Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Person of the Week

Lifetime of Experiences Come Together in Maria Rivera’s First Novel

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East Haven resident Maria Rivera recently published her first novel, Chasing the Wind, inspired by her experiences growing up in Washington Heights, her family, and mission trips with Hope Christian Church in North Haven. Photo courtesy of Maria Rivera

East Haven resident Maria Rivera recently published her first novel, Chasing the Wind, inspired by her experiences growing up in Washington Heights, her family, and mission trips with Hope Christian Church in North Haven. (Photo courtesy of Maria Rivera)

Even though Maria Rivera has always loved reading and writing—she has now been teaching English for more than 25 years—it wasn’t until this year that she finally shared her own writing with the world. With the encouragement of her daughter, who is also a writer, Maria wrote and self-published her first novel, Chasing the Wind.

“All my life, I’ve kept notes and had ideas and finally, my daughter [Amanda Wilmot] said, “Mom, you have do something,’ and she walked me through the process,” says Maria, who has lived in East Haven with her husband Paul for the past 13 years. “I’d been sitting on this story for two years and did a ton of research, but I didn’t start to write until Jan. 1 and finished it in May. I had a ball writing it.”

According to amazon.com where the novel is available digitally and in paperback, in Chasing the Wind, “Marisol Colucci is an undocumented young woman living in New York City. Facing deportation, she is willing to go to any lengths to stay in the country. Felipe Ortega is an ob-gyn working at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. After a death in the family, he is given an ultimatum to get his inheritance: Get married or lose the inheritance. When he moves in next door to Marisol and learns her secret, he sees an opportunity for the both of them to get what they want. What starts as a marriage of convenience turns into something neither one of them expects.”

Write What You Know

Maria grew up in Washington Heights, where the story is set. She not only drew on some of her own experiences with her own family—the scene in which Marisol has a baby is largely based on Maria’s daughter’s birth and her doctor during delivery—but on the stories of those she knew, as well.

Maria recalled that one of her mother’s friends was an undocumented immigrant and requested to interview her about her experiences. Maria combined that information with research on immigration to craft Marisol’s story.

As an active member of Hope Christian Church in North Haven, Maria and her husband have participated in several mission trips, which also served as inspiration for Maria’s book. The group, which collaborated on the trips with a church in Boston, first traveled to an orphanage in Bolivia where they worked with the children.

In summer 2018, Maria went on her second mission trip, this time to an orphanage in Honduras. With a growing need for more space, the group helped work on a new building in the mornings, mixing cement or installing rebar. After lunch, they would head into the mountains.

“We went to the villages, brought them food, prayed with them, and played with their kids,” says Maria. “They live in huts in places where the floor is dirt, but they welcome you in. It was an amazing experience. I left my heart in Honduras. We came back and I started feeling the need to write, to do something and create a story.”

In the book, Marisol is from Honduras. There are also nods to Maria’s Cuban roots as both of her parents were born in Cuba. Maria’s parents currently live in Florida, where Maria lived for 30 years, starting in middle school, though they are hoping to relocate to Connecticut to be closer to their daughter.

Maria was born in California and soon after her family moved to Washington Heights in New York City where they spent 12 years before moving to Florida. After high school, Maria got her associates degree and worked in television production as she and her first husband began their family.

“Working in TV was getting harder and the hours were getting longer and, when I was pregnant with Michael, I began to show signs of miscarriage and the doctor said I had to stop,” says Maria. “My dad then suggested I go back to school to finish what I started with my two-year degree from a community college.”

Finding a New Path

With a lifelong love of reading and writing, Maria studied English with a minor in criminal justice as she raised her three children, Amanda (Fernandez) Wilmot, Michael Fernandez, and Eric Fernandez. When it came time to complete an internship, Maria had said she wanted to work with young people and was placed with an English teacher at a school for juvenile offenders.

“I loved working with the kids and helping them become better versions of themselves,” says Maria. “At the end of the year, the teacher I was working with got promotion and I was asked to stay.”

Maria worked there for three years while getting her master’s degree in education. She then worked at a magnet school for four years and then moved on to a high school position for seven years. Her two sons attended the high school where she taught and she says “it was a great experience for the three of us.”

After her sons graduated, her daughter had moved to New York to attend New York Film Academy. In 2008, Maria and her husband decided to move north to be closer to Amanda, who has since married and moved to Illinois where she and her husband are raising Maria’s grandson. The couple settled in Connecticut and have made a home for themselves in East Haven, just minutes away from their church.

Maria enjoys being close to New York and often visits her childhood neighborhood of Washington Heights, which is also the setting for the movie In the Heights—Maria loved seeing her neighborhood on the big screen. Though she loves visiting, Maria also loves her new neighborhood.

“Washington Heights is a wonderful, family-oriented neighborhood and you feel it the second you get off the train,” says Maria. “We love the town of East Haven—we have amazing neighbors and a great block and we love our house. Hope Christian Church is a small church, but it’s growing. Its slogan is ‘Real people, real hope, real life’ and we’re all about helping people. It’s been a staple in my life.”

In addition to participating in mission trips, Maria has been involved in other community service projects at her church. One of her favorite projects is the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree, which “equips churches to strengthen relationships between incarcerated parents and their children and support the families of prisoners year-round,” according to PrisonFellowship.org.

Maria also taught at North Haven High School for five years. She currently teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English and film at Fairchild Wheeler Magnet School’s Information, Technologies & Software Engineering campus in Bridgeport.

“It’s an amazing place of innovation,” says Maria, who also teaches creative writing for adults at night. “Teaching my creative writing class was my final nudge to get myself writing so that I had an answer when students asked what I had done. I tell all my students that it’s hard to share your writing, but now I can say I’ve been through this process and can help them through it as well.”

With her already-busy schedule, many people have asked Maria how she found time to write a book. Her husband is a pharmacy technician and he worked nearly every weekend from January when Maria started writing through March.

“Every second I had spare time, I wrote and when I finally saw the real book in print, it was surreal,” says Maria, who also enjoys sewing. “I also have an amazing support system with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’ve had colleagues who have bought the book and asked me to sign it.”

Maria is hoping to get her book into libraries and bookstores. As a teacher, Maria is looking forward to having more time in the summer. She plans to travel to see her parents in Florida, her son in California, and her daughter in Illinois. She will also use all of the time she can find to work on a follow-up to Chasing the Wind, which she hopes to release in 2022.

“While this book is more of a comedy, the next book will be a little darker as human trafficking will be one of the subjects,” says Maria, who supports love146.org, which journeys alongside children affected by trafficking today and prevents the trafficking of children tomorrow. “There will be a lot of writing and I bring my computer with me everywhere I go.”


Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .

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