Book Review: We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

Originally posted on Latinxs in Kid Lit

OUR TWO CENTS: In We Are Not from Here (2020) Jenny Torres Sanchez tells the story of three Guatemalan teenagers Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña who, despite their loving families, are surrounded by danger in their pueblo, Puerto Barrios. The narrative voice switches between Pulga and Pequeña. At the beginning of the novel, Pequeña is about to give birth while also experiencing extreme rancor towards the baby and the baby’s father. Chico and Pulga are best friends, brought together by tragedy. After witnessing a horrific act of violence against a local store attendant, Chico and Pulga agree that it is best to risk the journey traveling to the United States than either work for or die at the hands of the local gang leader, Rey. Pequeña, who’s also afraid of Rey and desperate to escape, decides to join Chico and Pulga. The three flee wearing layers of clothes and their backpacks containing what’s left of their lives on what seems to be a never-ending and grappling journey aboard La Bestia, the fast-pace train known as the route most (im)migrants take to cross from Mexico to the United States. La Bestia is dangerous, and one wrong move may cost them their lives. The three of them travel from Guatemala to cities in Mexico like Ixtepec, Lecheria, and Guadalajara under extreme conditions. Their journey is full of new dangers and violence. Their commitment to one another and to a better life is what gives them hope and strength on their trek to the United States.

With We are Not From HereTorres Sanchez makes an important contribution to existing conversations around immigration through Mexico and into the United States. In the last decade, Central Americans have made up the majority of (im)migrants attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico. In the U.S. popular imaginary, immigration at the U.S./Mexico border is often conflated with the Mexican experience. However, when we read and watch in the news about the babies, children, and parents in cages at the border, we cannot willfully ignore the fact that the majority of them are Central Americans fleeing the violence created by U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, it is also necessary to recognize the violence Central Americans experience at the hands of the Mexican state while journeying through Mexico. Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña experience these multiple levels of violence as they journey to the United States.

One of the most significant aspects of this novel is the subtle critique of the violence Central American (im)migrants experience while traveling through Mexico. About half way through the novel, Pulga says, “‘Some don’t want us here […] We are to Mexico what Mexico is to the States” (Torres Sanchez 153). Later in the novel, Pulga adds, “Mexico doesn’t want us any more than the United States does. You’d be an immigrant here, Chico. If you try to work here, live here, whatever, Mexico will deport you right back, too” (Torres Sanchez 210). In both of these passages, Pulga points out the systemic violence they experience as Central Americans that is symptomatic of the U.S. empire. These young people in We Are Not From Here are very much aware that their subjectivity puts them at risk anywhere they go. All of this is not to say that Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña don’t experience kindness in Mexico–because they do. They stop at shelters who care for them, there are other Mexicans on La Bestia who try to guide them, and they make connections along the way that will help them further on. However, these individual acts of kindness do not erase the state-sanctioned violence against Central Americans in Mexico that needs to be addressed. Torres Sanchez touches on these topics with great care. There isn’t an overt, political critique but instead she allows her characters to make observations and share knowledge about the reality around them–which in and of itself is a political move.

Torres Sanchez’s attention to language and voice captures the emotional turmoil of making this journey. The repetition of certain words or phrases helps emphasize the uncertainty and extremity of situations. For example, when the trio begin their journey, they have trouble with their sense of direction. Despite having had collected as much information as possible about the route, Pulga feels helpless: “And Pequeña and Chico are looking to me for answers. But I don’t know. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I don’t know” (Torres 126.) Here the repetition reveals the anxiety Pulga feels at having been named the leader of the group without having a real sense of how to make the journey safely–never having done it before. The repetition also reminds the reader that the characters are young people making this journey on their own–there are no guides, just children risking their lives for a better one. The repetition of phrases, images, and memories are constant throughout the novel.

Additionally, the emphasis Torres Sanchez places on the characters’ internal thoughts allows readers to experience the roller coaster of emotions these young characters feel as they travel. In one instance, for example, Pulga and his friends are emotionally and physically exhausted as he narrates his thoughts: “I imagine I am an animal. Skulking through the darkness. Keen. Instinctive. Alert. Alive. Some don’t make it. But some doWhy not me? Why not us? I hold on to this thought as we walk. Why not me? my feet say with each pound to the ground. Why not us?” (Torres Sanchez 159). Pulga’s determination to continue walking, to push past exhaustion, demonstrates the inner strength needed to survive this journey. There are several, powerful moments like this throughout the novel where the characters must find individual strength and where they need to remind one another of that courage. That Pulga asks, “Why not me? Why not us?” is another example of Torres Sanchez’s talent with language because not only is Pulga trying to convince himself to keep going but these questions also force readers to question the value (or lack thereof) our society places on (im)migrant lives.

We Are Not From Here is a multi-layered story and Torres Sanchez tries to give space, not just to tell the story of the trio, but to also tell the story of a community and of many more unaccompanied minors. However, the character who stood out to us the most is Pequeña. Only the reader and the ghost bruja that appears to Pequeña every once in a while are witness to the sexual violence she endures in her hometown in Guatemala. When readying to join Pulga and Chico on their journey north, Pequeña chops off her long hair to pass for a boy because she knows of the violence women experience on this journey. After buying supplies at the market, she reflects:

I wonder if it’s coincidence that the razors and the switchblades are in the same area of the pharmacy as the birth control and morning after pills. At night, I go to sleep thinking of ways to be deadly. How to cover my body in razors. I imagine them covering my body like scales. I imagine anyone who touches me being cut and sliced and pierced. A warning. Nobody come near me.

(Torres Sanchez 87)

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The razors, the blades, and the contraceptives serve as ways for Pequeña, and young women like her, to protect her body because she knows that the world won’t–she knows from experience. This scene shows Pequeña’s pain and agency. She reveals to the reader the cruel reality of violence against women in different settings–at home and while (im)migrating. She indicates that this has happened to her. But by imagining herself covered in razor blades, she arms herself against patriarchal domination. She is readying herself to fight and survive at all costs. That she needs to live this way in the first place is terrible, but that she won’t surrender is a form of empowerment.

There’s no denying that the trek on La Bestia through Mexico is traumatizing on various levels. But it’s also important to point out that this novel is also full of hope. One passage that stands out happens between Soledad, a woman in charge of a shelter in Mexico, and Pequeña. Soledad says, “You must always remember your name. Say it to yourself. You cannot forget who you are. La Bestia, the wind, a lot of people on the other side, they will try to make you forget. They will try to erase you. But you must always remember” (Torres Sanchez 208). Soledad ends this affirmation by repeating Pequeña’s given name. The act of remembering one’s name is also tied to family history, to culture, and to a sense of self. Soledad reassures Pequeña that what she knows about being an outsider is true–there will be those who “will try to erase you.” But she also encourages Pequeña that as long as she knows who she is, erasure is not an option. This naming scene is in contrast to an earlier scene in the novel, part of Torres Sanchez’s magic with repetition, where Pequeña comments on how the world tries to make her small, even her name is small (Torres Sanchez 12). Having Pequeña declare her given name and leave her nickname behind is an act of defiance to society’s attempt to make her small or to erase her entirely.

Torres Sanchez has created tender and vulnerable characters with Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña. The authentic and harsh reality of this story is one of i(m)migrants fleeing violence and enduring violence for the sheer hope of a different possibility. We Are Not From Here is a beautiful and powerful must-read. Torres Sanchez tackles the story of three Guatemalan unaccompanied minors with compassion and fortitude.

Book Review: ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat by Raúl the Third with color by Elaine Bay

Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD and Ingrid Campos

Originally posted on Latinxs in Kid Lit

OUR TWO CENTS: ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat by Raúl the Third with color by Elaine Bay centers Little Lobo, his dog Bernabé, and his rooster friend, Kooky Dooky. Little Lobo takes his delivery services to El Coliseo to meet Luchador star, El Toro, who asks Little Lobo to get lunch orders for him and all of his famished wrestling friends before the big show that night. Little Lobo, Bernabé, and Kooky Dooky visit different food trucks and food stands in the area to find some of their favorite Mexican dishes such as tacos, tamales, churros, aguas frescas, and many more delicious treats.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat is crowded with fun, humorous characters from cover to cover: from a snake with a sombrero slithering up a utility pole, to a tortoise driving a “Tortas Tortuga” truck with “despacito” blazoned across the side, to “Armor Dillo,” a luchador armadillo covered in armor, and so much more. The illustrations are also action-packed, mimicking the high energy of any good lucha match. The cars speed by leaving zig-zag “vroom” behind. The floor retumba like waves at the rumble of the luchadors’ hungry tummies. Puffs of smoke or exhaust rise as Little Lobo dashes from one place to the next. Elaine’s color choices bring the book to life–resembling Little Lobo’s lively neighborhood. Additionally, readers will find many words for different types of foods, animals, and actions as part of the illustrations. On one spread, when Little Lobo first meets all the luchadores, their names are drawn to match their styles, like the “L” in “Lizarda” is as long as their tongue. On another page, when Little Lobo goes to pick up dessert, there are so many options that the words fill up half the page: “Flan,” “arroz con leche,” “churros,” and more. Raúl and Elaine give every inch of the pages something new for readers to find with every read.

¡Vamos! is also an extraordinary book for showcasing bilingualism in Spanish and English. Some of the speech bubbles offer immediate translation of the Spanish words and phrases: “Un poquito de esto. Un poquito de lo otro. A little of this. A little of that.” Other speech bubbles or words in the illustrations don’t offer direct translations; instead, the illustrations serve as context for translation. An example of this is when Little Lobo sits to watch the lucha, and the vendor shouts, “¡Cacahuates! ¡Palomitas! ¡Soda!” There’s no direct translation on the page but instead the reader can see the vendor toss a bag of peanuts at Little Lobo. On other pages, the English and Spanish serve as a call and response. When Little Lobo and Bernabé make it to El Coliseo for the first time, Little Lobo asks, “¡¿Qué es eso?!” and one of the luchadores responds with, “That’s our bellies. We are very hungry.” Additionally, there’s a food glossary at the end of the book, which readers can refer to if they are unfamiliar with the words. The author also encourages readers to use a Spanish-English dictionary to look up words not found in the glossary, which is a significant way to encourage proactiveness and agency in young readers.

The heart of this story is not only Mexican food but also love and respect for street food vendors. Raúl does an excellent job at representing the diversity of street food, the types of kitchens where the food is made, and kinds of characters who make the food. After getting the long list of food orders from the luchadores, Little Lobo, Bernabé, and Kooky Dooky head outside to shop from the different food vendors. The narration reads, “A food truck is a kitchen on wheels. Food of all kinds can be prepared there. Some food sellers used modified bikes or wagons.” There are also food sellers selling out of a cooler and from a box around their neck. Additionally, in ¡Vamos!, Raúl shows that street food vendors are an important staple of any community and demonstrates how street food vendors support one another. For example, at one point in the story, Little Lobo notices: “At the elotero, the corn boils in the giant tub right on the cart. Macho gives all his husks to Tammy. She uses them to wrap her tamales.” Here, the vendors support one another by sharing supplies to create food that’ll feed a community, but the example also demonstrates how conservation is an innate part of many Latinx cultures; nothing goes to waste.

By capturing the diversity and beauty of Mexican food and street food vendors, Raúl challenges negative stereotypes that currently may exist around both of these cultures. At a time when street vendors are under constant policing and harassment, a book like ¡Vamos! is essential reading to expand young peoples’ understanding of culinary practices and respect for those who make the food and for those who deliver it.

Review of Dear Abuelo by Grecia Huesca Dominguez, illus. by Teresa Martinez

Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos 

Originally posted on Latinx in Kid Lit

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: There is much Juana is going to miss as she moves from Mexico to New York, but nothing more than her abuelo. Through letters to her grandfather, Juana details her flight, he new apartment, and her first days of school, where everyone speaks a language she barely understands. When Juana makes her first friend, though, things begin to change.

OUR TWO CENTS: In Grecia Huesca Dominguez’s Dear Abuelo (2019) Juana and her mother immigrate from Mexico to New York. Through letters written to Abuelo, who is back in Mexico, she details her feelings about  new and anxious experiences, like traveling on a plane for the first time, settling in her new apartment, and her first day of school. On the bus ride, Juana notices everyone speaking in English, she has trouble understanding and speaking despite having practiced. In school, Juana’s teacher does not pronounce her name correctly; this incident makes her feel discouraged. In the following letters, Juana tells Abuelo that she’s  met a new friend, Elizabeth, who is also from Mexico. Elizabeth speaks both English and Spanish and explains to the teacher how to say Juana’s name correctly. Juana finds the library and meets the librarian. The librarian shows Juana books written in Spanish, and this inspires Juana to write stories in English and Spanish.

Teresa Martinez’s illustrations center a young, brown girl with bright rosy cheeks and short curly  hair. Martinez’s vibrant illustrations of  Juana’s experiences align brilliantly with her feelings, such as  depicting the feeling of anxiety or nervousness with her use of  grey and darker backgrounds and using splashes of bright greens, oranges, and yellows to capture Juana’s  feelings of zen and excitement. Mexico is represented with the use of bright flower garlands across the pages and those flowers are lost when Juana lands in New York in the middle of winter. At first, there aren’t any flowers at school because Juana has a difficult time fitting in. Once she meets Elizabeth, after the teacher pronounces her name correctly, and after finding books in Spanish, the flower garlands around the frame of the pages return. Not only are the flowers a connection to Mexico, but they also represent growth and opportunity.

A significant aspect in Dear Abuelo is the use of the letter format to tell the story. The story ends with Juana maybe one day writing her own stories, but the entire book is an example of just that. The letters are a powerful device that allows Juana to process her emotions that come with leaving one’s homeland behind and needing to start anew. The letters are also a wonderful way to strengthen long distance family relationships, which helps Juana feel less lonely.  The letters also suggest that Juana is taking control of her own narrative; she is in control of the story she tells.

Another significant aspect of Dear Abuelo is the importance of  embracing the uniqueness in names and the importance of connecting with family history through naming. The mispronunciation of (im)migrant student names in the American classroom is a far too common experience. Continual mispronunciation or mockery of a student’s name because they don’t sound or look “American” is an imperialist and white supremacist practice to try to other, marginalize, and erase people’s history, culture, and future. We appreciate that it was Elizabeth, also a child, who had the courage to disrupt assumed power relations and correct, and teach, the teacher how to say Juana’s names. It is also important that the teacher was open to learning something new.

Dear Abuelo focuses on the Mexican immigrant experience that many children coming to the U.S at a young age might relate to. This picture book illustrates common hardships, including having a language barrier, the trouble of meeting new people, or finding interest in activities like the ones Juana participates in the book, such as playing in gym class or riding the bus. Other picture books that center a similar experience and conversation include Juan Felipe Herrera’s The Upside Down Boy  (2006) and Amada Irma Perez’s My Diary From Here to There (2009).

Grecia Huesca Dominguez and Teresa Martinez do an excellent job at balancing the struggles young immigrants experience with the joys of still being a child. We wholeheartedly recommend this book to children and parents to read together and discuss the similarities and differences between Juana’s experiences and those of the readers.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Ask students to write letters to one another, to the teacher, to someone in their family.
  • Encourage students to also include an illustration or a flower garland border (or a different symbol that represents something about themselves).
  • Ask students to write about the origin and/or history of their names, about being the “new kid” at school, or about making friends.
  • More advanced students can probably write about the more difficult themes around immigration and belonging.

Generational Trauma and Learning to Love in Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty

“Every woman in this house had inherited it, the same way they had inherited the loss and the broken hearts written into their blood” —Anna-Marie McLemore, Wild Beauty

Estrella Nomeolvides refers to her and/or her family as being poison ten times throughout the novel. The Nomeolvides women grow flowers by digging their hands into the earth and allowing the magic inside them to pour out making gardens of the land around them. Generations of Nomeolvides women live in La Pradera, a land that, although owned by the white and affluent Briar family, has its own powers and resentments. The Nomeolvides women ended up at La Pradera after being chased out of other places having been accused of witchcraft and of making men disappear. Now, they can die if they refuse to grow flowers in the land because then the flowers will just grow inside them and they can die if they try to leave La Pradera.

Estrella and her cousins are heirs to the generational trauma born out of a history of displacement and dispossession. For most of the novel, the trauma is associated with the men the land has literally taken from them. They understand this trauma, they might challenge it and refuse it, but, for the most part, they accept it as their burden to bear. The Nomeolvides women are convinced that La Pradera will take whomever they romantically love thus they fear loving someone too hard.

The story is propelled by the cousins’ desire to protect their shared love, Bay Briar. Once they all find out that each one of them is in love with Bay they fear what their collective love might do to her. The cousins bury something special to each of them in the earth in exchange for Bay’s life. It seems to work, but the mysterious appearance of a young man they name Fel forces them to unearth their past and the secrets buried in the land.

Wild Beauty is a novel about the stories, lessons, and warnings that are passed on from one generation of women to the next. The older Nomeolvides women share stories of the other women in their family who have left and have died, who have tried to deny their gifts only to find themselves surrounded by unruly flowers, and of women who have learned not to love as deeply. The sharing of these stories, lessons, and warnings, both in the novel and in real life, is a political act. When women exchange knowledge in this way, it is, among other reasons, for survival’s sake because it is likely that there are larger systemic oppressions that threaten their daily lives—as is the case for the Nomeolvides women. As a result, trauma can also be passed down from one generation of women to the next.

Estrella calls this trauma a poison that runs in the blood of the women in her family. However, when she speaks of the poison as it impacts all of the women, she talks about it in a very transactional way. She says, “Sorrow was a family heirloom, written into their blood like ink on a will” (262). In this quote, and in the epigraph opening this essay, sorrow, loss, and broken hearts connote significant value and exchange. Heirlooms are special and are worth enough to be passed down. Heirlooms are taken care of and cherished so that they may be passed down. Inheriting an heirloom suggests that one has taken over the responsibility of taking care of said heirloom. Wills are a very typical way to exchange the ownership of an heirloom from one party to another. This reading suggests that, at least at some level, Estrella understands that this poison was inflicted on her family and that it wasn’t necessarily a choice.

The idea of the writing in the blood like ink on a will continues to develop in the novel as the cousins fight to take La Pradera from the Briar family and as it’s revealed that the Briar family built an estate over a collapsed quarry where many men died: “They were the immigrants, the underaged, the ones left off the role sheets. And they had been caught [in the quarry], in the ages they had been when they died, freed neither by being found and given burials, nor by their families hearing what had become of them, nor by the truth ever being told” (288). Estrella sees that the contracts, the wills, and the legalese that protected the Briars are fraught. Therefore, if the ink on a will can be challenged, then so can the poison written in the blood. In other words, Estrella realizes that La Pradera took their men not because they are cursed but because their gardens helped to further hide the truth of what had happened on that land. So, at the end, the women are not poison.

This truth, however, does not free Estrella because while she might have settled her family’s inheritance of sorrow, loss, and broken hearts, she is still convinced that she is poison. The narrator says of Estrella: “Her heart was poison. It was a close tangle of thorns. Even when it held love, that love came sharp, and she didn’t know how to offer it to anyone except with the edges out” (285). This particular moment in the novel is as important as it is beautiful because it touches on the realities of what it means to unearth our traumas. In other words, giving names to the trauma, pinpointing their origin, revealing truths about the traumas does not equal closure, peace, or complete healing. Instead, it is often the case that learning truths about our trauma means there’s a lot more self, familial, and community healing left to do. The description of Estrella’s love brought these questions to mind: What do we do when our identity has intertwined with the trauma? What do we do when the truths about the trauma are too much? How do we learn to love when the trauma is ongoing?

Wild Beauty offers two answers to these questions. First, the narrator says of Estrella, “If she apologized for her own heart then she would make it tame, and small. But like this, it was wild, and limitless” (282). At this moment in the novel, the description of Estrella’s heart is about her love for her family, her desire to follow her heart, her heart’s inclination to love men and women, and of her fear of loving too deeply. She won’t apologize for who she is, trauma and all, and she can see that her heart isn’t poison but is instead “wild and limitless.” Her heart is capable of simultaneously holding love and hurt. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Feeling that our heart is full of hurt doesn’t mean that there isn’t any room for love. And, feeling all the love imaginable doesn’t mean we are immune to getting hurt again. The second answer Wild Beauty provides comes toward the end of the novel when the narrator says, “They had to rip out their fate by the roots” (311). Generational trauma doesn’t need to define us or determine our future. It is something that needs to be acknowledged so that we may rip it out and create more possibilities for ourselves.

McLemore creates a wonderful and beautiful world in Wild Beauty. The Nomeolvides women are sincere, and flawed, and complicated. Their desire to love wholeheartedly but being unable to, for whatever reason, will resonate with many readers. The villains are too familiar. The underlying story of exploiting the land for profit, often times at the sake of disenfranchised bodies, is extremely important. The connection that McLemore makes between generational trauma and the land is also significant. At the end, Wild Beauty encourages us to not be afraid to love.

Originally posted on Latinx in KidLit: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2018/04/19/generational-trauma-and-learning-to-love-in-anna-marie-mclemores-wild-beauty/

4 YA Novels in Verse by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera

crash boom love1. Crashboomlove (University of New Mexico Press, 1999) From Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Cesar Garcia is careening. His father, Papi Cesar, has left the migrant circuit in California for his other wife and children in Denver. Sweet Mama Lucy tries to provide for her son with dichos and tales of her own misspent youth. But at Rambling West High School in Fowlerville, the sides are drawn: Hmongs vs. Chicanos vs. everybody vs. Cesar, the new kid on the block. Precise and profound, CrashBoomLove will appeal to and resonate with high school readers across the country.

 

 

 

 

A201SchDownBoyJKT_0.tif

2. Downtown Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera (Scholastic Press, 2005)   Juanito Palomar is new to San Francisco. He moved there from the central valley after his father had to go away. Herrera’s novel in verse is set in the 1950s and follows Juanito through the trials and tribulations of being a young man of color. Juanito doesn’t understand why his father comes and goes from the family as often as he does. Throughout the story, Jaunito struggles to define his masculinity and to define his relationship with his father. Herrera tells a beautiful story about a father’s and son’s desire to belong, to find healing, and to be with each other.

 

 

 

 

cinnamon girl3. Cinnamon Girl: Letters found Inside a Cereal Box (2005/ Harper Collins, revised edition 2016) Publisher description: U.S Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera delivers this moving tale of one teen seeking courage amid tragedy. When the towers fall, New York City is blanketed by dust. One the Lower East Side, Yolanda, the cinnamon girl, makes her manda, her promise, to gather as much of it as she can. Maybe returning the dust to Ground Zero can comfort all the voices. Maybe it can help her Uncle DJ open his eyes again. As misfortunes from her past mix in the air of an unthinkable present, Yolanda searches for hope in the silvery dust of Alphabet City.

 

 

 

 

Skate fate

4. Skate Fate (Rayo, 2011) From Goodreads: I wanted to roar out touch things i had never touched. to see if it was true. was i still here was this life still here. on this side. whatever you call it dude. wanted to touch everything like van Gogh touched and smeared everything when he painted. so i wrote it and spoke it. maybe mama would hear me. cuz i could hear her. sayin’ When your heart hurts, sing. wherever you go. Lucky Z has always lived on the edge—he loved to skateboard, to drag race, to feel alive. But things have taken a turn—he’s living with new foster parents and a tragic past. An accident changed everything. And only his voice will set him free.

 

Good Men & Bad Men: On Latino Masculinities in Joe Jiménez’s Bloodline

Throughout this presidential campaign, Donald Trump has referred to Latino men, generally speaking, as “criminals,” “rapists,” and “bad hombres.” Unfortunately, the image of Latino men in popular culture as hyper-masculine, violent, and dangerous is not new. Trump tapped into, and exploited, a long standing, racist, xenophobic fear of black and brown men in this country. After many of his comments, I saw many folks challenge these stereotypes by posting pictures of themselves in their graduation gowns or with their diplomas. In doing so, the message was to state that not all Latino immigrants or Latinos of immigrant descent are criminals. The images of young Latinos in their graduation gowns were indeed powerful and much needed, in their own right. However, in saying “we are not criminals, we are college educated,” or whatever, we have further distanced ourselves from the Latinos that are “criminals” and are criminalized. In other words, the pictures of us in our graduation gowns don’t remove the stereotypes of Latino men as criminals, but instead, reinforces a dichotomy between the “good” type of Latino men, the college students as productive citizens, and the “bad hombres,” the criminals exhausting our resources. Clearly there’s a problem when we limit our understanding of Latino masculinities as “good men” and the “bad” ones. These polarizing possibilities of what it means to be a Latino man are harmful and we need more complex images of Latino men and Latino masculinities that give us a broad spectrum.

Bloodline CoverBloodline by Joe Jiménez is an excellent example of the impact these polarizing views of Latino masculinity can have in the lives of Latino boys and young adults. At the center of the novella is Abram’s struggle to define his manhood. The women in his life have made it clear that they want him to be a “good man,” but he doesn’t know what that means. His grandmother brings in his Uncle Claudio to serve as a father figure and guide Abram. But Abram also doesn’t understand why Claudio “with his slick ways and his fat police sheet, his visits that usually end in conflict” (p. 10) is called upon to teach him how to be a man.

Throughout the story, Abram is burdened by the absence of his father because it means he needs to determine, on his own, what kind of man he wants to be. At the heart of his search is the question of whether he is innately bad or not. Abram narrates: “You wonder if there is anything in the world you can do, or if it’s true that some people are really just born bad, born to enact badness, born to punch and kick and scream and fight and destroy shit, because the genes in your body have selected you for it” (p. 11). Abram is convinced he is “bad” because he knows, based on what his grandmother and Becky have said, that his father and his uncle are bad men. So, then, if his father and his uncle are bad then doesn’t that make him bad too? In regards to Uncle Claudio he says, “You hate that your blood is his, the sameness coursing through you like pinpricks of words entering the ear, becoming the air, the sigh, the wickedness of rage and ire and disgust for all the shit he’s done poised to become the whole body. His blood, your blood” (p. 22). The badness that he feels coursing through his veins is what he struggles with until it’s too late.

“Torcido,” twisted, is the word Abram hears in reference to his father from his aunts and his grandmother. He says, “Not a good man, you have figured that much out. You know that he died and that no one mentions his name. You know you are not supposed to be like him” (p. 9). Later in the story, it is revealed that his father was shot by a drug dealer but what the family doesn’t know is that Claudio set him up. In this way, the silence around Abram’s father has a lot to do with the way he died. It is also because his involvement with drugs that the women in the family insist that Abram not turn out like him. Abram’s father is devalued because of the way he died—at the hands of a heroin dealer—which further marks him as a criminal. The family does not read Abram’s father as a productive citizen because he died in a situation that was already criminalized by such tactics as “the war on drugs.” In other words, Abram’s father is a “bad” man because he was supposedly participating in what was already considered criminal behavior by society. His inability to prove himself a productive citizen, or because he did not leave a legacy to prove that he was a productive citizen, he instead serves as a warning story.

In an article about her cousin’s death due to drunk driving, scholar Lisa Cacho states, “This is why we could not talk about Brandon as valuable; he was not only marked as ‘deviant’ by his race, but he also did not perform masculinity in ways to redeem, reform, or counter his (racialized) ‘deviancy.’ He did not leave us with any evidence to narrate him as a productive, worthy, and responsible citizen, who had been ‘unfairly’ treated. ‘unjustly’ targeted, and ‘wrongfully’ accused” (p. 184).  In other words, Brandon’s race marked him as “deviant,’ or bad, or torcido, which means that to have been considered valuable in our society he would have had to prove he was a productive citizen by potentially being a good student, having a job, saving money, etc. Cacho further explains that this was not the case for Brandon. He wasn’t at the top of his class, and he spent his money on recreational activities that were considered “bad.” She concludes that his life became a narrative for what not to do. Similarly, Abram’s father is demonized as a “bad man” because he was not considered productive and therefore not valuable. Abram experiences this same devaluation when he is suspended from school for fighting and when his grandmother scolds him for the same reason.

Abram’s inner turmoil demonstrates how the intersectionality of race and gender affect boys and men of color. Abram is marked as bad, deviant, or torcido based solely on the color of his skin. Getting in trouble for fighting only reinforces the negative conceptions his academic institution, and society in general, already had of him. What is painful to read in this story is that the women in his family are the ones reinforcing the gender expectations by continuing to read the men in his life through the harmful lens of “good men” vs “bad men.” Grandma is afraid that Abram’s fighting will lead to bigger problems later on in life and it is therefore important that Abram learn to be a good man before it’s too late. What grandma wants is for Abram to be a productive citizen because she wants to keep him safe. In this way, we want to understand that being a productive citizen or a “good man” will mean that our boys will have access to certain rights and benefit from protection. However, we have too many examples of how this is not always the case.

Abram is not a bad man, even if he does get into fights. His family doesn’t think so either, but they are afraid he will turn into one and that fear also needs to be challenged and discussed. Jiménez does a phenomenal job at representing the construction of Latino masculinity as a complex process. Abram is complicated and beautiful and loves deeply. Jiménez’s poetic voice presents Abram as vulnerable, hurt, protective, and loving. Jiménez gives us a protagonist that could easily be any of our boys or young men. It is probably for this reason that the ending hurts so much. Abram reminds me of other male protagonist in Latinx kid lit that complicate Latino masculinity: Juanito from Downtown Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera, Zach from Last Night I Sang to the Monster and Aristotle from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Marcus from Suckerpunch by David Hernandez, and Sean from Secret Saturdays by Torrey Maldonado. Having multiple representations of what it means to be a Latino man is important because it expands our conversations beyond “good men” and “bad men.”  In an article about Chicano children’s literature and representation of masculinity, Phillip Serrato says, “Perhaps above all else, this literature invites boy readers in particular to think about the examples of masculinity surrounding them, to reflect upon the pressures that they themselves have faced or will face as they grow up, and to figure out what kinds of men they want to become” (p. 154-5). Again, we need texts like Jimenez’s that complicate Latino masculinity because at the end of the day so many of their lives depend on it.

Also check out this recent post by the author: Things Boys Have Asked Me: A Guest Post by Joe Jiménez

Works Cited

Cacho, Lisa Maria. (2007). “‘You Just Don’t Know How Much He Meant’: Deviancy, Death,

and Devaluation.” Latino Studies 5.2 (2007): 182-208.

Jimenez, Joe. (2016). Bloodline. Texas: Arte Publico Press.

Serrato, Phillip. (2012) “Transforming Boys, Transforming Masculinity, Transforming Culture:

Masculinity Anew in Chicano Children’s Literature.” Invisible No More: Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Chicano Men and Boys. Eds. Pedro Noguera, Aída Hurtado, & Edward Fergus. New York: Routledge.

*Originally posted on Latin@s in Kid Lit: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2016/11/21/good-men-bad-men-on-latino-masculinities-in-joe-jimenezs-bloodline/

Gaby, Lost and Found: Expanding the Conversation on Latinx Kids Books + Immigration

FullSizeRender (1)Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes tells the story of Gaby Ramirez Howard, whose mom is deported to Honduras. Gaby is left under the care of her father, who she does not know well and who does not seem too interested in parenting. Gaby’s story is one that remains painfully relevant. Since 2009, more than 2.5 million people have been deported.[1] Many mixed status families have been impacted by poor, and xenophobic, immigration laws that only seem to do more harm than good. The Supreme Court’s deadlock on DAPA has left many families vulnerable.

Cervantes’s novel does not attempt to provide a solution to the fraught immigration system that has taken Gaby’s mom away. Nor does she give Gaby the happiest of endings. Gaby, Lost and Found presents a realistic telling of the fear, anger, and pain involved when a child’s parent is deported. While immigration continues to be a prominent theme within Latinx children’s and young adult literature, many of the text focus on Mexican experiences. Even then, most of those stories often involve immigrating through legal means. Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name was the first Latinx picture book I read that has an undocumented protagonist. Off the top of my head, Jorge Argueta and Rene Colato Lainez continue to be the leading authors writing Latinx children’s books that center Central American experiences. Clearly, there’s a need to broaden discussions on immigration in Latinx children’s literature in order to capture and represent the multivalence experiences of being an immigrant. It was for this reason that I found Gaby to be an extraordinary story. Gaby was the first Latinx children’s literature novel that I’ve read where the mother is deported and does not return. I found this ending compelling because it captures the reality impacting many young Latinx living in mixed status homes. Providing a happy ending to this story in where Gaby and her mom are reunited would have been a beautiful and heartwarming ending. However, I fear that it would have alienated the children whose mothers have not and cannot return. My concern for a happy ending, as it relates to immigration stories in Latinx kid lit in general, is that it might minimize the severity of the issue at hand. As if to say, it wasn’t that bad because everything was resolved at the end.  By straying away from neat and happy endings, Cervantes points out the long term implications for families that have been separated by failing immigration systems.

Gaby is in sixth grade, loves cats, and is a storyteller. An ICE raid breaks out at the factory where her mother works which results in her deportation back to Honduras. Despite the bullying she experiences at school because of her family’s situation, Gabby is convinced her mother will return soon. She is completely distraught when her mother tells her the journey back to Kansas City is too expensive and too dangerous. At this point, readers can tell that Gaby has been bottling up her feelings regarding her mother’s deportation and her father’s inability to take care of her. While her burst of emotions is not entirely surprising, it is heart wrenching to read her outpour of anger and frustration aimed at her mother:

“‘No, Mom! I’ve been patient. I’ve been patient for three month! And stop calling me your princesa. If I were your princesa, you’d be here. You said before that I was worth the journey. I’m your daughter and I want you to come back! You promised!’ […] The silence that followed sent a sharp pain through Gaby’s whole body. How could she hang up on her mom? She ran out the front. Her father yelled after her, but she wasn’t stopping” (156).

Gaby’s justified outburst reveals that her mother’s absence has ruptured the unspoken expectations between parents and their children. Parents are expected to take care of their children and, at this moment, Gaby blames her mother for her inability to do so. I found this a rather painful scene to read precisely because it is not Ms. Ramirez’s fault. Broken immigration systems that thrive on separating families make it extremely difficult for parents to parent. As a result, the children are left feeling abandoned and unworthy. The above quote also makes clear that Gaby feels a sense of responsibility to keep it together for her mother’s sake. Gaby is sensitive to her mother’s situation and is aware that it must also be difficult for her. Because of this, Gaby does not let her mother know how much of a hard time she is actually having. For majority of the novel, Gaby is the one nurturing others. Separating mixed status families changes the dynamics and roles of the family. Children are forced to mature and parents who have been deported must find new ways to parent.

Whilst dealing with her situation, Gaby and her schoolmates volunteer at an animal shelter as part of a class project. Gaby is made responsible for creating flyers with stories about the shelter animals in hopes that someone will read them and give the animals a home. Gaby meets Feather, an abandoned cat who she takes a liking to. Gaby is so determined to keep Feather from her original, neglectful owners that she steals the cat from the shelter and takes it home with her. Gaby feels abandoned and vows to nurture Feather the way she wishes someone would take care of her. The deportation has taken away Gaby’s sense of security and has deeply impacted her emotional well-being. After the deportation, Gaby sleeps by the door with the phone under her pillow so she doesn’t miss her mother’s return, she is not eating well, and she begins to push her friends away. Cervantes’s narrative details Gaby’s downward spiral due to the trauma wrought by her mother’s deportation. By the end of the novel, Gaby is in a much better state of mind. She has a better understanding of how dangerous it might be for her mother to attempt to cross Guatemala and Mexico to get to Kansas City. She finds comfort in knowing her mother is safe and in knowing that her mother will love her despite the distance.

Cervantes’s novel is a much needed addition to conversations around Latinx literature and immigration. I can see myself teaching this book and continue to recommend this book precisely because it addresses issues related to mixed status families including deportation. Gaby is indeed a multi-dimensional character whose story extends beyond her mother’s deportation. The narrative gives hints to Gaby’s life with her mother before she was taken away and, clearly, Gaby has other interests. Gaby is a fun, cat loving, regular girl but it is also evident that this deportation will impact the rest of her life just like it does for real Latinx children whose parents have been deported.

 

Other resources:

Leisy J. Abrego. Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders. Standford, CA: Standford University Press, 2014. Print.

“Lost in Detention.” PBS: Frontlines, 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/lost-in-detention/

Author Angela Cervantes on Publishing & Her Animal-Loving Latina Protagonist: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/05/19/author-angela-cervantes-on-publishing-her-animal-loving-latina-protagonist/

[1] http://fusion.net/story/252637/obama-has-deported-more-immigrants-than-any-other-president-now-hes-running-up-the-score/

Latinx Gay YA

There remains a great need for Latinx Gay young adult literature. The list below is a compilation of texts that center and complicate these experiences. I’ve decided to make this list a space dedicated to stories written by self-identifying Latinx authors who have created gay Latinx protagonists. There are certainly other books with gay Latinx minor characters and books with gay Latinx characters written by non-Latinx. Many of the protagonists in the novels listed below express a feeling of isolation when they come out or at simply existing as a gay Latinx person. This isolation stems from a lack of familiarity with gay Latinx history and cultural productions, from an assumption that they are the only gay Latinx in their family, community, or school, and from the misconception that gay identity and Latinx identity cannot be one in the same. These are very real concerns that LGBTQI Latinx youth reading these novels might have and while it is important that they see themselves represented in fictional characters they must also see themselves reflected in the people that write these stories.

Many of the novels below deal with coming out as gay and the violence that one might experience because of it. Many of the protagonists are marginalized by their family and friends and many must literally fight for their lives. For example, in Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito Chulito, a 16 year-old gang member, is physically accosted by the gang leader after learning that Chulito is gay. Altercations with the quintessential hypermasculine character also occur in The Mariposa Club, Rainbow High,Aristotle and Dante, and More Happy Than Not. The depictions of violence in these novels signal that as a community we need to work harder to create safe spaces for queer Latinx youth to come out. Creating safe spaces includes challenging rigid gender roles, challenging trans and homophobia, and challenging white supremacy.

A common critique of gay YA novels is often their focus on coming out narratives. Clearly, gay youth are more than their coming out experiences and there is certainly a need to see gay characters live lives that represent that. However, these stories continue to be extremely valuable for Latinx communities. Consider for a minute that there aren’t many YA novels written by Latinx authors that center Latina lesbian and queer experiences. While the coming out narrative may feel overdone in stories that center dominant and white experiences, this is not the case for many underrepresented communities. Mayra Lazara Dole’s Young Adult novel Down to the Bone and Gabby Rivera’s more recent New Adult novel Juliet Takes a Breath are the only novels written by Latinx authors that center Latinx gay experiences that I know about. E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s award winning Fat Angie is written by a Latinx author, Charlton-Trujillo identifies as a “Wexican” or the whitest Mexican-American, but there aren’t any cultural signifiers that indicate that Angie is a Latinx character. It is also dangerous to assume that Angie is a white Latinx just because that’s how the author identifies. In any case, we need more novels that center Latinx lesbian and queer experiences.

There is also a lack of trans Latinx characters. Rigoberto Gonzalez’s The Mariposa Club introduces readers to Trinidad Ramos, a trans Latina. There’s also a minor trans character in Chulito, Puti. Trinidad and Puti experience the most violence in these novels. Trini is beat up by the school jocks and needs to transfer schools, her father burns her with cigarettes, and is ostracized by many of her schoolmates. From the little we get to know about Puti it is clear that she also experienced some violence and that her family does not respect her. However, in the face of adversity Trini, and even Puti, remains resilient.

The turbulent and painful moments in these novels are countered with yet more powerful and beautiful scenes. The parent figures in Aristotle and Dante, More Happy Than Not, and The Mariposa Club are supportive of their gay Latinx child. The tension that might exists between the gay protagonist and their parent often times has more to do with other issues not necessarily tied to the characters’ gay identity. For example, in Aristotle and Dante Aristotle has a strained relationship with his father because of Mr. Mendoza’s past war experiences and because of Ari’s older brother’s imprisonment. Despite these complications, it is Mr. Mendoza that helps him realize he is in love with Dante. In More Happy Than Not, Aaron’s mom knows he’s gay and gives him the space to figure it out and come out on his own terms. Their relationship is complicated by the father’s suicide and the memory-erasing procedures offered by the Leteo Institute. Mauricio’s dad in The Mariposa Club is also very nurturing. He provides support not just for Maui but for all the fierce mariposas. Mauricio’s dad has a difficult time connecting to his son because he doubts his own parent skills, especially since his wife passed away.

Furthermore, the romantic relationships in these novels are tender and complex. At the beginning of Rainbow Boys Jason is dating the head cheerleader but later develops a crush for Kyle, who is being crushed on by Nelson. Aristotle and Dante’s relationship is sweet, quirky, and everything you want love to be. Heartbreak is way too real in these novels as well. Aaron fromMore Happy than Not and Juliet from Juliet Takes a Breath get their hearts broken and these scenes will bring readers to angry-filled, hot tears.

The books listed here are only the beginning. I can’t say I’ve read every gay YA book in search of Latinx characters. Hopefully this list will serve as a catalyst to find gay Latinx characters and Latinx authors in the literature we read.

Tommy Stands Alone (Piñata Press, 1995) by Gloria Velásquez

Publisher description: The third novel in the Roosevelt High School Series focuses on the difficult issue of a young man’s struggle with his sexual orientation — a conflict made more difficult by his family’s traditional Hispanic expectations.

Rainbow Boys (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003) by Alex Sanchez

Publisher description: Jason Carrillo is a jock with a steady girlfriend, but he can’t stop dreaming about sex…with other guys. Kyle Meeks doesn’t look gay, but he is. And he hopes he never has to tell anyone — especially his parents. Nelson Glassman is “out” to the entire world, but he can’t tell the boy he loves that he wants to be more than just friends. Three teenage boys, coming of age and out of the closet. In a revealing debut novel that percolates with passion and wit, Alex Sanchez follows these very different high-school seniors as their struggles with sexuality and intolerance draw them into a triangle of love, betrayal, and ultimately, friendship.

Rainbow High (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003) By Alex Sanchez

Publisher description: Jason Carrillo, the best-looking athlete in school, has had his eyes on the prize form day one: a scholarship for college. But then his eyes turn to love-and Kyle.

Kyle Meeks, swim team star and all-around good guy, is finally in the relationship he’s wanted. Being in love feels so good, in fact, that he can’t imagine giving it up to go to Princeton. Something he’s worked for his entire life.

Nelson Glassman, outgoing and defiant, might be HIV-positive. Jeremy, the boy he loves, is HIV positive. Although Nelson fears testing positive, if he is infected Jeremy might stop protecting him and pushing him away. They can be together.

High school’s almost over. Graduation is ahead. Life’s a bowl of cherries, right? Right….

Rainbow Road (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2005) by Alex Sanchez

Publisher description: It’s the end of the road…

Jason Carrillo came out to his basketball team and lost his university scholarship. Now that he’s graduated, he’s been asked to speak at the opening of a gay and lesbian high school across the country-but what is he going to say?

Kyle Meeks is getting ready to go to Princeton in the fall. When his boyfriend, Jason, mentions the speaking invitation, he jumps at the chance to go with him-but can their romance survive two weeks crammed together in a car?

Nelson Glassman is happy that his best friend, Kyle, has found love with Jason. Now he wants to find a soul mate of his own and is going to start looking during the road trip-but will being “third wheel” ruin his friendship with Kyle and Jason?

The God Box (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2007) by Alex Sanchez

Publisher description: How could I choose betwen my sexuality and my spirituality, two of the most important parts that made me whole? High school senior Paul has dated Angie since middle school, and they’re good together. They have a lot of the same interests, like singing in their church choir and being active in Bible club. But when Manuel transfers to their school, Paul has to rethink his life. Manuel is the first openly gay teen anyone in their small town has ever met, and yet he says he’s also a committed Christian. Talking to Manuel makes Paul reconsider thoughts he has kept hidden, and listening to Manuel’s interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality causes Paul to reevaluate everything he believed. Manuel’s outspokenness triggers dramatic consequences at school, culminating in a terrifying situation that leads Paul to take a stand.

Down to the Bone (Harper Teen, 2008) by Mayra Lazara Dole

Publisher description: When Shai receives test messages from Marlena, the love of her life, and reads them during class, her dramatic mother finds out what her A-student daughter’s been doing behind her back and kicks her to the curb.

Soon Shai becomes involved with an unusual group of friends in exotic Miami. Can a discarded free-thinker turn the corner into a wild as wild, hilarious, and painful as her first love-and create a new kind of family?

The Mariposa Club (Alyson Books, 2009) by Rigoberto González

Publisher Description: As they embark on their final year of high school, the Fierce Foursome-Maui, Trini, Isaac, and Liberace-decide to do something big, something that will memorialize their friendships for when they all go their separate ways and begin their new “adult” lives. Already accustomed to the hardships that come with being openly gay in high school (not to mention in their homes), the boys can’t begin to imagine what they will be faced with when they set out to create Caliente Valley High School’s first GLBTQ club. But once the Mariposa Club is formed, they will not only have a place where they belong and that is all their own, but it will be a place for future students who feel as displaced as they do.

Mariposa Gown (Tincture, 2012) by Rigoberto González

Publisher description: In the sequel to The Mariposa Club, devoted Maui, fabulous Trini, and Goth-boy Liberace discover that the miedo and drama of life as a senior in high school is never-ending. The cure: friendship. But the bonds between the trio are tested; Sebastian, the handsome son of a wealthy developer crushes on Maui’s eye-and the attraction is mutual but oh-so-complicated; Trini must go back to living with her parents, which means dressing as a girl is no longer allowed; and Lib has to decide his future after graduation, one that could take him far away from Caliente Valley High and friends he’s known for years. But before caps and gowns can be donned a different, crucial event is fast coming. Prom. And this new Fierce Foursome wants to make a statement about acceptance and diversity. Which means one of our activists will be wearing a gown at prom. Chic Manifique! Maybe. Hopefully, he’ll still have a strong arm-and friends-to lean on when wearing matching heels.”

Chulito (Alyson Books, 2010) by Charles Rice-González

Publisher description: Set against a vibrant South Bronx neighborhood and the queer youth culture of Manhattan’s piers, Chulito is a coming-out, coming-of-age love story of a sexy, tough, hip hop–loving, young Latino man and the colorful characters in his vibrant neighborhood. Chulito, which means “cutie,” is one of the boys, and everyone in his neighborhood has seen him grow up—the owner of the local bodega, the Lees from the Chinese restaurant, his buddies from the corner, and all of his neighbors and friends, including Carlos, who was Chulito’s best friend until they hit puberty and people started calling Carlos a pato . . . a faggot. Chulito rejects Carlos, buries his feelings for him, and becomes best friends with Kamikaze, a local drug dealer. When Carlos comes home from his first year away at college and they share a secret kiss, Chulito’s worlds collide as his ideas of being a man, being macho, and being in love are challenged. Vivid, sexy, funny, heartbreaking, and fearless, this brilliant work is destined to become a queer classic.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secret of the Universe (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012) by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Publisher description: Dante can swim. Ari can’t. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned.  Ari’s features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life would be the  last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself. But against all odds, when Ari and Dante meet, they develop a special bond that will teach them the most important truths of their lives, and help define the people they want to be. But there are big hurdles in the way, and only by believing in each other—and the power of their friendship—can Ari and Dante emerge stronger on the other side.

Tommy Stands Tall  (Arte Publico Press, 2013) by Gloria Velásquez

Publisher description: Tommy is excited to finally be a senior at Roosevelt High School. There was a time when he thought he’d never graduate, especially after he tried to kill himself to avoid dealing with his sexual orientation. But when Albert, a new student at Roosevelt High, is beaten so badly he winds up in the emergency room, Tommy can’t help but wonder if he was attacked because he’s gay. Soon, rumors about Albert are reverberating down the school’s hallways, and Tommy fears Albert might seek the same solution he himself did two years before
In spite of being busy with school, his job at the local theater and tutoring a young immigrant boy, Tommy finds other students both gay and straight interested in starting a club to raise awareness and seek equality for gay students. But will it really make a difference? Will they be able to modify the school’s anti-discrimination code? And will the group be able to help Albert?

Mariposa U (Tincture, 2015) by Rigoberto González

Publisher description: The third installment in Rigoberto González’s beloved series of young adult novels featuring a diverse band of southern California Latino friends finds thoughtful Maui Gutiérrez as a freshman at university and struggling to navigate life away from the support of his loving, old friends and family. University life can be lonely. He has no idea that his education is going to include a course in relationships-there have been dates with boys before, but Maui finds himself falling for Diego And where there is new love there is drama and heartbreak, something that the Fierce Foursome of his high school days would have warned Maui about.

More Happy Than Not (Soho Teen, 2015)  by Adam Silvera

Publisher description: In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is. Why does happiness have to be so hard?

Juliet Takes A Breath (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016) by Gabby Rivera

Publisher description: Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet had a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding things. Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle? With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

 

Originally posted on GayYA: http://www.gayya.org/?p=3787

Juliet Takes a Breath: A How-To Guide for Young Queer Latinas

Juliet Milagros Palante is a 19-year-old Puertoriqueña from the Bronx. She knows she’s gay but hasn’t told her family. She decides to come out to her family the night she’s set to travel to Portland, Oregon[1] for her summer internship with the renowned white feminist Harlowe Brisbane. After having read Harlowe’s book Raging Flower: Empowering Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, Juliet is convinced Harlowe is the only one that can help her understand her new gay identity. Juliet is in for a rude awakening and finds solace in unexpected places.

Juliet Takes a Breath is everything! I found Gabby Rivera’s[2] debut novel to be a much needed sorts of “how-to guide” on being a young queer Latina. It is important to note there aren’t many young adult or new adult novels with LGBTQI Latina characters. In a previous GayYA post I wrote about the need for novels that capture the complex experiences of queer young Latinas. Rivera does just that. Through Juliet, Rivera has created an endearing and complex character with struggles with which many queer Latinx youth can relate. Juliet’s coming out is difficult for many of the typical reasons—fear of losing her family, concern for her physical safety, and a desire to belong. However, Juliet’s coming out is also tied to her ethnicity and her class status— which even she won’t realize until much later. Readers can follow along Juliet’s process as she learns more about her queer Latina identity. Throughout this journey Rivera drops names, terms, and history facts like:  Lolita Lebron, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Assata Shakur, Octavia Butler, PGPs, microaggressions, womanist, white feminism, banana republics, and more.  This new knowledge forces Juliet to reconcile her Puerto Rican identity with her queer identity. At times Juliet is also asked to understand the complicated and oppressive role the United States has played in Latin America. Juliet also learns about the dangers of essentializing feminism and womanhood.

juliet-takes-a-breathRaging Flower has awakened Juliet’s awareness about her body and her sexuality. From this book, Juliet found the empowerment she needed to come out to her family. Her love for Harlowe and the potential Portland has to offer is clearly juxtaposed to Juliet’s description of her side of the Bronx as a place that is loud, violent, and suffocating. Her antagonistic attitude is further reified when she’s harassed by young men of color trying to sexually pursue her. Juliet’s stark comparison between the Bronx, that is, her family, her culture, her ethnicity, and Portland, where she believes feminism and liberation await her, suggests that she feels she can’t be gay at home in her community. Unfortunately, this feeling is not uncommon among young queer Latinx and it is certainly an experience that is captured widely across queer and gay Latinx YA novels.[3]

In 2013 the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) released a report of a survey conducted with 1,937 self-identifying Latino and LGBT[4] youth as an attempt to provide a broad spectrum of LGBT Latino youth experiences in the United States. According to the report, “LGBT Latino youth suffer more isolation in their communities than their non-LGBT Latino peers in several specific ways. They are more likely than non-LGBT Latino youth to face harassment and violence in the community, and much less likely to participate in a variety of community activities” (26). Simply put, LGBT Latino youth face more harassment and violence in their communities than straight and cis Latino youth. Furthermore, the data collected suggests that as a result of this isolation and harassment, “LGBT Latino youth are twice as likely as non-LGBT Latino youth to say they will need to move to be accepted” (27). In other words, majority of the LGBT Latino youth in this study feel that in order to be open about their sexuality they must leave their community. Juliet and the HRC report demonstrate that more conversations about the reasons queer Latinx youth feel they need to leave their communities to be openly out and about the ways communities can create safe spaces for their queer youth are imperative.

All this to say that Juliet is not alone. Many will be able to relate to her need to escape her family, her community, and even her culture in order to be out. Juliet captures a desire to survive and to thrive as a gay person. However, it is also important to understand the larger context and longer histories of oppression that have made it appear that young queer Latinx cannot thrive in their own ethnic or cultural communities. Very simply put, the juxtaposition that Juliet lays out between the Bronx and Portland stems from what Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism.[5]” That is, there’s a dominant (often read as white male) gay experience that is more often accepted, and therefore more often represented, in society that does not allow for other gay experiences (like those of queer people of color and native people) to be part of the narrative. The history and consequences of homonationalism are a few of the reasons why Juliet feels that Harlowe and Portland have more to offer her in regards to her queer identity than the Bronx or her family can.

Watching Juliet go through this process of understanding her Puerto Rican identity in relation to her queer identity is both beautiful and heart-wrenching. Through Rivera’s narration it is evident that Juliet has high hopes for Harlowe and for Portland. As a reader, I can relate a bit more to Ava’s, Juliet’s queer cousin,  own political consciousness and while I really hoped that Juliet would find what she was looking for in Portland I was also very afraid for her. By the time Juliet gets to the Portland airport she is very vulnerable. Her mother refused to talk to her after she revealed she was a lesbian. To top that off she’s also experiencing a lot of culture shock. Portland is way different from the Bronx. Readers will have so many feels for Juliet. I know throughout the novel I wanted to give this nena a hug. Harlowe eventually lets Juliet down in a very racist and oppressive way. It will be a painful, and even triggering, scene to read. Juliet, like many of us with underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds, was searching for knowledge, understanding, and belonging. Often times we gravitate to information that is available in search of ourselves and cling on for dear life to the parts we understand. Juliet wanted to see herself in Harlowe and in Raging Flower because she needed to see herself represented.

Harlowe’s betrayal forces Juliet to turn to her family for support. It turns out that her family is more supportive than she thought when she first left for Portland. Her cousin Ava, also a queer Latina character, is a fountain of information throughout the novel but is unable to fully get through to Juliet until after that Harlowe incident. Ava takes Juliet to a party exclusively for queer people of color where she refuels her energy and develops a new sense of self. Spending time with her family and learning from and with them is a vital part of Juliet’s identity construction. After figuring things out with Harlowe, Juliet returns to the Bronx and reaffirms her love for herself through a letter: “Dear Juliet, / Repeat after me:/ You are a brutal. / You are a warrior. / You are a feminist. / You are a beautiful brown babe” (258).

I call Juliet Takes a Breath a how-to guide of sorts not because it has all the answers but because the reader learns much about queer identity, feminism, and Latinx history alongside Juliet.  There is no right prescription for finding one’s identity and Juliet demonstrates that. Her research in the library, her participation in the queer sci-fi workshop, and even her new hair cut suggest that that the focus of the “how-to” strategy is to trust in our voice and the knowledge that surrounds us (including using our family as sources of information). Rivera introduces us to a character with whom many young queer Latinas will relate. Novels like these are significant because there are plenty of Juliets searching for themselves and this book gives them an opportunity to see themselves represented. Juliet Takes a Breath tackles many issues that queer youth, a more specifically queer Latinas, will understand. Furthermore, this novel is an opportunity to break down the misconception that queer youth of color need to leave their communities to be openly gay. While that need has certainly been fueled out of a desire to survive because not all families are supportive and there is no denying the history of violence against gay and queer bodies, we must also make room to commit ourselves to creating safe communities for our queer Latinx youth. Rivera’s book is a gift to this and future generations of queer Latinas. I expect Rivera will receive many fan letters asking for opportunities to intern with her.

 

[1] Gentrification and the displacement of black and brown residents is a serious issue in Portland, Oregon. Recently, Portland has been named the “most gentrified city of the century” (https://www.colorlines.com/articles/gentrification-spotlight-how-portland-pushing-out-its-black-residents) and “hipster heartland.” While gentrification is not a major theme in this novel, there’s a glimpse of it when Juliet takes the bus late at night (p.74-75).

[2] Gabby Rivera “is currently the Youth programs Manager at GLSEN and is developing their National Student Council and curriculums for GSAs across the country. She’s fostered other LGBTQ youth groups and taught as a multi-media artist for organizations such as the DreamYard Project” (Back of book matter). Learn more about Rivera at gabbyrivera.com

[3] This need to leave home to be Latinx and gay comes up in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys, Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone, Rigoberto Gonzalez’s The Mariposa Club, Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito, for example.

[4] I use the term “LGBT Latino youth” because that is the term used in the report released by HRC and LULAC.

[5] Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Originally posted on GayYA: http://www.gayya.org/?p=3887