Finding a Home in Stories: A Guest Post by Middle-Grade Author Adrianna Cuevas

By Adrianna Cuevas

In my debut middle grade novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Publication date: 5/12/20, FSG/Macmillan), military kid Nestor Lopez moves houses so much, he loses his sense of place. He finds a home trading books with his deployed dad, father and son writing notes and questions in the page margins while artistic Nestor adds illustrations. Stories connect him to his dad stationed thousands of miles away.

When Nestor reads a book with his father, he’s able to explore his dad’s military experiences in a new way and the book enables conversations service members are often reluctant to engage in. As Nestor explains:

“I flip through the pages of this book, Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers, and stop the first time I see Dad’s handwriting. I press my fingers over his words, closing my eyes and imagining him sitting in his rack, reading. I flip through each page, looking for his handwriting, scanning for evidence of the life he lives when he’s away from us.”

Stories connect Nestor to those around him and deepen his relationships—particularly important for a boy who feels that home is something impermanent and unreliable.

Not all young readers will relate to Nestor’s constant moves. Not all will connect with the concept of a parent who is far away. But regardless of their current situation, readers can see books as a home. A place to retreat. A place to feel seen and accepted.

Growing up, that’s what books were to me.

My teenage social life summed up in one photo

As a child, I devoured any story I could get my hands on. With parents and a sister who were all avid readers, trips to the library to fill up bags of books and evenings spent browsing bookstore shelves were as expected as pastelitos for Nochebuena and Celia Cruz on the radio. I knew the bookstore and library at the University of Miami, where my dad was a professor, as well as my own house.

The books of my childhood transported me to places I’d never been. As a Florida girl, I was obsessed with the snowy wilderness in Jack London short stories. A solitary introvert, I marveled at the friendships in the Babysitters Club series. My early thirst for the gruesome and grim was satisfied by an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems. I didn’t think I needed books with Cuban-American main characters because my culture was all around me in Miami—in the food, the language, the music.

It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I realized what a haven books can be for readers. I’d never lived anywhere so homogenous, both culturally and ideologically. In Miami, I was allowed to be a book-obsessed hockey fan who was bad at sports and loved to travel. In my new surroundings, I was Latina, nothing more and always less. I was complimented on my mastery of the English language, even though I didn’t speak Spanish fluently until I was in my twenties. Despite receiving an academic college scholarship, I was required to attend seminars about how not to get pregnant and drop out, the expectation for minority students. I was met with confused stares when I confessed that I didn’t like spicy foods because don’t all Mexicans like that? No longer able to see my culture or myself in my environment, I turned once again to my reliable home—books.

I shielded myself from ignorance and microaggressions I had never before experienced by diving into books by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, and Isabel Allende. Their words were familiar, a hand on my shoulder telling me I wasn’t alone. In their stories, I saw loud, boisterous families that mirrored my own. I read mouthwatering descriptions of the food I missed, whose ingredients weren’t even available to me anymore. My language was presented as something beautiful and poetic, not something to be overcome and unlearned. I had never understood the importance of seeing yourself represented in stories until I wasn’t represented in the society around me.

In Total Eclipse, Nestor moves from a place where he is seen and accepted to a place where he is misunderstood and othered. For the first time in his life, he lives off-post and experiences what it’s like to live away from a military base.

“Fort Hood had a Whataburger, a video arcade, and a comic book shop… Most kids at school had parents in the military, so everyone understood if you didn’t want to talk in the middle of science because your dad had flown across an ocean the night before. Now Mom’s moved me to a town where I’m a circus freak. An alien from a distant planet. My only comfort is knowing I might not be here long.”

Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t have the option like I did to dive into stories and see himself in books, as military family representation, especially Latinx families, is incredibly small in children’s literature. How much would it have meant to him to have books like Pablo Cartaya’s Each Tiny Spark to help him while his father is deployed?

Similarly, my choices when I moved to the Midwest were limited and it was difficult to find books that reflected my Cuban-American experience. Twenty years ago, the catalog of stories featuring characters like me was microscopic. How much more at home would I have felt with Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos or Laura Taylor Namey’s The Library of Lost Things at my disposal when I was an awkward freshman? I would have taken Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds, as well as Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Break the Universe to college with me, turning to them when I felt othered and isolated.

Children deserve to see themselves in stories, not just as caricatures of their culture, but as representatives of the diversity that exists within a culture and as humans with all their quirks and flaws. Nestor Lopez isn’t just a Cuban-American kid who scarfs down his abuela’s croquetas de jamón and plays dominos with his abuelo. He loves dart gun battles, Pokémon cards, and random animal trivia. He’s quick with a snarky remark and his fingers are constantly smudged with pencil lead from sketching. It is my hope that in Nestor, young readers will find a friend they can relate to who shares their eccentricities and hopes.

In a world increasingly antagonistic toward Latinx people, our words as authors have the opportunity to whisper to children, “You are not alone.” Our books can serve as a blanket that warms them when they’re surrounded by the coldness of indifference and ignorance. Our characters can show them they can be heroes.

Our stories can welcome them home.

 

 

Adrianna Cuevas is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. After teaching Spanish and ESOL for sixteen years, she decided to pursue her passion for storytelling. Adriana currently resides outside of Austin, Texas, with her husband and son, where they enjoy hiking, traveling, and cooking lots of Cuban food. Learn more about Adrianna on her website. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!

 

Mixed Up: Author Kim Baker Navigates a Bicultural Narrative

By Kim Baker

I’m bicultural. My grandparents on my mom’s side eloped and migrated from Mexico to New Mexico where they had babies and my grandpa worked in the coal mines until, lungs destroyed, they moved again to East Los Angeles for better weather. My uncle can tell you about how cramped it was with all the kids in the backseat. Sunshine couldn’t save my grandpa, but most of my family is still around the area. My dad is Anglo and from Texas. His side of the family has been in the states so long, nobody knows for sure from where they originally migrated. So, like lots of people, I’ve got a mixed ethnicity. Culture is a weird thing. It’s shared customs and distinct experiences. I’m ridiculously pale, and I have my husband’s surname so people are often surprised to hear about my Mexican heritage. When people do find out (and I’m pretty open about it), sometimes we play stereotype bingo and they ask questions to see if I meet their preconceived qualifications (Do I have a big family? Yes. Do I like spicy foods? …Yes. Do I listen to mariachi? Please stop.).

I consider myself Latina, and proud. This is me, the grouchy one covering her face in front, with a small portion of my family. My cousin Joey is mortified that I share this picture because he is self-conscious about how much leg he’s showing in those cutoffs.

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Now I feel guilty about sharing it, so I will also tell you that later that day I threw up an Orange Julius at the mall and tried to hide it under a t-shirt rack. That’s worse than knobby knees.

When I was a lonely kid, books were my escape. I never really saw myself in books until I was older. There’d be bits in stories here and there (e.g. A kid in the book loved horses, and I was a horse nut. Harriet was overly curious about people? Me, too!). And maybe, in part, because of how I didn’t see myself as a whole in books as a kid, I often feel different and separate from those around me. Feeling abnormal in itself is a pretty shared understanding (We’re ALL weirdos!), but having a bicultural identity certainly magnifies the experience. Granted, I was getting most of my books from a Wyoming library that underestimated its Latino population by at least a few, so there were probably more stories out there than I wasn’t finding.

I grew up in Wyoming, where I could count the other non-Anglo kids at my school on one hand. My mom missed her family, missed the sunshine, missed seeing people like her, so we’d drive to East L.A. in the summertime to visit. My grandma and aunts would make all of the foods we couldn’t get in Wyoming and bring my favorite orejas from the panadería. Some of my cousins would tease me about my pale skin (I look just like my dad.), so I’d sit on the porch and watch my also shy uncle tend his jasmine and geraniums while the rest of the family visited inside. You could hear them laughing all the way down the block. We’d go back to Wyoming and I’d ride horses, trudge through snow, and eat American foods. The taco shells and beans in my hometown grocery store were labeled as “Spanish Foods.” I always felt a bit disconnected and different, no matter where I was. My parents split up and I lived with my mom in New Mexico and California. I was in primarily Latino communities, but still stood apart because of my Anglo features. Kids called me gringa and worse. I read more. My school didn’t have a library, the town didn’t have a bookstore, and the public library’s shelves were pretty spare, but I found what I could. I identified with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders being from the wrong side of the tracks, but found nothing about Mexican-American kids or mixed culture kids. I would have been overjoyed to find Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces as a teen.

13170031The protagonist in my first book, Pickle, is straight up Mexican American. The main character in my next novel is a mixed Latino like me, and writing has been a little bit more of a personal journey. I’ve taken a little longer with it, because I want to do it right. There’s so much I want to include, and I’m still working on how much serves the story. I know that there are other writers out there who balance between environments and depend on cultural code-switching to find their way. And there are kids that are looking for those stories, that need them. Books are touchstones. Identity, displacement, and belonging are important themes in middle grade and YA fiction that can reach all readers. The crazy thing about the loneliness of feeling different from our peers is that it’s probably one of our most communal traits. So, as a writer, I’ll continue to write about Latino kids and put little pieces of myself and my world in there. I implore you to do the same. And putting your truth into stories isn’t necessarily autobiographical. I think the best stories come from combining what you love with what you wish there was a story about.

Every kid should be able to find mirrors on the bookshelves, and it’s especially crucial for those of us who might struggle to fit into their worlds. Let’s put more stories out there, because you can’t always tell who might need them.

 

BakerBWheadshotKim’s debut middle grade novel, Pickle (Macmillan), was a finalist for the 2013 Children’s Choice Awards, Book of the Year (5th and 6th grade), one of Mamiverse’s Top 50 Latino Children’s Books You Should Know, and the recipient of the 2013 SCBWI Crystal Kite West award. She lives with her family in Seattle and can often be found in the woods, despite a chronic fear of bears. Find out more at www.kimbakerbooks.com.

La Casa Azul: El Barrio’s Independent Bookstore

By: Zoraida Córdova

 

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Entrance. Photo by Z.C.

 

 

La Casa Azul Vega

Manny Vega’s mural. Photo Z.C.

El Barrio, or East Harlem, is home to La Casa Azul, named after Frida Khalo’s home-turned-museum. Raising “40k in 40 days” through a crowd-funded campaign, Aurora Anaya-Cerda was able to open the doors to the store in June of 2012. It’s encouraging to see that the public is willing to contribute to bring these projects to life. I remember keeping up with the bookstore’s progress on Lucha Libros. From painting to building shelves, it was exciting to know that this kind of indie was coming to a neighborhood that otherwise doesn’t have access to a wide range of Libros Latinos. In a city that is 28.6% Latino, there is a huge need for access to these books.

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All things Frida Khalo. Photo Z.C.

So, how do you visit? To get to La Casa Azul, take the 6 train to 103rd street in Manhattan. This lets you off onto an area lined with bars, restaurants, bodegas, a botanica, and schoolyards. The neighborhood is also home to El Museo Del Barrio, if you’re in the mood for more art. But first, go to La Casa Azul. Make a left on Lex and a right at a bright blue awning. Down the steps you’re greeted by a gorgeous art installation by Manny Vega. You can see the process of his work here.

Once inside, the bookstore is warm and inviting. Aurora Anaya-Cerda is there with another employee stacking books. Named and inspired by Frida Khalo’s home, La Casa Azul has many references to her that range from paintings, to art books, to art installations. LCA even has its own exhibit/gallery. Their current showcase is called “A Ribbon Around a Bomb,” by Suhaly Bautista, The Earth Warrior. I’m excited to see what the next art display will be.

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Shelves. Photo Z.C.

The great thing that you can see about La Casa Azul, is that it’s not just about the book events, but about community. Take a look at the events calendar for a wide selection of family-friendly music events, book readings and signings, literary conferences, volunteer outreach, and even BYOB paint parties.  They recently held a book drive for young immigrant children in New York. In addition to these events, La Casa Azul is available for space rental. Because of all of these things, La Casa Azul is important. I’d like to think that the independent bookstore is making a comeback, despite the threat of the digital age. Sure, you can get a book on your smart device or tablet, but there’s something special about being able to congregate in a safe space that embraces Latino culture.

The next time you’re uptown, stop by and pick up a couple of books.

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Kid Lit section. Photo by L.L.