Luis J. Rodríguez’s América is Her Name (1998) tells the story of América Soliz, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico to Pilsen, Illinois—Chicago’s predominantly Mexican community—and her struggles to find her voice and an identity that captures the complexity of who she is. Throughout the text América faces discrimination in the classroom, is witness to the violence in her community, and feels patriarchal oppression in her home. Through poetry, however, she gains a language and agency to challenge and transform her reality. At the beginning of the story, the narrator makes clear that América is having a difficult time feeling like she belongs in her new home in the United States. Pilsen is not like her hometown in Oaxaca. She witnesses gun violence—a shooting between two youth groups—as she walks to school. Her white teachers marginalize her for not speaking English and she also overhears them calling her an “illegal.” While América is not sure what that means or how a person can be illegal she understand they do not want her to belong. At home, América becomes aware of the discrimination her parents face as manual labor workers when her father loses his job and her mother comes home expressing her frustration at being called a “wetback.” The narrator also alludes to the fact that the uncle that lives with them is an alcoholic.
Despite the barrage of oppressions that América is confronted with on a daily basis she is able to find a sense of self and a voice through poetry. Her classroom gets a visit from a Puerto Rican poet, Mr. Aponte, who encourages América to write her story in any form and any language that best represents her. América writes about her Mixteca indigenous culture in Oaxaca and encourages her mother and younger brother to do the same. The most beautiful scene in the book is a representation of América and her mother sitting at the kitchen table as they practice their writing. Illustrator Carlos Vazquez depicts mother and daughter in vibrant colors as their words come alive. It is an empowering moment for América and for the reader. Poetry, and writing in general, is not reserved only for América, who has access to education and the possibility of belonging in the United States, but América also makes is available to her mother. By sharing this practice with her mother, América challenges understandings of who gets to belong, which is an extremely important theme in the book. Furthermore, by making poetry available to her family América attempts to bridge the divide between (im)migrants and their children. América is Her Name is a heartfelt and empowering story that explores issues of what it means to belong in the United States.
*Originally posted on GoodReads and also available on Latin@ in Kids Lit: Exploring the World of Latina/o YA, MG, and Children’s Literature: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/05/08/libros-latinos-america-is-her-name/