Life-Changing Teachers: On Juan Felipe Herrera’s Reading in Chicago

The notes from his harmonica carried us from poem to poem as he recounted stories of his childhood and brought us to the present and the tragic realities of Ayotzinapa and Sandy Hook. On October 7th, 2015 Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino US Poet Laureate, read from his most recent book of poems, Notes on the Assemblage, at the historical Herald Washington Library in Chicago.  The event hosted by the Poetry Foundation, and cosponsored with the Library of Congress and the Chicago Public Library, created an intimate setting from which to enjoy Herrera’s humble and quirky personality. I sat front row center with his newest book in one hand and a notebook in another ready to soak up his brilliance. I was invited to the event as a guest of Irasema Gonzalez, Development & Communications Director at ElevArte Community Studio[1] in Pilsen Chicago. ElevArte partnered with the Poetry Foundation to bring, create, and share poetry with at-promise youth[2] in Chicago, and I am currently their poetry Teaching Artist. I had met Herrera once before when he taught at the University of California Riverside and am familiar with his work because I wrote about his children’s illustrated books in my dissertation. Nevertheless, I was excited to meet him as the US Poet Laureate. Herrera walked onto the stage in a yellow button up shirt and was greeted with a standing ovation. He brought his harmonica to his mouth and greeted us back.

After briefly speaking about his upbringing as a migrant farm worker, Herrera read “Border Bus,” a poem in Spanish and English about two (im)migrant women being transported to/from a detention center. The poem switches from Spanish to English and back as the women converse about their situation. I found it powerful to hear Herrera recite poetry in Spanish and speak to the perils (im)migrants face when they journey north and those they may experience in detention centers. I was overwhelmed by a great sense of pride at hearing Herrera read this poem in particular. I’ve never been an avid follower of any US Poet Laureate until Herrera. I had a similar feeling when Sonia Sotomayor was appointment to the Supreme Court. When I was younger, I wanted to be judge, and I still want to be a writer. It’s empowering and amazing to see Latinos hold these prestigious positions.

JFH_2After his reading, Herrera answered a few questions about his inspirations for becoming a writer and about his desire to make poetry available to everyone. During the brief Q & A, he mentioned the teachers that pushed him to speak up. He spoke about Mrs. Sampson, whom he also wrote about in his children’s illustrated text The Upside Down Boy, and how she helped him find his voice. Mrs. Sampson was present at Herrera’s US Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony. He also spoke about Mr. Schuster (spelling might be incorrect), his 7th grade music teacher, whom Herrera had lied to about his ethnic identity saying that he was Hawaiian. Herrera explained that he didn’t know what to say when Mr. Schuster asked him what he was anyway; he panicked and responded with a lie. Herrera closed the event by reading and dedicating the poem “Half-Mexican” to Mr. Schuster. “Half-Mexican” captures the complex and rich histories that congregate when using Mexican as a marker of identity: “You are Mexican./ One half Mexican the other half/ Mexican, then the half against itself” (87).

It was truly a great evening with the Poet Laureate. The moments that stuck with me the most, though, are those when he talked about the impact his teachers had on him. Herrera said that teachers like Mrs. Sampson and Mr. Schuster “shook him” and “pushed him” forward.  I think back and teachers like Mrs. Roethke, my Spanish high school teacher, and Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez, my Latina/o studies professor in college, propelled me to pursue higher education and find my voice. Teachers like these are significant not only because of the impact they have on young minds, but also because they challenge dominant narratives that tell young students of color that they do not belong. Herrera mentioned that speaking Spanish was still punishable in classrooms when he was going to school. When I was younger, “undocumented and unafraid” did not have the same momentum it has now. Today, there are several reasons that make it difficult for students of color to feel safe, encouraged, and whole in US classrooms. The discrimination that students of color face in classrooms is another testament to how amazing it is to have someone like Juan Felipe Herrera as the US Poet Laureate.

JFH_3In general, the “life-changing teacher” is a common character in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. Herrera’s own The Upside Down presents Mrs. Sampson as a character that helps little Juanito settle into his new school and encourages him to sing in front of the class. Ms. Diaz, in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, has an active role in helping the lead protagonists come to terms with their inner struggles. In René Colato Laínez’s Waiting for Papá, Miss Parrales encourages Beto to share his story of being separated from his father because of existing immigration policies. In Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name, Mr. Aponte teaches América to use poetry as tool for healing. Ms. Abernard, in Isabel Quintero’sGabi, A Girl in Pieces insists that Gabi keep writing and sharing her poetry. And then you have the characters that serve as a “teacher figure.” The abuelita in Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl and the abuelita in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman teach their granddaughters about the power and strength of plants, herbs, and nature. The abuelita in Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano teaches young Evelyn to have pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. And then there are the adults that serve as mentors like Sonia, the lawyer that the young characters in Gloria Velasquez’s “The Roosevelt High” series often turn to for help.

There are definitely more examples of teachers, in the broad sense of the word, throughout Latina/o children’s and young adult literature. These teacher characters often stand in opposition to dominant narratives that seek to oppress the young characters. Furthermore, these teachers serve as role models and mentors that filter, translate, and transform the world for and with the main characters. In other words, these teacher figures show and remind the main characters that their possibilities are not limited by what society dictates. It is important to note that these teacher characters are not always adults but can be the main characters’ friends, siblings, or it can even be a book or an art form.

I felt a bit like I was a part of some history in the making simply by sitting in that auditorium and listening to Juan Felipe Herrera perform. And by the end of the event after listening to him talk about the teachers that pushed him to find and use his voice, I couldn’t help but think that Herrera is now the nation’s poetry teacher and that he will shake us and push us to write, speak, share, change, and love.


[1] ElevArte is a community-based organization which uses the arts as a portal for creative youth development. The organization offers a range of programs including youth led projects like the “We Are Hip-Hop” Festival designed to give young adults an opportunity to be active community leaders and organizers. They also offer in-class programs like “Art of Change” which focuses on teaching science through the arts to elementary and middle grade students. They offer after-school activities like sewing and stitching. They also organize and offer many community events like their annual Pozolada fundraiser. For more information on ElevArte visit their website at and follow them on twitter @ElevarteStudio.

[2] At-promise youth is a term used by ElevArte as a way to challenge negative language like “at-risk” that sees what youth lack rather than their potential. ElevArte seeks to create a space where youth are encouraged and empowered throughout every aspect of their engagement with one another.


*First posted on Latin@s in Kid Lit blog:

“I’m okay”: Resilience & Depression in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks

I’m guilty of always saying “I’m okay,” even when I know I am not. Often times, it seems easier to lie than to explain the depths of what hurts. It also seems more appropriate to suck it up than to admit I’m not as strong as I appear. Saying “I’m okay” when I am not is also a way to mask the shame I feel for feeling depressed when I know others have it worse. As Cindy L. Rodriguez explains in her blog post, “Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community,” depression is often associated with trauma and feeling depressed because you’re simply depressed rarely seems like a good enough reason. While causes and effects of depression vary tremendously, I have found that the stereotypes about depression are consistent. The stigma alone associated with depression has made it difficult for folks to speak openly about the issue. Because of this I wasn’t surprised that depression, including suicide attempts and suicide, isn’t a topic that is directly addressed in Latina/o children’s literature.

Tommy Stands AloneThe first book I encountered where a Latino character attempted suicide was Gloria Velasquez’s Tommy Stands Alone (1995). Tommy struggles with coming out as gay because his family and friends are not supportive, and in a moment of desperation, he overdoses on pills and alcohol. At the same time that I came across Velasquez’s book, I was also reading media articles about Dr. Luis H. Zayas’s research on Latina teen suicide attempts which connected suicide attempts to difficulties assimilating to dominant American society. In their March 2010 issue, Latina Magazine published an article that presented Zayas’s findings and discussed the ways in which Latina teens have a more difficult time assimilating because of their immigrant parents’ traditional values. While at the time I found the article to be important and informative, I was very hesitant about placing the blame for suicide attempts on the parents. Zayas has made it clear that there are various reasons why Latina teens attempt suicide and that his specific research has shown that one of the reasons is the tension between the two cultures.

What I feel is missing from an understanding of Latina/o teen suicide attempts and suicide rates is a discussion of how racism and other histories of oppression have made it difficult for these young teens to stay alive. In other words, while parents and families can certainly be a factor in one’s depression, I am weary of saying that Latino youth are depressed and/or attempting suicide because of their families. In this light, depression becomes racialized and parents become a source of otherness. In reading Velasquez’s young adult novel and Zayas’s research, I became interested in the ways that depression is understood as an individual problem rather than addressed as a community issue. Understanding depression as a personal problem also questions one’s resilience; furthermore, one’s ability to overcome depression becomes a signifier for their value.

I was definitely excited to learn that Cindy L. Rodriguez’s debut young adult novel, When Reason Breaks, addresses issues of depression and suicide attempts. Rodriguez’s novel adds to a much needed discussion on depression and Latina/o children’s literature. There are certainly various aspects of the novel to love, but I found the ambiguity of which character attempts suicide to be the most intriguing. When Reason Breaks (2015) tells the story of the uncanny connection between two seemingly different teenage girls. Elizabeth Davis develops a gothic like edge after her parent’s separation. Her new attitude often puts her at odds with her mother, teachers, and peers. Emily Delgado hangs out with the popular crowd, her teachers like her, and her family is well off. Her anxiety, however, gets the best of her and she begins to retreat from those around her. Elizabeth and Emily are forced to engage one another when Ms. Diaz pairs them up for an English project on Emily Dickinson. As the novel develops, Ms. Diaz begins to receive letters from a student describing feelings of depression and uncertainty until she finally receives a suicide note.

Elizabeth’s and Emily’s characters are an opportunity to discuss stereotypes associated with depression. The assumption is that Elizabeth is the one that attempts suicide because she has something to be depressed about—her parent’s divorce. At first, this traumatic event makes those around her sympathetic to her situation. Over time, though, people begin to lose patience with her, which is apparent by how often her mother scolds her and how frequently she’s sent to visit the school counselor. Elizabeth is an excellent example of what I mean by a person’s ability to overcome depression can determine their value. Because it appears that Elizabeth is not getting any better with time, those around her begin to read her as “troubled” and more likely to be trouble. Her behavior is policed and what could be read as typical teenage behavior, such as challenging authority and talking back, are sources for dismissal and punishment. While it’s obvious that Ms. Diaz is a concerned teacher, she, nonetheless, polices Elizabeth’s behavior based on the assumptions that the school counselor has made about Elizabeth and her depression. These assumptions made it difficult to see that it was another student that was really the one in danger. In contrast, Emily gets overlooked because she does not publicly exhibit signs of depression nor does she have a valid enough reason to be depressed. No one questions Emily’s mental health when she begins to pull away from those around her or when she misses homework assignments. Instead, her friends make light of the pressure she feels from her father to perform a certain level of Latino conservatism to protect his political career. That pressure is not recognized as a valid enough reason to feel depressed, much less a reason to attempt suicide. It is Emily’s resilience, however, that allows her to hide her depression and go unnoticed.

You're Lying graphicI read Emily’s resilience as being motivated not necessarily by her desire to overcome depression but her desire to hide it. Her father’s political position is certainly a main reason why she needs to keep it together, but it is also her mother’s silence that makes it difficult for Emily to express her own feelings. Emily’s performance of resilience is a strategy that I believe many people dealing with depression employ—especially if what makes one depressed is not recognized as a worthy reason for being depressed in the first place. Resilience serves as a way for Emily to protect herself from being ostracized the way that Elizabeth is because of depression. Emily expresses concern that if she were to divulge that she struggles with depression that too many people will get involved and ask too many questions. Because of this it is easier to simply say “I’m okay.” This resilience, however, almost costs Emily her life.

When Reason Breaks further presents the opportunity to discuss the impact depression has on families and communities. Ms. Diaz reveals that she, too, struggled with a traumatic situation. At the end of the novel, even Elizabeth’s mom opens up about her feelings and is able to reconcile with her daughter. Furthermore, the novel reveals that it takes a community to support someone with depression on their journey toward healing. Addressing depression as a community breaks the silence on this issue and expands notions of what depression is, what it looks like, who gets it, and what can be done about it. Elizabeth and Emily’s struggle with depression also demonstrates that it is likely that there are others close to them that may also be dealing with depression. Even though Emily’s mother is not a major character in the novel, there are specific moments where her behavior and silences suggest that she also struggles with her emotions. Novels like When Reason Breaks demonstrate the importance of generating dialogues in our communities about depression and the various ways that depression affects us all.


*First posted on Latin@s in Kid Lit blog:

5 Reasons to Love Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

ariAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) opens in the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas and follows Aristotle Mendoza’s journey toward self-discovery. Fifteen year old Ari is smart and witty but quite isolated from other boys his own age. However, after meeting Dante Quintana at the pool he begins to feel a renowned interest in life and an unfamiliar feeling for Dante. Benjamin Alire Saenz[1] creates a beautiful flourishing relationship between the two young boys that forces both of them to look inward. Ari and Dante find solace, friendship, and love in one another that helps them overcome the obstacles that stand in their way. Saenz’s novel speaks to the innocence and pain of accepting one’s cultural and sexual identity in a society that might not be as accepting. Aristotle and Dante is a fabulous novel for many reasons but here are five reasons why you should love it too.   

There’s an important discussion on a family member in prison. One of the issues burdening Ari’s identity is the silence around his brother’s incarceration. While his parents refuse to speak about Bernardo and what he did to end up in prison, his presence is still very much palpable for Ari. His parents’ shame of having a son in prison dictates what they expect from Ari and this becomes too much of a weight for him. After Ari gets into a fight and sends another young man to the hospital it is revealed that Bernardo went to prison for doing something similar. Ari’s parents fear that he may be headed down the same path. Saenz’s discussion on a family member in prison complicates the novel and makes it more than a simple coming out narrative. Ari must contend with what it means to be a man of color in his present society and his brother is a constant reminder of the racism and discrimination that men of color face. Ari cannot fully embrace his sexuality until he comes to terms with what Bernardo represents about Latino masculinity and how those terms define Ari. The focus of the novel is certainly Ari’s coming-out; however, Saenz’s makes it evident that Ari’s intersectionality with race, ethnicity, and class are also contributing factors to understanding the character as queer.

You’ll wish Dante was a real person so y’all can hang out. Dante first meets Ari at the pool and they bond over their rather unusual names. Dante is different than the other guy’s Ari knows and is estranged from. He is intelligent, kind, and vulnerable. Ari and Dante become inseparable that summer and spend much of their time reading, writing, and taking the bus around town. Dante’s romantic view of the world is new to Ari who has a darker vision of society. His positive outlook, though, sometimes gets Dante into trouble and Ari becomes protective of him. Dante forces Ari out of his comfort zone and into a special, almost magical, place of self-discovery. With Dante, Saenz has created an opportunity to talk about how class, ethnicity, and sexuality intersect. His father is a professor and his mother is a psychologist and while they are both supportive of his queer identity, he still feels like does not fit in with other Mexicans/Mexican Americans. Many readers will be able to identify with Ari because he can’t quite seem to find a place where he belongs and these readers will wish for a friend like Dante. Dante gives Ari hope and we all either have or need someone like that in our lives.


Ari and Dante’s passion for literature is contagious. One of the subjects that Ari and Dante bond over is literature. The accessibility to literature that the boys and their families have is extremely important because it challenges many stereotypes about literacy and education in relationship to Mexican-American communities. While it certainly helps that Dante’s father is an English professor, and it says plenty about class, this accessibility remains significant because they use it as part of their healing process. The books that Ari and Dante share help them process much of what they understand about the world around them. Books also allow them to connect to their parents in ways they didn’t know was possible. For example, Ari learns that his father’s favorite book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Other literary references in the novel include Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, The Grapes of Wrath, War and Peace, and W.S. Merwin. Reading leads Ari and Dante to begin journaling and writing letters to one another. Writing allows Ari to process many of the nightmares he has and it allows him to stay connected to Dante. It is through these letters that the Ari and Dante talk about issues like kissing, smoking, and masturbating. Whereas the books and the letters promote a healing process in Ari and Dante’s life, they also encourage the novel’s readers to delve into a literary world with which they may not be familiar.

Ari’s genuine desire to have a relationship with his father. It is likely that Ari’s father suffers from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. Mr. Mendoza’s silence about Bernardo and the war make it difficult for Ari to get close to him and this distance pains Ari. Throughout the novel, Dante becomes a catalyst through which Ari gets to know more about his father. By knowing his father he gains more knowledge about his family and about what it means to be a man. However, Mr. Mendoza recognizes his son’s inner struggle and is there to help him come-out. The father/son relationships in Aristotle and Dante are more supportive than those found in other young adult Latino gay novels. Most often the fathers either reject their son’s gay identity or are entirely absent from their lives as is the case in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys and Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito, for example. While Ari and his father definitely have some important issues to work through, his father is there to support him when it matters most. Ari’s desire to have a relationship stems from a desire to accept himself. By the end of the novel, Mr. Mendoza becomes instrumental in helping Ari see that he loves Dante and is able to go after him. In Ari’s coming out process, it is significant that he has relationships with the other men in his family. That he can have some sort of a relationship with them by the end of the novel is a beautiful gesture.

Because “I don’t think liking boys is an American invention.” Aristotle and Dante creates a space to discuss the intersectionality of being queer and Latino. Ari struggles to come out because he has some unresolved issues with the other men in his family, who are essential in defining Latino masculinity for him. Dante is openly queer but he struggles with feeling a connection with his cultural identity. He feels that his class status and his sexuality separate him from the Mexican community around him. Dante’s fear is a real experience that many Latino youth face. Often times, queerness is constructed and understood as an identity only accessible to white people. In claiming a queer identity, Dante feels further removed from his cultural community. However, Ari and Dante, and other queer characters of color, complicate and challenge these misconceptions. Dante reveals to Ari that he does not feel Mexican because he likes boys and Ari replies that he doesn’t “think liking boys is an American invention.” Ari’s nonchalant reaction is powerful because he directly challenges notions about who can claim a queer identity while simultaneously creating a space where he and Dante can exist. Saenz’s novel contests many stereotypes about queer and Latino communities; in doing so, he further affirms to queer Latino youth that their experiences are legitimate.

[1] Saenz is the author of several young adult novels and children’s books including Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Carry Me Like Water, Names on a Map, Last Night I Sang to the Monster, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, and A Gift from Papá Diego. Aristotle and Dante has won numerous accolades including a Pura Belpre Award, a Stonewall Book Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.


*Originally posted on Gay YA blog:

YA Latina Lesbians: On Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone

DownIn Mayra Lazara Dole’s[1] Down to the Bone (2012) Laura, a Cuban-American high school junior, is forced to come-out when her Catholic school teacher reads Laura’s private texts to her girlfriend aloud to the entire class. As a result, Laura is humiliated, kicked out of school, and asked by her mother to leave their home. Dole’s description of Laura’s coming-out is significant, among many reasons, because it centers a Latina lesbian protagonist. Despite the increased awareness for the need of diverse children’s literature many gaps still exist—diversity in queer and gay YA literature being one of those gaps. Down to the Bone remains one of the few YA novels with a Latina lesbian character written by a Latina/o author.[2] The lack of availability or awareness of books like these signals a resistance and aversion commonly experienced by Latina lesbian.

Indeed, this is the case in Dole’s novel. Laura’s mother is particularly aggressive about not accepting Laura as a lesbian. The resistance and aversion that Laura feels from her mother, however, is very much tied to their Cuban-American culture. Because Laura sees her mother as an embodied representation of her Cuban-American heritage at the beginning of the novel she associates her mother’s homophobia with everything Cuban-American. In other words, the only way Laura knows how to escape the homophobia she experiences is by attempting to abandon her Cuban-American traditions. Throughout the novel there is definitely tension between Laura’s sexuality and her culture; her frustration stems from not knowing how to reconcile both parts of her. Interestingly, Laura’s mother uses the tradition of women needing financial security from men in order to justify her behavior towards her daughter. At the beginning of the novel, Laura remembers that as a child she brought home a book about two young girls that could potentially grow up to be romantically involved and her mother threw it away fear that Laura might be influenced by those ideas. Laura’s mother says:

“Authors like these plant seeds in girls’ minds about choosing different lifestyles when they’re all grown up. Girls can do anything they set their mind to. You could be president, but no one will hire you for the job if you turn into a woman uninterested in men. I don’t want you transforming into one of those.” (11)[3]

For Laura’s mother, gender is not an impediment for success; however, a woman’s sexual orientation can determine her access to things like employment. Again, it is important to point out that financial security is what matters to Laura’s mother. In this case, the homophobic arguments have little to do with procreation and religion and instead highlight issues of class and class mobility. The relationship between class and queer identity is something that also arises in other novels and films that center young adult Latina lesbian experiences.

In Carla Trujillo’s What Night Brings, for example, class plays a significant role in how eleven year old Marci understands her queer identity. Her father is an alcoholic and is physically abusive to his family; however, because they are financially dependent on him the mother refuses to leave. Marci is aware of the power dynamic between her parents and how her father yields more because he is the breadwinner. The violence that Marci witnesses and experiences at home happens simultaneous to her exploration of her sexuality. Marci knows that she likes girls but lacks the vocabulary and resources to understand that she does not have to be a man in order to legitimately do so. However, because of this lack of information she prays that God give her huevos, slang for male genitalia, so that she can defeat her father.[4] In other words, Marci sees huevos as an opportunity to have the power she sees men exert and in this way she will deconstruct the hierarchies that exist in her family due to their class status and ultimately be able protect her mother and finally be able to openly love women.

Similarly, in Aurora Guerrero’s film Mosquita y Mari[5] (2012) Mosquita and Mari’s relationship is threatened when Mari engages in intercourse with a man for money in order to help her mother pay the rent. The relationship between class and queer identity, in this case, is further complicated by the fact that Mari and her family are undocumented. Mosquita, unaware of any of this information, understands Mari’s actions as a betrayal of their relationship and she decides to date the young man that has been pursuing her. Mosquita and Mari’s relationship is a tender, intimate, and passionate friendship. Both of the young women are in a stage of self-discovery and find solace in on another and the special bond they have created. However, the innocence in their relationship and love for one another is quickly soiled by the realities and responsibilities their class statuses impose. Her family’s survival becomes Mari’s priority and she decides to do whatever she must in order to help them. Mosquita also finds that dating a young man comforts her parents and her friends, who were becoming resistant to her friendship with Mari. The various pressures of their class status in addition to Mari’s lack of class mobility collide with the young girls’ expression of their queer identity.

As Down to the Bone develops, it becomes more evident that class is something that significantly impacts the characters’ construction of their queer identity. Marlena, Laura’s (ex)girlfriend, is married off after her parents learn about her relationship with Laura. The marriage is understood as one that will financially protect Marlena as will cure her of her deviancy. Laura momentarily dates a young man and is invited back home by her mother. However, Laura realizes she does not want to engage in a false relationship in order to feel like she belongs and she is kicked out of her home once again. Overall, the novel presents an opportunity to create conversation about the experiences of young Latina lesbians. The novel reveals that class, as exemplified by the need for financial security, plays a substantial role in the construction of young Latina lesbians and the development of their queer identity. Down to the Bone also demonstrates that class issues vary within Latina/o communities. Laura, Marci, Mosquita, and Mari do not experience class in the same ways. That is to say, that just because the characters are all Latinas does not mean they experience the world in the same manner. These differences is one of the reasons why there is a dire need for more Gay YA novels that center Latina lesbian characters.


[1] Lazara Dole is the author of Drum, Chavi, Drum! (2003), Birthday in the Barrio (2004), and several short stories.Down to the Bone was first published in 2008.

[2] Other young adult books with Latina lesbian characters include Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love (2001) and Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story (2008) which describes Marisol Guzman’s tribulations with friendships and love. While Carla Trujillo’s What Night Brings (2003) is not a young adult book it is narrated by a queer Chicana child, Marci Cruz. The main character in self-identified white-Mexican E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s Fat Angie (2013) is a young adult lesbian but her race or ethnicity is not clear. Finally, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984) is not a young adult novel but young Esperanza’s relationship with Sally has often provided queer readings.

[3] Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. NYC: Harper Teen & Bella Books, 2012. Print.

[4] Further discussions on What Night Brings are needed in order to talk about Marci as possibly being a transgender character.

[5] For more information on the film check out the film’s website at




*Originally posted on Gay YA blog:

Happiness as a Social Justice Issue

superIn the years that I’ve been researching and writing about Latina/o kid’s literature I’ve gone back and forth about the impact that “happy endings” have on the stories and on children readers. Because I focus specifically on realistic fiction, narratives that capture lived experiences, I found the happy endings to be a bit misleading. Real stories on deportation and family separation, for example, do not always get a happy ending and especially not as immediate as books make it seem. In general, happy endings are an essential component of children’s illustrated texts. That is, picture books for children tend to have happy endings because a book that tells children, for example, that “life sucks” and encourages them to give up would probably not fare well in the industry. Within this genre, happy endings also function as a way to preserve a child’s innocence. There is something both beautiful and problematic about the genre’s desire to protect children from “growing up too fast,” from the “dangers of the real world,” and whatnot. In this way, the happy ending allows children to explore the world through books with the guarantee that they will be safe, that everything will work out, and that they will be protected. However, not all children are seen as inherently innocent and therefore their access to protection and safety is limited and certainly not guaranteed.

Because Latina/o kid’s lit as a genre has done an exceptional job at pointing out the marginality, discrimination, and uncertainty that Latina/o children face in this country I had often found the happy endings in some of these texts disconcerting. The reconciliation between the oppressions experienced by a Latino child protagonist and the happy ending was too simple. I was afraid that those endings would mislead or further discourage real children who were undergoing similar situations as those portrayed in the books but who were not experiencing the happy endings. My concern was also that the happy endings minimized the urgency of the topics being discussed.

I have found that the most beneficial way to understand happiness in Latina/o kid’s books is to read it as part of the story rather than the ending. In other words, happiness is piece of a much larger story and not just the end. This understanding is particularly important when teaching Latina/o kid’s books dealing with social justice issues. It is significant to note that the happy endings do not suggest that the oppressions the characters’ experience have also ended. Furthermore, a characters’ happiness does not suggest that they are not being oppressed. These caveats on happy endings may seem unnecessary and a bit of a downer; however, happy endings in kid’s picture books assume that children access happiness equally when, in fact, this is not the case. Because of this, happy endings in children’s picture books with social justice themes further present an opportunity to discuss happiness as a social justice issue.

As important as it is to contest happy endings it is also important to protect Latino children’s right to happiness. I became more aware of this significance upon giving a presentation on Juan Felipe Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl where I was asked if the story’s ending undermined Esmeralda’s agency. Super Cilantro Girl tells the story of Esmeralda Sinfronteras and her transformation into a giant green superhero set to rescue her mother from an ICE detention center. Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border Esmeralda taps into the power of cilantro and gradually changes into Super Cilantro Girl. Bigger than a bus, taller than a house, and with the power of cilantro and flight Esmeralda breaks her mother out of the detention center and brings her home. Super Cilantro Girl disrupts the anti-immigration policies that seek to separate her family by becoming bigger, stronger, and more heroic than the system. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that Esmeralda was dreaming and did not change into Super Cilantro Girl nor did she rescue her mother. Despite that, though, Esmeralda’s mother returns. In my presentation I claimed that Esmeralda’s transformation exemplified how the body can be a site of healing. What does the ending then suggest about Esmeralda’s healing process and agency if her transformation into a superhero was just a dream? It was then suggested that I’d have a more productive reading of Super Cilantro Girl if I talked about it as magical realism and/or science fiction.

While an argument can be made to read Super Cilantro Girl as magical realism and/or science fiction I choose not to because there is something difficult about reading Esmeralda’s dream of rescuing her mother from ICE as fantastical. Despite having been a dream, there is agency and power in Esmeralda’s ability to see herself as a superhero with the strength to fight ICE and reunite her family. Regardless of ICE’s threat, Esmeralda can imagine herself as powerful and, ultimately, happy. Esmeralda’s happiness upon rescuing her mother is an important part of her healing process. Again, happiness needs to be understood as part of the narrative and not the end point. Super Cilantro Girl demonstrates how happiness and imagination function to promote hope and resilience despite the systemic oppressions that hinder Esmeralda’s life. Challenging happy endings and reading happiness as a social justice issue presents an opportunity to further understand how childhood in the United States is racialized and how Latina/o kid’s lit creates alternative narratives.

*Originally posted on Latin@s in Kids Lit:

“A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere”: Healing & Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature

AmericaAs a child what I desired most was to be rescued from the violence I experienced at home. I was undocumented and domestic violence was far too common. While I now know that these are real experiences for many Latino homes, these were secrets that I walked around with for fear that my family would be separated if I said anything. Retrospectively, what I probably needed, aside from the violence to stop, was to understand why the violence was happening in the first place. There was nothing or no one around to explain my feelings of anxiety, fear, and/or self-hate around the violence I witnessed and then internalized. At the time, shows like Boy Meets World, Saved by the Bell, and Full House only reaffirmed for me that my family was different, did not belong, or that there was something wrong us. I was reading a lot, too, but I only got more and more frustrated that the books I read did not speak to my reality. I was obsessed with Beverly Cleary’s Ramona because she was everything I wanted to be—free, adventurous, and happy. And while characters like Ramona fueled my imagination they explained nothing about the violence I endured.

My investment in Latina/o children’s and young adult literature stems from my desire to explain why violence is more prevalent in certain communities than it is in others. But it is also driven by what I have seen is the genre’s potential to provide paths toward healing for Latina/o children and young adults.  Recent conversations about the need for diversity in children’s literature have discussed at length the impact that being or not being represented in books can have on a child’s self-esteem and where they see themselves positioned in society. These conversations have made visible the discrimination within publishing industries and the ways that children of color stand to lose the most. Diversity is important to my project simply because stories about children of color can save their lives.

I was first introduced to Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name as a graduate student and it was the first children’s book I read with a Latina protagonist.  I was a taken aback that a kid’s book actually talked about immigration and included scenes of violence. Mainstream children’s literature is no stranger to violence, gruesomeness, monsters, and the like; however, it is out of the ordinary to see a story about immigration, gang violence, and abuse at home that does not depend on stereotypes or is read as ethnography.  América Soliz, the protagonist, is a recent immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico to Pilsen, Illinois— one of Chicago’s predominantly Mexican communities— who struggles to find a voice in a place that seeks to silence her. Throughout the text, the reader is privy to the discrimination she faces in the classroom, the violence in her community, and the patriarchal oppression in her home. What I found most powerful about the book was that América is given a tool to challenge the oppressions around her. Poetry becomes her outlet and it allows her to process the violence she witnesses and experiences. In this way, the violence does not overwhelm her but instead she is able to find strength despite it. Rodriguez’s book opened a new world of children’s books for me and it allowed me to see this genre as having the potential to create social change.

One of the biggest personal challenges that América faces is feeling like she does not belong. As an undocumented student in an ESL classroom her fear is reaffirmed by her teachers: Yesterday as [América] passed Miss Gable and Miss Williams in the hallway, she heard Miss Gable whisper, “She’s an illegal.” How can that be—how can anyone be illegal! She is Mixteco, an ancient tribe that was here before the Spanish, before the blue-eyed, even before this government that now calls her “illegal.” How can a girl called América not belong in America? (n.p) América’s genuine question signals a history of systemic oppression demarcating who gets to belong and who is excluded from the American imaginary. By tracing her indigenous roots América seeks to challenge who can lay claim to the land her teachers wish to erase her from. Upon first reading Rodríguez’s book I found América’s question rather painful. Even though América is a child her teachers have no qualms about criminalizing and excluding her. At nine years old, there is very little that América can do to challenge her teachers’ ignorance and discrimination; however, the tension in the classroom shifts when Mr. Aponte, a Puerto Rican poet, visits America’s class. Mr. Aponte encourages the class to write poetry about what they know and in whatever language they feel comfortable. América writes about Oaxaca and shares her poetry with her family. Eventually her mother and younger siblings take part in writing. At the end of the book, Ms. Gable gives América a high mark on one of her poems, which brings great joy to América and her family.

While América remains undocumented at the end of the story she finds that her poetry gives her a sense of belonging that she did not feel at the beginning. She says: “A real poet. That sounds good to the Mixteca girl, who some people say doesn’t belong here. A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere” (n.p.). Writing has given America a way to challenge and transform the oppressions around her. Her poetry serves as a voice and power that she lacked and has since shared with her family. When I teach this book I am very careful about talking about the conclusion as the “happy ending.” Instead I encourage my students to read this moment as part of América’s healing process. Leaving the book with the assumption that everything works out for América is a disservice to the book and those like it. The fears and perils of immigration do not go away because América learned to write poetry. Instead what she has learned is a set of skills that will help her express how immigration impacts her identity and will help her challenge a system that seeks to exclude her. Reading the ending as a moment in a much larger healing process instead of a resolution further allows me to demonstrate how Latina/o kids lit can transform the lives of Latina/o children and young adults.

If a book like América is Her Name had been available to me as a child I can imagine it having made a real difference. Feeling excluded or not belonging is a very common theme within traditional coming-of-age stories. However, those feelings become rationalized as “growing pains” or generalized as “everyone feels left out,” or they become a lesson on “not everyone is going to like you.” These motifs often learned in mainstream coming of age stories and in common (mis)understandings of American childhood do not capture América’s experience. América is excluded for specific political and historical reasons. If she were a real child, she will probably be excluded her entire life because she is an (im)migrant. Even if she were to gain legal citizenship someone will someday ask her “where are you from?” and assume that she does not belong. When I talk about Latina/o children’s books as having the potential to heal I mean it in reference to these specific moments of exclusion and violence that unfortunately are a reality for Latina/o children.  How do we teach our children to answer questions like “where are you from?” or to respond to comments like “you don’t look American”? How do we make them feel like they belong when the world around them may be telling them otherwise? Latina/o children’s literature does not have all of the answers but it is creating conversations on the topics that still require much attention.

Other Latina/o children’s books with immigration as a theme:

Friends from the Other Side by Gloria Anzaldúa

Xochitl and the Flowers by Jorge Argueta

Alfredito Flies Home by Jorge Argueta

A Movie in My Pillow by Jorge Argueta

From North to South by René Colato Lainez

Waiting for Papá by René Colato Lainez

My Diary from Here to There by Amada Irma Pérez

My Very Own Room by Amada Irma Pérez

*Originally posted on Latin@ in Kid Lit

Resilient Butterflies: On Rigoberto Gonzalez’s The Mariposa Club

MariposaClub2Rigoberto González’s[1] The Mariposa Club (2009) is the first novel in a three part series followed by Mariposa Gown (2012) and Mariposa U (forthcoming 2014). The series stands out as the first of its kind because it’s the first to center queer Latino youth characters. The series is a part of a growing genealogy of YA novels that trace the experiences of gay Latino youth. For example, Gloria Velasquez’s Tommy Stands Alone (1995) relates Tommy’s coming out and the extreme isolation he felt that led him to drink and eventually to attempt suicide. Alex Sanchez’s “Rainbow Trilogy” (2001/2003/2005) includes a Latino protagonist, Jason Carrillo, and tells of his conflict with coming out while attempting to preserve his image as a school jock. Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito (2010) tells the story of a Puerto Rican teen and his journey to remain a member of his community and while also being openly gay. Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) describes a beautiful relationship between two young men and of their path toward a queer love. All of these YA novels are certainly in dialogue with a much longer list of gay Latino authors and texts including Gonzalez’s own poetry and prose.

The Mariposa Club follows the “Fierce Foursome,” Maui, Trini, Lib, and Isaac, through their high school senior year and tells of their goal to start the school’s first GLBT club. In their attempt to leave a legacy at their school that will create a safe space for future queer students the Fierce Foursome is barraged with homophobia from their peer and their community. Throughout the novel they learn much about each other and about what it means to be Latino and gay. González’s critical choice to name the book and the club “the Mariposa Club” signals a history of gay Latino experiences and stories off of which the Fierce Foursome is able to build. Daniel Enrique Pérez[2] explains in his essay “Toward a Mariposa Consciousness: Reimagining Queer Chicano and Latino Identities” that mariposa is a term “[…] commonly used to describe Hispanic males who engage in non-heteronormative gender and sexual behavior, with an emphasis on attributes typically associated with femininity” (97).  While the term in this context has frequently been used as a derogatory expression, Pérez explains how Chicano/Latino authors and artists have embraced the term to signify resilience, transformation, and empowerment.

There is a moment in the novel where Maui expresses concern for not knowing enough about being gay and Latino. Trini explains that gay Latino culture is all around them and it’s their responsibility to find it and learn it so they can then share it with others. Maui and Trini’s desire to find themselves in history, position themselves in the present, and secure their futurity is precisely what fuels their need for a school club. In other words, the Fierce Foursome’s decision to identify as mariposas and to name the club as such highlights their resilience despite the homophobia that threatens their lives.

Pérez further explains that “González’s mariposas are often Chicano males who have been persecuted for being effeminate, but they are also fierce warriors who do not fear the varied social locations they inhabit; they are deemed beautiful in their own skin, and they remain resilient” (105).  While each of the Fierce Foursome definitely exhibit these qualities, it is the character Trini that best exemplifies a “fierce warrior.” Trinidad Ramos is transgender and proud of it. The reactions to her use of women’s clothing and make up reveal the patriarchal system present in her home, school, and community. Because she defies patriarchy she is often the victim of violent acts meant to subdue and erase her. She is beat by the school jocks, humiliated by the popular students, and physically abused by her father. Trini experiences a different level of violence than her other gay friends because her identity is made hypervisible through policing of non-gender conforming bodies. This visibility puts her in more danger but Trini use this to find empowerment and to survive.

Trini is a fictional example of the real violence that queer and trans youth experience. Gonzalez’s dedicates his book to queer youth because he understands the pain and the trauma often associated with being a young queer personal of color. His dedication reads: “For the young mariposas we all once were. For the young mariposas who are, and will be. For Lawrence King, our fiercest mariposa.” In February 2008 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot by a fellow classmate because of alleged unwarranted sexual advances. Various news reports indicate that King had been bullied for some time because of his use of women’s clothing and make up. King’s murderer was convicted of second degree murder. The hate crime charges were dropped.[3] It is significant that the González singles out King because it suggests that King’s death affects us all and that violence against queer and trans youth of color affects us all. The dedication is also hopeful; by identifying as mariposas González invokes the strength, empowerment, and resilience related to queer identity.  Through The Mariposa Club González teaches past, present, and future mariposas to be resilient butterflies. By centering gay Latino youth he makes it clear that their experiences and lives matter.

[1] Rigoberto González other works include Autobiography of My Hungers (2013), Black Blossoms (2011), Men without Bliss (2008), Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (Memoir 2006), Antonio’s Card/ La Tarjeta de Antonio (Children’s book 2005), Soledad Sigh-Sighs/ Soledad Suspiros (Children’s book 2003), Crossing Vines (Novel 2003), So Often the Pitcher Goes to the Water it Breaks (Poetry 1999).

[2] Daniel Enrique Pérez (2014). “Toward a Mariposa Consciousness: Reimagining Queer Chicano and Latino Identities.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 39:2,  95-127.

[3] That same year, Angie Zapata was murdered for being transgender. Her murder was convicted of first degree murder and charged with a hate crime. Zapata’s case was the first in the country to charge someone for a hate crime against a transgender person. See Emily Dianne Cram (2012) “‘Angie was Our Sister:’ Witnessing the Trans-formation of Disgust in the Citizenry of Photography.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 98:4, 411-438.

Originally posted on GAY YA: LGBTQIA+ Characters in Young Adult Literature