In Pablo Cartaya’s Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, the titular character goes in search of his Puerto Rican roots. We spoke to Cartaya about cultural identity, growing up, and finding mirrors in diverse characters.

Marcus Vega feels disconnected from Puerto Rico, his father’s home, but doesn’t feel right in Philadelphia either. Can you talk about how you developed his character?

When I was a kid—and well into adulthood—I felt I straddled two identities. I’m Cuban-American, and I grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school; eventually, I mixed both as a form of communicating. But I never felt I was enough of one culture or another. Through Marcus, I wanted to speak to the idea of identity as complicated and often alienating.

Marcus’s immediate and extended family members are incredibly vibrant. Were they based on anyone you know?

Every character has pieces of people I know, including myself. They carry some emotional and personal truth from my own life. I believe that is our great responsibility as writers: to imbue a sense of personal connection to the characters we’re creating. This gives them authenticity and truth.

As Marcus seeks out a greater understanding of his roots, he learns a lot about himself. Can you talk about his journey?

Marcus casts aside his previous self-perceptions and gives himself permission to believe that he is more than he’s given himself credit for. Ultimately, connecting with his Puerto Rican roots fills a void he’s had since his father left him. In the end, it wasn’t his father who he needed to feel whole; it was his culture.

How important is it for kids of all backgrounds to see themselves reflected in literature?

It is as important as breathing air. Stories give us permission to reflect on who we are, to feel seen, and to exhale, knowing we are not alone.