The month of January is all about character interviews. Today, I’m firing questions at Dina from Donna Del Oro’s latest release Saving La Familia, book one in The Saving La Familia Series, a contemporary/comedy suspense.
1. First off, tell us who you are (age, where you grew up, where you live now, etc.) and what role you play in the novel.
Dina: If you must know, I’m in my late 20’s and teaching fifth grade in San Jose, California. I grew up in this town, which has become the heart of Silicon Valley, the center of tech geeks and genius programmers…and yes, ho-hum teachers like myself.
2. Share with us your hobbies and interests, and why you enjoy them.
Dina: I love playing golf in what little spare time I have on the weekends, because for the most part, I have little time outside of preparing lessons for sprightly, inquisitive fifth graders!
3. Tell us how you feel about being in a novel, and if you are happy with how your author presented you to readers.
Dina: I love sharing my blend of Hispanic heritage (half Spanish-American and half Mexican-American) since I’m fairly fluent in Spanish but have excelled in English and American literature. I’m proud to say that I have read Cervantes in the original Spanish and understood almost every word (with the help of a university-quality Spanish-English dictionary, I must confess!).
4. If your author was to create another novel with you in mind, give us a quick blurb of what it would be about. And be sure to give the title.
Dina: I believe my author is about to send me on another quest to help members of my family and rescue them from outside harm and from themselves. My next adventure will be to save my goofy brother-in-law, whom I call “el tonto” (the fool).
5. Which character in the novel do you like the most, and why?
Dina: I like the DEA agent I’ve worked with, and love my family, of course. I’m in love (more’s the pity) with Rick Ramos, the man who has broken my heart not once but twice! Will I never learn?
6. Which character in the novel do you dislike the most, and why?
Dina: The Zetas, of course, the paramilitary arm of the Mexican Gulf Cartel. They have a long reach of evil intent and actions.
7. Tell us why we should read the featured novel and what we will find most intriguing about you.
Dina: You will not be able to stop reading how I manage to jump out of one hot frying pan into another. I wonder about that, myself!
Title: Saving La Familia
Series: The Saving La Familia Series, Book One
Genre: Contemporary Comedy/Suspense
Author: Donna Del Oro
Heat Rating: 3 Flames (open door sex, but no explicit language used)
Length: 95,000 words/396 pages
Release Date: January 10, 2022
Publisher: eXtasy Books
Teacher Dina Salazar must turn amateur sleuth in order to save her cousins from the clutches of a ruthless and dangerous Mexican cartel.
Blurb: Can smart, scrappy Dina Salazar find the heart and courage to fulfill her immigrant grandmother’s wish and rescue her long-lost cousins from a dangerous Mexican cartel? To do so, she must enlist the help of a Hispanic DEA agent and, unfortunately, her hated ex-fiance, Rick Ramos. Such a mission is not for the faint of heart!
How did I, in three short months, get to the heart of my Mexican-American family? It wasn’t easy, believe me. Especially since I was the family’s desgraciada. The disgraced one. Ever since I turned eighteen and had my legal name changed from Dolores—which means aches and pains in Spanish—to Dina. My namesake, Grandma Dolores Gómez, refused to speak to me or acknowledge my existence for about a year after the name change. Before that, I was simply the family brat and rebel. The know-it-all.
But you see, Grandma was the heart of the matter. And the big, dark secrets she kept closed up in her heart all got exposed in those tumultuous months. And before I could blink and realize what was happening, I was roped into a scheme to rescue cousins I never knew I had out of the deadly clutches of a Mexican drug cartel. Why was I chosen, you ask? Me, Dina Salazar, the desgraciada? A single schoolteacher with a long line of loser boyfriends? How did I end up looking up the barrel of a cartel commando’s automatic weapon? Come along with me and I’ll tell you.
It took five years—six, counting my teaching credential— to work my way through college and, oh yeah, I lost my fiancé along the way—according to Mama and Abuelita, my only chance at happiness. Their idea of happiness meant you married young, spent the next twenty years changing diapers, cooking and cleaning for a man you seldom saw because he was working two or three jobs to pay for all the mouths you’d brought into the world…
Gracias a Dios!
Horrors, in my opinion.
That was the world they knew, anyway, and they didn’t have the imagination to picture me in another, I suppose. I had another vision of the world. And myself. After all, I was Dina Salazar, not Dolores—the rambunctious little girl I used to be, saddled with what I thought to be a horrible name and all it implied. I was certain my family considered me the smirky smartass, the brazen wise-ass. No matter what, I was going to scratch and crawl my way into the American middle class, and if I lost whatever family status I had or whatever love came along, so be it.
After all, according to them, I had una cabeza dura. Hard- headed. And they were right.
My self-imposed exile from the family home in Salinas was easier to bear because I’d never really felt accepted by my mother and grandmother. Or my sisters. But there it was. I was forging my own path in uncharted waters. If I was some- times a little frightened, I tried not to show it.
It was during one of these periods of self-imposed exile that a phone call from home changed everything.
I was sitting, drinking my favorite macchiato, chilling out and slogging my way through that day’s student papers. Af ter reading a condensed, sixth-grade version of The Iliad and watching a History Channel documentary on the Trojan War, I had assigned my thirty students at Lincoln Elementary an opinion essay entitled Why the Trojan War Was Fought.
I couldn’t help but chuckle over one kid’s thesis statement. “The Trojan War was fought because Helen was more beautiful than Britney Spears and had a better body, too, and because Paris stole her away from her mean Greek husband, Menelaus.”
All the power struggles between the various Greek kings, Agamemnon’s excuse to unite these warring factions under his leadership, and Troy seen as the gateway to the riches of Turkey—that entire lecture of mine had been lost on some of my students.
Oh well, sex always sells, especially when the twelve-year-olds you’re teaching are thrumming with newly released, pulsing hormones. My students were at the stage when everything in the world at large was beginning to translate itself into a sexually charged experience. Talk about a slanted view of the world! Although I had to admit that slanted view also applied to most of the college men I’d met. But these poor pre-teens were no more interested in the politics of Ancient Greece than I was in the current rap music scene.
Ah, but how I loved my job! What more could I say? I was doing what I had set out to do more than ten years ago and loving every interesting, challenging day of it. Teaching kids was something I was meant to do. It was my destiny.
A destiny that Mama and my abuelita, of course, never took seriously. Not that I had much contact with them anymore. I was too busy making my way in the world.
“Aren’t there any men teaching at your school?” Mamá asked me the last time I made the mistake of going home. I think she regarded a profession occupied by mostly women as somehow the equivalent of a well-paid babysitting service.
“I don’t like that Huge,” Grandma’d said, mispronouncing my current boyfriend, Hugh Goss’s name—intentionally, I thought. “He acts too uppity.” Mama had concurred, probably meaning that I was acting uppity as well.
Grandma just didn’t like the ones who acted superior to her little clan, and I’m afraid the one time I brought Hugh home—over six months ago when I first started dating him—he acted like a gabacho—asshole. This was my brother Roberto’s assessment of him, anyway. I thought his adding chingado was over the top and totally unwarranted. Nevertheless, Hugh had made the mistake of calling Roberto’s old, low-riding Lincoln a mob mobile. My sharp jabbing Hugh in the side was just met with a confused look, accomplishing nothing.
Poor Roberto. He was happy to barely make it out of high school with a GED, his skills with cars and anything mechanical fulfilling his raison d’etre. Parents were relieved, Abuelita was pleased, and everything was right with the world.
My cell phone chirped the Indiana Jones theme. I put my school papers down and dug the phone out of my purse.
“Dina, good news.” It was my sister, Pet, probably calling from her hair salon.
“Don’t tell me, you got Roberto to move out.” My ding-a- ling, ex-con brother—served a year in juvie for stealing the hitch off an SUV—had moved with Pet and her husband, Juan Pablo, and their two kids into their rental home so that he could save up for an apartment. He was working again with my eldest brother, Frankie, and Pop in the tile business, fixing cars on the side, and we all hoped, staying out of trouble this time.
“Huh, no. Not yet, but working on it. Good news is I’m not pregnant. I don’t want to be, not until we own a house…and even then, I don’t think I want any more. Is that so terrible of me?”
“For chrissakes, Pet, why should it be terrible to be satisfied with two? Don’t you have your hands full with one business, one husband, two kids and two dogs? Oh, make it three kids now with Roberto. How could you manage with another baby to buy stuff for and take care of?”
“Oh, good. I thought I was being selfish by not wanting any more, but I guess not. I’m being practical, right? And practical is good. I have to think American, like you. Not let Mamá and Abuelita influence me. They want me to have five, at least. So how are things with you and Hugh, hermanita? Still seeing him?”
Pet, two years my senior, wanted to weasel some secret or juicy tidbit of gossip out of me but I wasn’t in the mood.
“Okay, I guess.” I mentally shrugged. Six years ago when The Hated One and I broke up, I dated no one for a very long time.
Then, when I couldn’t stand the celibacy one day longer, I made an effort to date again. The results of which have been a lamentable string of boyfriends over the past three years. The one before Hugh lasted two months. Hugh seemed to be different, though, but I was on my sixth month with him, and already, the bloom was off the rose.
I had no idea why.
Or maybe I was the girlfriend that the guys all got tired of. I chewed on that unwelcomed thought for a full two seconds. Then spat it out. Naahh!
“Just okay?” Pet probed. “Not moving further towards marriage or anything like that?”
“No, I’d like to be able to tell you that Hugh is the love of my life, and we’re deliriously happy, but it’s just not so.”
Many thought Hugh was quite a catch. Tall and handsome in a thin, lanky-hair, geeky way, he was a Deputy District Attorney for Santa Clara County. Since the nineteen-eighties, known to the outside world as Silicon Valley, the hub of computerized America, the center of information tech, the location of the Apple mothership. Where the most geeks on the planet lived. So all things considered, I couldn’t help but feel dating him was stepping up in the world, like getting a big salary increase or winning a free trip to Disneyland.
I was waiting and hoping something inside me would open and flood me with warm emotion and certitude that this was the one, but it hadn’t. I suspected he’d been waiting for the same thing, too.
Pet was quiet on the line.
“Know any single guys who might just manage to rock my world?” I joked. “Oh, and they have to play golf, be employed, be kind to children and animals. And not substance abusers or smokers. Or chew with their mouths open. Most of all, they have to play golf.”
“Guess you have your priorities straight, chica. You want a shallow relationship, not anything deep, huh,” Pet chuckled.
“Guess so,” I concurred flippantly, “deep is too scary.” After all, the opposite sex was scary.
Heck, anything deeper than a fling with any one of them was like Fatal Attraction. I had an instantaneous vision of a knife piercing my heart, blood spewing out geyser-like, a looney-bin boyfriend raging with jealousy hunting me to the ends of the earth.
I was creeping myself out. Pet sighed audibly.
“‘Fraid I don’t know anyone who meets your terribly…uh, high standards. There is someone, but he doesn’t play golf. You wouldn’t consider him an honest man though others probably would.”
Huh? I had no clue.
“Jeez Louise, I’m not going to say his name. You made me promise not to mention him again, and I’ve stuck to that promise, that silly, childish promise.”
The Hated One. My eyes narrowed to slits. My blood ran cold.
“Yeah, well, I’m a silly, childish kinda person. And you just now mentioned him, so you broke your promise, Pet.”
“Well, too bad. He’s divorced now. Has been for some time.”
“Ha, probably cheated on his wife. That topic is closed for discussion, anyway. Always will be.” I’d overheard Grandma tell Mama about The Hated One’s divorce years ago. That he’d divorced the girl he’d gotten pregnant while still engaged to me was further proof he was a lying, cheating SOB. There should be an MTA website for SOBs like Rick Ramos.
Men To Avoid. Like the plague.
“Well, too bad about Hugh. I kinda liked him. He’s smart, and he makes a lot of money. There are worse qualities you could find in a husband.”
I was astonished to hear Pet say that. I thought my family thoroughly disliked him. He was an uppity Anglo who didn’t fit in. I suppose Pop liked him well enough, though, but my easygoing sweetheart of a father liked everybody.
Pop was impressed when I told him that Hugh was a graduate of Stanford Law School and belonged to the Triple-9 Society, a group whose IQs were in the 99.9 percentile. A fact which Hugh never let me forget. When Hugh also announced his membership in Mensa, Pop thought it was a food co-op, like Costco, and he wanted to know if the produce was any good. That made Hugh shut up. He thought Pop was making fun of him.
“Want another, Dina? It’ll be on the house,” Manny called out from behind the espresso machine.
“You talked me into it,” I called back. I covered my cell phone and looked back at my favorite hangout’s barista. “Can’t say no to a free one.”
“One condition. You have to go out with me Friday night.”
“Aha,” I said, smiling wryly, “why is there a catch these days to every gracious offer?” I turned back to my phone. “Sorry, Pet. Some guy just asked me out.”
“You in Starbucks again? I might’ve known. Do you go out with guys you meet at a coffee store?”
“‘Cause it’s the only way I’ll get you to say yes,” Manny hollered above the din of the clamoring customers that had just entered the front door. Thankfully, I was spared from our usual banter and teasing repartee.
“Well, Pet, I have to find them where I can. The only male teacher at school is married, and the other guy is my boss— the new vice-prince. I don’t do bars or singles groups. They’re like an advertisement that you’re…desperate, which I’m not. Or if I was, I’d sooner have root-canal surgery than admit it. So where, pray tell, am I supposed to meet them? Other than the golf course.”
I could hear my sister puff audibly over the phone. No doubt she was sitting in one of her customer’s chairs, smoking a cigarette—to keep her weight down—and fingering her dark, curly hair.
“Beats me, maybe hardware stores. Roberto said he picked up a girl in one last week.”
“Which department, where they keep the loose screws?”
“Ha, ha, smartass. Hey, I’m calling about something else, too. Dina, something strange’s going on over at Mamá’s. I dropped off Lucy this morning, and Abuelita was crying up a storm. Imagine that, hardnosed Grandma crying!”
I couldn’t call up such a vision. La Bruja? It would be like picturing Darth Vader crying.
“So, what’s up? Did Abuelita lose her broomstick?”
Pet clucked her tongue just before giggling. “You’re sooo bad, chica. No, I’m serious, girl. She was sitting at the table, her head in her arms, just sobbing. Little Lucy started crying, too, she got so scared. They were speaking Spanish, so I only caught a few words. Something about family—hijo, nieta, Juá- rez, mafufo—strange word, isn’t it? What do you think, Dina? They wouldn’t tell me anything but before I left, Grandma made a phone call to Mexico. To her sister, I think.”
“Mafufo, mafufo,” I murmured. Spanish was my minor in college, so I was the bilingual dictionary for my siblings whenever Mama wouldn’t or couldn’t translate. It came to “It’s an old Mexican word for marijuana, I think. Juárez is a city in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Hijo is son, of course. Nieta is granddaughter. Grandma has no sons, just Mamá and Tita Carmen. All her granddaughters are here in California. You, Connie, me. If Grandma hasn’t disowned me, that is.”
“No, Tita Carmen in Amarillo has got two sons and a daughter in Texas, somewhere. Maybe she’s talking about her. I don’t think she lives in Amarillo anymore. She moved with her husband somewhere…our cousin. We met her that time she and her husband came out to California. Y’know, Dolores García. Yep, she got stuck with Dolores, too.”
“Poor girl. Well, it’s none of my business. Grandma sure doesn’t want me butting in. I’m not exactly her favorite person, y’know. If you find out anything, let me know. Just curious. Don’t know why Mamá wouldn’t tell you. That’s strange.”
“Abuelita’s got a big secret, something bad, that’s what I think. I also think you should come home more often. Just be- cause they didn’t like Hugh doesn’t mean you have to stay away. I miss you. Pop misses you. Mamá and Abuelita, too…in their own way.”
“Gotta go. My next client just walked in.”
“Hey, I’m glad…things worked out in your favor this time.
Y’know, that you’re not pregnant. Try the Pill, m’ija.”
“I do, have been. Jeez, what do you think? Juan Pablo and I aren’t stupid, y’know, just because we didn’t go to college like you. I just got busy and lost track one month.”
Her defensive, hurt tone came across loud and clear, making me feel guilty for my careless remark.
“Hey, I wasn’t implying anything—just an off-the-cuff thing to say. Sorry,” I apologized, feeling bad. I knew around my family, I had to go out of my way to look and sound humble, had to suppress my big mouth.
“Come home this weekend, Dina. We’ll talk some more.
Haven’t seen you in ages. You’re not avoiding us, are you? Please, don’t abandon us. Gotta go. Bye.”
Smiling to myself, for Pet had made that last plea jokingly in her usual melodramatic way, we rang off, and I went back to my students’ papers. We were okay again, thank goodness. I had to mentally smack my forehead and remind myself to watch my sarcasm around members of my family, especially the ones I truly liked. They’d interpret it as disrespectful and arrogant, an attitude not to be tolerated in a blue-collar Latino family.
Another reason why I seldom went home. It was difficult to curb my true nature. Know what I mean?
Pet’s conversation lingered in my mind for a few minutes, though, especially hearing about Abuelita’s apparently upsetting news from her daughter, Carmen, in Texas? So why call Mexico? Grandma Gómez didn’t fritter away money—she was as tight-fisted as a retired boxer with her Social Security check. A call to Mexico wasn’t cheap.
Oh well, I thought. Probably a relative in Mexico is asking for more money. Gringo relations in the US were always good to hit up for a couple hundred or so each month. I knew Mama had sent money over the years to Abuelita’s sister and some cousins in Chihuahua. They couldn’t help me through college, but they could send Pop’s hard-earned money to Mexico. What a family!
I mentally harrumphed and started concentrating in earnest on my students’ papers. Minutes passed. Three more essays and I’d treat myself to another tall cup—mmm, yummy—of nonfat caramel macchiato, finish the pile and then go home.
Former high school English teacher, Donna Del Oro is an award-winning novelist of suspense/crime fiction. Her latest novel, SAVING LA FAMILIA, won the Silver Falchion Award for Best Comedy-Suspense of 2022.
She lives in Northern California with her husband and three cats. She taught high school and community college English classes for 30+ years and is now happily retired. When not doing research, writing novels, or reading voraciously, she travels and sings with the medal winning Sacramento Valley Chorus.