Growing up in the small town of Saugus, in California, "Hamilton" star Mandy Gonzalez loved singing and performing, but her dreams of a career on Broadway seemed unimaginable. Her grandmother knew better.
“I used to watch old movies and musicals on TV, looking for names and people that looked like me, but I didn’t have a lot of luck,” she said. “I had a lot of people tell me that no one from my background, no one from my town, ever made it to Broadway. My grandmother always encouraged me anyway. She believed in me.”
Gonzalez went on to star in Broadway hits including “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “In the Heights.”
Now Gonzalez has a new creative venture. Her first novel, “Fearless,” came out Tuesday. Aimed at middle-grade readers, “Fearless” tells the story of a group of young performers who must solve the mystery behind their haunted theater.
A self-described “proud daughter and granddaughter of farm workers,” Gonzalez drew upon her own experiences and inside knowledge of the theater world for “Fearless.” Kirkus Reviews called it “an engaging read” that “will hit all the high notes for theater and mystery fans alike.”“Gonzalez chose the title of her book, in part, to connect it with a social media campaign she created in 2017.
Back then, I had many young people sending me letters and messages about not belonging,” she said. “So I created the 'FearlessSquad' hashtag. I felt like, if you don’t have a place to belong, come be part of my fearless squad. I had no idea that thousands of people all over the world would respond.”
Since then, Gonzalez has released an album and performed live shows with the same title. The song “Fearless” tells the story of how her parents met, when her Mexican American father was serving in Vietnam and her mother became his pen pal.
Gonzalez hopes the message of her book reaches as many young people as possible.
“Being fearless is not about living without fear. It is about feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” she said. “It’s the idea that we just keep on, and that has to come from deep within. For me, that comes from the people I was raised around, like my dad, who said, 'No pares, sigue, sigue,'" [Don’t stop, keep going, going].
"As artists, we have to learn how to adapt to new situations," Gonzalez said about writing and performing. "Plus, it is so important for young people to see themselves, to know that a life in the arts is possible.”
Forging on after a tough year
Despite the obstacles that Latino performers face in the theater, Gonzalez is a Broadway veteran of shows like “Aida,” “Lennon, and “Dance of the Vampires.” In her varied career, she has done everything from singing backup for Bette Midler to appearing in television shows like “Madam Secretary” and “Quantico.”
onzalez starred in “Hamilton” until March 2020, when Broadway shows were suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry shutdown forced Gonzalez to pivot to new ways of finding audiences.
I’ve done virtual concerts; I created a new living for myself because I had to," Gonzalez said. "I did a concert for Asia where, due to the time difference, I was singing "Defying Gravity" at 1 a.m.”
Beyond the pandemic, Gonzalez grappled with other challenges.
"I know this past year was hard for so many people, and mine was too —because I had received a cancer diagnosis,” Gonzalez said. She got the news in the fall of 2019 and underwent surgery and treatment.
Though she is cancer-free, she is an advocate for women, especially Latinas, to get mammograms as early as possible.
"Early diagnosis can save your life," she said. "Latinas are under-represented in research and health-care access, so we often get mammograms when it’s too late.”
"Fearless” is the first in a planned two-book series but it's not her first foray into writing. The acclaimed actress is also known for a widely-cited Harvard Business Review article about how to overcome the fear of public speaking.
Gonzalez is releasing her book at a pivotal time for the publishing world. It has been a little over a year since the controversy around the novel “American Dirt" and issues around representation and authenticity. Now some observers are looking to see whether the industry has diversified its workforce and output.
Strides in Latino-themed books?
Editorial consultant Marcela Landres told NBC News that there are fewer Latino editors on the adult side of publishing now than there were when she began working in publishing in 1996. In her view, adult publishers are putting out more books by Latin American writers and overlooking (U.S.) Latino authors.
On "the positive side, there are more Latinx editors on the children’s side,” Landres wrote by email. “Not coincidentally, the best books by Latinx writers are currently being published by children's book publishers.”
A 2020 report by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that just 5.3 percent of the roughly 3,700 books the Center received from U.S. publishers had at least one primary character who was Latino.
"For many Latinx readers, the first Latinx authors we encounter tend to be assigned reading in college,” Landres noted. “By that age we already have a solid sense of our limitations and opportunities. Latinx children reading more books by Latinx authors might help expand their ambitions and choices.”
Recently, new groups like Las Musas and Latinx In Publishing have advocated for more diverse books for young readers. Last year, a group of authors created “Latinx Pitch for Kid-Lit," an online event to help connect aspiring authors with editors and agents.
Ana Siqueira, author of the forthcoming picture book “Bella’s Recipe for Success,” was part of the group that organized Latinx Pitch for Kid-Lit. “Often, it is hard for people in the industry to understand our culture and the way we write,” she said. “Sometimes they say our stories are too Latinx, and then other times, they are not Latinx enough. They (publishers) typically expect Latinx authors to write about immigration and struggling.”
Siqueira believes that it is important for young readers to see themselves in books. “When kids don’t see themselves in books, it makes them feel left out like they don’t matter, like they can never be a superhero or a princess or a king,” she said. “Books by diverse authors teach all children to respect each other, and help promote empathy and understanding. That’s good for everyone.”
For now, Gonzalez is excited to share “Fearless” with young readers and fans, especially those who are missing live theater. “Broadway will be back,” she said. “It has been hard hearing people say that New York is a ghost town. That hurts, because the arts community is still here. Shows may be stopped, but we are just waiting for the word to return and we will be back stronger than ever.”
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.