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

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Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Pulga has his dreams. Chico has his grief. Pequeña has her pride.

And these three teens have one another. But none of them have illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Even with the love of family, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the trio knows they have no choice but to run: from their country, from their families, from their beloved home.

Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico, they follow the route of La Bestia, the perilous train system that might deliver them to a better life–if they are lucky enough to survive the journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and desperation drumming through their hearts, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know there is no turning back, despite the unknown that awaits them. And the darkness that seems to follow wherever they go.

In this striking portrait of lives torn apart, the plight of migrants at the U.S. southern border is brought to light through poignant, vivid storytelling. An epic journey of danger, resilience, heartache, and hope.

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 Here, Torres 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 do. Why 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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (From her website) Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

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

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos 

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.

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Photo: Tracy Lane/Benchmark Education Company

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Grecia Huesca Dominguez moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to New York when she was ten years old. She started writing poetry while pursuing her BA in English and Creative Writing at CUNY Lehman College. She initially used poetry as a coping mechanism and soon began to use it as a way to chronicle her life as a single mother and undocumented immigrant, and her Latinx identity. Her first poem, “Marilín,” was published in 2015. Since then, she has published more poems and written three books.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Teresa Martinez grew up in Mexico loving to draw and decided to study graphic design. She spent many afternoons reading books on art in the university’s library. She also took many painting courses and even went to Italy for a short course at the Leonardo da Vinci School (Florence). Eventually she started working as a children’s book illustrator and has been doing that ever since. Now Teresa lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERS: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

Review: Running by Natalia Sylvester

 

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

SUMMARY FROM THE PUBLISHER: When fifteen-year-old Cuban American Mariana Ruiz’s father runs for president, Mari starts to see him with new eyes. A novel about waking up and standing up, and what happens when you stop seeing your dad as your hero—while the whole country is watching.

In this authentic, humorous, and gorgeously written debut novel about privacy, waking up, and speaking up, Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.

But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?

MY TWO CENTS: Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut novel, Running, is remarkable in many ways, but particularly in its attention to youth culture and the important role teens play in activism. Mariana (Mari) Ruiz, the protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old Cuban American girl, whose father is running for president but who has been in politics for most of his life. While the novel focuses on this Cuban-American family, and centers on Miami, Florida, as the geographical location of the story, it is not only about this. Sylvester masterfully weaves the complexity of growing up Latina/o with current issues of the region that resonate in other parts of the country, or are in some ways universal.

For example, Sylvester uses Spanish in the novel, especially in the dialogue between Mari’s parents and her abuelo, who lives with them, and we know that Mari understands it. At various points throughout the story, the protagonist reflects on the complexity of living in two languages and how incomprehensible literal translation is. I particularly enjoyed her reflection on the word desahogarse because I have used this word myself so many times and realize that some of the meaning is lost when you translate it. The novel also paints Latinx/Cuban-American identity by way of family traditions and food.

In the story, there are sociopolitical issues that Mari has heard about most of her short life but without understanding their gravity. For example, gentrification, water safety issues, and immigration. There are several moments throughout the novel when Mari is forced to think more critically about all these issues. She understands the impact of gentrification and water contamination more fully when her best friend, Vivi, along with Vivi’s recently divorced mother, are forced to leave their neighborhood. When Vivi moves to Miami Beach, she and her mother have to live in a small apartment with her aunt because they cannot afford anything in their old neighborhood. We also learn that Vivi’s grandmother ends up in the hospital due to water toxicity.

Mari, however, does not connect the dots that easily. She is also dealing with being the daughter of a politician. Along with this comes the pressure to be a perfect and supportive family. She also suffers the loss of privacy, which leads to cyberbullying–not to mention the usual challenges of being a teenager. When Vivi is forced to leave their high school, Mari connects with a group of students who are fighting for change by protesting and holding local leaders accountable. The group, called PODER, is made up of peers who are of Haitian, Dominican, and Peruvian ancestry, all with personal connections to some of the issues they advocate for. For example, Didier, whose family is Haitian, explains to Mari the different paths to immigration that Cubans and Haitians have had; one considered an exile and the other a refugee. It is through these encounters and personal stories that Mari begins to come into her own consciousness and political awareness; indeed, the political becomes very personal to her as she looks further into her own father’s voting record and his stand on issues. It is through PODER that she begins to understand the power of social media and technology in general. Yet, because of her family’s public life, she does not have access to these modes of communication and the political impact they wield.

As an orderly reader who reads books from beginning to end, I did not get to the author’s note which explains that the novel was inspired by real events until I had finished the story. Yet, throughout the novel, I kept thinking about the role played by young women like Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida; Mari Copeny from Flint, Michigan; and Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, who have used their voices and the reach of social media to bring about action regarding gun control and environmental justice.

Instead of a traditional coming-of-age story, or even a love story, what Sylvester shows us is the growth of a leader and an activist. Mari—who grew up in politics, hearing her father’s speeches regarding family, justice, and community—slowly becomes aware of her own blindness on these issues. Although not fully explored in the novel, I would also like to add that the author reveals some of the dangers of technology. In this case, Mari becomes a victim of cyberbullying, but her newfound community helps her see that what happens is not her fault. This part of the story briefly addresses issues such as consent, shame and victim-blaming.

Given our current political environment, during a presidential election year and in the middle of a pandemic, I find this novel especially timely.

Note: This book’s release date is July 14, 2020, but is now available on pre-order. 

Photo credit: Eric Sylvester

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natalia Sylvester is the author of two novels for adults, Chasing the Sun, and Everyone Knows You Go Home, which won an International Latino Book Award. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, Central Florida, and South Texas, and received a BFA from the University of Miami. Running is her YA debut. She lives in Austin, Texas, and can also be found at nataliasylvester.com

 

 

 

 

Elena Foulis

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.

 

 

Review: The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie by Frederick Luis Aldama, illus. by Chris Escobar

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

SUMMARY FROM OHIO STATE PRESS: In their debut picture book, Frederick Luis Aldama and Chris Escobar invite young readers along on the adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, a polite, handsome, and unusually tall ten-year-old chupacabra yearning for adventure beyond the edge of los Estados Unidos. Little does Charlie know when he befriends a young human, Lupe, that together, with only some leftover bacon quesadillas and a few cans of Jumex, they might just encounter more adventure than they can handle. Along the way, they meet strange people and terrifying danger, and their bravery will be put to the test. Thankfully, Charlie is a reassuring and winsome companion who never doubts that he and Lupe will return safely home.

With magical realism, allegory, and gentle humor, Aldama and Escobar have created a story that will resonate with young and old readers alike as it incorporates folklore into its subtle take on the current humanitarian crisis at the border.

MY TWO CENTS: Based on real and imagined tales, The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, tells the story of a young Chupacabra whose life at the border is full of adventure, if you dare to follow. Charlie lives in the attic of a Bordertown in Mexico. He tells the reader about how, although considered a monster and sometimes feared, he is a kid who is looking for adventures. He tells us about his family life, and we see and read about the importance of family, education, and creativity. For example, the author and illustrator provide a wonderful scene of Charlie’s family dinner, the long tradition of family storytelling and the importance of listening to and learning from these stories. The story provides a great, balanced view of the value of learning in formal and informal settings and of using our imaginations to solve problems. The storyline always warns us about forgetting those family values and how that sometimes leads into negative stereotypes that can affect an entire community. While this is a children’s story, the writing and illustrations help young readers see how the poor choices of a few bad apples can impact the welfare of others.

Despite some of the obstacles and negative perceptions that Charlie faces, this story is about a voyage of bravery, and the meaning of friendship, even with people who do not look like you. We can choose to share life together. Charlie’s new friend, Lupe, becomes Charlie’s partner in an adventure that provides more than a thrill for them; indeed, their mission becomes to free children al otro lado of The Wall, who have been kept in cages. This young readers’ book is refreshing in the way it incorporates life at the border, through bilingualism and storytelling rooted in Latin American traditions such as Realismo Mágico.

One thing that catches our attention is the use of Spanish. While it only incorporates a few words and phrases, it only writes them in italics once, and if the word or phrase is used again, it uses the same font as the rest of the story. This is significant, in my view, because it allows the reader—who may or may not be bilingual—to pause, but then it expects them to learn and normalize bilingualism. Indeed, much of what this book presents are topics that are often complex or controversial and frequently void of the human perspective. More specifically, in the thinking about The Wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico, accepting people’s use of Spanish as part of who they are, and the reality of family separation at the border, which includes putting young kids in detention centers that are cage-like, often times, we forget to broadly think about how real people are deeply affected by all of this. The book tackles those topics in a way that is natural and promotes acceptance and heroism, as we dare to imagine that we can all do something to make someone else’s life a little or a lot easier.

Lastly, the illustrations are detailed and complement the storyline beautifully. I like how the images pay attention to details of city and rural life, highlighting cultural and geographical markers with care, such as el paletero, los nopales, the Wall, and even the flying car and the jar of pickles.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frederick Luis Aldama is Irish-Guatemalan and Mexican Latinx. His mamá was a bilingual elementary school teacher in California. As a kid, he couldn’t get enough of his abuelita’s stories of El Chupacabra, La Llorona, and El Cucuy. Today he is a Distinguished University Professor at The Ohio State University. He is the author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of 36 books.

 

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Chris Escobar is a printmaker and cartoonist currently living in Savannah, Georgia. He has an MFA in Sequential Art from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Chris has created illustrations for the comic anthology Floating Head and editorial illustrations for Dirt Rag magazine, among other publications.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.

 

Book Review: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders by René Colato Laínez, illus by Fabricio Vanden Broeck

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Young René’s mother has sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States. He loves his new shoes. “They walk everywhere I walk. They jump every time I jump. They run as fast as me. We always cross the finish line at the same time.”

René—with his new shoes—and his father set off on the long journey to meet his mother in the United States. He says goodbye to his friends in El Salvador, and “Uno, dos, tres, my shoes and I are ready to go.” The trip is difficult. They take buses and walk across El Salvador, into Guatemala and then into Mexico. His brand-new shoes lose their shine, turning dirty and gray. They become elephants, pushing against the wind; race cars, fleeing hungry dogs; swim shoes, escaping floods; and submarines, navigating through sticky mud. When holes appear on the soles of his shoes, his father won’t let him give up. “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá.”

Sharing his own experiences, René Colato Laínez’s moving bilingual picture book brings to life the experiences of many young children who make the arduous journey from Central America to the United States in search of a better life.

MY TWO CENTS: This picture book was inspired by the author’s own journey as a child. This book is very similar to his book My Shoes and I (2010), but different in that it is a bilingual book and is the author’s journey as he crossed borders as a child. The English text in this book has been modified, and the Spanish version has been added. The text is simpler and intended for young readers. The book begins when, for Christmas, René receives a pair of shoes from his mother, who lives in the U.S. The book details the journey that René and his father take by focusing on what the shoes go through in traveling across three countries.

The book does not overtly describe the dangers in crossing borders, but there are some instances where hardships are described. One example of this is when René describes having to live in a dark trailer because his father loses his wallet in Mexico City. Another example is when they are crossing the Mexico/U.S. border and René states that the water comes up to this stomach and then to his shoulders. René and his father travel through El Salvador, Mexico, and finally cross the border into the U.S. where his mother is waiting.

The focus on the shoes throughout the book allows the author to tell about the journey, but not go into the arduous, dangerous details. The resiliency of the young boy is shown throughout the book as he continues his journey to be with his mother. In one case, Papá encourages him, “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá. We won’t give up” (n.p.).

This book would be a great addition to a classroom unit about immigration. It specifically focuses on the border crossings and the long journey that families embark on to search for a new life. The book also addresses the desire that families have to be together and the dangers that families endure in search of a better life. The reprint of this book is timely as immigration, border crossings, and the journeys that children embark on continue to be scarce in children’s literature.

The author’s note at the end of the book tells the reader that this story is actually based on his life. René Colato Laínez shares some of the details that inspired him to write the book, such as the fact that this mother sent him a pair of shoes for his journey. The author also shares that, along with his father, they had to leave El Salvador due to the civil war in that country. At the end, René shares that he wrote this book to “tell readers about the hard journey that immigrant children and families face. They are escaping from violence and crime. Their journey is not a choice but a necessity to look for a better place, where they can accomplish their dreams”

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: I reached out to the author via social media to see if he would answer some questions about the book. Here are René’s responses to my questions:

This book is very similar to your wonderful book My Shoes and I. How is this one different?

René: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras is a new edition of My Shoes and I. For this edition, the English text has been modified to have a bilingual version. The original text was longer, and, in order to have the English and the Spanish text on the same page, I did some edits. In My Shoes and I, the name of the boy is Mario. In this bilingual edition, I could use my name. The name of the protagonist is René.

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

René: Many children cross borders around the world everyday. They are escaping war, crime, or violence. It is hard to leave a country and your loved ones. As an author who had to cross borders, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I also want to tell readers that their journey is not a choice, but a necessity.

Many teachers shy away from having discussions focused on what are perceived as “difficult” topics. Why is it important for teachers to discuss issues such as immigration in the classroom?

René: In the news, children watch about numbers and politics, but they also need to know about real experiences. I think that children’s books are great for children to see what is beyond their windows and horizons. By telling children about immigration and other hard topics, we can build empathy in our children.

Please share anything else that you would like others to know about your new book?

René: I am so happy that this book is back in print and now it is bilingual. I hope that this book can touch the hearts of many readers.

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran award winning author of many bilingual/ multicultural children’s books. I have  a master’s degree from  Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for  Children & Young  Adults.

My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States. Do you want to know more about me? Please read my long biography.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Latinxs in Kid Lit at the Library: Interview with Librarian Yesenia Villar-Villalobos

 

By Sujei Lugo

The Latinxs in Kid Lit at the Library series is an occasional feature of this blog, featuring interviews with children’s library workers. In these interviews, we highlight the work librarians do for Latinx children’s literature, especially in libraries that serve Latinx communities. In case you’d like to catch up on previous posts, you can find links to them below this article. 

In this new entry, we talk with Yesenia Villar-Villalobos, a Mexican-American children’s librarian in Los Angeles, California.

Sujei: Tell us a bit about your background and identity.

Yesenia: I’m a first-generation Mexican-American, born and raised in East Los Angeles, California. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, and raised seven children on menial salaries. While I grew up in poverty, I was nearly an adult before I began to realize the true disparity of resources and opportunities that existed among my high school peers. However, what my parents couldn’t provide for me materially was far less significant than the perseverance and resilience they modeled while struggling to cover the family’s most basic of necessities. In fact, on my path to higher education I lacked an academic role model. Yet, my parents instilled in me what I truly needed: a willingness to endure hardship and uncertainty in order to achieve a goal.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, I never placed much emphasis on my ethnic identity.  Everyone around me was Latinx, mostly Mexican, so it wasn’t something I felt the need to address. However, now that I have entered the library world and function as a minority among my colleagues, I recognize the significance of my identity. I encompass a degree of cultural competency and lived experience that many of my colleagues do not. Because of this, I strive diligently to model cultural competency and advocate for more equitable services to Latinxs.

Sujei: What’s your current position, which type of library do you work in, and what is the demographic of the community?

Yesenia: I’m currently the children’s librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) at the Robert Louis Stevenson Branch Library in Boyle Heights. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, our community is 97.7% Hispanic or Latino, 86.5% of which are Mexican. Of the adults ages 25 and over, 38.6% have less than a 9th-grade education. It’s a highly dense working-class community with 71.1% of renter-occupied housing and also of large family sizes, with 14.8% of homes occupied by seven or more residents. The median income is $37,472, and the median income for families is $38,632, an alarmingly low figure considering how large families are.

Sujei: The librarians we’ve interviewed for this series often highlight their childhood reading experiences, including the impact of public libraries. What were your experiences like? 

Yesenia: Books were not something we had in our home. From a young age I developed a love of reading, but I never had the resources to explore books at home. Repeatedly, I would find myself reading cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, and the weekly church flyer. Once, in first grade, I sneaked a textbook out of class and read it cover-to-cover at home before discreetly returning it to the classroom. 

I wasn’t introduced to public libraries until sixth grade when a homework assignment required me to venture to my local public library. Neither my dad nor I had any knowledge about how a public library functioned or what resources were available there. At that time, the library-card application required a social security number. As an undocumented person who had been deported on multiple occasions in his early years in the U.S., my dad initially refused to fill out the application. But I begged and pleaded with him to get me a library card, and he finally gave in. 

That public library card remained unused until eighth grade, when I was sent to the counselor’s office for turning in a book report on a preschool-level book. Back then, the only book I had access to was Captain Kitty by Godfrey Lynn and Elizabeth Webbe, which I had bought at a yard sale for 10 cents. The counselor decided that since I frequently completed in-class assignments early, I would be allowed to visit the school library during class time. I had attended this school for nearly four years, and this was the first time I’d realized we had a library. That’s where I picked up a copy of Blubber by Judy Blume, because that was what a classmate was reading.

I never looked back. I read every book by Judy Blume in our school library. Then I started sneaking out of the house to visit the public library. I would take my backpack, check out as many Judy Blume books as I could fit in it, and then sneak back into my house. I devoured book after book in secret. I went to a third library in search of more Judy Blume books, but then realized I had read them all. I was devastated. At that time, I didn’t know librarians existed. I didn’t know I could ask questions or seek suggestions. I simply roamed the library aimlessly. Fortunately, I continued to find books to enjoy and became a lifelong reader.

Sujei: How can public libraries be more welcoming and engaging for Latinx immigrant families?

Yesenia: Cultural competency is severely lacking in library services. This is not something that can be taught in a single class or workshop, or through training. It takes ongoing effort to learn the customs of a community and find effective ways to communicate with them. This goes beyond speaking the same language. It requires attention to the dialect they use, the interests they share, and their spoken and unspoken needs. For example, when librarians translate materials at our branch, we involve the entire staff to ensure that the translations reflect the languages our patrons use. Spanish translations are plentiful—and there are so many ways to say the same phrase—but is that the phrase our patrons use?

Being relatable is key to extending a welcoming environment. When a branch is located in a community predominated by immigrants, we have to adopt the framework that public libraries may be a foreign concept for some patrons. As librarians, we are fully aware of the power a library offers toward improving the living standards of a community. But if the community is unaware, or worse, fearful of stepping inside the confines of a government building, what good does it serve? 

This is why I practice a type of guerrilla outreach, placing myself in situations outside the library where Latinxs congregate. I provide information in a visually appealing, linguistically relevant, and non-threatening format. I approach people face-to-face and leave myself open to questions. I don’t over-hype our services, since I’m fully aware of our limitations, but I do offer information in a way that entices the community to at least walk into the building. Additionally, I sometimes conduct programming outdoors, as an outreach tool to emphasize that the library is here to serve everybody, and that everybody is welcome. 

The programs I conduct are meant to involve the entire family. Because of large family sizes and limited access to childcare, I envision the entire family working as a unit to create, assemble, and invent. For example, a program I created three years ago using do-it-yourself slime continues to be my most popular family program. It regularly attracts from 100-200 participants. By using inexpensive household items, we allow kids, teens, parents, and even grandparents to engage in hands-on science and create their own toys in an incredibly fun manner.

Sujei: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a Latinx woman pursuing a career in children’s librarianship?

Yesenia: Some common themes that my Latina colleagues and I encounter are a lack of resources, limited cultural expectations, and the lack of representation. 

Let’s start with education. Even though I performed well during my entire K-12 schooling, I never considered college as an option, since I never imagined it financially possible. I began working at the age of 15, and by the time I was 18, I held the position of assistant manager at a retail store. I was earning a salary comparable to that of my parents, but was bored. I went to my local community college and inquired about taking classes. At the time, I had no intention of pursuing a degree, but simply wanted to continue learning. One day when I asked my mom for a ride to school, she asked, “ What are you going to school for? You’re pretty enough to get married.” This was the first time I realized the cultural expectations that my family had for me. Despite my intelligence, I was merely a woman.

After taking the assessment test at the East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC) I got placed in honors classes. While others doubted my capabilities, I began to believe in them. Then, when a financial-aid representative spoke to my honors class about financial aid, higher education started to feel like a more realistic opportunity. While I still hadn’t envisioned a degree as the end goal, I loved to learn and continued to attend school off-and-on while employed full-time. After three years, my counselor notified me that I had enough credits to transfer to a 4-year university for my bachelor’s degree. I had no idea what he was talking about; I had never heard of a bachelor’s degree. But I went home, looked it up in my dictionary and decided I would pursue it. 

Having never considered a profession, I was torn about what to pursue. Teacher? Social worker? Then one morning I woke up and the word “librarian” literally flew out of my mouth! It was so clear, I could see it right in front of my eyes. The library had made such a profound difference in my life. It had opened my eyes to new experiences and opportunities. No doubt my avid reading had improved the writing skills that placed me in the honors class that made going to college a real possibility. As I researched librarianship as a profession, I quickly discovered that it required a master’s degree. It was at that moment that I began to take my academic ambitions seriously. I enrolled in the California State University of Los Angeles (CSULA) with a major in Liberal Studies and a minor in Women’s Studies. I focused my education on the history of minorities in the U.S.— specifically, on the political and socio-economic conditions that hinder minorities from pursuing a higher education. I educated myself about the experiences faced by people like my parents, who are undocumented, under-educated, monolingual, and economically disadvantaged.

When I began library school at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) I was astonished by the lack of diversity. For the first time, my status as a Latina became center stage. Unknowingly, I was one of the few students interested in the information needs of Latinxs. I didn’t apply to UCLA with the intention of becoming an advocate for Latinxs and Spanish-speakers, but this is what developed through my experiences and research interests. Since then, I have encountered mentors that have helped me navigate through the library world and enhance my skills and abilities. While the number of Latinas in librarianship may still be low, I have encountered women who empower and elevate one another other to strive for success.

Sujei: Where does your library acquire Latinx children’s books, bilingual books and Spanish- language books? Which places to get books do you recommend?

Yesenia: Obtaining relevant Spanish literature is a challenge. Spanish publications by Latinx authors often print on such a short run that unless you learn about them immediately, you may lose the opportunity to purchase them for your collection. Additionally, the Latinx community is vast and the vernacular varies from country to country and region to region. In our library system there is a department dedicated to creating the list of Spanish materials available for purchase. We order materials from that list, and never get the opportunity to examine them first. More often than not, we’re unable to read reviews before purchasing. 

I prefer to purchase my Spanish materials in person. In Los Angeles there is a children’s bookstore that sells only materials in Spanish, and which come from countries all over Latin America. It’s called La Librería and it displays books from each country individually. As a librarian, I’m able to select materials in the dialect that best suits my community. In my opinion, this is the greatest children’s bookstore for Spanish materials in Los Angeles, and possibly, California. Although small in size, the selection is so great that I wonder why anyone would buy Spanish books elsewhere. Also, the staff is kind, passionate, and knowledgeable.

Sujei: Your favorite Latinx children’s books? 

Yesenia: I relate to books that reflect my Mexican-American culture. I speak Spanglish, so I prefer to read books that incorporate both English and Spanish. At my bilingual storytimes, in addition to alternating between books written in English and in Spanish, I also read books written in Spanglish. Some of my favorites include Señor Pancho Had a Rancho, written by René Colato Laínez and illustrated by Elwood Smith, and La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal.

Explore our other interviews in this series, linked below. AND, if you’re a library worker serving a Latinx community and would like to share your experiences through an interview, we invite you to contact us! 

María F. Estrella, Cleveland Public Library

Angie Manfredi, Los Alamos County Public Library

Crystal Brunelle, Northern Hills Elementary School, Onalaska, Wisconsin 

Patricia Toney, San Francisco Public Library

About the interviewer: Sujei Lugo was born in New Jersey and raised in her parents’ rural hometown in Puerto Rico. She earned her Master’s in Library and Information Science degree from the Graduate School of Information Sciences and Technologies at the University of Puerto Rico and is a doctoral candidate in Library and Information Science at Simmons College, focusing her research on anti-racist children’s librarianship. She has worked as a librarian at the Puerto Rican Collection at the University of Puerto Rico, the Nilita Vientós Gastón House-Library in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the University of Puerto Rico Elementary School Library. Sujei currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. She is a member of REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. Sujei can also be found on TwitterLetterboxd and Goodreads.