By Sujei Lugo & Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez
By now, we are all familiar with the various conversations about the need for children of color and Native children to see themselves represented in the stories they read. However, not many know that these discussions, as they pertain to Latinx children, have been taking place since the early 1920s when Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system. Clearly, the context for dialogues around diversity were different because it was a different time; however, the urgency surrounding issues of representation, advocacy, and empowerment as they relate to Latinx children have many similarities.
Unfortunately, Belpré’s legacy is not one that is well known. Robert Liu-Trujillo, illustrator of the beautiful Belpré portrait on this post, says “I didn’t hear anything about Ms. Belpré until I was in my 30s. Once I realized that there was a really interesting person behind the award, I was really surprised that I’d never heard of her before. From what I’ve read about her and seen through my research, she was a revolutionary figure in children’s education and storytelling.” Trujillo is right to call Belpré a “revolutionary figure” because she indeed was.
Her innovative use of Puerto Rican folklore to reach predominantly Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican children in New York City revolutionized the role of public libraries in the life of these children. Through her storytimes, her puppeteering, and her written works, Belpré set a high standard for how libraries should tailor their programs and services for the communities and peoples in which they’re located. Her commitment and advocacy to bridge her Puerto Rican community to the library, and vice versa, showcases the roots of critical children’s librarianship and inclusion, and not assimilation, of marginalized voices into the field. Much work still needs to be done to bring Belpré’s legacy to the front and highlight the many ways she’s revolutionized storytelling, librarianship, and children’s books for Latinx children.
In “Pura Belpré Lights the Storyteller’s Candle: Reframing the Legacy of a Legend and What it Means for the Fields of Latina/o Studies and Children’s Literature,” Marilisa Jiménez-García discusses the various roles Belpré inhabited and the ways her contributions as a librarian and a writer, for example, can be read as subversive political acts. Jiménez-García says of Belpré as a storyteller, “she occupied as a kind of weaver of history, [she] encouraged children to defy assimilation along with the textual and national boundaries created by the dominant culture” (Jimenez-Garcia 113). In other words, through her use of Puerto Rican folklore, Belpré was teaching young Puerto Rican children to embrace their cultural identity and to challenge dominant narratives that depicted them as less than.
Jiménez-García further argues that “Belpré’s interventions within U.S. children’s literature constitute an attempt at cultural preservation, and even further, as an attempt to establish historical memory within the U.S. for Puerto Rican children” (115). In this way, Belpré used her writing to bring to the forefront a Puerto Rican heritage necessary for the identity construction of Puerto Rican children in the U.S. InThe Stories I Read to the Children: The Life and Writing of Pura Belpré, the Legendary Storyteller, Children’s Author, and the New York Pubic Librarian (2013) Lisa Sánchez González writes, “In all of her work—including her work as a public librarian–she aimed to ensure that working-class bilingual and bicultural children had rightful access to what is still too often a privilege: Literacy, and with it, free and public access to good books” (17).
Jiménez-García’s and Sánchez González’s research inform us that Belpré was telling, writing, and performing stories that centered Puerto Rican culture and folklore, that she created a space at the NYPL and made Puerto Rican children the center of it, and that she was committed to making books available to children. In this way, Belpré led her own revolution.
Belpré’s legacy is incomparable, and 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the children’s literary award named after her–the Pura Belpré Award. The award was established in 1996 by co-founders Oralia Garza de Cortés and Sandra Rios Balderrama. According to the award website, the Pura Belpré Award is “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” By establishing an award that highlights Latina/o writers and illustrators creating works about Latina/o experiences, Garza de Cortés and Rios Balderrama carved a space dedicated to the empowerment and the future of Latinx children. Belpré’s legacy as a librarian, a writer, and a puppeteer demonstrate the importance of storytelling as a means of resisting and challenging oppressive dominant narratives. The Pura Belpré Award allows us to continue this revolution and give Latinx children and youth an opportunity to transform the world around them.
REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) along with the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) are joining efforts to hold a special celebration for the Pura Belpré 20th Anniversary Celebración at this year, ALA (American Library Association) Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. The event will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré Award medal and honor winning authors and illustrators, David Bowles, Antonio Castro L., Angela Dominguez, Margarita Engle, Rafael López, Meg Medina, and Duncan Tonatiuh. It will also include book signing, a silent auction of original art by Latinx children’s illustrators, a new commemorative book for sale, The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a keynote by author and storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy.
The event promises to be a well-rounded celebración to recognize the award that lay ground to the recognition of Latinx children’s books creators within the youth literature field and the trajectory of the award, its past winners and honors, and the constant supporters of Latinx children’s literature.
For Part 2 of this post, which will run tomorrow, we spoke to members of the Pura Belpré Award Committee to get their insight on the momentous occasion that is the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré Award. Their interviews provide us with an insight to their motivations for creating the award, to the need of an award dedicated to Latinx children’s books written and illustrated by Latinx, the future of the award, and a look back at favorite award moments from the last 20 years. Tomorrow, read extensive interviews with Co-founder Oralia Garza de Cortés, Co-founder Sandra Rios Balderrama, and past committee member Celia C. Pérez.
Originally posted on Latinx Kid Lit: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2016/05/16/the-pura-belpre-award-continuing-belpres-legacy-of-lighting-the-storytellers-candle-part-1/
Susan Guevara won the Pura Belpré award for illustration in 1996 and 2001 for her work with Gary Soto in Chato’s Kitchen (1995) and Chato and the Party Animals (2000). Soto introduces readers to the coolest cat in the East Los barrio. In Chato’s Kitchen, Chato plans an elaborate scheme to get some delicious ratoncitos to come over for dinner and serve as the main course. Chato’s plan is foiled when his invited guests bring their friend Chorizo, a low-riding dog, to dinner with them. In Chato and the Party Animals, Chato throws an amazing birthday bash for his best cat friend Novio Boy, who has never had a birthday party of his own because he doesn’t know his date of birth since he’s from the pound. Through her illustrations, Guevara gives life to Soto’s suevecharacters.
Guevara’s illustrations depict Chato as the cool cat Soto created him to be. Guevara draws Chato with a green baseball hat worn to the back, a single gold hoop earring, a gold tooth, a thin mustache, and a goatee. Guevara also creates a barrio full of hip vatos, carnales, and homeboys. Novio Boy wears a red wrapped bandana around his head with a seemingly plaid shirt only buttoned at the first button with a white plain shirt underneath. Papá ratoncito wears what appears to be a guayabera and Mamá ratoncito wears a traditional white rebozo with rose appliques. These seemingly minute details give the story a genuine East Los Angeles feel that might resonate with many barrios across the country.
Guevara’s personification of Chato and his friends make it easy for readers to connect with the characters specifically because these characters’ traits resemble that which we might see in our own relatives and neighbors. Pachuco, Chicano, and cholo histories are significant cultural aspects of Mexican/Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. This is evident in the aesthetics, like fashion, language, and mannerisms, which have been passed on from generation to generation that are characteristic of Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano culture. That is, Guevara’s illustrations signal an extensive history of Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano identity in East Los Angeles through the characters’ fashion and gestures. Furthermore, Guevara’s artistic choices to illustrate the characters wearing clothing that have been represented by society as having cultural attributes, that have also been read as criminal, also indicates a history of resistance evident through fashion.
Scholar Catherine Ramirez calls this resistance “style politics” as a way to demonstrate that fashion can serve as tool to challenge oppressive systems. In other words, while the backwards hat, piercings, bandanas, baggy pants, pompadours, etc. have cultural and historical significance and attachment to Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano people, in this case, these same fashion choices have also been maligned by dominant society to represent criminality, deviancy, and otherness. The prevalence of these fashion statements today despite their negative associations and Soto and Guevara’s representations of these markers in their stories are indicators of resistance against dominant narratives.
Resistance is an evident theme in Guevara’s illustrations. While this resistance may be subtle for readers quickly glancing through the illustrations, they have a great impact once we realize that these moments are there. For example, in Chato’s Kitchen there’s a scene where Chato is illustrated kissing his fruits and vegetables as he prepares dinner for his guests. Guevara makes the bowl holding the food the center of this illustration with Chato on the side. The banana has a sticker that reads “Sangre de Honduras.” Stickers on bananas normally promote the brand or company associated with it. Through this detail on the banana, Guevara points out the violent role the US has played in Central America as made evident by the introduction of banana republics and banana wars.
Another example of resistance in the illustrations is seen in Chato and the Party Animals during the scene when Chato and his friends are looking for Novio Boy to take him to his surprise birthday party. Guevara gives us a bird’s-eye view of a Chato’s barrio and with careful attention the reader can see that there are murals on some of the buildings. One of the buildings has a mural of Che Guevara with the quote “We are not a minority” next to it, a quote that appears in the next scene as Chorizo howls and the quote is seen throughout the sky. Another wall depicts a cat with a cap and gown with the words “Si Se Puede.” There is also a mural of la Virgen de Guadalupe. The tiny murals represented in these books serve as a source of empowerment because they challenge dominant narratives that seek to oppress barrios similar to Chato’s.
Guevara’s illustrations in the Chato books have several layers that might be missed during the first read of the story that are definitely worth returning to and taking the time to notice all the important details. A reader can get lost just looking at Guevara’s illustrations, and that’s certainly a sign of a great artist.
- For younger readers: After having read the story, ask younger readers to choose their favorite illustration. Have them look at the illustration and make a list of all the items and characters they see on the page. This can be done individually, in small groups, or as a class. Have them share their reason for choosing their illustration and their list of items they found. See if anyone notices the ninja turtles in the mercado or if they notice that Baby ratoncito’s stuffed animal is a black cat.
- For middle grade readers: Ask middle grade readers to choose an illustration and create a new story based on what they see. Encourage them to change the character’s name and his purpose. In illustrations with more than one character, encourage them to create a dialogue or exchange of sorts. Have a discussion with students about the significance of illustration in children’s picture books. Ask them to consider the benefits and challenges of reading stories, like children’s illustrated books, that offer both written and visual perspectives.
- For young adult readers: Ask young adult readers to discuss Chato and his friend’s fashion sense. Deconstruct stereotypes associated with clothing like the zoot suit, baggy clothes, hoodies, etc. Ask them to contemplate their fashion choices as a form of resistance. Ask them to consider if what they wear or what they post online is a form of resistance. If it is, what are they resisting and how? If it is not, then why? What does resistance look like? Consider asking them if selfies, for example, can be a form of resistance.
 Ramirez explores the concept of “style politics” in her book The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (2009) and while she analyzes this form of resistance as it relates to women donning the traditional Pachuco Zoot suit in the 1940s and 1950s, it also has relevance in Soto’s and Guevara’s representation of Chato.
Originally posted on Latinx in Kid Lit: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2016/05/12/celebrating-pura-belpre-winners-spotlight-on-illustrator-susan-guevara/
Don’t know what to read for #readathon2016? Check out 5 Latinx YA Novels I’ve binged read! The books aren’t listed in any particular order. I’ve included them because of their binge-worthy factor—that is, I read these Latinx novels in like a day because they are super fabulous. These novels have intriguing storylines, relatable characters, and flawless writing. These Latinx YA novels address contemporary issues like suicide, gay identity, working-class struggles, bullying, and family troubles. The MCs find ways to process the multiple oppressions they experience and develop at stronger sense of self. All in all, these amazing YA novels will have you disregarding all your other responsibilities and I guarantee that it will be worth it!
- When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez (Bloombury, 2015)
Publisher description: Meet Elizabeth Davis: a goth girl with an attitude problem, she must leant to control her anger before it destroys her. Meet Emily Delgado: a smart, sweet girl, with a seemingly happy life, she feels her depression closing in around her. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where the words of Emily Dickinson are a temporary salve to the constant turmoil they feel inside. Both girls are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. Before the school year is over, one of them will attempt suicide…Powerful and heartbreakingly honest, When Reason Breaks tells the story of two girls fighting for their lives.
- More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (Soho Teen, 2015)
Publisher description: The Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-relief procedure seems too good to be true to Aaron Soto—miracle cure-alls don’t tend to pop up in the Bronx projects. Aaron could never forget how he’s grown up poor, how his friends aren’t there for him, or how his father committed suicide in their one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has the support of his patient girlfriend, if not necessarily his distant brother and overworked mother, but it’s not enough. Then Thomas shows up. He has a sweet movie-watching setup on his roof, and he doesn’t mind Aaron’s obsession with a popular fantasy series. There are nickames, inside jokes. Most importantly, Thomas doesn’t mind talking about Aaron’s past. But Aaron’s newfound happiness isn’t welcoming on his block. Since he can’t stay away from Thomas or suddenly stop being gay, Aaron must turn to Leteo to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he is.
- Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (Candlewick Press, 2013)
Publisher description: “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.” That’s what some girl tells Piddy Sanchez one morning. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui Delgado is or what she’s done to piss her off. But Yaqui isn’t kidding around. Piddy tries to focus on finding out more about the father she’s never met and balancing honors courses with her job at the neighborhood hair salon, but avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. She is forced to decide exactly who she is versus who others are trying t make her become—and ultimately discovers a rhythm that is all her own.
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Simon & Schuster, 2012)
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 odd, 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 their way, and only by believing in each other—and the power of their friendship—can Ari and Dante emerge strong on the other side.
- Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (Cinco Punto Press, 2014)
Publisher description: Gabi wants a lot of things. She wishes she wasn’t fat. She wishes her father wasn’t addicted to meth. She wants to solve her best friends’ problems. And, of course, she wants love. But in the middle of her whirling twirling word, the thing she unexpectedly finds is…poetry.
- 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 historical 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 novel in verse, 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.
- The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle (Henry Colt & Co, 2008) This historical novel in verse opens in 1896 in Cuba and tells a fictional account of Rosa Castellanos, more often refer to as “La Bayamesa, her commitment to freedom. Rosa was a slave and she escapes in order to serve as a healer and nurse to all the other runaway slaves that have been hurt by those that seek to hunt them. Through Rosa, the reader is privy to the atrociousness of slavery in Cuba and the political climate that depend on the slavery and further oppression of her people. Engle creates a powerful and heartfelt story with a strong and beautiful heroine. (Also available in Spanish) (Newbery Honor Book, Pura Belpre Award)
- The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan & Peter Sis (Scholastic Press, 2010)
Based on the childhood events in the life of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Muñoz-Ryan and Sis capture a beautiful story about a young boy’s struggle to find his voice despite his father’s domineering presence. Because Neftali is smaller than most boys his age, his father is determined to strengthen him and turn him into a real man. Neftali, is more interested in collecting objects, reading books, and daydreaming. All of which only further infuriate his father. The Dreamer is an exceptional story of the power of poetry in the face of adversity. (Also available in Spanish) (Pura Belpre Award)
- Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Lee & Low Books, 2011)
Lupita lives happily with her family in Coahuila until she must move to South Texas to accompany his father to a new job and so that her mother can receive proper cancer treatment. While her father needs to work to maintain the family and her mother is in another town getting treatment, Lupita is in charge of taking care of her younger siblings. When her situation becomes too burdensome she finds solace under the mesquite tree where she sits to write. Garcia McCall tells an emotionally charged story of a young girl forced to take on adult responsibilities and her unwavering commitment to become a writer. (Tomas Rivera Book Award, Pura Belpre Award)
- Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle (Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2015) In this riveting nonfiction memoir, Engle tells of her upbringing in Los Angeles during the Cold War era, learning about the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the palpable fear she felt for her family in Cuba. Engle describes the challenges of growing up with two cultures and always longing for one place while in another. Young Margarita finds herself in words when it feels like she belongs to both culture and neither at the same time. Enchanted Air is the outstanding memoir of a truly amazing writer.(Pura Belpre Award)
“Before you go further,/ let me tell you what a poem brings,/ first, you must know the secret,/ there is no poem/ to speak of, it is a way to attain/ a life without boundaries”
— from “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings by Juan Felipe Herrera
I have been teaching creative writing to middle school and high school students in and outside of traditional classroom spaces for about five years now. For the most part, I have found that despite the need for these creative spaces, they are too hard to come by. My purpose in each teaching space is to create a safe space where youth can use their lived experiences, their communities, and their imagination as inspiration to find their voices—alongside teaching them a skill or two about creative writing. My favorite part of teaching creative writing is the opportunity to listen to youth tell their stories. When I start my classes, I always let youth know that I was undocumented when I was their age, and with high school students, I might reveal that I grew up around domestic violence. I don’t share these personal facts for any shock factor but because there’s still a dangerous misconception that people like me—and like my students—are not writers. The lack of representation and diversity in books available in K-12 classrooms impacts whether children and young adults understand their experiences as valuable and whether they can see themselves as agents of their own stories. In other words, not seeing ourselves represented in what we read while in school influences the value we give to our personal experiences and whether we consider ourselves worthy enough to write our own stories. Most of the work that I do in each teaching space is about undoing the fallacies of who can be a writer and what stories can be told.
I enjoy teaching poetry most of all because, at first, youth are very hesitant about reading and writing poetry because it’s “too hard” to understand or there are “too many rules” to follow, but they are then surprised and even excited when we read poems by the likes of Francisco X. Alarcon, Pat Mora, or Juan Felipe Herrera. I’m sure what surprises them is that these poems are about tortillas, abuelas, or about barrios like the ones in which they live. The idea here is not to essentialize their Latinx experiences, or their experiences as children of color for that matter, but stories about cultural foods, grandmas, immigration, class, and the like still resonate with children and young adults of color for a reason. Even if they are exposed to writers of color in their classrooms, students and teachers alike are constantly battling the negative messages youth receive about their cultural, ethnic, and class background. Because of this, it’s refreshing and empowering for youth to hear stories they can relate to in hopes that they do will want to share their own stories.
Poetry usually becomes the favorite outlet for many of my students, especially after I tell them that they can write poetry without needing to follow any rules. Poetry has become a safe way for my students to unleash their dreams, their pain, and their imaginations without necessarily revealing the truth about any of the above. Imagery, metaphors, similes, and symbols are very powerful tools for youth to process their experiences without needing to name their afflictions if they don’t want to. On the other hand, poetry is the perfect vessel for them to say what they want with little stress from conventional English grammar rules. Believe it or not, complete sentences, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation can be real bummers. I have had the most hesitant of 6th grade boys write poems about video games, boogers, balls, or about how stupid 6th grade is. And I encourage those types of poems because those, too, are important stories. There are certainly other students that can relate to poetry about video games and the dreadfulness that is 6th grade. In the same vein, I have had students reveal that they struggle with depression, that they don’t like the color of their skin, that they are embarrassed by their parent’s broken English, that they or a family member are undocumented or have been deported. I don’t ever ask students to write about their deepest, darkest secrets. I often give them the option to make something up if they don’t want to write about themselves. But more often than not, students share these personal stories without prompting because they need to. In my poetry sessions[i], I try to give students the opportunity to say what they can’t say aloud in hopes that they may “attain a life without boundaries.”
How to Use Poetry in Latinx Children’s Literature to Encourage Children and Youth to Read/Write Poetry
For elementary and middle school students, I often start off with Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry for children because they are fun, culturally relevant, and bilingual (English/Spanish). Alarcón has many wonderful books of poetry for children but I use the “The Magical Cycle of the Seasons Series,” which includes Iguanas in the Snow: And Other Winter Poems, Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems, From the Bellybutton of the Moon: And other Summer Poems, Angels Ride Bikes: And Other Fall Poems, because it allows me to use the five senses to describe how each season manifest itself in a student’s community.
For example, Alarcón’s poem “Dream,” in Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Summer Poems, is about gardens everywhere and everyone helping to plant gardens. When teaching this poem, I first ask the youth to read the poem aloud. I like to ask different students to read the same poem several times so that we can hear different intonations and discuss if emphasizing different words in the poem changes its meaning. I do the same with the Spanish version of the poem. I then talk about which of the five senses the poem uses to tell the story. I ask students to point to specific lines in the poem to support their arguments. We then move into a group discussion about gardens, their purposes, where we might see them, and if they have one of their own. Depending on the group, I might ask them to write in free verse about the gardens in their homes/communities or to imagine their own garden. If the youth or group needs more structure, I might ask them to write an acrostic or cinquain poem about gardens or a garden related subjects. To close out the session, I often ask students to share their poems, or we might try to mime or sing the poem. When there’s not enough time to go into that much detail with the poem, I read the poem with the youth, ask them what they think the poem is about, and ask them to write their own poem about their garden, a garden they’ve seen, or why there should or shouldn’t be more gardens in their communities. Maya Christina Gonzalez’s beautiful illustrations also present an opportunity for students to create additional garden paintings, drawings, or an entirely new poem based on the illustrations.
For older students I often refer to Juan Felipe Herrera’s novel in verse Downtown Boy. More often than not, we focus on the young main character Juanito to discuss issues such as discrimination in school, immigration, gender roles, masculinity and femininity, diabetes, family, and more. If I have an opportunity to teach the entire novel, then I often create poetry portfolios with my students where we pick a broader theme like identity, culture, and/or community that will thread throughout all their poems. If I don’t have enough time to cover the entire novel, then I usually pick the poems that will best represent the student population or the poem with which they can connect to the most.
For example, Downtown Boy opens with Juanito’s cousin trying to coerce him into boxing Sweet Pea Price. Juanito is new to San Francisco and wants to make friends but his father has advised him against fighting. Juanito will need to decide if he will fight or not. When teaching this poem, I ask students to read this poem aloud; we then discuss Juanito’s character traits and the overall voice of the poem. I brainstorm with my students about times they might have been in a similar predicament. Because this poem uses dialogue, I encourage my students to include two different voices. If the youth have finished their poems, I might ask them to share their work. With older students, I like to encourage revisions and workshopping each other’s poems in order to improve our writing and to learn from one another.
Poetry in Action
The following poems were written by young poets in my creative writing classes. Kimberly Alvarez is currently a sophomore in high school in Riverside, California. Naomi Lara is currently a 6th grader in an elementary in Chicago, Illinois. Jennifer Alvarez is currently a senior in high school in Riverside, California. I’m grateful for their words and for their permission to share them here.
by Kimberly Alvarez
I look up at the ceiling.
I’m sound asleep
I don’t want to wake up.
Until my eyes just…
Like a curtain beside me
When the wind comes through
At 5:00 a.m…
I hear my dad getting ready for
I can tell he didn’t choose that
Job or this life for himself
Or my family.
I see through him
Through his eyes,
To his soul.
It may seem…
but in reality
I can feel,
Feel the warmth
When I look into his eyes,
To his soul.
They change color. His eyes.
With him. His mood.
Can’t he be as warm as his soul is..
I always do
Of my family,
Finally happy together.
Put back together
Like a puzzle.
I always wonder
What my family would
Be like without
When I get up
It all flows down
Goes down like a giant wave
Drowning my dreams
And pulling them down
I look up at the ceiling
All of my dreams,
On the ceiling
Waiting for the rest
Of my dreams to
One BIG dream.
Un Gran Sueño.
It All Changed
By Noemi Lara
Happy girl, good friends
She should have cherished those moments
For they would be gone too soon
She looked up at the moon
Little did she know everything was about to change
Her mom and dad were acting strange
They told her they needed to arrange a meeting to see new houses.
Their new house has mouses
The neighborhood was foul
She couldn’t help but growl
She grew older
And things got colder
Her friends were bolder
Her parents would fight
It gave her a fright
She fought with all her might
But all she would see was the night
Oh how it all changed
By Jennifer Alvarez
My California is fun times at Lake Perris.
Running into the water but jumping back when you feel the ice
In those rare but amazing visits to see my “best cousin forever”
Laughing, fighting, hugging, and talking until the next three
months when we reunites.
It is those two times going to Big Bear.
Snowman on the roof of my dad’s car, attempting to bring it back
home to show it to my friends.
It is the multiple times driving to Moreno Valeey to Walmart with my sister.
Music blaring, singing along with smiles on our faces.
It is the sisterly bonding we had going to the Moreno Valley
But mostly, my California are memories with the people I love.
[i] Currently I teach poetry as a Teaching Artist with ElevArte Community Studio, an arts organization in Chicago. “Word Up,” is a pilot program funded by ElevArte and the Poetry Foundation to create a safe space for underrepresented youth to learn about and write poetry. I visit a local elementary school once a week to teach, read, and write poetry with two 6th grade classes. I have worked closely with their awesome teacher, Ms. Delta Cervantes, to create a poetry curriculum that also meets common core standards. The 6th graders are presently working on spoken word projects.
[ii] Dream was first published in 2012 in a youth anthology, R’side of the Story, out of the Youth Opportunity Center in Riverside, California
[iii] My California was published in 2013 in R’side of the Story
Originally published on Latinx in Kid Lit: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2016/04/04/poetry-in-the-lives-of-children-and-young-adults/
I’ve partnered up with the School Library Journal to give a 30 second book talk on English and Spanish editions of middle-grade books about Latinx experiences. Check out the first video:
In the last weeks that I have been re-reading Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper (2015) the media has been on a frenzy talking about the terrorists attacks in Paris, the horrible video of Laquan McDonald being shot several times by a Chicago cop, and the San Bernardino shootings. Turning on the news or scrolling through Facebook feels like a constant reminder of our precarity. In turn, we are being reminded that we are not safe or that some bodies have access to safety while others do not. I live in Chicago now and I lived near San Bernardino not too long ago so my anxiety has skyrocketed as I try to process all of this violence. I have asked myself: How do we begin healing from the daily violence we are experiencing and/or witnessing? How do we find safety in a society that is too quick to remind us that we are not safe? And how do we find empowerment amidst all this darkness? While these questions may be broad, vague, and overwhelming they have forced me to come to some sort of understanding so that I may share and create safe spaces with the young peoples I engage with. There are certainly many ways to answer these questions but I have found some of the ones I need in Shadowshaper.
It is no surprise that Older’s Shadowshaper has been on several “best of 2015” lists. Sierra Santiago is a unique heroine within young adult sci-fi and fantasy novels and within Latina/o young adult literature. Sierra’s journey as a Shadowshaper allows her to see what others cannot and as a result she becomes responsible for saving the legacy and future of the Shadowshapers. By combining the power of her ancestors with the power in art Sierra is able to save herself, her family, and her community. Throughout the novel, Sierra is confronted, and oftentimes attacked, by various forms of violence. Aside from the obvious corpuscules, demons, and throng haints that try to kill Sierra, she is also faced with the daily consequences of gentrification, street harassment, police brutality, and academic researchers in her community. The latter may not appear very violent but there are many Dr. Jonathan Wick’s in real life collecting data, writing ethnographies, and profiting off their research in communities of color. Sierra battles these different forms of violence at the same time. The dragon she is painting on the side of the building at the beginning of the novel, for example, challenges gentrification by reclaiming space and comes in handy at the end of the novel when she fights Wick. In this way, Sierra’s power does not just come from being the leader of the Shadowshapers but it also comes from art and its possibility to transform her world.
Nichola Mohr’s Nilda (1973) also presents a protagonist whose ability to draw allows her to transform the world around her and create counternarratives about her community. While Nilda does not have to worry about spirits or demons coming after her in her New York City home she does face a great deal of oppression. Nilda uses her drawings to reimagine the world around her. She oftentimes positions herself, and those around her, as having power even if that is not her reality. The opening illustration of Nilda, for example, depicts a hot summer day when the fire hydrant has been opened for the children of the community. Nilda captures the event with contour drawings, which suggests a fluidity or connection between her city, her community, and her neighbors. There is a clear contrast between the city and the community that points to an existing power tension between the city and its residents. Nilda representation of her neighbors as occupying the most space in her drawing suggests a shift in power dynamic from the city to the people. The illustration captures a moment of relief from the heat before the police arrive to close the fire hydrant and ask people to clear the streets. The exclusion of the police in Nilda’s drawing, however, demonstrates a challenge to such authority. Nilda’s imagination allows her to visualize a space where her neighbors have access to power and control of their own community. Nilda and Sierra use art, in different forms, to heal, protect, and empower themselves and those around them.
Sierra Santiago demonstrates that art can save lives and can change the world. Sierra’s role throughout the novel is to bring life to the fading murals in her community. These murals are fading because the people that painted them and the spirits within the murals are in danger. Sierra and her friends must believe in the knowledges passed on to them by their elders, the oral histories they have heard, and their own experiences to defeat Wick and the demons that seek to kill them. Sierra’s story is one of resilience and empowerment to which many young peoples can relate. Our murals are fading. Whether those murals be our self-esteems, our power, our unity, or our souls, they fade every time another young black man is killed by a cop, every time another LGBTQI youth commits suicide, every time we experience or witness islamophobia and xenophobia. We fade too. At the end of the novel, Sierra is able to defeat Wick by embracing her powers, which stem from her family and her culture. She realizes that she is not alone but that she is many at the same time: “She was the shimmering culmination of all her ancestors’ strife, joyfulness, and struggle. She was a radiant child of spirit. She was a hundred different souls vibrating within a single living body” (289). And while we may not have the magic to move spirits from mural to mural in order to defeat our enemies we can harness the power and strength that comes from our peoples and our cultures.
Unfortunately, violence in the lives of people of color is not new but neither is the desire to survive, to be safe, and to be free. There is power in our histories and art is an excellent way to harness that power. I am reminded of the 2013 Academy Award winning documentary, Inocente. The short documentary follows the life of 15 year old Inocente and her desire to become an artist despite being homeless and undocumented. It is clear throughout the documentary that Inocente faces various oppressions on a daily basis. Aside from being homeless and undocumented, she has a challenging relationship with her mother, struggles with depression, and blames herself for her family’s situation. Inocente is part of an afterschool arts program that allows her to focus her energy on her art. Her paintings gave her opportunities that she did not have before like an art show, a college scholarship, an apartment, and permanent residency. Inocente’s story is not much different than that of other undocumented youth, with the exception that her life was captured on film, won an Oscar, and the perks that come with it. In other words, our life story may not win us an Academy Award but our art can change lives. Sierra, Nilda, and Inocente show that if all else fails art can at least give us hope. And hope can be a powerful tool.
So how then do we find healing in turbulent times? Or how do we find safety when there seems to be none? And how to we find empowerment when we are so often disempowered? One way to do it is through art. In embracing art we are forced to look inward, to react, and to take action. We must find our inner shadowshaper and we must paint dragons on the sides of buildings because they could save our lives one day.
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 in Pilsen Chicago. ElevArte partnered with the Poetry Foundation to bring, create, and share poetry with at-promise youth 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.
After 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.
In 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.
 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 www.elevartestudio.org and follow them on twitter @ElevarteStudio.
 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: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/11/02/life-changing-teachers-on-juan-felipe-herreras-reading-in-chicago/
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.
The 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.
I 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: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/04/30/im-okay-resilience-depression-in-cindy-l-rodriguezs-when-reason-breaks/