Celebrating Pura Belpré Winners: Spotlight on Under the Royal Palms by Alma Flor Ada

PuraBelpreAward

The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy.

Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on Alma Flor Ada, the winner of the 2000 Pura Belpré Narrative Award for Under the Royal Palms.

Under the Royal Palms coverReview by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: In this companion volume to Alma Flor Ada’s Where the Flame Trees Bloom, the author offers young readers another inspiring collection of stories and reminiscences drawn from her childhood on the island of Cuba. Through those stories we see how the many events and relationships she enjoyed helped shape who she is today.

Heartwarming, poignant, and often humorous, this collection encourages children to discover the stories in their our own lives — stories that can help inform their own values and celebrate the joys and struggles we all share no matter where or when we grew up.

MY TWO CENTSUnder the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba, by Alma Flor Ada, is the second of two memoirs covering the author’s childhood. Where the Flame Trees Bloom was published in 1994. Both books are now available in a single volume entitled Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, which also contains a new, shorter section called “Days at La Quinta Simoni.” This review is Island Treasures FINAL ARTbased on the Island Treasures edition.

Under the Royal Palms was also published in Spanish, as Bajo las palmas reales.

Written in clear prose charged with poetic flavor, Under the Royal Palms is a lovely collection of autobiographical stories that paint a rich picture of life for a 20th-century child in the riverside city of Camagüey, Cuba. Located in the interior of the island nation, Camagüey is an ancient city of narrow, winding streets, paved in stone. Most of the stories are set in the large, multi-generational family home of Alma Flor Ada’s childhood, known as La Quinta Simoni.

Often humorous or joyful, occasionally sobering, each story in this collection captivates the eye and ear through sharp characterizations of place, time, and emotion. By bringing to life feelings ranging from deep loss to transcendent joy, the author succeeds in reaching across cultural and generational gaps to connect to the heart of young readers today.

In “Explorers,” we meet cousins Jorge and Virginita. As the oldest of these three children, Jorge wears a mantle of authority that his two younger cousins, Virginita and Alma Flor, honor to a fault. Part of Jorge’s reputation comes from the fact that he “read the adventure stories that we all later reenacted. We trusted his words completely and followed him without hesitation.” One day, the girls blithely follow Jorge into a marabú field. Marabú are prolifically spreading trees, which form a dense and thorny thicket. Jorge somehow manages to nimbly scramble his way through the nearly impenetrable network of branches that cover the vast marabú field, but his cousins lose sight of him and are forced to crawl along at inchworm pace, snagging their hair and dresses on the thorns. When Jorge arrives back at La Quinta Simoni without the girls, and hours later they have still failed to appear, the adults imagine the worst and begin to search high and low for them. The girls finally emerge from the marabú field, with “clothes in tatters and our faces covered with muddy tears.”

Other stories reveal the web of family relationships and the interplay of competing interests. “Broken Wings” is a stunning account of an uncle’s passion for aeronautic flight and the dear price that he and his loved ones pay for it. Uncle Medardito is the only brother of Alma Flor’s mother and maternal aunts. His dynamic personality charms everyone that knows him. So do his exploits. When the Río Tínima floods, Uncle Medardito braves the rushing waters to save a drowning person. His flair for daring is not limited to emergencies; at times, he walks like a tightrope artist along the railing of a high bridge, purely for the adventure. Then he is bitten by the flying bug and purchases a lightweight wood-and-canvas plane, powered by a single motor. Family members worry for his safety and dread the days when he goes flying, “rising above the red tile roofs and the winding streets that had so restricted his world, gliding like the mighty auras, the Cuban buzzards, over the plains where the royal palms stood majestically.” Of all the family, Alma Flor alone, a young girl at the time, does not try to dissuade her uncle from taking his plane up. She identifies with his longing to soar and secretly hopes he will not bend to the fearful misgivings of the others.

On a particular Sunday, Alma Flor is in the bathtub, with her hair in a “white cloud of shampoo,” when a ruckus draws her attention. Looking out the window, she sees hundreds of people rushing toward the river, shouting. Without rinsing off, she jumps into her clothes and dashes outside, joining the throng. A plane is approaching. Instead of the usual healthy sound of a working engine, there’s an ominous sputter. Running at full speed in the same direction as the descending plane, Alma Flor is the first to reach it after its “deafening impact” with the ground. Up to this point, the story has unfolded in such a way that Uncle Medardito’s fate is never in question. But what happens next, in young Alma Flor’s response to the crash, took me by surprise and provides an unforgettable, emotional climax.

Under the Royal Palms is a treasure chest of similar accounts, one that should be dusted off and introduced to a new generation of readers, many of whom have yet to discover the horizon-expanding possibilities of memoir.

Alma Flor AdaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alma Flor Ada is renown for her work as an educator, speaker, poet, and author of many children’s books as well as professional books for educators. In addition to the Pura Belpré Medal, her major awards include the 2012 Virginia Hamilton Award, the Christopher Medal, and the Marta Salotti Gold Medal. One of her great passions is social justice advocacy. Learn more about Alma’s dazzling career in children’s literature at her website, and read more about her journey in this lovely guest post, “Always Cuban.”

 

 

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Under the Royal Palms is ideal for reading aloud in the classroom. Most of the stories can be enjoyed as stand-alone narratives sure to capture the attention of late elementary and middle school kids.
  • Use selected stories as starting points for an exploration of Cuban culture and history. Complement the text with craft projects, such as making miniature clay tinajones, the earthen pots that Camagüey is known for and which are mentioned in the stories. Prepare a variety of Cuban foods for students to sample. Enrich the stories with virtual travel. A tours agency originating in Spain offers a beautiful array of photographs, maps, and videos of Camagüey and nearby beaches on its website, which is in Spanish.
  • Visit a botanical garden where palms grow and learn more about this amazing family of plants that includes over 2,500 species and differs from broadleaf and coniferous trees in many interesting ways, also supplying food products for people around the world.
  • The stories from Under the Royal Palms serve as excellent models for writing about personal experience. Lessons can include when to summarize events, when to inject dialogue and description, and how to weave in a narrator’s emotional responses.
  • Spanish-language learners can benefit from comparing the text of the English and Spanish versions.

 

Lila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication. Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators Part 2: Juana Martinez-Neal, Maya Christina González & Laura Lacámara

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This is the second in a series of posts spotlighting Latina illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out this year. Some of them live in the US, while others live overseas. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!

 

Juana Martinez-Neal

Children's Illustrator Juana Martinez-NealJuana was born in Lima, the capital of Peru. She has been illustrating for children since she was 16. Juana attended the best art school ever, Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru – School of Fine Arts. After 3 years of a crazy 8-to-8 schedule and way too many all-nighters, she was in desperate need of a semester-break and decided to give L.A. a “test drive.” She has lived in the US ever since.

Q: What inspired you to become an artist?

A: My father and grandfather were artists. The walls of our house were full of their paintings, and we had art supplies all around the house. Drawing and painting were natural ways to use our time. Every Summer, my mom enrolled us in a different art classes. She always took us to visit Museums, and her special treat was taking us to see puppet shows. Art was part of our life. There is nothing else I could be but an artist.

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I love the process more than a specific media. I think that’s the reason why I’m a mixed media illustrator. When I add materials and change my the process, the work becomes even more interesting. The idea of solving the problem makes the process so very exciting.

Q: Please finish the sentence “Picture books are important because…”

A: They expand a child’s mind, fulfill their soul, and show new points of views.

    

 

Maya Christina González

Maya Gonzalez is an artist, author, educator, activist, peacemaker, publisher, equality lover, obsessive recycler, traveler, river lover, tree talker, sky kisser……

Her fine art graces the cover of Contemporary Chicano/a Art and is well documented as part of the Chicano Art Movement. She has illustrated over 20 award-winning children’s books, several of which she also wrote, Her book My Colors, My World won the prestigious Pura Belpré Award Honor from the American Library Association and her most recent picture book, Call Me Tree was listed in Kirkus’ Best Picture Books of 2014 that Celebrate Diversity. Since 1996, Maya has been providing presentations to children and educators about the importance of creativity as a tool for personal empowerment. Her work with children in public schools helped her develop several lines of curriculum that offer a holistic approach to learning and open doors to new ways of thinking and relating in the world. In 2009 she co-founded Reflection Press, an independent press that publishes radical and revolutionary children’s books, and works that expand spiritual and cultural awareness. And in 2013, Maya co-created an online learning environment called School of the Free Mind about expanding the mind and reclaiming the creative. The School offers e-courses for those who are ready to uncover and connect with their unique and most powerful way of living and creating.

Q: What inspired you to become an artist?

A: I remember as a child drawing my round Chicana face into the backs of books. I think on some level I knew I needed to see myself in my books. I didn’t. I know in many ways those early ‘self-portraits’ were my way of affirming my existence in a world that did not include me. We are born artists. Creativity is our greatest tool to express and transform our world. I think it was a natural act to be an artist. I think I’ve remained visually expressive because it is the most powerful and immediate way to communicate and create change.

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I am notorious for trying different mediums in my children’s books. Acrylics, watercolors, oil pastels, ink, charcoal, painted collage, photo collage, color pencils and combinations of all of those. What I love is the feeling of exploration and not completely knowing what I’m doing. I know that’s how kids feel all the time. Everything is new and curiosity rocks. So I follow that feeling. I’ve made so much art that I’m familiar with all the materials so now I’m exploring how to use them differently. More expression. More immediate and raw. This is how kids create because this is how kids feel. I’m always exploring the edges of my expression.

Q: Please finish the sentence “Picture books are important because…”

A: Picture books are important because they are powerful tools of expression, support and potential healing. I believe children’s books are one of the most radical things we can do for ourselves and our communities.

            

Laura Lacámara

Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiCuban-born Laura Lacámara is the award-winning author and illustrator of Dalias Wondrous Hair / El cabello maravilloso de Dalia (Piñata Books), a bilingual picture book about a clever girl who transforms her unruly hair into a vibrant garden. Laura also wrote Floating on Mamas Song / Flotando en la canción de mamá, a bilingual picture book inspired by her mother, who was an opera singer in Havana. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales and published by HarperCollins, Floating on Mamas Song was a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2010 and was a Tejas Star Book Award Finalist for 2011-2012.

Laura earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drawing and Painting at California State University, Long Beach. She studied printmaking at Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles and began exhibiting and selling her work.

When a fellow artist suggested Laura’s images would be ideal for picture books, Laura signed up for a children’s book illustration class at Otis College of Art and Design. She instantly fell in love with both writing and illustrating for children. It was in that class that she wrote the first draft of Floating on Mamas Song.

Laura illustrated the 2012 Tejas Star Book Award winner, The Runaway Piggy / El cochinito fugitivo (Piñata Books), as well as Alicias Fruity Drinks / Las aguas frescas de Alicia (Piñata Books). Laura is a popular presenter at schools, book festivals, and conferences, and she is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  Laura lives in Southern California with her husband, their daughter, and a lovable mutt.

Q:  What inspired you to become an artist?

A: Having an artist father, who made a living as a graphic designer and illustrator, inspired me and showed me that it was possible to be a working artist.  In high school and beyond, I had many artist friends – we found inspiration together in art classes and museum visits.  And, to be honest, as a young adult, doing art was the only job I didn’t get fired from!

Q: Tell us about your favorite artistic medium.

A: I like painting with acrylics on a variety of surfaces – my current favorite being wood. (I love the texture.)  I also enjoy adding collage elements to my paintings.  I’ve always loved bright patterned fabrics and papers – the more the colors and patterns clash, the better!

Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: Picture books are important because they teach us about ourselves, our world, our feelings, our realities.  Stories with pictures can give young kids a great deal of validation and comfort.  A picture book may be the first time a child realizes, “I’m not the only one who feels that way!”

    

 

Books to Check Out:

Lacámara Laura. Dalias Wondrous Hair

Luna, James. The Runaway Piggy

Ruiz-Flores, Lupa. Alicias Fruity Drinks

Elya, Susan Middleton. La Madre Goose (coming in July)

Gonzalez, Maya Christina. Call me Tree/Llamame Arbol

Gonzalez, Maya Christina. I Know the River Loves Me/Yo se que el rio me ama

Gonzalez, Maya Christina. My Colors, My World/Mis colores, mi mundo

Alarcon, Francisco X. Animal Poems of the Iguazu

Perez, Amada Irma. Nanas Big Surprise

Perez, Amada Irma. My Diary from Here to There

Alarcon, Francisco X. Iguanas in the Snow

Author Ava Jae on Not Writing Latinx Characters

 

By Ava Jae

With both of my maternal grandparents born in Cuba, and both of my paternal grandparents born in Mexico, I am, indisputably, a third generation Latina. I learned Spanish before I learned English, celebrated Three Kings Day for the first decade of my life, and looked forward to my Cuban grandma’s incredible Christmas dinners—carne asada, frijoles negros con arroz, platanos maduros, y flan. I listened to my grandma’s stories in Spanish about growing up as the eldest of thirteen in Cuba, saw pictures of relatives I would probably never meet because they lived in a country Americans weren’t permitted to go to, and relished the warm, aromatic smell of café con leche in the morning.

And yet, by the time I’d finished my tenth manuscript—the one that would become my debut, Beyond the RedI still hadn’t written about a single Latinx character.

Looking back, there were a lot of reasons why that happened.

Firstly, I don’t fit the mold the media insists Latinx people fit into. I’m short—painfully so—and have dark eyes, sure, but that’s where the similarities end. Though I tan well when I spend time in the sun, I’m pale 99.9% of the time. My hair is brown, not black. I’m thin, not curvy. Though my pronunciation is native and I can understand it well enough, I’ve forgotten most of my Spanish. I’m not a flirty, exotic beauty who moves her hips like she was born dancing; I’m a tomboy, and awkward, and an introvert. My legal last name isn’t one of the common Mexican last names that’s easily recognizable as Latinx. When people look at me, they don’t see a Latinx person; they see a white kid.

And for a long time while I was writing, I started to see myself as a white kid, too.

I guess, in a sense, it was inevitable—no one in my immediate family looks like a stereotypical Latinx person; we are light-skinned (yes, even the Mexican side of the family), and my grandma is the one of the few of her many siblings who doesn’t have green or blue eyes (hers are hazel). My biological father doesn’t fit any of the Mexican stereotypes I’d learned; he burns instead of tans, he doesn’t like spicy food, and while he’s not super tall, he’s not exactly noticeably short, either.

I looked at my family, I looked at myself, and I internalized the shocked expressions I got every time I revealed I was, in fact, of the Latinx community. I learned it wasn’t in my favor to reveal my ethnicity when applying for a job, I was reminded time and time again with Mexican jokes, with talk about those illegals, with the stereotype of the working class Latinx person stuck doing the dishes, or cleaning homes, or taking the jobs that no one else wanted, that there were really no advantages to saying, “Yes, I’m Latina.”

So I stopped saying it. I justified it a day at a time, with “I can’t even speak Spanish,” with “I don’t even look Latina,” with “I wasn’t raised in a vibrant, Latinx community.” I hesitated on surveys that asked me to check “Caucasian” or “Hispanic.” I started believing I didn’t count.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that I wrote ten manuscripts without once considering writing a Latinx character. Maybe it’s inevitable that I didn’t feel it was my place to write a Latinx character. Maybe the fact that I never saw a character like me—Latinx, but light-skinned and unable to speak fluent Spanish—only reinforced this belief that I didn’t count. That I didn’t belong.

But slowly, things are starting to change. Adam Silvera wrote More Happy Than Not, and, for the first time, I read about a Latino boy who couldn’t speak Spanish. My friends online have spoken about being white-passing, about why this privilege so often hurts, about how people like me who feel stuck between two cultures without fitting completely into either exist. Slowly, I’ve begun reclaiming my identity. I’ve given myself permission to write characters like me.

And after I finished Beyond the Red and realized some of my experience had seeped through—in my male protagonist caught between two cultures, and in some of the pronunciation of the language my female protagonist speaks—I couldn’t help but smile.

Because even when I didn’t see it, being Latinx is, and has always been, a part of me. And I’m not going to hide it anymore.

 

Ava Author Photo_smallJPGAva Jae is a writer, an Assistant Editor at Entangled Publishing, and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. Her YA Sci-Fi debut, BEYOND THE RED, released March 1, 2016 from Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing about kissing, superpowers, explosions, and aliens, you can find her with her nose buried in a book, nerding out over the latest X-Men news, or hanging out on her blogTwitterFacebooktumblr, Goodreads, Instagram, or YouTube channel.

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk: A Literary Stroll Around My Neighborhood

 

By Sujei Lugo

My public library has been collaborating with a local non-profit community organization for more than 10 years, and when I started working there as the children’s librarian earlier this year, one of my plans was to continue building our relationship with this non-profit. This organization offers youth development programs meant to engage young people in a variety of activities including community organizing, advocacy, and educational programs. The majority of the programs focus on Afro-Latino dance, music, and community-theatre workshops and classes. I’ve invited participants, mainly Afro-Latino teens, to offer workshops and put on performances at my library. Such activities help them to develop leadership skills and give them a sense of empowerment and visibility in their community.

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

Drum Dream Girl Story Walk page 1 and map located at the library entrance

A couple of months ago, I contacted their arts and cultural programs director to discuss a great new picture book, Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle and Rafael López. This book seemed like ideal material to adapt into a play. Not long after that conversation, the organization’s special-projects manager stopped by my library and we had an informal chat about future collaborations. We wanted to work together on programming that would connect my library with their youth community center, located just five blocks away. This is when I shared my idea for a story walk, which seemed like a perfect way to integrate the community, cover the physical area between both buildings, and support literacy initiatives. She loved the idea, and it fit our mutual vision, for the following reasons: A. our community has a huge Latin@ population with lots of Latin@-owned businesses; B. a group of Afro-Latina teen drummers is active in the non-profit; C. my obsession and support for Latino children’s literature; and D. the Cuban restaurants in our neighborhood seemed like a natural tie-in for Drum Dream Girl in the context of a story walk.

Now we needed to move to the fun part: the planning.

First, we identified and contacted local businesses and organizations to talk about our story walk idea and our interest in incorporating them into the program. We explained that we were going to take a picture book, create poster boards for each page, and post them in storefront windows. Participants would walk down the street from the library to the youth community center, and following a Drum Dream Girl Story Walk map, they would read the page displays along the route. Community members responded enthusiastically, from “Eso está genial. Todo sea por la biblioteca y los niñ@s,” to “That’s so cool. Of course we are in.” Using their storefront windows was a great way to integrate them into our story walk. In the neighborhood surrounding the library, 90% of the businesses and organizations are locally owned and they include a significant number of non-profit endeavors. What’s more, 11 out of the 15 storefront participants turned out to be Latin@-owned businesses. Once they agreed to take part in the walk, we created a map containing the street addresses of each storefront and the corresponding page number(s) from the book located at each address.

Next came the creation of the story pages which would be posted in the windows. A successful story walk works best when using a picture book with a simple, easy-to-follow narrative, featuring single page illustrations, and minimal text. In this case, we made allowances for Rafael López, who paints some of the most beautiful illustrations in children’s literature, but which are usually double-page spreads. This posed a bit of a challenge. We first purchased three copies of the book, since we needed to use actual pages and not scans or photocopies. Then, using an X-acto knife, a pair of scissors, and a lot of patience, I carefully separated and cut the pages. This was done using two copies of the book, to ensure the display of all pages, front and back. (The third copy was a backup, in case of errors.) To maintain the look of the full spreads,  I carefully rejoined separated pages with hidden adhesive tape. Using glue sticks, I attached the pages to poster boards and added a prepared label containing the book’s title, the author’s and illustrator’s names, the correct page number, and the names of the sponsoring library and community organization. The final step was to trim and laminate each poster board.

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

From beauty salons to Cuban restaurants and health centers, the Drum Dream Girl Story Walk boards

 

For our story walk inauguration, we selected a Saturday morning. The actual story walk was designed to be read independently, which allowed families and individuals to follow the story at their own pace. They would pick up a map at the library, walk down the main street reading each story poster, and end up at the youth community center where related activities were being offered. To enhance the reading experience, we encouraged kids to jot down certain details of the story, such as the number of people they saw on each poster, which quickly turned into a game for them and increased their attentiveness. Since this book is about an Afro-Latina drummer, several activities were music-related. At a craft table, children created their own drums, maracas, and other instruments, using recycled materials. In a separate room, story-walk readers had the opportunity to participate in a drumming workshop conducted by Latina teen drummers. These activities brought an already wonderful book to life, and provided a way to celebrate the power of music as well as elements of Latino heritage.  The publisher was kind enough to furnish a few copies of the book, which were given out as prizes to the first kids that finished the story walk.

The Drum Dream Girl Story Walk was up for a two-week period. During this time, patrons stopped by the library to pick up maps, children flocked to the crafts area to make musical instruments, and many picked up a copy of the book, while others shared their excitement about how well the story walk integrated their community. A copy of the map was located outside, at the front of the library, so that even during our closed hours, anyone interested could follow the story on their own. A lot of people who knew nothing about the program enjoyed the story as they passed through the neighborhood, leading to greater awareness about the story walk, the library, the community, and of course, the courageous Cuban girl who changed a piece of music history.

Drum dreamers

Drum dreamers

 

The Drum Dream Story Walk was a great event to plan and implement in an urban setting, and although it took time and patience to create the poster boards, I would definitely do it again. Alternative programs like this contribute to breaking down the physical barriers that often exist between a library and the community it serves, and also tighten relationships with local groups, businesses, and library patrons. I foresee future story walks in my library work, using diverse picture books and bilingual titles. I also intend to invite school classes and local groups to form story-walk read-alouds. And let’s not forget that music and art-making activities enhance the story-walk experience and help bring a book to life in memorable ways.

 

SujeiLugoSujei 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 Latino librarianship and identity. 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 ofREFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library Services to Latinos and the Spanish-speaking), American Library Association, and Association of Library Service to Children. She is the editor of Litwin Books/Library Juice Press series on Critical Race Studies and Multiculturalism in LIS. Sujei can also be found on Twitter, Letterboxd and Goodreads.

Guinevere Thomas and Christina Diaz Gonzalez: Two Versions of Cuban Childhood

Mom and twinsGrowing Up Q-Ban

by Guinevere Thomas

To grow up Q-ban…it was and still is an experience.

There are probably things that all American-born Cubans share in common. But my childhood environment may not mirror another Cuban-American’s experience, because to explain how I grew up Cuban, is to also explain how I grew up Black.

I was born in Miami, Florida. It was the 80’s and my mother was a teenager doing the best she could in a harsh environment. Folks from Florida know the humidity is a killer. You could never “beat the heat,” but when you’re a kid your tolerance is higher, and much like the heat, nothing really affected me negatively before the age of six.

I was a naïve kid. So naïve, that my mother, bless her heart, told me that every single person in the world was Cuban too, and I believed it. Years later, I sent my mother sarcastic greeting cards about how she totally doomed me for life, but I see now why she did it. While no generation gets off easy when it comes to racism, her generation and those before hers experienced it in a different way. She was hoping I could navigate through the world more readily if I believed everyone was like me.

Uncle

Photobombed by an uncle!

Miami made this fantasy easy. I was surrounded by everything Cuban, or at least by closely related cultures that kept the illusion going–Puerto Rican and Haitian, to be exact. Of course, I’d always known I was Black. I just never saw myself as different from other Black kids, because most Black kids I knew in Miami were Cuban too.

Then most of my family uprooted to Jacksonville, Florida, and my naiveté fell away. I realized for the first time how split my identities were, and race and culture became challenges for me. In a city that was mostly composed of non-Latino White and Black American, my family was no longer surrounded by a common culture. We were the other. And it sucked.

In a few ways, we did fit in. In Miami, growing up with coarse hair, I’d stood apart from my mixed race or White Cuban friends whose parents didn’t spend hours on their children’s so-called pelo malo, an offensive term used by Spanish speakers. But in Jacksonville, this was the norm for non-Latino Black girls and boys. Yay! I wasn’t different in that sense anymore!

But then there was that 3rd grade field trip…

We were encouraged to bring snacks, and I asked my mother to make empanadas and ensalada criolla (my mom’s famous mix of delicious tropical veggies and fruits).

“This isn’t salad, there’s no lettuce in it.”

“Why would you put guava paste and cheese together?”

And those were some of the nicer things said about the food.

Strangely, much of the backlash came from my classmates’ parents. I was so embarrassed. Many kids shared my appearance, but they didn’t connect to me on other levels. My food was disgusting to them and they considered my name weird, especially when I went by the full version, Guinevere Zoyana.

Cuban flag

Guinevere’s bedroom as a teen included the Cuban flag.

For years, I’ve debated about which way I should identify. To most of the world I am African American, which is not bad at all, and for a big portion of my middle school/high school years, I solely chose the term Black, because this made it easier for other people. But as an Afro-Cuban, I’m part of an amazing culture and history. It sucked to hide my full identity simply because people don’t readily view me as Latina.

Even now, I struggle with identity. Growing up Cuban shaped how I saw things: How people treated me based on my appearance and the fact that I was actually Black and Cuban-American. My blended culture even had an impact on my politics.

I know some folks think being Latino is all the same, but even language isn’t enough to make Latinos a monolith. We have different colloquialisms that get lost in translation. For example, my Latino friends who aren’t Cuban think it’s weird I say “Que Bola Asere!” to a complete stranger who my sister’s old boss’ cousin mentioned might be Cuban!

Although kid-lit is producing more books highlighting the Latino experience, this doesn’t mean the stories will mirror everyone’s reality. For a very long time, the Afro-Latino experience was nowhere to be found in books, and this is why I think it’s so important to publish these stories.

Current photoI co-write with my twin sister, Libertad, and despite our experiences, we still haven’t mastered writing for Afro-Cuban teens. But our plans for 2016 will be filled with teens of various Afro-Latino backgrounds. One of our first planned releases features a Haitian-American girl and another puts an Afro-Puerto Rican girl front and center. It’s definitely a journey making these new voices heard and I’m super excited about it!

book coverGuinevere Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity in books by day, and slays ninjas by night. Diversity is her strong point. Procrastination is her weak point. If you know anyone who’d like to join her My Afro-Latino series, email her at guinevere.libertadthomas@gmail.com. Chat books with her on Twitter @dos_twinjas where she joins her partner in crime to tweet about diversity in books and media. Be sure to visit her official site (in progress). www.gltomas.net  And you can check out her debut release under her shared pen name G.L. Tomas on Amazon here!

Red Umbrella 2The Cuba I Know

by Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Cuba. A land I’ve never seen with my eyes, but have felt in my heart. A place my parents and grandparents would describe in their stories as an island with the most beautiful beaches, rolling verdant hills and, if you believed my grandmother, a place where the sky was a little more blue. I was born in a country only ninety miles north of that seemingly magical island, but those ninety miles were filled with so much pain, heartache and stolen dreams that it was an abyss that my family could not, would not, cross. Yet, part of Cuba, the piece my family carried inside them to the United States, was ever present within the walls of my home.

The Cuba I experienced while living in a small, Southern town was the one my parents and grandparents chose to share with me. It was in their stories of love, loss, and sacrifice that I learned about their struggles to have a good life in Cuba and how it (along with basic freedoms that I would always enjoy in the U.S.) had been taken away from them after the communist revolution. It was this tearing apart of lives that left scars that would permeate through generations. These are the scars that are re-opened every time a dissident is jailed, a blogger beaten, or another balsero drowns trying to cross those ninety miles to freedom. It is the pain of what was left behind, what can never be recovered, of childhoods lost, and dreams turned into nightmares that my family made sure I understood.

And yet… Cuba still beckons all of its children (and the children of its children) with a siren song of love, family and culture. Those were the aspects of Cuban life I experienced on a daily basis and that became ingrained into my identity. Cuba was revealed to me in the Spanish language that we spoke at home and in the sayings like “le ronca el mango” and “por si las moscas” which never made sense in English, but completely summarized a feeling or situation. It was felt in my soul through the music of Celia Cruz, Benny Moré and La Sonora Matancera that was so often played on our old record player. I could savor Cuba in the foods that were prepared by my mother and grandmother (arroz, frijoles negros, and picadillo were staple dishes) and the pastellitos and pan cubano that my extended family would bring up from Miami whenever they came to visit. The lessons of Cuba could be seen in the value placed on education (because “no one can take what’s inside of you”) and in the smaller cultural ideas such as never being allowed to go to sleepovers, never swimming right after eating for fear of the dreadful patatú, and never placing my purse on the floor. This all formed my understanding of what it is to be Cuban.

Moving Target 2And now, fifty-five years later, it is that understanding that is reflected in my life. On a large scale, it is most easily seen in my writing through books like The Red Umbrella (the story of a Cuban girl who is sent to the US through Operation Pedro Pan) or Moving Target (an action/adventure story that features an American girl of Cuban descent who becomes embroiled in an ancient mystery dating back to biblical times). But the legacy of Cuba can also be seen in the smaller moments of my personal life such as when my children make Cuban coffee with espumita or I prevent them from jumping into the pool after having a big lunch for fear that there may be something to those patatú stories.

This is my Cuba. My heritage. A heritage that will not be forgotten, but will continue to be passed to the next generation who will hopefully see what my grandparents could not…a free Cuba with a democratically elected government. Until then, I will keep my purse off the floor…por si las moscas.

author_highresChristina Diaz Gonzalez is the award-winning author of The Red UmbrellaA Thunderous Whisper, and Moving Target. Her books have received numerous honors and recognitions including the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, the Florida Book Award, the Nebraska Book Award, a Notable Social Studies Book and the International Literacy Association’s Teacher’s Choice Award.  She speaks to students across the country about writing, the importance of telling their stories and the value of recognizing that there is a hero in each one of us. Visit her website at www.christinagonzalez.com for further information.

This concludes our series on Cuban American children’s and YA writers. We hope you loved reading these guest posts as much as we loved hosting them!

Enrique Flores-Galbis: Bridge of Words

paperback coverAs part of our series on Cuban-American authors, we present an excerpt from a work in progress by Enrique Flores-Galbis, author of the novel 90 Miles to Havana.

 

One last trip to the well.

I grew up in a house of stories—shared memories, recounted with passion and intensity by those afraid that if they didn’t get their accounts across, the worlds and lives they left behind would disappear, and they would be truly dispossessed.

As a writer I have drawn from these exile stories and benefited from the longing and beauty of their telling, especially those told by my grandmother.

Abuela was the voice of our house. During the day she would sit in her room with the door open. This way, she could track the comings and goings of our large, unruly family, and then broadcast her narratives into the open space at the center of our tall house.

At four in the afternoon she brewed her coffee, rich and strong—the old school way. An old jelly jar, with an embossed design of grape leaves caught the drops of the black liquid oozing from the bottom of the cloth funnel. Stirring two tiny spoonfuls of sugar into her espresso cup she would murmur, “Just enough to sweeten the ninety miles I have to cross,” and then go to her room and close the door.

She would sit in her chair, cup hovering, staring out over the tops of the bare winter trees and then leave. Her body might have been slowly rocking in the chair, but she was gone— she had left the room.

Abuela was a dreamer. She could transcend her self-imposed double exile in Connecticut and return to her home on Obispo street, in Old Havana, at will.

One day, before she closed her door, I asked her, “Abuela, where do you go when you leave?”

Sensing that I was vaguely aware of her travels, she smiled and said, “Havana, of course. Where else would I go?”

It was about this time that our daily ritual of coffee, stories, and my induction into the legion of exile dreamers began.

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Art by Enrique Flores Galbis

Abuela’s stories always started at the large carved doors of her house on Obispo St. and most of them took place on the same day, the day before her world changed. A sip of coffee, a sigh, and she would begin to describe the doors, the blaring light on the buildings, the hushed blue shadows, and the smell from the chocolate shop on the corner. Each detail, a new strand she would weave into her delicate bridge of words. I listened patiently, closely, until the words disappeared, until only their echoes, the images, remained. And then I too crossed the ninety miles of dark water on her bridge of words.

This, the last story she told me, explained her beginnings as a dreamer and led me to the realization that she was just one of many exiles who dreamed their way back to Havana every day.

“The gallego carpenter carved little cat-like creatures among the leaves and berries at the bottom of the doors where only a child would notice. Those big doors opened into a courtyard paved with smooth grey stones, dug up from the Bay of Biscayne and brought as ballast on the first ships. I always kept my windows open so that I could feel the eternal chill of the grey stones and hear the watery song of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“Every day I was left all alone in that room for my afternoon siesta. I never told anyone before, but as long as I can remember, I wished I had a twin, a girl twin, someone I could whisper my secrets to. Then one day she appeared in my siesta dream. I don’t know how it happened, but there she was, just as real as you are right now. The next day I waited for her, but she did not come back.

“Now I was lonelier than ever before, but determined to bring her back. After all, if I dreamed her once I was sure that I could dream her again. So, one siesta at a time, I began to recreate her, to will her back from my memory.

“I don’t remember how long it took or how old I was when I fully willed her into being, but I do remember the first time she entered my room, she brought the songs of the caged birds as a gift.

“We would lie side by side, barely creasing starched pillowcases, holding hands as we slipped out of this world. In that hour of underwater quiet we were free to roam to places unthinkable at any other time. We tore down walls and burst through gates erected to keep a young girl’s imagination cloistered and safe. We created new worlds and then tossed them back and forth until one of us succeeded in fleshing out a vivid scenario, always reserving a place for the other on our dream stage.

“One day, as I walked to my room for my siesta, there was a loud knock on the big doors. I stopped by the fountain.

“The cook, irritated by the interruption, stepped out of the kitchen and stomped across the courtyard. He nudged the door open only a crack, ready to dismiss the beggar or vendor that had so rudely disturbed his preparation of the evening meal.

“The cook hesitated and then took a step back. As the door swung open, the afternoon light sliced into the shady courtyard. Then the cook, a haughty, serious man, did something that I had never seen him do before. He bowed deeply as a small woman, not much older than myself, walked boldly past him. She stopped at the very tip of the shaft of light as if she wanted me to look at her— to see her fully.

“She had high cheekbones and very small dark eyes. Her sun-darkened skin was a rich ochre, the color of the earth in Matanzas. She seemed to be a perfectly balanced mixture of every race that had ever set foot in the Caribbean.

“She slowly stepped toward me and began to recite details from my secret dream lives, descriptions of places my twin and I had traveled to, places only an intimate of our dreams would know.

“’Have we met?’ I asked.

“ ‘Yes, in your siestas. You left a window open,’ she said in a soft conspiratorial tone.

“I immediately understood what she meant. My dreams were open and inviting. I always left room for my twin and, I realized, they were open to all dreamers.

“It didn’t take me long to see that Uva was my guardian-angel. She had come to teach me about the art of dreams, as she called it, always insisting on the importance of her calling, because shared dreams have the power to affect reality.

“Over time the numbers of dreamers grew, but in exile our once sweet dream turned into a bitter, dark cloud casting its half century shadow on our island.

“Now there are not many of us left and I’m too tired to carry on.

“It is time for this dream to end, so that the new one can begin.”

Good bye, Abuela.

 

Flores GalbisEnrique Flores Galbis is a painter, teacher, lecturer, and novelist. He immigrated to the United States from Cuba at age nine. As a writer, he is best known for the Pura Belpré Honor Book 90 Miles to Havana. His first novel, Raining Sardines,  (Roaring Brook Press 2007)a recipient of America’s Award Author Honors. Learn more about his art and writing on his professional website. Go here to view an illustrated reading by the author from his award-winning novel.