music in the park san jose

.Carolina Ixta’s Debut Novel Rooted in Oakland Realness

Author's debut young adult novel, 'Shut Up, This Is Serious,' is set in East Oakland

music in the park san jose

When Carolina Ixta was a kid, she’d go get haircuts with her mom and sister at a salon in Fruitvale, at 31st and International. Her mom’s highlights would take hours and the sisters would get bored, so they’d go grab food at the Wendy’s down the street, then pick up fruit from a frutero to bring back for everyone to eat at the salon.

Details like this, little memories from childhood, are woven into Shut Up, This Is Serious, Ixta’s debut young adult novel. The book centers on Belén Dolores Itzel del Toro, a young woman trying to get through her senior year of high school in Fruitvale. Belén is dealing with a pile-up of messy, real problems. Her Catholic best friend Leti is pregnant, her mom hasn’t been the same since her dad left and she’s expected to trot out all her traumas for college applications that she doesn’t even want to submit in the first place. As the book jacket says, “Things are hella complicated.”

The world of Shut Up, This Is Serious is populated by the specific landscapes of Ixta’s childhood in Oakland, transformed and refigured to tell Belén and Leti’s story. The Wendy’s is there, and the frutero next to Bank of America, and the salon where Belén goes to help her sister, a stylist, sweep up hair.

“What folks would consider a passing and unimportant memory ended up laying the foundations for the book,” Ixta says. “This is a real place. That Wendy’s, that’s real. That street, that’s real. That’s my grandparents’ house. And that’s how I envisioned the whole book.”

While writing Shut Up, This Is Serious, Ixta was very aware she was creating a new kind of Oakland story. She’d never seen a book about Mexican people and a young Latina girl set in Fruitvale—until she created it.

“When I wrote for young people, I wanted to write a book that said: There’s nothing wrong with where you are from, despite the narratives that are pushed,” she says. 

Ixta’s family emigrated from Mexico and ended up in Fruitvale by accident. “My grandfather was supposed to get off a bus in L.A., and literally overslept. And that’s how we ended up in Oakland,” Ixta says. “I’m grateful every day.”

When she got stuck writing a scene, Ixta would drive through Oakland’s neighborhoods, reminding herself of the colors and textures of the city.

“I wanted to make sure the book depicted Oakland realistically, but also in a way that’s very beautiful,” Ixta says. The Oakland of Shut Up, This Is Serious isn’t perfect—Ixta writes frankly about the street harassment Belén experiences, and anti-Black racism within the Mexican community.

“But I also wanted Belén to talk about the beauty of it,” she says. “Seeing street vendors on the corners, seeing people who looked like her around her, and seeing the Black community there as folks who embrace her and bring her in—because that was my experience.”

Through Belén’s lens, readers are invited to navigate the complexities of identity, family dynamics and societal expectations in a way that feels both universal and distinctly Oakland. Ixta weaves in little Easter eggs about the East Bay, and local readers have noticed. 

Since the book was released, Ixta has received messages from readers who were delighted to see their own neighborhoods in the story—like a woman who was listening to the audiobook as she drove to work, and realized she was driving down the same street that Belén and Leti were walking down in the novel. Another reader got to a passage about a key conversation that goes down while the characters idle at a long red light near Lake Merritt, and immediately knew which stoplight Ixta was thinking of.

“Small details like that, that I didn’t think twice about—they really impacted some local readers,” Ixta says. 

Ixta’s work in education was another major influence on the novel; she received her master’s in education from UC Berkeley, and is currently an elementary school teacher.

Ixta credits her students with inspiring her to write a book for young people. Reading books out loud to her fifth-grade students was a crash course in how to hook young readers and keep their attention. And, it reminded Ixta that she really loves novels.

“I’m a very studious person, but I forgot the fun of reading a book,” Ixta says. “Teaching fifth grade reintroduced me to the fun of reading literature for young people. I don’t think I would have written YA had I not taught fifth grade.”

Ixta’s blend of genre influences comes through in her novel. She invites a literary fiction sensibility around closure and catharsis into Shut Up, This Is Serious—not every thread has to be tied up neatly, especially the storylines about the big, systemic problems Belén and her friends are handling. 

“I love YA a lot, but I also love literary fiction, and I wanted this book to reconcile the two,” Ixta says. “In YA, what I always hated was getting to the end and everything is magically fixed. That’s not real. These problems are not going to be fixed overnight. In fact, the hardest thing to swallow is they may not be fixed at all.”

During grad school, Ixta studied Glenn Singleton’s principles of promoting authentic dialogue about race: Stay engaged, expect to experience discomfort, speak your truth and, vitally, expect and accept a lack of closure.

That work informed how Ixta wanted to authentically portray the conflicts about race and class in her novel. Not every conversation goes well; not everything turns out exactly how we might wish it to in a perfect happily ever after. “When I wrote the ending, I did provide some closure to some wounds that I had opened, because I can’t leave it on too heavy of a note,” Ixta says. “But I also don’t want to leave it on an unrealistic note.” 

Shut Up, This Is Serious doesn’t leave its readers hanging—the journey of Belén and her friends feels satisfying and complete. However, there are no easy answers or trite moral lessons. “It’s a messy, messy plot—a lot of heartbreak and a lot of grief,” Ixta says. “I wanted the characters to sit really deeply in what they were going through. 

“It feels almost diagnostic to say, ‘Here’s the problem on page one. It is fixed by page 350,’” Ixta continues. “That’s not how life is. Life is: The problem is on page one, and perhaps the problem will follow you through all of the volumes of your life. It’s just about the way that you nurture it and feed it.”

Now that Shut Up, This Is Serious is out in the world, Ixta has been able to bring it to the Bay Area high schoolers who she hopes it will resonate with.

“The school visits have been the best because it’s really good to see how the book affects real-life teenagers,” Ixta says. At her high school visits, girls approached her with questions about patriarchal fathers, new boyfriends or getting in trouble for “talking back” like Belén. “It was a really beautiful moment to be able to take the book and hear how it connected specifically to young women, and what it provoked in them.”

Ixta did a particularly special reading at San Leandro High, her alma mater. Afterward, the students sent her a card full of handwritten notes. One note read: “Thank you for giving us another universe to believe in.”

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