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.

 

 

Book Review: My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illus by Zeke Peña

 

Review by Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: When Daisy Ramona zooms around her neighborhood with Papi on his motorcycle, she sees the people and places she’s always known: the tortillería!, Abuelita’s church!, Franky, the barking Labradoodle! She also sees a community that is changing around her. But as Daisy and her papi reach the homestretch, the purple, blue, and gold sky glowing behind them, she knows that some things, like the love from her papi and family, will never change. With vivid illustrations and text bursting with heart, My Papi Has a Motorcycle is a young girl’s love letter to her hardworking dad and to the feeling of home we always carry with us.

The book is also available in Spanish as Mi papi tiene una moto.

MY TWO CENTS: Through this book, Quintero writes a love letter to her father “who showed [her] different ways of experiencing home” and a love letter to Corona, California, “a city that will always be a part of [her]” (Author’s note). The book begins with Daisy reading a book as she waits for her father to come home and take her on a ride around the city on his motorcycle. A wonderful feast to the eyes on this first page is the intertextuality that illustrator Zeke Peña provides: the book Daisy is reading is Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (written by Cathy Camper and illustrated by Raul the Third). It is a small, yet delightful, nod for readers who are familiar with the book series.

As the duo sets off on their journey, they pass many sights that are staples of Daisy’s city. There’s her Abuela’s church, Joy’s Market – where Mami buys Daisy’s gummy bears –, Rocket Repair, and Don Rudy’s Raspados – Daisy’s favorite place for shaved ice, which seems to have closed down. This is a point of concern for Daisy, who notices how disappointed her father is and affirms that she will not be the only one who misses the place. It comes as a happy surprise for her, then, when at the end of her journey that evening Don Rudy comes by with shaved ice, now in a small and portable cart.

Not only does the reader go on a tour of these places that Daisy enjoys, but we also get a glimpse into her life, her family’s life, her neighborhood, and some of the important history about the city. Passing by the murals painted around, Daisy explains their importance: “We roar past murals that tell our history – of citrus groves and immigrants who worked them, and of the famous road race that took place on Grand Boulevard a hundred years ago.”

As they race their way through Grand Boulevard, Daisy imagines being part of the races, the crowd cheering her on. The way Quintero weaves some of the history with Daisy’s daily life and imagination is brilliant, as readers are able to see the city through her eyes – lovingly and full of admiration – and at the same time they learn some of its history, as Daisy learns it, too.

In her author’s note, Quintero explains how the story was inspired by her own childhood in Corona, California. Through her words and Peña’s illustrations, she wanted to honor the immigrant workers, like her grandfather, who did the majority of the hard labor that helped establish the city, and a lot of the U.S. She explains that while the murals [Zeke Peña] created were imagined, the history they depicted was real.” These details, such as the city holding the road race on what is now known as Grand Boulevard, or the fact that Corona was known as the “Lemon Capital of the World” because of all the citrus that was cultivated there, were all present in the journey Daisy takes the reader.

There is so much heart in this book! It is clear how much Daisy loves and admires her papi, whose voice – she says – touches everything, even when everything around them is noisy. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, her father is central in her life. She admires his work as a carpenter, a job that he has had since he first arrived to the country, showing the reader not only his hard work, but how much she appreciates him for spending this sacred time with her even when he comes home really tired.

The language is very literary and the descriptions are vivid. One of my favorite combinations of vivid descriptions in the text and detailed imagery in the illustrations comes from a spread where Daisy describes how she and her dad take off on the motorcycle. She says the shiny blue metal up the motorcycle glows in the sun, making the sky blue and purple and gold. This rich imagery is further enhanced by Peña’s mix of colors and his placement of the duo at the center of a pool of gold, as if they were riding right into the sun. Peña’s use of comics elements like speech bubbles or onomatopoeic graphics like “VROOOOOOOM” when the motorcycle is revving up are a perfect fit for Quintero’s words.

Daisy and her papi’s motorcycle ride around the city is more than just a ride; it is really her life. And no matter how far she goes from the city or how many changes it undergoes, it will always be a part of her. This really shows how important this place is for her and how much of her identity is tied to it. Quintero closes the narrative with Daisy enjoying her shaved ice, sitting with her papi. Lovingly, Daisy thinks about her town and “all the changes it’s been through,” and finds comfort in knowing that in her little house with her family “there are things that will always stay the same.” “Mañana we fly again,” her dad assures her.

TEACHING TIPS: This book makes for a wonderful read aloud for all ages. It would be a strong mentor text for writing, and teachers could focus on:

  • The use of vivid descriptions
  • The importance of setting(s) in a story
  • Characterization

In addition, the book’s detailed illustrations can be great for teaching or developing visual literacy, asking students to explore how the illustrations support the text.

For older readers, the questions Quintero poses in her author’s note can be used for teaching this book. Who are the people who build our cities and form our communities? Who are the people who get streets named after them, and who are the people who lay the asphalt? These could become the basis of individual or collective research projects for students to learn more about their communities.

IsabelQABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from the dust jacket) Isabel Quintero is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She lives and writes in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Isabel is the author of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, which received the Morris Award, the Ugly Cat & Pablo chapter book series, and was commissioned to write Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, which was awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. One of her favorite memories is riding on the back of her papi’s motorcycle as a little girl.

 

Zeke PenaABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: (from the dust jacket) Zeke Peña is a cartoonist and illustrator working on the United States/Mexico frontera in El Paso, Texas. He makes comics to remix history and reclaim stories using satire and humor; resistencia one cartoon at a time. Zeke studied Art History at the University of Texas Austin and is self-taught in digital illustration. The graphic biography he illustrated titled Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide received the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

 

 

 

headshotABOUT THE REVIEWER: Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of English (Children’s Literature) at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research are in the areas of children’s literature (particularly Latinx literature), girlhood studies, and children’s cultures. Her published work has focused on girlhood as represented in literature and Puerto Rican girls’ identity formation with Barbie dolls. She has presented research on Latinx children’s books at various conferences and has served on children’s book award committees such as the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the 2018 Pura Belpré Award. Currently, she is part of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s “A Baker’s Dozen” committee.

 

 

Cover Reveal: Todos Iguales: Un Corrido de Lemon Grove/All Equal: A Ballad of Lemon Grove by Christy Hale

We are delighted to host the cover reveal for Christy Hale’s picture book, Todos Iguales: Un Corrido de Lemon Grove/All Equal: A Ballad of Lemon Grove, which will be published by Lee & Low Books.

Before we reveal the cover, here is some information about the author-illustrator, taken from her website:

 

Christy HaleAs a young child I resisted the temptation to make marks in books by drawing on a handy little pad of paper. I tore off my “illustrations” and tucked them along side the appropriate writing passage. By age ten I decided to become a writer and illustrator. At this time my best friend and I acted out all the books we loved. A favorite was Harriet the Spy. We dressed up in disguises, lurked around the neighborhood, and took notes of anything interesting we observed. Then we began writing and illustrating our own stories after school.

I have created books as long as I can remember. I studied calligraphy, bookbinding, letterpress and all other means of printing, typography, design, illustration, and desktop publishing.

I received a B.A. in Fine Arts and Masters in Teaching at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, then worked as an art educator for several years. I relocated to New York, earned a B.F.A. in illustration at Pratt Institute, then worked in publishing as a designer and art director. I taught at the Center for Book Arts and as an adjunct professor in the Communication Design department at Pratt Institute—all while beginning my illustration career. I’ve illustrated many books for children and now am writing stories as well.

At the end of 2001 I relocated to Northern California with my husband and daughter. I continue to work as a writer, illustrator, designer, art director, and as an educator—offering programs at museums, schools, libraries, and for staff development. I teach an online course in Writing for Picture Books through the illustration department at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Now, here is some information about the book from the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Roberto Álvarez loved school. He, his siblings, and neighbors attended the Lemon Grove School in California along with the Anglo children from nearby homes. The children studied and played together as equals.

In the summer of 1930, the Lemon Grove School Board decided to segregate the Mexican American students. The board claimed the children had a “language handicap” and needed to be “Americanized.” When the Mexican families learned of this plan, they refused to let their children enter the new, inferior school that had been erected. They formed a neighborhood committee and sought legal help. Roberto became the plaintiff in a suit filed by the Mexican families. On March 12, 1931, the case of Roberto Álvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District was decided. The judge ruled in favor of the children’s right to equal education, ordering that Roberto and all the other Mexican American students be immediately reinstated in the Lemon Grove School.

This nonfiction bilingual picture book, written in both English and Spanish, tells the empowering story of The Lemon Grove Incident–a major victory in the battle against school segregation, and a testament to the tenacity of an immigrant community and its fight for equal rights.

Finally, here is the cover of Todos Iguales: Un Corrido de Lemon Grove/All Equal: A Ballad of Lemon Grove:

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TODOS IGUALES FC hi res

The book releases August 13, 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

 

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.