My cover design for Cinco Puntos Press / Lee & Low Books and Yasmín Ramírez's first book, ¡Ándale, Prieta!. It's a GREAT story BUT, what may be an equally amazing story is the one that transpired as I was designing this...
Whenever I am tasked with designing a book cover, the first thing I do is read the book. It only took me about two nights to finish this one. I was really touched by it and identified with its main character very much. It is a memoir of growing up in El Paso in the 1980s. The author’s single mother worked the night shift on the international bridge to Juárez, Mexico and had to sleep during the day. As such, the daughter (who is the author/narrator) was pretty much raised by her grandmother, who she calls "Ita". The book details Ita’s strength and perseverance. She provided a loving home for her granddaughter despite her own difficult life of poverty, having been a victim of domestic violence, and a breast cancer survivor.
The book is very descriptive and lists certain details extremely vividly. One such passage details the fact the grandmother’s house was on California Avenue in El Paso. The author describes it as having 25 steps leading from the sidewalk to the front door that she would count when climbing them as a young girl, the yard has landscaping gravel, not grass, and an old wooden screen door. As I read this I thought to myself that I know somewhat where this street is! My daughter’s school is just 2 blocks from California Avenue.
The next day, I had an appointment that I realized just so happened would take me right past California Avenue. The appointment was at a credit union in regards to settling part of my mother’s estate. Side note: My 81-year old mother passed away on November 7, 2020. Her death was not COVID related, however it was sudden. She died in the ICU of a hospital here in El Paso and my 4 siblings and I had to say our goodbyes to her via Zoom due to the COVID visiting restrictions in place. I do not think I will ever get over the fact I could not be physically with my mother that day or hold her hand and hug her when I needed to the most.
I decided to leave a bit early for my appointment that day so that I would have time to drive down California Avenue and look at the houses along the street. I wondered if the house described in the book was actually real, or maybe I could find one that matches the description somewhat, take some photos, and mock-up a cover idea from that. As I turned onto the very long street (about 16 blocks long). I saw that on one side of the street, ALL the homes had many steps leading from the sidewalk to the front door. Also, the majority of them had landscaping gravel, which is typical of the water-wise xeriscaping here in the Chihuahuan Desert. As I was driving, one house simply made me stop the car. It was perfect. The homes are pretty much identical, charming 1930s bungalows, but this one just spoke to me. It was very original while others had been updated in various ways like windows replaced, or new front doors. This one was a bit rundown—peeling paint, a bit of rotted wood trim, but it enchanted me. I lowered the window of the passenger side of my car to take a pic with my phone so I could run the idea past my publisher.
That evening, I contacted a friend, Iris Morales who has a gorgeous young daughter with a dark complexion and long, black hair. I wondered if she could loan me her child for a photo shoot that weekend. I envisioned a cover with her daughter as the “Prieta” in the title walking up those stairs, or perhaps another idea of a cover with the elderly hands of a grandmother braiding this little girl’s hair. I was excited that my friend was more than happy to oblige and even offered me her 70-year old mother-in-law for the elderly hands. With all that set, I figured I need to get permission from this homeowner—I couldn’t just show up on this random person’s front steps and start taking pictures!
The next day, I had an appointment again at the same credit union to sign more paperwork. So, I was conveniently driving by California Avenue once more. I turned into the street and parked along the curb in front of the home, put on my mask, and started to climb its many stairs. As I was getting to the top, I counted 23, 24, 25…huh, it has the EXACT number of steps as the home described in the book. I had brought one of my official business cards from UTEP with me so that the “Associate Professor of Art, Graphic Design” title on it would make me appear more legit and my request less crazy to whomever answered this door. I wondered if, due to COVID, anyone would even respond to an unexpected stranger’s knock.
Soon, a gentleman’s voice came from behind the door asking me who I was. I told him my name and slipped my business card into the crack between the screen and its wood. He apologized and told me he had just gotten out of the shower. I apologized for the inconvenience and explained what I needed and how it really struck me how perfect his home was, how it almost precisely matched the description of the home in this book I was reading. That we would not need to come inside at all, just be down his stairs for a quick photo shoot and be gone in around 30 minutes. He was very friendly, said no problem (a response perhaps weird to people elsewhere in the U.S., but typical of El Pasoans), he saw my last name on my business card and jokingly said, “Italian! When’s dinner?!” and asked if I was married, perhaps also typical of El Pasoans.
I told him yes and then went on to explain the book was by a local author, a young woman who grew up in El Paso and was raised by her grandmother, that it was going to be published by Cinco Puntos Press sometime this year. He then went on to tell me that his niece was a writer. And then it HIT ME—at the exact same time the words “Her name is Yasmín Ramírez” left his lips I knew this was not just a perfect house, it was THE ACTUAL HOUSE of the book!!! This was HIS MOTHER’S HOUSE and when she passed away, now he lives here. His mother was Ita and he is the Tío, the author’s uncle, OF COURSE, a character also in the book! I instantly told him I feel like I know him already, his family, and especially his strong, amazing mother, Yasmín’s Ita. I told him she reminded me so much of my own mother who recently passed away and he offered his condolences and then told me he still misses his mother every day.
It was at that point that I started sobbing on a random front porch in front of this perfect stranger, who yet was really not a stranger at all. I was really overcome! How, out of all these homes, was I pulled to this one!? Kismet, Serendipity, and My Mom and Ita looking down on us laughing—did they both use their magnets to pull me here? 16 blocks of pretty much identical homes and I chose this one?!
I said my thanks and goodbyes to Tío and went off, still stunned, to my appointment. I was bursting and even felt compelled to tell the story to the guy at the credit union who started crying and said I gave him goosebumps! As we finalized the closing of my mother’s accounts, we both agreed that my mom was continuing to send me gifts.
When I was done there, I just HAD to call my publisher, Lee Merrill Byrd. She was amazed by it all and put me in touch with the author via text. Up to that point, I had never even spoken with Yasmín Ramírez. When she called me, I told her the story and we both cried and laughed and decided it was simply predestined, I was meant to be the designer for her book.
Love, loss, the twenty-five steps and memories in between that get us from here to there...
This cover design earned an Honorable Mention / Runner-Up designation in Creative Quarterly 66