Latinx Heritage in Horror: Interview with Carmen Baca
Carmen Baca taught high school and college English for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. As a Chicana, a Norteña native to New Mexico, Carmen Baca keeps her culture’s traditions alive through regionalism to prevent them from dying completely. She is the author of six books and over 70 short publications in a variety of genres from prose to poetry.
Q. What inspired you to start writing?
A. When our rural community’s religious brotherhood disbanded in the mid-’80s, the brothers entrusted the relics from the prayer house, including a locked wooden box, into my care. The box revealed answers to suspicions I’d had for most of my life and confirmed that information already published didn’t provide the whole story. I knew I had to write my father’s story from his initiation into the brotherhood to his becoming the leader like his paternal ancestors before him.
Q. What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
A. After publishing my debut novel (my father’s story), I discovered I love writing quiet horror, folk horror, and magical realism most. I don’t write explicit horror, gore, or slasher-type stories. Rather, I enjoy leaving what happens most often to readers’ imaginations, since our minds supply the worst images. I love the challenge of setting the tone of terror through sensual responses from characters to stimulation, whether internal or external. I can spend hours choosing the right words to build anticipation in the reader of what’s lurking around the corner or leave them wondering whether that noise the character heard before he disappeared was really a monster on the prowl. The best satisfaction for me comes from hearing from readers who tell me my regional cuentos strike a nostalgic chord in them from reading about the monsters of our childhoods.
Q. Do you make a conscious effort to include LatinX characters and themes in your writing, and if so, what do you want to portray?
A. I’m a regionalist, so I incorporate elements of my region into 95% of what I write. The majority of my characters are Chicano Norteños like me. My stories appeal to many of my readers because the settings, characters, and villains are familiar to them, too. New readers of my works often remark about how much they learn about my culture from reading my stories. Themes are universal, so they apply to humanity: stages of life, emotions and experiences we all undergo. However, often, the scenarios depict specific events unique to us, such as performing rituals, adhering to superstitions, or keeping particular traditions alive. They serve to support the themes.
Q. What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
A. Writing horror introduced me to outstanding horror writers I might never have discovered had I not joined several author communities by publishing my own. I never knew there are so many sub-genres, so reading the stories written by authors from around the world gives me insight into the genres. More importantly, I learn about the people, their cultures, customs, folklore, their locations, and so much more. I found no matter where we’re from, we all love to be frightened. Before I challenged myself to write horror, I didn’t know I had such darkness within me bursting to emerge in storytelling. Of course, depending on the publisher, I keep the darkness in check, but sometimes I fall into the temptation of seeing just how horrifying my writing can get without much gore. I’m oddly elated when readers tell me they can’t read my darker material because it gives them nightmares.
Q. How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
A. As a college English teacher, I loved teaching Frankenstein, Dracula, and short horror stories to analyze the methods by which authors succeeded in scaring us. I also read a lot of horror for pleasure. Over time, because of changes to our world, such as AI, space and oceanic exploration, etc., more subject matter became fodder for terror. There is more out there to frighten us, now that we know more. New forms of story-telling emerged, the evolution of the language—they added to authors’ wealth of subject matter. As long as we evolve as a species, keep discovering, and continue to change the world around us, horror will evolve to include all of this.
Q. How do you feel the LatinX community has been represented thus far in the genre, and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
A. Before I wrote horror, I didn’t know many LatinX horror writers. Now, I’m impressed by the number, particularly women, who can weave such tales that stay with us long after we’ve turned the final page. We are still a minority in the horror community, but we’re rising, with some of us emerging as winners of prestigious merit like the Bram Stoker Awards®, and more of us making names for ourselves. Recently, I’ve found several LatinX publishers who’ve formed their own publishing companies to give us a voice. I’d like to see that number grow. Our recognition as horror writers increases by the day. I can’t wait until more of us—writers and publishers—dominate bookseller sites.
Q. Who are some of your favorite LatinX characters in horror?
A. Dr. María Jesú Estrada created a little girl named Mona. She experiences magical and diabolical episodes with entities who make her life hell. More magical realism than horror, it stands out for me because Mona makes me laugh out loud. Not many characters do that. Her troubles with antagonists turn to terror after a while. The La Bruja del Barrio novelette series is memorable. Many of my favorite characters come from sub-genres, like Última from Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última. Representative of every older woman around me as a child, she’s abuela to Chicanos everywhere. Yet, she leaves us wondering whether she was a witch after all. Regarding villains, I love reading and writing about regional gente, like the ghosts living in our hotels or, even more infamous, la Llorona, the Weeping Woman of our bedtime stories. My research led me to discover so many more, from el Vivorón to cryptids called los gigantes, supposedly found in 1902, 30 miles or so from where I live.
Q. Who are some LatinX horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
A. Publishing short works in anthologies, I’ve found authors whose stories I enjoy. In Graveyard Smash: Women in Horror Anthology Volume 2, V. Castro takes us into Templo Mayor, also the title of the story. The many sights and sounds and smells, the bizarre atmosphere, the grotesque monsters, I saw everything as though I stood amongst them. I won’t forget that story. I confess I haven’t been reading much horror lately, only because I write more than I read these days. But, several are on my to-buy list.
Q. What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
A. Decide what kind of horror you like writing. For me, quiet horror satisfies my need to tell a weird or creepy story whether with paranormal or supernatural or magical elements. Beasts with teeth and claws, some without limbs and others with wings—that’s the kind of horror that stimulates my imagination and brings the story to life. A mix of magical realism accompanied by folk horror, many of my stories come from fond memories which I transform into spooky tales. Deciding which horror excites you to write will give you hours of creative fun; that excitement will make your story even better.
Q, And to the LatinX writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
A. Love what you write. Because I incorporate my Chicano culture into much of what I write and because I love weaving cuentos unique to me, I spend hours at the keyboard, first writing the details, sticking to the plot structure. And then the proofing, where more hours go by as I search for the right words and the right cadence, so the paragraph or stanza sings. I strive for that. You’ll publish works you know are from your best effort over and over, because you’ll improve with each one. The writing process will hook you, challenge you, and keep you alive as you deal with the terror of deadly demons your mind comes up with, just because you’re a writer of horror.