top of page

[Interview] with Alex Espinoza

by Betty-Jo Tilley


Alex Espinoza’s The Sons of El Rey is an epic family drama set amid the theatrical, sensational world of lucha libre. From its origin in Mexico in the early 1900s to present-day East Los Angeles and Hollywood, Espinoza depicts the always outrageous and often brutal wrestling sport in all its gore and glitter.


The story follows three generations of men, beginning with the grandfather Ernesto Vega (stage name: El Rey Coyote) as he is plucked from poverty and pivoted to stardom as a luchador. With heartbreaking angst and sardonic wit, the dreams of Espinoza’s characters are pitted against their destinies, taboo love defines their deepest secrets, and la lucha represents the eternal struggle—both in and out of the arena—to overthrow the limiting forces that confine us all.

This is a twisted tale of toxic masculinity that shocks and surprises with every macho throwdown, yet it’s the family’s unassuming matriarch who delivers the most stunning and long-lasting blow of all. It’s scary and sexy as fuck, as Espinoza’s seductive prose slaps, bites, and stings at each turn and tumble. You’ll learn about técnicos, rudos, exóticos, minis, mujeres, and more.


If El Rey Coyote doesn’t get you gravitating to masks and spandex or inspire you to jump in the ring and duke it out like a real luchador, you’ll still find yourself hooting and hollering from your ringside seat. The love and understanding you’ll develop of la lucha is bound to linger past the last page. And if you have any fantasies about taking your chinga tu madre to the next level, Espinoza has spiked The Sons of Rey with a battery of the baddest Spanish street slang available in print. Híjole!


Over Zoom, Betty-Jo Tilley and Espinoza discussed the life and career that led to The Sons of El Rey, his new novel to be released in June 2024 by Simon and Schuster.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.


[KELP JOURNAL] Were there signs that the child Alex Espinosa would turn out to be a writer?

[ALEX ESPINOZA] [Laughs] Well, I grew up in a very noisy household where I didn’t have much privacy or space for myself. And I was the youngest of eleven children. And so, my family both pampered me and kind of left me alone. I had a lot of time to just explore my imagination.

Writing and storytelling were a kind of escape from the violence and poverty I saw and experienced around me growing up. They were an opportunity for me to step out of my environment and create alternate worlds.


[KJ] What were some of your first literary influences?

[AE] Particularly in high school, I was reading the canonicals of, you know, very white, European English writers. Like Dickens and Shakespeare. That’s what I thought a writer needed to be.


So, I started off writing these really shitty stories that were almost always in England, that always had moats and cemeteries and fog, not really thinking it was going to lead to anything, except knowing that when I sat down to write, one, my family left me alone, and two, it allowed the world around me to slow down and for me to really interrogate the situation I was in. And I really hated my environment telling me that I needed to get a vocational job, or that I would get into trouble and go to prison.


Plus, I had my disability. I had all this crap going on!


[KJ] When did you begin to see that you could write from your own perspective?

[AE] When I got to community college, I was part of this fantastic statewide program that’s still out there and that I’m still involved with. The Puente Project provided me with a strong foundation of mentorship and writing.

Then it was in an English class—goodness, I was, like, nineteen—where these writers were writing about people I recognized as being like me. And my teacher took me aside and said, You know, you’re actually a really good writer, and you have this way with language and words that others are struggling with, and for you, it’s like breathing.

But I didn’t really connect all that at the time. As a first-generation college student and as the child of immigrants from a very financially strapped, socioeconomically challenged background, you know, I was always made to believe that if I was going to be the one to go to college, I needed to study something that was going to make me money. Because it’s my responsibility to save everybody, right?


So I was like, Well, how am I going to be able to do that? Writing didn’t seem lucrative.

So I ignored it for a long time. I took a detour for a couple of years and was out in the real world, and I realized how horrible it was to be working retail jobs and selling furniture and getting yelled at by customers and not having a degree.


I decided to go back to school, and when I applied to UCR (University of California, Riverside), where I now teach, there was a box that said “choose a major,” and I saw one that said “creative writing.” And I thought, Well, people said I was a good writer. I can’t play an instrument. I’m not athletic. Numerically I’m illiterate. I can barely add or subtract. So it was really that writing was the only thing.


[KJ] How has your writing process developed since you first approached it in earnest?

[AE] I was a little older, in my late twenties, when I went back to school as an undergrad. Back then, my process was just like, All right, I gotta write something for a workshop. So I better sit down and crank something out, right?


I was working at the mall, and I would come home in front of my computer, and it was the only time my house was quiet, and I would write until one or two in the morning, and then I’d wake up, you know, go to class the next day, then to the mall and work from four to, like, ten, and then come home and do the whole thing over and over again. That was kind of my process.


When I went to graduate school, it was a little more like, Okay, now we’ve really committed. But, it was still like I just wrote by the seat of my pants, you know what I mean? Like, I have something to turn in, so I better sit and write it. And it was good discipline because I’m pretty flaky. I procrastinate. I have the attention span of a Chihuahua. It’s hard to pin me down and get me focused on something.


 I still don’t have a real schedule. I’m not one of those people who writes every day. I wish I were. But, when I’m writing and in the zone, I can’t stop. It’s like I become obsessed almost. And those are very concentrated, very long, very intense periods of time.


[KJ] What was the inspiration for your first novel, and how did you come to believe you could tackle the scope of it?

[AE] I was an undergrad at UCR, in an advanced fiction-writing class, and my professor, Susan Straight, said to a bunch of us that everybody wants to write a novel. I was afraid of that word—novel. But I knew I needed to write something bigger for my senior thesis. So, I’m like, How could I create something in digestible little chunks rather than something big?


And I used to go to the botanica near my mom’s house and just browse. You can smell and touch and taste and hear things. And I thought, This is a really cool motif. And like, wouldn’t it be great to have a collection of stories, or you know, little vignettes of people coming in and hearing different things? That’s kind of how it started. And then it grew into this opportunity to explore what happens to the people in those communities that have deep roots, when their neighborhoods are becoming something different, and they no longer feel connected to them.


[KJ] Two very different books followed: a historical fiction novel and a nonfiction book. Tell us how those came into being.

[AE] A couple of things happened that were really interesting. There was this huge piece in the Los Angeles Times about stereotypes in Hollywood and the difficulties of being a Mexican actor and getting typecast—you know, bandito roles—and so on.


In the late 1920s, early ’30s, the film industry was going from silent to talking. Studios were starting to realize Latin America was a big market for them, and they would make two versions of the same movie: one in English and one in Spanish. And I thought success depends on what comes out of your mouth when you open it. So, I thought of this character who can actually speak both English and Spanish and be very charismatic.


And then my third book, Cruising, my nonfiction book was just a sort of happy accident. I had conversations with my editor about the idea of writing a book that looks at the practice of anonymous sexual encounters in public places in the gay community. I’d never written something as comprehensive, but it was fun researching, making sure sources are correct. It taught me a lot.


[KJ] The Sons of El Rey is your biggest project yet. What got you started on it?

[AE] It was a little bit of a joke. Because at the time, there were these very East Coast, Anglo, waspy writers who were straight, white males writing these big books about family. Like about three generations of a blankety-blank family set at the sea. And I thought [laughs], Three generations of a Mexican-American family! What silly trope or cultural touchstone can I throw in here? And I thought, Lucha libre!


It became this kind of a running joke between me and Kyle, my partner. But the more I thought about it, I realized that I could actually do something pretty potent. Like the ways in which the brown immigrant body is constantly being forced to undergo extreme amounts of labor in order to survive, right? And the spectacle of violence that is placed upon that body. And the erotics of violence and fathers and sons.


That’s kind of how the book came about. These three voices—Ernesto, Freddy, and the grandson Julian—and how these characters move through the world, how this tradition has influenced their lives in various ways, and the whole idea of flash, the exaggeration, the drama of it…it’s life.


[KJ] You convey the world of lucha libre in detail, not to mention pig farming and the physiology of the brain! That must have required tremendous research. Do you draft first and then fill in, or do you start with the investigative process and weave it in as you write?

[AE] It’s kind of a little bit of both, actually. I’m not a very athletic person, so I had to learn a lot about takedowns and suicide drops and the kind of kneepads they use…and spandex.

A lot of people downplay wrestling, like it’s not a real sport like boxing, where there’s real contact and people get hurt. In lucha libre, the storylines are developed and exaggerated, but people still get hurt.


If I’ve been stuck on something, then I have to find it and build it, like the pig farmer—that’s taken from my actual life. My father and my grandfather were pig farmers, and in that part of Mexico, in Michoacán, that’s a really big industry. But by the time I was old enough to be able to understand, they weren’t doing that anymore; I had to research that.


I start with the character and the situation, and then, I let that dictate what information I need to find out about this person. It’s moments like that, the opportunity to shade it more, right?

It’s just like real life. When you meet someone, when you first encounter them, it’s all surface. Then, you go to find out more.


[KJ] When did it occur to you to explore memory and photographs and how they serve to reconstruct an event or a person’s life, especially for those who weren’t around when the photo was taken?

[AE] Yeah, yeah, because we’re such a big family, there are two halves. Half of the siblings primarily grew up and remember Mexico. And the other half, myself included, don’t remember that; our knowledge and our points of reference are very US oriented.


Photographs played a very important part in my memory, compiling knowledge of that place I had no reference of. I always kind of wondered, Who would I be if I had grown up there?

Photographs capture a moment. They are the only archive Julian has of this individual who means so much to him, not because he is his grandfather, but because of the decision his grandfather made to leave. And why he leaves had a direct influence on the life of this young man, right?


I was conceived in California, where we were living already, but my mom went back to Tijuana to have me—I don’t know why, and she passed before I could ask.


I think about that: Why would she do that? I mean, I’m now an American citizen, but I could have been the first to be born an American citizen.


You know, there’s so much about my life and my birth, and why she stayed there for two years with me before coming back, but my siblings will never tell me. They don’t remember. Their memories are just as porous.


So the ways in which the photographs in this book tell stories for the characters, they are a direct link to my own personal experience.


[KJ] Your novel is steeped in magic and myth. There are ghosts and legends and the constant conflict of dreams and reality. Throughout, destiny is a powerful force. Do you think we can defy destiny?

[AE] That’s a really good question. I think that we can defy it. The book’s about rewriting your story.


All of the characters, in one way or another, reflect that idea that you have to struggle, to fight—the eternal struggle against those very forces that are trying to control us. To tell us who to be and what to be, right?


One of the principal meditations of this book is the struggling against the prescribed notions that our culture and our economic realities oftentimes place on us. Unfairly, right? And whether we choose to ascribe to those and follow in line, or break it and defy it and chart our own path.

I was born queer, in the closet, disabled, Mexican, and poor. That wasn’t a good life. So I had to actively wrestle with what was being presented to me. And it was a long, hard battle. And I’m still fighting it.


That’s what my characters in this book are doing, and sighting your own path might mean that we are putting ourselves in harm’s way, that we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded, physically and emotionally, and mentally.


But you know, what’s the choice?


[KJ] In one scene, Julian poses as a gardener and plays it out in broken Spanish and English. It becomes a very powerful statement about stereotypes and how ridiculous they are.

[AE] In that instance, again, he’s actively resisting the sort of prescribed notions of whom—and what—his ethnicity is supposed to be based on and how he is supposed to be. And consciously realizing this is stupid, like this is really, really dumb. I’m doing this all for the money, but what is it costing me in the long run? Like my father and my grandfather, I’m making these choices that might seem really lucrative and smart, but over time, they are going to really harm me in ways that I think are irreparable. 


[KJ] There is an undercurrent in the book of the expectations of becoming an educated person and the difficult pragmatic aspect of having to support oneself. What do you hope for emerging writers who struggle to make a living with their craft? And what advice can you give?

[AE] For other people out there who may be limited by their circumstances or by their culture, or by where they live or by their gender, or their sexuality—I hope for them to be able to say, Well, he’s providing me with opportunities to sort of witness these other lives, and I can do that, too.

Tenacity is an important skill, more than even talent, right? Because I know plenty of very fantastic writers who could write me out of the water. But they didn’t have the dedication, the drive, the commitment to sit and write and just kind of let it happen.


Trying to break into being a professional writer or getting a job in an institution, you have to be willing to give the vocation the time and the energy it deserves and to go to great lengths in order to find your way.


When I sold my book, I signed this contract, and I was like, I got all this money, but I still can’t go to the dentist and get my teeth fixed. I gotta have insurance. So that means, I guess, a teaching job. And I applied everywhere. A bunch of different really cold and really faraway places. I never thought about more than “I need a job. I need to provide.”


I ended up taking a university job. It was a little uncertain and funky. I was there for a while. Then lo and behold, I had this opportunity, this position I’m really fortunate to have.


I guess, for those people who want to be academics and be writers, you have to be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to say yes to that job in Fairbanks, Alaska.


My whole experience has been like, Okay, you gotta do this. And then me saying, No, I don’t. I can do something else. I can. Just let me try it.


[KJ] The ailing grandfather in your book begs his kids not to let him go, because he has more stories to tell. And I imagine as a writer, you’ve also got a lot more to say.

[AE] [Laughs]

[KJ] What’s next?

[AE] The book I’m working on now, I’ve got about fifty pages. I’ll give you a vague idea: It’s four characters, strangers to each other. It’s a drug addict, a Pentecostal preacher, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a mother of two. They experience an event of epic proportions and suddenly question their own realities in different ways and have to come together and figure out what’s happening to them.


It’s a book that looks at the notion of collective grief. The process of grieving we oftentimes associate with a very personal act. But this book will look at grief as a very collective act. And the ways in which we’re all connected to each other. This idea that a loss of one life, a stranger’s life halfway around the world, can have a direct impact on us, here and now.


So that gives you an idea of what the book looks at. Now I just have to write the rest of it.

[Laughs] I’ve got the idea anyway!


Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, came to the United States with his family at the age of two, and was raised in eastside suburban Los Angeles. He is a writer of diverse talent and work. His critically acclaimed fiction debut, Still Water Saints, was followed by a historical fiction novel, The Five Acts of Diego León. In his nonfiction Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, Espinoza combined research with memoir. He has earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell, an artist residency program.

His short story “Detainment” was selected for the Best American Mystery and Suspense series, 2022 edition. His essays have been published in the New York Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and his critical work has appeared in the LA Times, the American Book Review, and NPR. Espinoza received an MFA in writing from the University of California, Irvine. He teaches at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of California, Riverside, where he is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair and Professor of Creative Writing.

Betty-Jo Tilley is a Los Angeles–based writer and fifth-generation Californian. When she was a child, her father told her about the cockfights, wrestling and boxing matches of his hometown Boyle Heights and Montebello neighborhoods. Today, she is more inclined toward gold lamé and spandex than the ring. She received an MFA in creative writing, fiction, in June 2023 from UCR’s low-residency program, where she studied with Alex Espinoza. Her critical writing and interviews have appeared in The Coachella Review, and her flash fiction in Scavengers Literary Journal. She is also an essayist and is working on her novel, a marital noir. This is her first interview for Kelp Journal.



bottom of page