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When We Make It

A Nuyorican Novel

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"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. . . . Her voice is FIRE!"—NYT bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
 
An unforgettable, torrential, and hopeful debut young adult novel-in-verse that redefines what it means to "make it,” for readers of Nicholasa Mohr and Elizabeth Acevedo.


Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican question asker who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister, Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has long been denied.

When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez’ debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.
Elisabet Velasquez is a Boricua writer born in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work is featured in Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Centro Voces, Latina Magazine, Longreads, We Are Mitú, Tidal, and Martín Espada’s anthology What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. When We Make It is her debut novel. Elisabet lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. View titles by Elisabet Velasquez

How I Got My Name

Sarai

Let’s start the story where abandon meets faith.

Aight, so, boom. Check it. 

 

I’m named after a homegirl 

in the Bible who couldn’t have kids. 

 

Her man Abram was all like: 

Yo, Sarai, God promised me I would be the Father of Nations.

 

Sarai was all like: 

Nah B, you must be buggin’, you know I can’t have no babies.

 

Our pastor says faith is believing in something 

you can’t really see. 

 

According to Mami, 

we should never put our faith in men. 

 

Mami was pregnant with me when Papi bounced

for some new chick & told Mami to have an abortion. 

 

Abram got himself a new chick, too. 

Got her pregnant and all that. 

 

I guess Mami identified with Sarai’s fear and doubt—

& so I was born out of Mami’s faith & hope. 

 



Mami

Mami is a round woman. 

A square by any other definition. 

 

No-nonsense, Pentecostal 

with no patience for her own children most days. 

There are three of us in total. 

Danny, Estrella & Me. I am the youngest. 

 

My sister Estrella said Mami’s depressed.  

File this under “shit we don’t talk about.” 

 

Pentecostals, we’re just supposed to pray

the sadness away. 

 

¡Fuera! The pastor demands on prayer night. 

¡Fuera! I imagine sadness is a bad singer 

 

being kicked off the show 

by el Chacal on Sábado Gigante. 

 

Apparently, Jesus & Don Francisco

can save anything.

 

Once during church testimonio,

Mami gave Jesus mad credit 

 

for saving her from Papi’s fists. ¡Amén! ¡Aleluya!

Now, Papi lives in the Bronx with his new wife. 

 

Estrella uses the payphone

to collect call him all the time. 

 

She says Papi is also Christian now

& that God forgave him 

 

for beating on Mami & so we should too. 

But Mami’s eyes never close right during prayer service 

 

& I wonder what kind of God you have to be 

to receive praise from the hands responsible for that. 

 



How We Got Our Names

Estrella 

Estrella was named after another woman 

Papi was cheating on Mami with. 

 

Nobody says that out loud though. But I can tell 

by the way my sister’s name jumps off of Mami’s tongue 

 

like one of those side chicks 

on The Ricki Lake Show.

 

On my father’s tongue, Estrella matters. 

Her name is a sloooow dance in Brooklyn. 

 

Her name is a bullet that didn’t kill nobody. 

Her name is the beeper alert that gets a call back. 

 

Estrella is three years older than me. 

She is sixteen but her body is not. 

 

She got that it’s not my fault,

I thought you were older kind of body.  

 

She is the kind of beautiful

that dique puts men in danger 

 

or that makes men want to be dangerous.  

The kind of beautiful Mami always wanted to be. 

 

When we walk down Knickerbocker Ave., 

the men hiss like they are deflating at the sight of us. 

 

They call Mami suegra. Mami can’t stand it. 

Qué ridículo, she says.

 

She ain’t old enough to be nobody’s mother-in-law. 

 

She shifts her body in front of Estrella’s, to protect her 

 

or maybe so she can be seen first. 




Papi

 

Estrella races to the window 

and pulls back the curtain,

 

which is really just a fuzzy blanket

with a lion print that Mami ordered from Fingerhut,

 

a magazine that lets Mami own nice things 

and pay for them slowly. 

 

Papi parks outside and makes his station wagon cry 

until it guilts Mami into letting us go downstairs. 

 

I examine my father until he is human again. 

When he hugs me, I want no parts of his hands.  

 

I become Mami the last time he hit her.  

Leave me alone. Don’t touch me.

 

Estrella laughs at my fear & tells Papi 

Mami is brainwashing me into hating him. 

 

Papi says he hopes

I’m not becoming an angry bitch like Mami. 

 

Men don’t like angry bitches.

Men leave angry bitches.

 

All Mami was ever good for was kicking him out.

He can’t remember the last time

 

her mouth made a home for him. 

That’s why he left

 

and didn’t come around for a few years. 

Now Papi comes by every weekend

 

& gives us five dollars to split.  

Estrella & me argue over how to spend it.

Five dollars 

can buy us mad chips,

 

quarter juices,

Now and Laters, Devil Dogs. 

 

Or we can use it to share one ham & cheese hero 

and a two-liter.  

 

When I look up at the window

you can’t see Mami peeking but  

 

the lion’s mouth is open 

and roaring for me to come upstairs. 




Lucky

 

In Bushwick, the reporters double park 

to shoot the latest crime scene & then bounce 

 

quick before their news vans get tagged up. 

The teachers find their car radios missing 

 

and blame the worst student they have. 

Pero, the teachers and the reporters, they get to leave. 

 

Back to their “good” neighborhoods 

with boring-ass walls and vehicles

 

they don’t have to piece back together like a puzzle. 

They’ll have a nice dinner with their predictable family 

 

and talk about their wack-ass day in Bushwick

& somebody will say: You’re lucky you don’t live there

 

Someone else will echo: Imagine?!

& they think they can imagine because fear

 

got them believing they know what it means to be safe.  

I mean, it’s one thing to feel danger.

 

& maybe it’s another thing

to work in it.

 

& maybe it’s another thing altogether 

to live with it. 

 

But it’s something else completely 

to be the thing everyone is afraid of. 




We Ain’t Afraid

 

Estrella says:

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

 

I say: 

Some days though, 

shit is scary. 

Not gonna front

like shit ain’t scary. 

 

Estrella says:

Damn, yo, what’s so scary?

That’s just Corner Boy Jesus and his friends.

 

I say:

Shit. That’s 5-0. Ayo! 

They’re creeping around the corner. 

I tell Estrella & the corner boys to run. Run! 

 

Estrella & the corner boys say:

Run? We ain’t running.

Snitch? We ain’t snitching.

 

Estrella says:

Yo, chill, we’ll be aight.

Yo, chill, we’ll be okay.

& even when we not

we are. You know what I mean?

 

& I know exactly what she means

’cause it’s just like being afraid.

Even when we not we are. 

Even when we not we are. 

 

               But I don’t say that. 

 

                Nah. 

 

I don’t say that. 




Neighbors

 

Bushwick is full of hip-hop & salsa. 

 

Cuchifritos & soul food. 

 

Nail & hair salons. 

 

Bootleg CD vendors & tamale ladies on the corner.  

 

We are all the same in our difference. 

 

No matter how we got to be neighbors here 

 

We all know we lived somewhere else first. 

 

I know this because on the occasion that 

 

Our eyes lock for more than a moment 

 

Our mouths ask each other the same question. 

 

Where you from? Like nice to meet you. 

 

Where you from? Like what block? 

 

Where you from? Like what country? 

 

Where you from? Like what God? 

 

Where you from? Like where you been? 

 

Where you from? Like where you going?

 

Where you from? Like who you missing? 

 

Where you from? Like why you here? 

 

Where you from? Like have you gone back? 

 

Where you from? Like what did you leave behind? 

 



Curiosity Killed the Cat

Satisfaction Brought It Back

 

Mami says ¡que soy entrometida!

& she’s right,

 

I’m always asking

about things I shouldn’t be. 

 

Estrella thinks I ask a lot of questions ’cause I’m dumb. 

Being a dumbass has its rewards though. She laughs.

 

She means that in Bushwick,

there are some things you just don’t wanna know.

 

That way you sound believable if the cops ever ask you 

something where the answer could get you locked up or killed.

 

But I know asking questions

is sometimes the smartest thing I could do. 

 

It gives me permission to not know everything. 

Besides, answers are just questions

 

that haven’t been discovered yet.  




I Ask Questions About Puerto Rico


When I ask Mami to tell me about Puerto Rico 

she says it’s none of my business

 

and that I should focus on school. 

How is where I am from none of my business?

 

I decide to talk back today. 

You are not from Puerto Rico.

 

You are Nuyorican,

Mami says. 

 

A Puerto Rican born in New York. 

Does that make me less Puerto Rican? I wanna know. 

 

Sí. No. ¡Qué sé yo!

 

Mami is annoyed 

& tells me to stop asking questions & pack my clothes. 

 

We are moving. 

Again. 




Leaving Gates Avenue

 

Mami never has money for the bus or cabs 

so we walk our belongings to the new spot 

 

on Knickerbocker Avenue. 

We gotta stop at the Check Cashing 

 

to get a money order for the week’s rent. 

I’ma miss writing Gates Avenue on the money order. 

 

It always felt super appropriate considering that 

everything in Bushwick looks like it could hurt you

 

if you crossed it.

All the buildings are built like weapons.

 

Even our schools are gated & 

the welfare office is spiked

 

as if to let you know

that you are entering a war zone. 

 

We order Chinese food through glass

that might stop a bullet

 

but can’t stop a kid with a blade

and a dope tag.

 

Windows are secured with metal bars & 

roofs are fenced in with barbed wire. 

 

In this way even the sun becomes a criminal

if it sneaks into an armored building. 

 

At the Check Cashing spot the pen is chained

to the counter & today I stole it

 

just to say I set something free.




How We Got Our Names

Hookerbocker Ave

 

is what everybody calls Knickerbocker Avenue. 

& since names have a way of making things true 

Mami has a warning for Estrella & me

as we leave the new room 

we’re staying in to go buy pizza for dinner. 

She tells us to come straight home

& not to stand on the ave. for too long.

Si te coge la jara no hay dinero pá sacarte.

Which is to say you can’t even trust the cops

to tell the difference. 

Which is to say Puerto Rican girls

always look like they’re for sale.

& for a brief second I wonder what I’m worth. 

What it would cost to keep me for a night. 

What it would cost to set me free. 

 



Today in Bible Study

Trinity


We learn: 

 

God the father. 

              God the son. 

                     God the Holy Spirit. 

 

Are all the same. 

Are all different. 

 

I’m not even gonna front like I get how that shit works. 

But if I had to share my identities with two other people 

I’ma pick the underdog. The one who flies mad under the radar but does some powerful ass shit.

 

That’s the Holy Spirit in this case.

I mean, sure, Jesus turned water into wine

and did the whole I’m dead. . .SIKE! I’m not dead bit 

but have you ever seen the way the Holy Spirit 

possesses a body and makes it dance across the room

without hitting any of the furniture? 

 

That’s talent. 

 

I guess what I’m saying is that I think I’m talented 

 

enough to make it out of here 

while avoiding everything 

that tries to get in my way.  

 



Sarai’s Got Talent

 

Actually, I don’t really know if talent is the way

out of the hood. 

 

There are mad talented people in Bushwick

who are still here.  

 

Like the ladies who make the toilet paper doll covers 

made of yarn 

 

& the hood musicians who record 

then hustle their mixtape on CDs on the ave. 

 

& the street chefs who make the most bangin’ empanadas 

and tamales that you’ll never find

 

in any restaurant 

& the acrobats who swing their bodies 

 

on an L train pole in the name of showtime. 

& the writers who tag up the walls with their names 

 

so colorfully that you couldn’t ignore them

if you wanted to. 

 

Mami says my talent is being nosy. 

I say my talent is paying attention. 




Roster

 

I know the moment right before

the homeroom teacher

is about to call my name off the roster.

 

A brief silence stings the air

while all the kids with heavy names

sink their bodies into the chair. 

 

My best friend’s name is Lauricia,

which people always wrongly pronounce

Larissa or Laurish-a. 

 

So she just tells people to call her Lala

to avoid the exhaustion that comes

with correcting people. 

 

Lala & I can tell who has a “good” name

by the way they chew their Bubble Yum

mindlessly or scratch the date on the wooden table. 

 

Our mouths do not get the luxury of rest. 

Our mouths must always be war-ready,

which means, sometimes we rip our names

 

from the teacher’s mouth

before she has a chance to kill it,

but other times we wait.

 

After all,

the teacher is human, like us,

but more real.

 

Maybe we wait to see if this time, she will get it right 

or maybe we are waiting to see if our name 

can be held in a mouth that is not our mother’s. 




The Cool Puerto Rican English Teacher


Ms. Rivera looks & talks wild familiar. 

Like she could be my cousin or something.  

 

How funny it would be if 

Ms. Rivera was really just a cousin I didn’t know. 

 

Ms. Rivera could even be me. Yo. Maybe she is me.

The me that finishes school & gets a college degree. 

 

The me that learns how to talk proper and shit. 

The me that owns a car and lives in a good neighborhood.

 

The me that makes mad money, or at least enough 

to make sure we always got food in the fridge. 

 

The me Mami couldn’t be. 

The me Estrella doesn’t want to be.

 

The me that makes it 

for everybody that couldn’t.




How We Got Our Names

Mami’s Job

 

When Ms. Rivera asks me what Mami does for a living 

I don’t know how to make her sound important 

 

enough to mention. 

You know the kids who have parents with good jobs 

 

by the way their hands shoot up

and shake until they’re chosen. 

 

Let’s hear from someone

we haven’t heard from yet.

 

Ms. Rivera scans the room for those of us hiding

our hands, our eyes, our lives.

 

Mami sews people’s clothes, I say. 

A seamstress.

 

Ms. Rivera gives Mami’s job a name 

that sounds valuable. Names can do that, you know. 

 

I shrug. All I know is that she works

in a factory making clothes 

 

& she’ll never know the people who wear them 

and they’ll never know the lady who made them.

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Gotham Book Prize finalist

*“A gem for pleasure reading as well as classroom use. . . . Raw, breathtaking, and brilliant.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

*“Exquisite poetry portrays not only anger and fear, but also hope . . . Gripping and soulful, this dynamic debut novel-in-verse is a must for every collection.”—School Library Journal, starred review

*“The candid, clear-eyed poetry contains powerful inquiries about [Sarai’s] diasporic Nuyorican identity and canny observations about the endemic social and racial inequities that surround her. . . . Together, these vignettes capture Sarai’s multilayered, heartbreaking, and hopeful coming of age.”—Horn Book, starred review

“A beautiful story whose deep messages will have lasting effects.”—Booklist

"With verses that are unapologetically fierce and honest, Elisabet Velasquez captures the Brooklyn city streets with a Nuyorican vibe that can’t be duplicated. When We Make it is the perfect coming-of-age tale with rhythmic poetry that is certain to cement Velazquez as an exciting new young adult voice to celebrate."—Lilliam Rivera, Pura Belpré Honor-Winning Author of Never Look Back

"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. And takes me home — to Bushwick in the most resonate and evocative of ways. The writing is clear-eyed, moving and funny. Her voice is FIRE!"—New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
 
“This is the kind of book that makes you feel seen, the kind you read around the kitchen table to your sisters and friends. It will make you laugh and cry and remind you that you aren’t alone. Elisabet’s book will touch so many people’s lives. It has already touched mine.”—Angie Cruz, author of Dominicana
 
“Velasquez renders the heart in conflict with itself, the swag and bilingual sonic charge of Bushwick, an uncompromising love, and the reality of being a young Puerto Rican woman, using poetry to make sense of conflict and chaos in her relentless search for truth. When We Make It is an unforgettable debut.”—Willie Perdomo, author of The Crazy Bunch

About

"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. . . . Her voice is FIRE!"—NYT bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
 
An unforgettable, torrential, and hopeful debut young adult novel-in-verse that redefines what it means to "make it,” for readers of Nicholasa Mohr and Elizabeth Acevedo.


Sarai is a first-generation Puerto Rican question asker who can see with clarity the truth, pain, and beauty of the world both inside and outside her Bushwick apartment. Together with her older sister, Estrella, she navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Sarai questions the society around her, her Boricua identity, and the life she lives with determination and an open heart, learning to celebrate herself in a way that she has long been denied.

When We Make It is a love letter to anyone who was taught to believe that they would not make it. To those who feel their emotions before they can name them. To those who still may not have all the language but they have their story. Velasquez’ debut novel is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who read it.

Author

Elisabet Velasquez is a Boricua writer born in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work is featured in Muzzle Magazine, Winter Tangerine, Centro Voces, Latina Magazine, Longreads, We Are Mitú, Tidal, and Martín Espada’s anthology What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. When We Make It is her debut novel. Elisabet lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. View titles by Elisabet Velasquez

Excerpt

How I Got My Name

Sarai

Let’s start the story where abandon meets faith.

Aight, so, boom. Check it. 

 

I’m named after a homegirl 

in the Bible who couldn’t have kids. 

 

Her man Abram was all like: 

Yo, Sarai, God promised me I would be the Father of Nations.

 

Sarai was all like: 

Nah B, you must be buggin’, you know I can’t have no babies.

 

Our pastor says faith is believing in something 

you can’t really see. 

 

According to Mami, 

we should never put our faith in men. 

 

Mami was pregnant with me when Papi bounced

for some new chick & told Mami to have an abortion. 

 

Abram got himself a new chick, too. 

Got her pregnant and all that. 

 

I guess Mami identified with Sarai’s fear and doubt—

& so I was born out of Mami’s faith & hope. 

 



Mami

Mami is a round woman. 

A square by any other definition. 

 

No-nonsense, Pentecostal 

with no patience for her own children most days. 

There are three of us in total. 

Danny, Estrella & Me. I am the youngest. 

 

My sister Estrella said Mami’s depressed.  

File this under “shit we don’t talk about.” 

 

Pentecostals, we’re just supposed to pray

the sadness away. 

 

¡Fuera! The pastor demands on prayer night. 

¡Fuera! I imagine sadness is a bad singer 

 

being kicked off the show 

by el Chacal on Sábado Gigante. 

 

Apparently, Jesus & Don Francisco

can save anything.

 

Once during church testimonio,

Mami gave Jesus mad credit 

 

for saving her from Papi’s fists. ¡Amén! ¡Aleluya!

Now, Papi lives in the Bronx with his new wife. 

 

Estrella uses the payphone

to collect call him all the time. 

 

She says Papi is also Christian now

& that God forgave him 

 

for beating on Mami & so we should too. 

But Mami’s eyes never close right during prayer service 

 

& I wonder what kind of God you have to be 

to receive praise from the hands responsible for that. 

 



How We Got Our Names

Estrella 

Estrella was named after another woman 

Papi was cheating on Mami with. 

 

Nobody says that out loud though. But I can tell 

by the way my sister’s name jumps off of Mami’s tongue 

 

like one of those side chicks 

on The Ricki Lake Show.

 

On my father’s tongue, Estrella matters. 

Her name is a sloooow dance in Brooklyn. 

 

Her name is a bullet that didn’t kill nobody. 

Her name is the beeper alert that gets a call back. 

 

Estrella is three years older than me. 

She is sixteen but her body is not. 

 

She got that it’s not my fault,

I thought you were older kind of body.  

 

She is the kind of beautiful

that dique puts men in danger 

 

or that makes men want to be dangerous.  

The kind of beautiful Mami always wanted to be. 

 

When we walk down Knickerbocker Ave., 

the men hiss like they are deflating at the sight of us. 

 

They call Mami suegra. Mami can’t stand it. 

Qué ridículo, she says.

 

She ain’t old enough to be nobody’s mother-in-law. 

 

She shifts her body in front of Estrella’s, to protect her 

 

or maybe so she can be seen first. 




Papi

 

Estrella races to the window 

and pulls back the curtain,

 

which is really just a fuzzy blanket

with a lion print that Mami ordered from Fingerhut,

 

a magazine that lets Mami own nice things 

and pay for them slowly. 

 

Papi parks outside and makes his station wagon cry 

until it guilts Mami into letting us go downstairs. 

 

I examine my father until he is human again. 

When he hugs me, I want no parts of his hands.  

 

I become Mami the last time he hit her.  

Leave me alone. Don’t touch me.

 

Estrella laughs at my fear & tells Papi 

Mami is brainwashing me into hating him. 

 

Papi says he hopes

I’m not becoming an angry bitch like Mami. 

 

Men don’t like angry bitches.

Men leave angry bitches.

 

All Mami was ever good for was kicking him out.

He can’t remember the last time

 

her mouth made a home for him. 

That’s why he left

 

and didn’t come around for a few years. 

Now Papi comes by every weekend

 

& gives us five dollars to split.  

Estrella & me argue over how to spend it.

Five dollars 

can buy us mad chips,

 

quarter juices,

Now and Laters, Devil Dogs. 

 

Or we can use it to share one ham & cheese hero 

and a two-liter.  

 

When I look up at the window

you can’t see Mami peeking but  

 

the lion’s mouth is open 

and roaring for me to come upstairs. 




Lucky

 

In Bushwick, the reporters double park 

to shoot the latest crime scene & then bounce 

 

quick before their news vans get tagged up. 

The teachers find their car radios missing 

 

and blame the worst student they have. 

Pero, the teachers and the reporters, they get to leave. 

 

Back to their “good” neighborhoods 

with boring-ass walls and vehicles

 

they don’t have to piece back together like a puzzle. 

They’ll have a nice dinner with their predictable family 

 

and talk about their wack-ass day in Bushwick

& somebody will say: You’re lucky you don’t live there

 

Someone else will echo: Imagine?!

& they think they can imagine because fear

 

got them believing they know what it means to be safe.  

I mean, it’s one thing to feel danger.

 

& maybe it’s another thing

to work in it.

 

& maybe it’s another thing altogether 

to live with it. 

 

But it’s something else completely 

to be the thing everyone is afraid of. 




We Ain’t Afraid

 

Estrella says:

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

We ain’t afraid of nothing.

 

I say: 

Some days though, 

shit is scary. 

Not gonna front

like shit ain’t scary. 

 

Estrella says:

Damn, yo, what’s so scary?

That’s just Corner Boy Jesus and his friends.

 

I say:

Shit. That’s 5-0. Ayo! 

They’re creeping around the corner. 

I tell Estrella & the corner boys to run. Run! 

 

Estrella & the corner boys say:

Run? We ain’t running.

Snitch? We ain’t snitching.

 

Estrella says:

Yo, chill, we’ll be aight.

Yo, chill, we’ll be okay.

& even when we not

we are. You know what I mean?

 

& I know exactly what she means

’cause it’s just like being afraid.

Even when we not we are. 

Even when we not we are. 

 

               But I don’t say that. 

 

                Nah. 

 

I don’t say that. 




Neighbors

 

Bushwick is full of hip-hop & salsa. 

 

Cuchifritos & soul food. 

 

Nail & hair salons. 

 

Bootleg CD vendors & tamale ladies on the corner.  

 

We are all the same in our difference. 

 

No matter how we got to be neighbors here 

 

We all know we lived somewhere else first. 

 

I know this because on the occasion that 

 

Our eyes lock for more than a moment 

 

Our mouths ask each other the same question. 

 

Where you from? Like nice to meet you. 

 

Where you from? Like what block? 

 

Where you from? Like what country? 

 

Where you from? Like what God? 

 

Where you from? Like where you been? 

 

Where you from? Like where you going?

 

Where you from? Like who you missing? 

 

Where you from? Like why you here? 

 

Where you from? Like have you gone back? 

 

Where you from? Like what did you leave behind? 

 



Curiosity Killed the Cat

Satisfaction Brought It Back

 

Mami says ¡que soy entrometida!

& she’s right,

 

I’m always asking

about things I shouldn’t be. 

 

Estrella thinks I ask a lot of questions ’cause I’m dumb. 

Being a dumbass has its rewards though. She laughs.

 

She means that in Bushwick,

there are some things you just don’t wanna know.

 

That way you sound believable if the cops ever ask you 

something where the answer could get you locked up or killed.

 

But I know asking questions

is sometimes the smartest thing I could do. 

 

It gives me permission to not know everything. 

Besides, answers are just questions

 

that haven’t been discovered yet.  




I Ask Questions About Puerto Rico


When I ask Mami to tell me about Puerto Rico 

she says it’s none of my business

 

and that I should focus on school. 

How is where I am from none of my business?

 

I decide to talk back today. 

You are not from Puerto Rico.

 

You are Nuyorican,

Mami says. 

 

A Puerto Rican born in New York. 

Does that make me less Puerto Rican? I wanna know. 

 

Sí. No. ¡Qué sé yo!

 

Mami is annoyed 

& tells me to stop asking questions & pack my clothes. 

 

We are moving. 

Again. 




Leaving Gates Avenue

 

Mami never has money for the bus or cabs 

so we walk our belongings to the new spot 

 

on Knickerbocker Avenue. 

We gotta stop at the Check Cashing 

 

to get a money order for the week’s rent. 

I’ma miss writing Gates Avenue on the money order. 

 

It always felt super appropriate considering that 

everything in Bushwick looks like it could hurt you

 

if you crossed it.

All the buildings are built like weapons.

 

Even our schools are gated & 

the welfare office is spiked

 

as if to let you know

that you are entering a war zone. 

 

We order Chinese food through glass

that might stop a bullet

 

but can’t stop a kid with a blade

and a dope tag.

 

Windows are secured with metal bars & 

roofs are fenced in with barbed wire. 

 

In this way even the sun becomes a criminal

if it sneaks into an armored building. 

 

At the Check Cashing spot the pen is chained

to the counter & today I stole it

 

just to say I set something free.




How We Got Our Names

Hookerbocker Ave

 

is what everybody calls Knickerbocker Avenue. 

& since names have a way of making things true 

Mami has a warning for Estrella & me

as we leave the new room 

we’re staying in to go buy pizza for dinner. 

She tells us to come straight home

& not to stand on the ave. for too long.

Si te coge la jara no hay dinero pá sacarte.

Which is to say you can’t even trust the cops

to tell the difference. 

Which is to say Puerto Rican girls

always look like they’re for sale.

& for a brief second I wonder what I’m worth. 

What it would cost to keep me for a night. 

What it would cost to set me free. 

 



Today in Bible Study

Trinity


We learn: 

 

God the father. 

              God the son. 

                     God the Holy Spirit. 

 

Are all the same. 

Are all different. 

 

I’m not even gonna front like I get how that shit works. 

But if I had to share my identities with two other people 

I’ma pick the underdog. The one who flies mad under the radar but does some powerful ass shit.

 

That’s the Holy Spirit in this case.

I mean, sure, Jesus turned water into wine

and did the whole I’m dead. . .SIKE! I’m not dead bit 

but have you ever seen the way the Holy Spirit 

possesses a body and makes it dance across the room

without hitting any of the furniture? 

 

That’s talent. 

 

I guess what I’m saying is that I think I’m talented 

 

enough to make it out of here 

while avoiding everything 

that tries to get in my way.  

 



Sarai’s Got Talent

 

Actually, I don’t really know if talent is the way

out of the hood. 

 

There are mad talented people in Bushwick

who are still here.  

 

Like the ladies who make the toilet paper doll covers 

made of yarn 

 

& the hood musicians who record 

then hustle their mixtape on CDs on the ave. 

 

& the street chefs who make the most bangin’ empanadas 

and tamales that you’ll never find

 

in any restaurant 

& the acrobats who swing their bodies 

 

on an L train pole in the name of showtime. 

& the writers who tag up the walls with their names 

 

so colorfully that you couldn’t ignore them

if you wanted to. 

 

Mami says my talent is being nosy. 

I say my talent is paying attention. 




Roster

 

I know the moment right before

the homeroom teacher

is about to call my name off the roster.

 

A brief silence stings the air

while all the kids with heavy names

sink their bodies into the chair. 

 

My best friend’s name is Lauricia,

which people always wrongly pronounce

Larissa or Laurish-a. 

 

So she just tells people to call her Lala

to avoid the exhaustion that comes

with correcting people. 

 

Lala & I can tell who has a “good” name

by the way they chew their Bubble Yum

mindlessly or scratch the date on the wooden table. 

 

Our mouths do not get the luxury of rest. 

Our mouths must always be war-ready,

which means, sometimes we rip our names

 

from the teacher’s mouth

before she has a chance to kill it,

but other times we wait.

 

After all,

the teacher is human, like us,

but more real.

 

Maybe we wait to see if this time, she will get it right 

or maybe we are waiting to see if our name 

can be held in a mouth that is not our mother’s. 




The Cool Puerto Rican English Teacher


Ms. Rivera looks & talks wild familiar. 

Like she could be my cousin or something.  

 

How funny it would be if 

Ms. Rivera was really just a cousin I didn’t know. 

 

Ms. Rivera could even be me. Yo. Maybe she is me.

The me that finishes school & gets a college degree. 

 

The me that learns how to talk proper and shit. 

The me that owns a car and lives in a good neighborhood.

 

The me that makes mad money, or at least enough 

to make sure we always got food in the fridge. 

 

The me Mami couldn’t be. 

The me Estrella doesn’t want to be.

 

The me that makes it 

for everybody that couldn’t.




How We Got Our Names

Mami’s Job

 

When Ms. Rivera asks me what Mami does for a living 

I don’t know how to make her sound important 

 

enough to mention. 

You know the kids who have parents with good jobs 

 

by the way their hands shoot up

and shake until they’re chosen. 

 

Let’s hear from someone

we haven’t heard from yet.

 

Ms. Rivera scans the room for those of us hiding

our hands, our eyes, our lives.

 

Mami sews people’s clothes, I say. 

A seamstress.

 

Ms. Rivera gives Mami’s job a name 

that sounds valuable. Names can do that, you know. 

 

I shrug. All I know is that she works

in a factory making clothes 

 

& she’ll never know the people who wear them 

and they’ll never know the lady who made them.

Awards

  • SELECTION
    YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
  • SELECTION
    NCSS-CBC Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies
  • SELECTION
    Indie Next
  • SELECTION | 2021
    Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Books
  • SELECTION | 2021
    School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
  • SELECTION | 2021
    Chicago Public Library Best Books

Praise

YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults
Indies Introduce and Next List selection
Kirkus Reviews
Best Books
School Library Journal Best Books
Chicago Public Library Best Teen Fiction
Américas Award Commended Title
ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project selection

In the Margins Book Award Top Ten selection
NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books
The News & Observer Best Books for Kids
Gotham Book Prize finalist

*“A gem for pleasure reading as well as classroom use. . . . Raw, breathtaking, and brilliant.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

*“Exquisite poetry portrays not only anger and fear, but also hope . . . Gripping and soulful, this dynamic debut novel-in-verse is a must for every collection.”—School Library Journal, starred review

*“The candid, clear-eyed poetry contains powerful inquiries about [Sarai’s] diasporic Nuyorican identity and canny observations about the endemic social and racial inequities that surround her. . . . Together, these vignettes capture Sarai’s multilayered, heartbreaking, and hopeful coming of age.”—Horn Book, starred review

“A beautiful story whose deep messages will have lasting effects.”—Booklist

"With verses that are unapologetically fierce and honest, Elisabet Velasquez captures the Brooklyn city streets with a Nuyorican vibe that can’t be duplicated. When We Make it is the perfect coming-of-age tale with rhythmic poetry that is certain to cement Velazquez as an exciting new young adult voice to celebrate."—Lilliam Rivera, Pura Belpré Honor-Winning Author of Never Look Back

"The energy. The clarity. The beauty. Elisabet Velasquez brings it all. And takes me home — to Bushwick in the most resonate and evocative of ways. The writing is clear-eyed, moving and funny. Her voice is FIRE!"—New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson
 
“This is the kind of book that makes you feel seen, the kind you read around the kitchen table to your sisters and friends. It will make you laugh and cry and remind you that you aren’t alone. Elisabet’s book will touch so many people’s lives. It has already touched mine.”—Angie Cruz, author of Dominicana
 
“Velasquez renders the heart in conflict with itself, the swag and bilingual sonic charge of Bushwick, an uncompromising love, and the reality of being a young Puerto Rican woman, using poetry to make sense of conflict and chaos in her relentless search for truth. When We Make It is an unforgettable debut.”—Willie Perdomo, author of The Crazy Bunch

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