón Montez is dressed as a mariachi, carrying the guitarrón he played in college. With his face painted as a calavera, or skull, he hides his identity as a corporate tycoon whose family’s business seeks to acquire property in Barrio Logan, the cultural center of San Diego’s Mexican American community and home of the famous Chicano Park, which activists saved from destruction in the 1970s. Julieta Campos, too, is dressed as a calavera, though she is busy preparing tacos for a food stall representing her sea-to-table restaurant Las Pescas, which she runs with her mother and where she is the head chef.
The first book in Albertson’s series of Shakespeare-inspired romance novels, Love and Tacos, Ramón and Julieta reimagines the central conflict of Shakespeare’s famous love story, Romeo and Juliet, as a class-based struggle amid ongoing gentrification. While Julieta lives and works in Barrio Logan, Ramón lives in the posh suburb of La Jolla and is the CEO of the Taco King restaurant chain, which caters primarily to tourists and white consumers. Though not tragically star-crossed, these lovers have many hurdles to cross before they can reach their happy ending. Ramón’s father, Arturo, has just purchased the block of buildings in which Julieta’s restaurant resides—he seeks to triple the rents, pricing out local vendors who have been there for decades in favor of attracting more upscale establishments to surround a new Taco King that he hopes will supplant Las Pescas. Worse still, Arturo built his fast food empire with a fish taco recipe stolen from Julieta’s mother, Linda, with whom he once fell in love during a brief encounter in Baja California in the 1970s. Despite these obstacles, Ramón and Julieta share a love of Mexican music, art, and culture, and Ramón must reflect on his choices and find a way to repair the harm his family has caused if he is to win Julieta’s heart and earn her respect.
Ramón and Julieta offers an intriguing example of what we call Borderlands Shakespeare, works by Latinx and Indigenous authors that appropriate Shakespeare’s plays to tell stories of and for La Frontera, an expansive area encompassing Northern Mexico and parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. These works reimagine Shakespeare characters, plots, and themes, situating them within Borderlands communities and drawing on the languages, genres, and art forms of the region. Romeo and Juliet figures prominently within this tradition, which we celebrate in Volume I of our forthcoming anthology The Bard in the Borderlands: An Anthology of Shakespeare Appropriations en La Frontera. Among the plays that adapt Romeo and Juliet is Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, written and staged in the early 1990s. This play sets the story within the framework of Día de los Muertos, a ritual that has since appeared frequently in works of Borderlands Shakespeare. James Lujan’s 2005 play Kino and Teresa figures the lovers as coming from Pueblo and Spanish families in colonial Santa Fe during the period following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the Spanish Reconquista of 1692. And The Tragic Corrido of Romeo and Lupe by Seres Jaime Magaña, first performed in 2018, is set in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where Lupe’s farmworker family struggles against the exploitative practices employed by Romeo’s family.
These plays and Albertson’s novel follow adaptations such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 musical West Side Story in translating the familial conflict at the heart of Romeo and Juliet into a cultural one. As Carla Della Gatta notes, West Side Story has served as a cultural barometer in the decades since it was first produced and has undoubtedly shaped other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet. However, works of Borderlands Shakespeare make decisive moves beyond the paradigms and problematic tropes of West Side Story to center Mexican American and Indigenous communities and to dramatize their stories and histories as they negotiate colonial and racialized power dynamics.
Albertson’s Ramón and Julieta joins this tradition not only through its vivid depiction of Barrio Logan, but also by sharing historical information about the Chicano Movement and calling readers’ attention to the harm caused by escalating gentrification, tourism, and cultural appropriation.
At the height of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, also called the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement or El Movimiento, student activists drove social action across high school and college campuses in barrios across the nation. Protesting issues such as disproportionate drafting in the Vietnam War, lack of educational resources, and discrimination in labor and housing, Mexican American people gathered to demonstrate in public places like parks and marched in the streets for civil rights. Ramón and Julieta highlights the 1970 protest that took place in Barrio Logan when the California Highway Patrol sought to build a substation in the middle of their neighborhood. The spot that they preserved became a mural-filled space under the Coronado Bridge that includes iconic murals of the Movement era and celebrates the history and culture of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and beyond.
Throughout the novel, Ramón wonders how his father, who was once part of this movement, has become a gentrifier, more concerned with profitability than with community. In her discussions of the neighborhood and the characters’ relationships to it, Albertson frequently uses variations on the words “gentefier” and “gentefication” to refer to the Montez family’s actions or to describe how their ventures are perceived by the residents of Barrio Logan. Many have attributed the coinage of the term “gentefication” to Guillermo Uribe, a Mexican American business owner who, in 2006, opened a wine bar called Eastside Luv in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, the same neighborhood that serves as the setting of the Netflix show Gentefied. In a 2014 LA Magazine interview, Uribe explained that “If gentrification is happening, it might as well be from people who care about the existing culture.” But as we see in Albertson’s novel, the economic and cultural dynamics are far more complex, and Ramón fears that he and his family are “responsible for tearing his community apart” (86).
Albertson is not the only Mexican American romance writer reimagining Romeo and Juliet within these contexts. Priscilla Oliveras’s recently published novel West Side Love Story is set on the West Side of San Antonio, Texas, where the Romeo and Juliet figures, Mariana and Angelo, and their families belong to rival mariachi bands. Like Ramón and Julieta, West Side Love Story takes place primarily in a historically under-resourced neighborhood that was foundational to the Chicano Movement but is increasingly of interest to property investors and developers. Oliveras captures the desire of residents to preserve Mexican American culture and history on the West Side, an effort spearheaded by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s Museo del Westside.
Oliveras and Albertson are part of a tradition of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx authors, and other authors of color, who are reclaiming romance as a genre. In her book Race and Romance: Coloring the Past, scholar and romance writer Margo Hendricks contends that race has always been a central concern of romance, but that it has also been a predominantly white genre. She writes, “By the time non-white romance authors became an active presence within the romance industry, romance and whiteness had become nearly synonymous in the arena of love” (xiii). Within this context, it was often the case that only cisgendered white women were allowed their happy endings. While there is pressure to package Mexican American culture for white consumption, especially in novels published by mainstream publishing houses, writers such as Albertson and Oliveras are working within and against these conventions. They are writing themselves and their communities not just into romance novels but into Shakespeare, too.
Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos are the co-founders of the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva. They are editing The Bard in the Borderlands: An Anthology of Shakespeare Appropriations en La Frontera (ACMRS Press, 2023, 2024).
Words, Words, Words returns on Thursday, December 1 with a discussion of Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake. Registration opens on Tuesday, November 8. We hope to see you then!
We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: