When your father is Puerto Rican boxer José “Cheo” Fernandez, you learn to box. Christina Fernandez-Morrow threw punches and learned how to dodge the training pads her father swung her way. She learned along side her brothers and their friends in their Chicago neighborhood but it was Christina and her sister who outlasted all the boys.
In her currently unnamed Young Adult novel, the main character Zulima Diaz, Zuli, lives in a rough area of Chicago with her mother. It’s clear that Zuli does much of the caretaking. Zuli makes grocery lists, and makes decisions about which one or two items they might afford that week. While she eats mayonnaise sandwiches, she cleans up her mother’s messes from the night before– messes that include drug paraphernalia and sexual encounters.
Zuli is angry about her situation. She fights in school and has been suspended more than once. Is it synchronicity when Zuli keeps seeing the same poster – an open call for a mixed martial arts reality show– throughout the city? If she were to win, the prize money and scholarship possibilities would give Zuli a future she never thought she could achieve. Zuli gets onto the show and trains for the grueling and often violent mix of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, and other unarmed combat sports.
Christina’s own boxing training lay dormant for many years while she pursued a college degree. Even though she liked creative writing, she knew that a business degree meant financial stability and as the oldest in her family she was the role model for her younger siblings. After college she married and started a family. She worked in corporate marketing for her day job and often helped other Latina writers market their work. She was thrilled that someone was writing about the Latina experience in the US. Along the way, she wrote the Iowa Latina Lifestyle section for Examiner.com. When she took writing classes, she wrote about teen characters. She made photo books for her foster children that included their creative writing. Her husband saw her as a writer, but that’s not how she saw her self. She was a business major and business majors went on to get MBA’s. However, when she entered a five-minute fiction writing contest, and her winning entry was published in Juice Magazine, she applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In 2012, Christina’s husband died unexpectedly and his funeral coincided with her acceptance to VCFA. Would she go? Could she leave her daughter to further her writing career? She had to. Her husband had been the one person who saw her passion and calling.
The emotional pain of his death was overwhelming and, to help with her grief, she turned to writing. After a few semesters, she realized she missed boxing and found a trainer to help get in shape through boxing. The return to training was difficult. Still, the physical pain was easier to handle than the emotional pain of her loss.
“I could put physical pain into words, something I couldn’t do with what I felt inside. Writing about sore muscles, swollen knuckles, bloody noses and broken ribs became therapeutic for me, as was stepping out of my reality and into one that I could control.”
Soon, Zuli’s character came to her. Growing up in Humboldt Park, in Chicago, Christina had known girls like Zuli and families who faced similar challenges. As Christina faced her own training, she was researching Zuli’s.
Five minutes in the caged octagon might not seem like a lot but Zuli had to have amazing endurance. When Christina jumped with a leather rope for 15 minutes she knew what was like to have legs like cinder blocks. She studied videos of MMA training and read memoirs of women fighters. She learned about the fast, often bloody sport that had so few limitations its practitioners felt glory in just getting through. Her character, Zuli, wasn’t the only one who turned to combat sports when things were rough. Many of the real girls and women that Christina learned about were abandoned or neglected. They were scrappy fighters like Zuli whose anger and pain got them into trouble until they got into the cage.
Christina found that many fighters went on to college, that there was a movement to make MMA a college sport, that as a recognized collegiate sport there would be scholarships. She knew then, that MMA was Zuli’s way out of her bad situation and into a better future.
Christina Fernadez-Morrow was saluted as a Next Generation Latina at Latina.com in 2012 and featured in the Des Moines Register's article, 13 People to Watch in 2013. With a finished manuscript and a newly minted MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Christina Fernadez-Morrow is looking for the right agent. She wants to get Zuli’s story into the hands of girls everywhere. Christina’s writing and boxing training makes her specially qualified for the grueling road ahead.