Tucked away in the San Gabriel Valley, South El Monte is not a place often featured in literary fiction. But it’s where Carribean Fragoza’s work takes root. The author of the evocative 2021 short story collection Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, Fragoza ’03 has dedicated herself to unearthing the subtleties and concealed narratives of her hometown, channeling them into her distinct brand of surrealistic storytelling. It’s earned her vast critical acclaim — and, last spring, the prestigious Whiting Award, which recognizes emerging talents with a $50,000 grant.

“It felt amazing to be seen so fully and understood without having to make a case for myself in any way,” she said of learning that she had won the honor. “It was just a whole spectrum of emotions, from shock to a little bit of suspicion to utter validation and just joy. It was a beautiful moment.”

Many grants require recipients to apply, with winners having certain restrictions. The Whiting Award, however, is an unfettered grant that honors exceptional new writers based on early accomplishment and the promise of more great work to come. For Fragoza, the accolade is a refreshing affirmation of her work. “Everything that I do — my writing projects, my art projects, my community engagement projects — I do these things out of passion,” she says. “So when I got this phone call, I felt validated in a way that I had never experienced before.”

The award money will not only help Fragoza to support her family, but it will also allow her to dive more deeply into the novel she’s been chipping away at for years. The novel is about a group of bird watchers in a fictionalized version of South El Monte, centered on a mother-daughter relationship and a community fighting to protect its natural landscape. Fragoza’s commitment to her roots transcends her literature: She’s also a founder and co-director of the South El Monte Art Posse, through which she and her fellow creatives champion the narratives of the community through art installations, oral histories and public interventions.  

“I know the money goes to me,” she says. “But when I’m part of a community with other writers and artists, in a way, it’s like an award that we can be proud of together.”


Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.