‘When We Make It’ review: Elisabet Velasquez crafts an intimate coming-of-age-tale

Elisabet Velasquez crafts an explosive and intimate coming-of-tale in her debut novel, ​​When We Make It. Written in verse, the story takes place in the 1990’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

Thick white text in all caps that reads When We Make It . On the left side, a teenage girl with black hair is crossing her arms. She is wearing a blue tank top and a puerto rican flag bead necklace. Behind her a brickstone building and purple and blue sky.
Dial Books

Told in first person, we meet Sarai, a first generation Nuyorican teenager who is juggling an unstable family life and her own bubbling emotions. She has an older sister called Estrella, a best friend named Lala, and Mami, her temperamental mother. Mami struggles living paycheck to paycheck and the three of them bounce from place to place. As their situation begins to get more serious, Sarai lets the reader get closer and closer into her world, leaning into direct and poetic honesty.     

In the foreword, Velasquez explains that this book is based on her own life growing up in Bushwick. Many of the struggles that the characters face were also her own lived experiences. Some of the subjects within the include: mental illness, neighborhood gentrification, food and home insecurity, and the ways that they all intersect with one another. This is incredibly evident in the text. Emotion and heart spill into each page. As a reader, you can feel how personal this story feels. When We Make It is a letter to the author’s upbringing but also an anchor of relatability to present day teenagers that might be experiencing similar situations. 

“What if making it is saying today is
& it hopes tomorrow is better”
When We Make It

Power in Poetry

One of the most impressive aspects of this book is Velasquez’s ability to convey so many emotions and depth in so little words. Each line of prose is purposeful and intentional. This book has the unique ability to dredge up feelings from the pit of your heart and edges of your mind at the same time. The format is compelling. Its power lies in its genuineness. It is absent of ego, instead full of fire.  

Diaspora Feels

In this book, Sarai also explores her feelings towards Puerto Rico and belonging to the diaspora. Early in the novel, she questions if she can be Puerto Rican if she mixes her English with Spanish, can’t dance salsa, or know its history. This is a running topic throughout the book, culminating in a trip to Puerto Rico. This is a question that many people within diasporas feel. The way that Velazquez navigates it in the book adds another layer of familiarity for first generation readers.

Fans of The Poet X and other books in verse will enjoy this heartfelt story about resilience, identity, and growing up. When We Make It is a unwavering, lyrical portrait of a young girl growing up in the 90’s that current teens (and adults!) will resonate with today.

When We Make It was released on September 21, 2021

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