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Exit Interview: Why author Rogelio Juarez left Phoenix for New York

The Show series Exit Interview that takes a critical look at Phoenix and asks why so many influential people have decided to leave.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine: Rogelio Juarez.

“I grew up in a Mexican American family in Chandler,” Juarez said. “Went to Chandler high, just like my aunts and my mom and her parents.”

Juarez is a writer. He just defended his master’s thesis in fine arts at Cornell University as part of its creative writing program — one of the best in the country. He’s looking to publish his first novel next year.

Usually you don’t interview friends of yours as a journalist, but having known him for years — and having watched him leave with my best friend (his wife) and my godson (his firstborn) — I thought he fit the bill for this series perfectly.

What does he miss most?

“I do love my family a lot,” he said, “but I love tacos almost as much. I definitely miss the food. Shout out to Elmer's Tacos in Chandler.”

And, while he’s talking to me from upstate New York, his writing is steeped in Phoenix. He read an excerpt from his short story “Carmelo,” about a Mexican American kid from Arizona who leaves home to join the ranks of the so-called parkies.

Juarez wants to be an Arizona writer whose writing speaks to the truths — the sometimes hard truths — about this place he is from. But, how does he do that from New York?

“For me, I almost never want to write a story that’s outside of Arizona. I think the specificness is actually a strength. I think that is where the power comes from. It's not trying to guess, you know, what's this universal experience? Or what do other people expect of an Arizona story? It's really just trying to tell the truth about what I love here and the people that I love,” he said.

Like a lot of people who are from here, Juarez grew up alongside Phoenix. He came of age as the city did.

“I remember maybe I was 17 or 18, and that's the first time I went to downtown Phoenix on my own, as an adult,” Juarez said. “And I remember the moment I crossed Central Avenue. It was like this whole other world sort of opened up. And it's like wow, this place is actually pretty cool and strange and weird — feeling the energy part of it sort of coupled with being a dumb, excited 18-year old. It seemed like that was the perfect pairing for Phoenix.”

But, also like a lot of people who are from here, he had to leave to realize what he was missing. For him, that chance first came in college — when he went to post-Katrina New Orleans as an Americorps volunteer.

“I guess what drew me back [to Phoenix] was family,” he said. “I was broke as well. So that pulled me back. And when I came back to Phoenix, I did kind of see it with new eyes.”

Back in Phoenix, Juarez finished his degree in political science from Arizona State University. He considered going into politics or maybe becoming a lawyer, but he felt the call to write. And his Arizona-shaped identity played a big role in that.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.