American Stories of Opportunity, Hope, and Ambition: A Guest Post by Author Jennifer Torres

 

By Jennifer Torres

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and be a college math professor.

Melissa, an 8th grader who plans to go to MIT and become a college math professor.

Escalon is a Spanish word that means “step” or “stepping stone.” It is also a small town in the heart of California’s agricultural Central Valley, surrounded by dairies and almond orchards. Just off Main Street there, across from American Legion Post 263, is the library where Melissa, an eighth grader, volunteers to read to younger children, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.

“I think it’s important to read to kids because they get to know new things when they read a book,” she told me. Melissa’s own favorite books, she said, are mystery and fantasy novels. “It’s like a whole new world.”

Just like Melissa, many of the children who visit the Escalon Library are the sons and daughters of Mexican immigrants, families who saw, in the United States, a step toward opportunity and who courageously took it.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen CoverThose stories are American stories, and I hope that readers will recognize them in Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The fictional Stef Soto, like millions of very real children in the United States who have immigrant parents, is a first-generation American.

Just like Melissa, Stef sometimes translates for her mom and dad.

Just like Stef, Melissa has parents whose hearts thunder with hope and ambition for their daughter.

“I want her to remember where she comes from, but her future is here,” Melissa’s mom, Adriana, told me in Spanish as she helped her daughter lead an arts-and-crafts project at the library. (She credits the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s Migrant Education department for encouraging her to become an advocate for Melissa’s learning). “I want her to graduate, to go to college, to have a better quality of life.”

She and her husband have encouraged Melissa to begin investigating colleges, to think about what she wants to study, who she wants to be.

“I’ve decided I want to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Melissa said, braces glinting. “I think that’s a good one for what I want to do.”

What she wants to do is teach math. When I asked her what grade, she hesitated, sheepish about correcting me.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, I want to be a math professor. Like at a university.”

Just like I did—in a family that includes first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, as well as some who still live in Mexico—Stef is growing up speaking and listening to a vibrant mix of English and Spanish. We both find comfort in friends and family and warm tortillas, smeared with butter.

And just like all of us, I think, she is trying hard to figure out exactly where she belongs. Too often, for too many, it can feel like a here or there question.

But as I have learned, as students like Melissa remind us, and as characters like Stef discover, our stories are so much richer than that.

“I get to have both cultures,” Melissa said. “And I want people to know that immigrants are people—smart people—who want a better future, and so they came to this country. I think it’s really brave of them.”

jtorresFrom the author’s website: Hi there. I’m Jennifer. I live with my family in California’s Central Valley, and I write stories. I used to work as a newspaper reporter, writing stories about real people, whose lives told us something about our world and maybe about ourselves. Now, I write books for young readers—books with make-believe characters whose stories, I hope, are just as full of life and truth as the real ones.

Check out my picture book, Finding the Music, published by Lee & Low Books, and look out for my debut middle-grade novel, Stef Soto, Taco Queen, coming January 2017 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Powerful Role of Coach in the Latinx Community: A Guest Post by Author Claudia Meléndez Salinas

 

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

It’s Monday evening and more than 200 youngsters pour into the gym of Alisal High, a school located in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in California’s central coast. The children, most dressed in the gold and black colors of the Gil Basketball Academy, are not high school students: they’re as young as four years old, some of them hardly big enough to pick up the basketballs.

After the initial chaos, the children settle into a series of warm up exercises you can tell they know by heart: run forward, stop midway and run backward; run twisting your body; leap sideways and stop to touch the ground, repeat.

From the edge of the gym, Coach Jose Gil watches the action and directs the children into their next moves. It’s a task that he can’t do alone – especially when he has to stop to provide direct instruction to kids who can’t seem to get a handle on the ball. So he relies on the assistance of other coaches, men and women who, like him, mostly offer their services on a volunteer basis.

“The word ‘Coach’ is powerful beyond belief,” Gil says. “Some think it’s easy and want to sometimes judge or criticize us for in-game situations, but at the end of the day, if coaching kids was that easy, everyone would be doing it. Endless hours, sleepless nights, responsibility beyond belief, challenges dealing with a variety of talents and skill levels etc… It boils down to the process at hand, are you willing to sacrifice your alone time to help others?”

“Coaches” or “mentors” have been crucial for the development of mankind since time immemorial. Older or wiser men and women took young wards under their wings to teach them hunting and gathering edible plants, or to pass down traditions important for survival. The concept was crystallized in ancient Greece, when Mentor, a friend of King Odysseus, stayed behind to take care of the king’s son, Telemachus. The boy and Mentor developed a trusted friendship, one whose importance can be observed in centuries of literature and movies. Think Arthur and Merlin. Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Or Daniel and Mr. Miyagi.

In places like the Alisal, where the population is 90 percent Latinx and 33 percent of the residents live in poverty, coaches and mentors are not a matter of legend, they’re a matter of survival. Parents who must work long hours in minimum wage jobs to put food on the table have to rely on the kindness of strangers to look after their broods. In the absence of trusted adults who can guide youngsters through the difficult passage through adolescence, some fall prey to the gangs.

Latinxs are a young population. While more than 30 percent of Latinxs are under 18 years old, the same is true for 20 percent of whites. Nearly half of U.S. born Latinxs are younger than 18.

At the same time, more than 23 percent of Latinxs live in poverty – second only to African Americans. Thirty-seven percent of all the children in the United States who live in poverty are Latinxs.

For four of the last five years, Monterey County has led California in youth homicide rate. In 2013, 22 young people were slain in the county, also the fourth largest agricultural area in the Golden State. While parents are picking lettuce, their children are picking fights.

This is why people like Jose Gil are vital – and luckily, there are a few. You can see them most afternoons in the soccer field, or in classrooms teaching painting, or dance, or music. They’re not just coaches: they’re role models, mentors,  friends. They’re the glue of after-school programs, the difference between wholesome entertainment and life in the streets.

A Fighting Chance CoverOne of the reasons why I wrote A Fighting Chance was to pay homage to these unsung heroes. Under the stern gaze of Coach, Miguel Ángel, the 17-year-old main character, trains to be a champion boxer. Not only is the sport keeping him away from gangs, but it’s also his ticket out of poverty. Coach’s importance to Miguel Ángel, like that of dozens of Coaches and mentors in the Alisal, cannot be overstated.

“We have a huge responsibility to make the place we live in a better one,” Jose Gil muses. In his view, prospective coaches have to ask themselves: “Can you work and mold these young kids to make right choices and decisions in life? Are you a great enough example for others to follow? What is your passion or belief about life and the community you live in? Are you willing to invest time into changing the community one child at a time? Do you even think our community can be improved?

“I love it when people are willing to volunteer to coach in our academy because that just challenges me to coach and mentor them so that they can in return help our youth. We grow our own from within which makes me proud and keeps me hungry.”

And that’s how Coach Gil not only keeps hundreds of kids off the street, but inspires a new crop of coaches to do the same.

 

Writer Claudia Melendez in Monterey on Monday January 5, 2015. Photo www.davidroyal.net

Writer Claudia Melendez in Monterey on Monday January 5, 2015. Photo http://www.davidroyal.net

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an award-winning multi-media journalist now working for the Monterey County Herald, a daily newspaper in California’s Central Coast. She has nearly two decades of experience covering politics, education, and immigration both in Mexico and the United States. She holds a master’s in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California, and a bachelor’s in Latin American and Latino Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her journalistic work has been published in Mexico’s El Financiero and La Jornada; in Latina and El Andar magazines in the United States, and numerous newspapers.

A Fighting Chance, Meléndez’s first book, is a young adult novel that narrates the struggles of a Mexican-American boy trying to stay away from gangs as he trains to become a champion boxer. She’s been named as one the Latino authors to watch in 2016 from LatinoStories.com.

Book Review: Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Separate is Never Equal 2

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When her family moved to the town of Westminster, California, young Sylvia Mendez was excited about enrolling in her neighborhood school. But she and her brothers were turned away and told they had to attend the Mexican school instead. Sylvia could not understand why—she was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. Why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend a separate school? Unable to get a satisfactory answer from the school board, the Mendez family decided to take matters into their own hands and organize a lawsuit.

In the end, the Mendez family’s efforts helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across America.

Using his signature illustration style and incorporating his interviews with Sylvia Mendez, as well as information from court files and news accounts, Duncan Tonatiuh tells the inspiring story of the Mendez family’s fight for justice and equality.

MY TWO CENTS: Kudos to Duncan Tonatiuh for shining a bright spotlight on a consequential, but often overlooked chapter of American civil rights, and bringing this true story of Latinos fighting for racial justice to young readers. The book features Tonatiuh’s trademark, award-winning illustration and his retelling of the facts.

In the mid-1940s, when the action takes place, Sylvia Mendez is nine years old. She’s the daughter of Gonzalo Mendez, a Mexican-born, naturalized citizen of the United States, and his wife, Felicitas, from Puerto Rico. When the Mendez family moves from Santa Ana, California, to a farming community in Orange County, Sylvia and her brothers are not permitted to enroll in the neighborhood school and are instead sent to a school designated for Mexicans, which is farther from home. Unlike the white children’s school, it’s dirty, crowded and lacks a playground. The students eat lunch outdoors next to a fly-infested cow pasture. To top it off, the teachers seem indifferent, as if Mexican children weren’t worth the bother.

The Mendez family launches a campaign to demand equal education for their children. Sylvia’s father first pursues answers from officials all the way up the line to the board of education, but no one offers a credible explanation. The common refrain is “that is how it is done.” Mr. Mendez organizes members of the Mexican community and hires a lawyer to challenge the discriminatory practices in court. Young Sylvia is in the courtroom during the proceedings, where she hears statements by a school official about the supposedly lice-ridden, inferior nature of Mexicans. It takes two court cases to settle the outcome. The judge’s final ruling states that “public education must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

After Sylvia’s parents successfully face down California’s version of Jim Crow laws, she enrolls in the neighborhood school, shattering longstanding color barriers. In the corresponding page spread, a white boy tells Sylvia, “You don’t belong here,” and Sylvia is shown with a bowed head and a tear sliding down her cheek. Reminded by her mother of the long fight they undertook to win her right to equal schooling, Sylvia perseveres, proving herself as steely as her parents. In the closing pages, she and other brown-skinned children are shown side-by-side with white classmates in the school playground.

Separate is Never Equal spread

Tonatiuh’s account highlights the exemplary character of Mr. and Mrs. Mendez. Every movement for justice has its heroes and pioneers, and the Mendez family richly deserves that level of recognition. Taking up the fight involved considerable personal risk. They used their life savings to kickstart the legal fund. Eventually, they received wider support. Leading the charge took Mr. Mendez away from the farm for long stretches, leaving Mrs. Mendez to perform farming tasks that her husband normally would have handled. As the story shows, many Mexican families in the community declined to join the lawsuit, for fear of economic retribution. “No queremos problemas,” they said.

The California campaign for educational equality, spearheaded by the Mendez case, ultimately led to the 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. The victory illuminated by Separate is Never Equal belongs in a clear line of prominent milestones of American civil rights. How fortunate that someone with Tonatiuh’s skill has brought it out of the shadows.

TEACHING RESOURCES: Beyond the importance of the story, Tonatiuh’s groundbreaking illustrations deserve readers’ attention. His drawings marry childlike innocence with characteristics of ancient Mixtec art. (See my review of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale for a fuller discussion of his style.) In Separate is Never Equal, the illustrations take on the added dimension of historical details from the 20th century. Teachers may want to provide students with photographs from the era to demonstrate how carefully Tonatiuh researched and reproduced clothing, hairstyles, automobile models, and other authenticating markers of the 1940s.

As is generally the case with nonfiction picture books, younger readers will likely need adult guidance to understand sections of the story that deal with legal proceedings and other points of the Mendez’s battle.

This book presents powerful opportunities for teaching empathy and strengthening awareness of the pain that racism inflicts. One scene shows a public swimming pool with a sign stating, “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” Mexican children look longingly through the fence at the white children frolicking in the pool. Teachers can pose discussion questions such as, “Imagine yourself on both sides of the fence. How would you feel in either situation?” Consider comparing Sylvia Mendez’s experiences with those of Ruby Bridges, the young African American girl who integrated New Orleans schools in 1960.

A section in the back of the book includes an author’s note, a glossary, a bibliography and explanatory details about methodology. Much of Tonatiuh’s research came from court documents and extensive interviews with Sylvia Mendez. Glossary entries include a handful of Spanish phrases used in the book and historical terms that round out the context. One example is the origin of “separate but equal,” a phrase plucked from the 1896 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which laid the foundation for decades of Jim Crow laws.

In 2010, Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is interviewed on this video, which highlights points of the story told in the book and shows photographs of her as a child and of the schools in question.

Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh  was born and raised in Mexico. He studied art in the United States. His picture book Pancho Rabbit and The Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale won the 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children’s book award, and two honors for text and illustration from the Pura Belpré Award. Read more about Duncan on his official website.

A Conversation with René Colato Laínez

By Lila Quintero Weaver  portada-juguemos-futbol-football

If you are not acquainted with the picture books of René Colato Laínez, get thee to a bookstore right away! A Salvadoran transplant who teaches kindergarten in California, René writes joyful, bilingual picture books that children everywhere adore. I am delighted to share a one-on-one conversation with René about his life and work.

Lila: René, on your website, you express that the goal of your writing 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.”

As a collaborator on Latin@s in Kid Lit, a blog that exists to promote those very goals, I say BRAVO! Now for a question: What led you to adopt these goals?

René: I came to the United States when I was 14 years old. In my country, I was a smart student. I had good grades and many dreams to accomplish. In the United States, I did not know the new language. I felt lost and many times I thought that I would never be able to accomplish my goals. The inspiration to write books with a positive message to minority children came from my own life experience. I worked hard and never gave up. Yes! I accomplished my dreams. I am a teacher and an author. I want to tell minority children that they can accomplish anything they want. With “ganas” you can conquer the highest mountain.

Senor Pancho

Lila: Let me brag on your latest book. Señor Pancho Had a Rancho has received glowing reviews. It was named a top picture book by Chicago Public Library and was included in the Cuatrogatos Foundation anthology, De Raices y Sueños. I could keep going, but let me pause to ask: What inspired you to create what’s essentially a Spanish version of “Old McDonald Had a Farm”?

René: One day my ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher told us that we could learn English through music. She played the song of a man named McDonald and he had many farm animals. When I listened to the song, I was confused when the dog barked woof woof instead of gua gua. My teacher told me that in English farm animals made English sounds. I said to myself, “If I bring my perro from El Salvador, he has to learn English too!” Later on, when I became a teacher, I played the song with my kindergarteners, but I always added the Spanish sounds. After having so much fun with my students, I decided to write a book about both English and Spanish farm animals, where they could have a great time speaking two languages.

Lila: Please share a bit about your childhood experiences of immigration from El Salvador.

René: I left the country with my father, due the civil war. Along with thousands of Salvadorans, my family was looking for a better place where we could be safe from the war. But I had a happy life as a child. I loved to go to school and read all the comics books from Mexico and Argentina, like El Chapulín Colorado and Mafalda. Since first grade, I wanted to become a teacher. My favorite books were Don Quijote and Las Telerañas de Carlota. I was so surprised to find my favorite book in English, here in the United States—Charlotte’s Web.

Lila: You teach kindergarten in a California school full of Latino children. How has this influenced your writing? Is teaching what led you to write picture books in the first place?

René: In high school and college, I wrote many drafts of novels. But when I came to the classroom, I discovered picture books and soon fell in love with them. I started to write my own books for my students and they called me “El Maestro lleno de Cuentos” (“The Teacher Full of Stories”). Later on, after receiving advice from many teachers and talented authors such us Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Campoy and Amada Irma Pérez, I decided to submit my work for publication.

Lila: Your books consistently offer bilingual texts. Why is this important to you?

René: I love bilingual books because you can share them with families who speak Spanish, English or both. They can also be great tools to speak and learn to read a second language. When I started to submit my manuscripts, I always envisioned them as bilingual books—books that I could share with my students, their parents, my family here in the United States, and all my relatives and friends in El Salvador.

Lila: Your writings frequently celebrate the happy coexistence of Latino and non-Latino cultures. This occurs in The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez and in Juguemos al Fútbol/ Let’s Play Football (coming out this month in the bilingual hardcover edition), to name just two examples. What inspires your multicultural bent?

René: Latino children usually live in two worlds in the United States. They speak English and Spanish and celebrate holidays from the two cultures. Many times people fight to see which language or culture is most important. I love them both and in my books I want to tell children that instead of deciding which culture is better, we can celebrate both and have double the fun.

Lila: Writing a picture book looks easy only to those who have never tried it. What’s it like for you? Do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you have a disciplined routine?

René: Writing picture books is so much fun for me. It was not easy at first but I read tons of them until I was ready to write my own stories for publication. I usually start with the problem or idea for a story. Then I think it over, again and again, and begin to create the story in my mind. When I have something solid, I begin to write it. Many incidents in the classroom help me with ideas for new stories.

Lila: You graduated from the prestigious Vermont College of Writing for Children & Young Adults and have published at least nine books. That’s a lot of experience! Can you share some hints for aspiring writers?

René: Never give up, believe in yourself, and work hard for your dreams. Take creative writing classes and join critique groups. If you are writing children’s books, it is always a great idea to join SCBWI, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Submit your work and learn from rejection letters. Believe in your stories, because you are the only one who can tell and write them. 

renecolatolainezRené Colato Laínez is a native of El Salvador. He is the award-winning author of many picture books and the recipient of honors that include the Latino Book Award, the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People, the California Collection for Elementary Readers, the Tejas Star Book Award Selection, and the New Mexico Book Award. He is listed among “Top Ten New Latino Authors to Watch (and Read)” by the site Latinostories.com*. He received a degree from the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. René’s full-time profession is teaching kindergarten in California. For more information, please visit his official author site