Connecting Latinas All Over the World through Literature

Author Interview: Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago, Author

Fabiola Santiago – Author and Journalist
(Photo credit: Pedro Portal)

Interview with Fabiola Santiago, contributing author of Count On Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships, a prize-winning journalist at The Miami Herald and the newspaper’s Metro columnist, and author of the novel Reclaiming Paris.

All Count On Me author interviews were done by Oné Musel-Gilley of as a volunteer. All of us at Las Comadres Para Las Americas are very grateful to her for this treasure trove of work. ¡Gracias!


How did you meet Nora Comstock or get involved with Las Comadres?

I think through Johanna Castillo, who is my book editor; she introduced me to Nora and the book club. My novel Reclaiming Paris was published by ATRIA. Johanna invited me to the first meeting in Miami Beach to the home of a very interesting Argentine author. It was really interesting chemistry from the beginning. Women interested in literature and current events, a smart, smart diverse group of women. I like that about the organization because we are one culture, but we are many people, so I really enjoy that aspect of the experience.


Galleys went out already to all the authors, and I’m wondering if you had a chance to read any of the stories in the new book “Count On Me”?

YES!! Are you going to quiz me on it? I did right away. I liked every piece. Each one has something different to contribute to the conversation about our friendships that are so rich in their own way. Some of those women I read for the first time in this book. You really want to read more after you are done with their pieces. They become very intriguing characters themselves. The women are writing about their friends – other women – and I was more intrigued by the writers. I wanted more on the writers. I think every single one of them has a memoir in them.


Is there a character in the book you most identify with?

I think the mentor in Reyna Grande’s story, possibly. I think the mentorship role is one that has been important to me throughout my career. I’ve seen how important it is for someone to mentor you. Back in my day we did not call it anything. It was just someone who saw something in you and invested a little bit of time and energy in giving you good advice and guiding you. I had such a woman when I was at the University of Florida. It happened to be someone at the work study job I had at the university at the press release writing service. She was a wonderful writer herself. She began critiquing my writing and she taught me so many important basic things. It was like a one-on-one you don’t get at a big university like the University of Florida.

And because of that, her example, I made it a point to mentor as many young journalists as I can. I do that at the newspaper. I have taught. I have a bunch of little friends running around who know I am here and that I am always good for a talk when it comes to career, a fork in the road, anything really. That has always been an important part of who I am. One is always in need of mentors.

I used to do a lot of writer interviews in the 80s and 90s. When I was a features writer, I interviewed a lot of the first Latinas who came into the scene. I wrote some of the only stories and book reviews that were being written in the country. I learned important things from them. That would be something that I really connect with in the book. I think that there are examples of some outstanding mentors in the book. It’s funny that women think of their mentors as their comadres and best friends, and those relationships blossom into something deeper.


Do you think there is a difference between saying “this person is my friend” and “this person is my comadre”? Do you think there is a distinction?

Honestly, no! I have a little bit of a funny problem with the whole comadre thing. We are all a product of how we grew up and what we endured. I do not like calling people “comadre” because I come from a country where it became a sign that you were a communist to say “compañero o compañera.” The whole compañero thing that permeated my childhood and was a way to differentiate the people that supported this revolution that turned into this totalitarian disgusting regime. That was the way to basically show support and acquiescence. So I like calling people by their names.

I think the concept does translate. It has nothing to do with the word and more with the circumstance in which I grew up and being so prevalent. When someone came to your house to inventory what the government could take from you, it was an awful thing. It was stressful whenever you were addressed as “Oye Compañera.” I think things come into your life to heal you, and when Nora writes me “Comadre Fabi,” I smile. I know my history, and hearing her say that brings a smile to my face because it is healing and it is taking back the power of that word.

When you think about it compañero is such a lovely word because it means camaraderie, and there is nothing more beautiful than harmony between people. So we take back the beauty of the word. I learned to then have a relationship with the word that is different and, of course, attach it to people like Nora. She is such a light, lovely, vivacious, hardworking, beautiful woman. It’s just a wonderful experience. I had not even really thought that deeply about that until I had to explain it to you.


What do you hope readers get out of your story?

I told a very private story, and I was concerned because in the back of my mind, and in every Cuban’s mind is, “Can I harm this person with what I am saying?” The fact that she still has a brother in Cuba is worrisome to me. I debated if I was going to be able to use her real name. I got in touch with her and told her what I was doing. She said, “Use my full name. I am so honored that you are writing about me and our friendship.” She could not imagine what I would say, and I was thinking about what I could say.

Once I started to write, it just flowed and it all came out. I realized that this was so important to me, more important that I even realized. I think childhood is such a genuine time in one’s life. It is so unpolluted. The two of us grew up in a very difficult time, yet our friendship was sustaining. She was someone whose parents were like mine – not involved in the politics but retained their faith. It was seen as a horrible thing to go to church. Both parents would not abandon that, no matter how bad it looked to the powers that be. I found a refuge in her.

And then our reconnection was magical, at the same time that it was grounded. I am very well aware of the 40-year absence in our lives. I just found out recently that she is going to be a grandmother for the first time. She is also going to have a grandson, like I have a grandson, so now we have another layer of a connection, and it is so beautiful to see how she is blossoming.

There are other things that I did not get into the piece. For me it was so important, when she came here, to give her something back that she had given me in my early years of exile with her letters – having her letters arrive in the mail in those days when there was absolutely no communication. That perhaps is something that I do want people to take away, especially young people that think they are so connected.

Relationships are developed on a deeper level in more ways than by Facebook, Twitter. The power of having something that you keep. If I had a fire in my house, those letters would be something that I would grab. They would make it into the pile with my children’s first photographs. I always have them with me. Hers were very important because they were the most consistent and touching. I had other friends writing to me, but people peter out. She never did. And to this day we remain connected in a unique way.

I think where people’s relationships fail is where they think it is going to be what it was. They are going to get to Miami and are going to be my best friend again. That is not possible. I have a lifetime of best friends, and she has a lifetime of best friends. We are so uniquely linked to each other that our bond transcends all that. We do not need to be on top of each other to know that we are there for each other. We have always known it. In all of those years of silence I never knew anything about her, other than when someone visited Cuba or they would come from Cuba, and they would say, “We saw her riding her bicycle on the avenue.”

Most Cubans don’t have gas or cars, so they get along on bikes. Those images were all I had. Friendship, true and genuine, endures through time and through separations. Women mistake that daily chatty intimacy with true friendship. True friendship to me is something different. I do not need to be on the phone with my best friend every day. When my best friend calls, I am always there for her, she is always there for me. It is a confident relationship.

My best friends are the ones that respect my privacy, my silences and understand who I am. That is how I reciprocate the friendship. I have raised three women to be independent, to know who they are, and to have freedom. To me freedom is one of the most precious values. When I am with you, I am 100% with you. If I am not with you, it is because I can’t for whatever reason, and I don’t need to give you an accounting. I wish it was easier to spend time with me. I think it is because I am a writer. I need my time and solitude, so I have to have some sense of respect from people for my time.

Maybe that is why my best friend is a writer, too. We know each other and we have held each other through the death of a parent. I can’t imagine not having her in my center. We are also like that about our writing. It has been 2-3 weeks since I have talked to her because we have been busy. Nobody is making the other feel bad. One of the things that I like about this book is the definitions of friendship that have been illustrated in these stories are not about the stereotype of the girlfriends on the phone all of the time. Adriana Lopez did a beautiful job of having a different approach to the “Count On Me” theme.


What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Slam dunk easy. My three daughters, my grandson and my grandson to be. There is nothing like family. I raised three good women. There is absolutely nothing that compares to that. They are everything to me. Not even my books. I raised them with no doubt that I was in charge. With a lot of physical love, the freedom to choose at the right stages in life, and the expectation that education was number one.


So what is on your bucket list? What do you want to do? What haven’t you done already that you want to make sure you do before you pass from this great big earth?

Morocco, I want to see the sunset on the Atlas Mountains, on a camel. I have always wanted to go on the National Geographic tour of Morrocco because you sleep under a luxury tent. I like to see the world, but I like my comforts. I really want to write a book about travel that is really about motherhood because the relationship with my daughter has really blossomed.


What would you do I f you weren’t writing? What occupation might you have if you weren’t writing?

I probably would be teaching. My mother was a teacher in Cuba. My oldest and youngest daughters are teachers. I, myself, taught at the University of Florida in the fall of 1993. I was asked to stay, but I have had a really good career in journalism. I really love writing. It nurtures my soul, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I would have loved to have had the talent to be an artist, a painter. I love painting. Going to the world’s great museums is one of the things that I love to do most.

My favorite museum experience is the Ufizzi in Florence. I was there in ‘92 with a girlfriend who is a shopping fiend. This one afternoon she talked our tour guide into taking her to the big designer factories. She pulled together a big group of people to go. I wanted to go to the Ufizzi instead, and she got really mad at me. I went by myself, and it was the most amazing afternoon. I caught it at a slow time. I saw the Boticelli Venus on my own. The only person in the room. Then all of a sudden I was transfixed by the painting, and when I finally turned around, the room was packed. Two weeks later that wing of the museum was bombed. I make museums a priority – small, big, traditional or modern – with every trip I take.


This is the last question and it’s more of a fill in the blank. Just say whatever comes to mind – it could be short, or it could be long: “I am proud to be a Latina because_____.”

Because we are a beautiful rich culture and our language is just lovely and eloquent.


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