Book Review: Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad written by Emma Otheguy, illus. by Beatriz Vidal

 

Reviewed by Chantel Acevedo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a young boy, Jose Martí traveled to the countryside of Cuba and fell in love with the natural beauty of the land. During this trip he also witnessed the cruelties of slavery on sugar plantations. From that moment, Martí began to fight for the abolishment of slavery and for Cuban independence from Spain through his writing. By age seventeen, he was declared an enemy of Spain and was forced to leave his beloved island. Martí traveled the world and eventually settled in New York City. But the longer he stayed away from his homeland, the sicker and weaker he became. On doctor’s orders he traveled to the Catskill Mountains, where nature inspired him once again to fight for freedom. Here is a beautiful tribute to Jose Martí, written in verse with excerpts from his seminal work, Versos sencillos. He will always be remembered as a courageous fighter for freedom and peace among all men and women.

MY TWO CENTS: Nineteenth century Cuba and New York come alive in the pages of Emma Otheguy‘s Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad. Otheguy tells the story of José Martí, Cuban poet and patriot of Cuba’s independence, in prose that feels like verse, in both English and Spanish.

Interspersed throughout are excerpts from Martí’s Versos sencillos, and the effect is a powerful one. Martí himself speaks his story in these moments, affirming with his lyricism what Otheguy has told us–stories of the poet’s childhood, of watching slaves cutting sugar cane, which makes José “shake with rage,” of finding himself in exile in the Catskill Mountains that made him homesick for Cuba, and of his return to Cuba, “like an eagle healed, to join in a new war for independence.”

Otheguy does a wonderful job of capturing the act of writing, which can be difficult to describe. We see Martí’s evolution from pamphleteer to journalist, speechwriter, to poet. The word “inspiration” comes up often, and the sources of that inspiration range from people and their suffering, to people’s excitement, to trees, birds, and of course, swaying palmas reales.

Growing up Cuban-American in Miami, José Martí’s poems were the first I committed to memory. My abuela would “test” me, and I would recite. In Martí’s poems for children, both beauty and soul resided. “Los zapaticos de rosa,” a favorite in my house, was a lesson in humility and generosity, the injustice of poverty, and the innocence of childhood. Would that all children, everywhere, in every language, could learn it! In the bilingual school I attended, we memorized “Cultivo una rosa blanca…” and said it together as a class, like a prayer. When students fought, the teachers would remind us that we were all supposed to be “amigo(s) sincero(s).” So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read Otheguy’s book and share it with my daughters. The language, both in English and Spanish, is accessible. My five year old had no trouble listening to the story. The illustrations by Beatriz Vidal are rich with detail–from the colorful mantillas on the shoulders of women to Cuban tiles on the floor of rooms, to the birds that seem to alight on the text of each page.

Though I’ve heard of Martí all my life, I was surprised to learn of Martí’s time in the Catskills and the grueling work he did in a quarry while in prison, and so the book can be illuminating to readers beyond the elementary school level. Indeed, the battles Martí fought, both rhetorically and physically, and the forces of injustice that worked against him, are conflicts that resonate today across the globe. Reading the book to a child might be followed up by discussions of injustice today, and how the places where we live might resemble Cuba in the nineteenth century. Perhaps more importantly, a discussion of how we might be more like Martí could be a wonderful take-away.

The back cover features an actual portrait of José Martí, and a quote: “And let us never forget that the greater the suffering, the greater the right to justice, and that the prejudices of men and social inequalities cannot prevail over the equality which nature has created.” It is hard to imagine a Cuban childhood sans Martí, or a description of Cuba that does include reference to his influence. But beyond Cuba, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad comes at an important time when even young readers are thinking about how we might make the world a more just place.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com. Emma’s guest post for this blog provided a fascinating look at her Cuban heritage and her childhood development as a reader.


Photo of Beatriz VidalABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Beatriz Vidal was born in Argentina and attended the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of Cordoba University. In New York, she studied painting and design with Ilonka Karasz for several years. During that time, her career as an illustrator began with designs for Unicef cards and record covers. She has illustrated many children’s books, including The Legend of El Dorado, A Library for Juana, Federico and the Magi’s Gift, and A Gift of Gracias. She divides her time between Buenos Aires and New York City.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Chantel Acevedo’s novels include Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Latino International Book Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year, Song of the Red Cloak, a historical novel for young adults, A Falling Star (Carolina Wren Press), winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, and National Bronze Medal IPPY Award, and The Distant Marvels, (Europa Editions), a Carnegie Medal finalist and an Indie Next Pick. Her latest novel, The Living Infinite (Europa Editions), is forthcoming. She is also the author of En Otro Oz (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poems. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Poetry Review, North American Review, and Ecotone, among many others. She earned her MFA at the University of Miami, where she is currently an Associate Professor of English, and advises Sinking City, the MFA program’s literary journal.

Under the Sky and Over the Sea: A Cuban-American’s Reflections on Childhood Reading

By Emma Otheguy

Every Thursday afternoon the summer I was fourteen, I volunteered at story hour. The public library had a small lawn where they would set up a chair, and us teenagers would read while the younger kids sat in the grass around us. I always came straight from dance class, and I remember so clearly how the world looked from my big reading chair: my flip-flops and convertible tights, the lawn grass and its summer scent, the kids looking up at me as I looked down at them. I discovered Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There and marveled at how it could be so mysterious and yet so familiar: a goblin’s kingdom, and a protective older sister.

That summer was the first time I was aware of not being a child myself, realizing that I had changed and that my perspective in the big chair was different from that of the little faces sitting in the grass. I was finding for the first time that I could no longer go waltzing in the front door of children’s worlds, that to access the viewpoint of these kids I would have to be like Ida in Outside Over There, who reaches the goblin realm by going backwards out the window. Ida’s story reminded me of Rubén Darío’s Margarita, sailing under the sky and over the sea to reach a kingdom where stars grow like flowers. I knew by fourteen that you could not go knocking at the door to other galaxies, that they could only be reached by an angled approach, and magic.

I knew all about finding my way to outside over there, because it was an exact reflection of my experience as a child of immigrants: translating one culture for the other, figuring out if backwards out the window or sideways through the rain was the right way to help my parents understand the latest American trend. It’s what adults do when they read picture books to children, and it’s what children do when they hold two cultures within themselves. I didn’t visit Cuba until I was a teenager, and so my parents’ homes, their memories and our family and friends in Cuba, were known to me only through this act of translation. Each summer we visited our family in Puerto Rico, my parents’ attempt to sail through the sky and pluck the stars, to show us the world we couldn’t know. We walked along El Pasaje de la princesa in San Juan, and they told us about el malecón in La Habana. In Luquillo there were memories of Varadero, and in all that sun and green and salty air we tried to find Cuba, tried to reach the world we couldn’t access in the normal way, the world we could only know backwards out the window and through the rain.

I read the Narnia books, and Julie Edwards’ Mandy and Anna Elizabeth Bennett’s The Little Witch with different eyes than the other kids in my school, with a fierce identification, because I knew all about worlds tucked away in cedar for safekeeping, about gardens under lock and key, about children and parents who could visit only in magic mirrors. Cuba was all of these things to me, and in children’s books I saw the willing together of separate worlds that I associated with the gap between my parents and me, and my role in explaining the United States to them.

But for all I learned from Ida and Margarita, I couldn’t in those days close the divide between the books I read in school and those I read at home. They might as well have existed in their own separate realms, so completely inaccessible were they to one another. At home, we read poetry and picture books that my parents picked up on their travels, or that we got as gifts from family in Puerto Rico and Mexico. We read what my parents remembered of their own childhoods, like Darío’s Margarita and Martí’s Los zapaticos de rosa. Those stories were dear, and magical, and wholly confined to my life at home.

Today, Latinx children’s authors have finally brought the books of home and the books of the school and library closer together. There are too many to name in one blog post, so I will only say that it has been a tremendous privilege to read and share the titles that have been featured on this site. These books mean that children today don’t have to experience the world as divided and distant, they mean that home and town can be closer together. They mean that it’s safe to love both Sendak and Darío.

My debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom, is a biography of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí, but it is more importantly the story of the connections he made between Latin America and the United States, of how he loved Cuba while living in New York. This book honors Martí’s activism and his fight for justice, and it also tells the story of how Martí learned to go outside-over-there: how he found in the sighing pine trees the sound of the Cuban palmas reales he missed so much, how he lessened the distance between Cuba and New York. He came from everywhere and was on the road to every place, he knew how to dip under the sky and over the sea, how to close the gaps between divided worlds. He used poetry and passion to accomplish it. He too, would know about picture books, and his story is for every child who learns to share and hold our diverse cultures together.

MARTÍ’S SONG FOR FREEDOM / MARTÍ Y SUS VERSOS POR LA LIBERTAD hits shelves July 17th, 2017. To learn more about the inspiration for this book, read Emma’s earlier blog post at Anansesem. MARTÍ is now available for pre-order from any retailer, and Emma is sending signed bookplates and stickers to all pre-orders. Fill out this form to get yours!

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, and her short story “Fairies in Town” was awarded a Magazine Merit Honor by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Otheguy lives with her husband in New York City. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is her picture book debut. You can find her online at http://www.emmaotheguy.com.

 

 

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.

IMG_4990_1024

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.

About that Embargo: Nancy Osa and Margarita Engle

Library Shelves YA

The End of the Cuba “Embargo” in YA Lit

By Nancy Osa

In the late 1990s, I wrote a young-adult novel about a teenager who protests the United States–Cuba trade embargo and sent it out to major publishers. I may have set a record for rejection letters. No children’s publisher dared broach the subject of U.S.-Cuba politics—not even from a humanitarian perspective. I’ll wager that such a reticent attitude is about to die. Soon, all things “Cuba” will be the next hot topics to follow zombies and vampires.

The true theme of my book, though, was not Cuba’s worthiness of respectful neighborly relations but rather Americans’ right to challenge policy through peaceful protest. Which topic were publishers really shying away from? In the 1990s, acts of dissent had been appropriated and/or stigmatized by publicity-hungry groups—Million Man March, anti-WTO factions, abortion clinic terrorists. Exposing teens to international politics, publishing interests seemed to surmise, might only incite high schoolers to riot.

I argued that young American readers should understand their options for agreeing or disagreeing with their homeland’s diplomatic policies. Information, discussion, and even provocation are necessary elements to learning to think critically. Simply ignoring the far-reaching trade and travel restrictions was a disservice to maturing readers, who, by their nature, are quite open to efforts to make the world a better place. When I was 10 years old, for instance, I formed a club and held a fundraiser to buy a trash can for my local park. On the heels of that success, I embraced various causes: women’s rights, resource conservation, humane treatment of animals, etc. When I reached voting age, I voted, marched, petitioned my legislators, and canvassed door-to-door. Not until my thirties did I think deeply about my Cuban heritage, though, and the implications of our national policies to my personal and cultural relationships. I wondered what it would have been like to grow up informed and in touch with my relatives on the island, instead of ignorant and forcibly separated. This was the impetus for writing my book.

When I submitted my novel to publishers, I knew that many young readers would welcome my story about an American girl who joins a protest rally to improve conditions for her family members in Cuba. I couched the topic in typical high-school drama, with a large dose of humor. It wasn’t vitriolic or pointedly critical of any one faction. Still, mainstream publishing houses, librarians, book buyers, and teachers were afraid to raise the hot-button Cuba issue. I suspect they were equally put off by the topic of protest. That book was never published, but another novel about a traditional coming-of-age ceremony—the quinceañero—was. Both Cuba 15books used humor to engage readers in a debate about factionalism: kids vs. parents, traditionalists vs. progressives . . . America vs. Cuba. The book that focused on dresses vs. pants, however, won out over the one that more literally discussed right vs. wrong.

As we face a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, I’d like to remind readers and thinkers that people like me have been politely protesting the political stand-off for decades. Twenty-fifteen marks the twenty-third year that the group IFCO/Pastors for Peace has practiced civil disobedience by gathering and delivering goods to Cuban people in need. Communist partisanship is not the motivator; charitable sentiment is.

As someone whose birth was sandwiched between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, I have always felt helpless to influence U.S.-Cuba relations politically. But when I joined a Pastors for Peace “Friendshipment,” I gained the power to positively affect Cubans on a personal level while protesting the trade embargo. Does this type of humanitarian overture influence diplomacy? I hope so; but no one has suggested that it prompted President Obama’s executive decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. Let’s face it: peaceful protest does not make for sexy news stories. First Amendment rights of free speech, assembly, and freedom of the press, though, should be considered fitting fodder in young-adult literature.

Nancy OsaNancy Osa is the author of Cuba 15 (Random House), a Pura Belpré Honor Book and winner of the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Her most recent work, Defenders of the Overworld (Sky Pony Press), is an unofficial Minecraft fiction series for young-adult readers. To learn more, visit her website.

 

 

Enchanted AirThe Magic Realism of Memory

By Margarita Engle

The great Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz wrote a poem called En Mi Verso Soy Libre—In My Poem I Am Free. She spoke of rising up inside the poem, where she is herself. The same is true for me. I reveal my secret self inside the covers of my verse memoir, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures, Two Wings.

Even though I am my true self on those pages, now that the book has been published and can be read by strangers, I’ve begun to wonder if I will be misunderstood or disbelieved. My childhood seems so unusual, almost surrealistic. I’m neither an exile nor a refugee. Until 1960, my family traveled back and forth between Cuba and the U.S., ignoring the Cold War.

The question arises: is a surrealistic childhood typical for the children of immigrants? Yes, I believe it is, even without the international conflict that separated the two halves of my bicultural family. Visiting relatives in another country can be an incredible joy, but upon returning to the U.S., a child of mixed ancestry can feel disoriented. In that sense, my unusual story is common, because the same could be said for children who move back and forth between two homes within the same country, particularly if their parents live in different cities, or if one lives in an urban area, and the other is rural. Immersed in blended memories, these children may experience the insecurity of feeling uncertain where they belong, but by traveling they also gain insights into more than one way of existing. Perhaps exposing them to verse memoirs will give them a window into their own possibilities. They could write travel memoirs, too. They could write poetry! They could find a safe home-on-the-page for overwhelming emotions.

Telling stories

Margarita and her sister in Cuba

During my teen years, it was easier for a U.S. citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives in Cuba. Nothing can ever return those years to me intact. They are fractured. Yet somehow, the act of writing about them in verse felt medicinal. Poetry heals. In the author’s note at the end of Enchanted Air, I came out of the anti-Embargo closet, making a plea for normalization of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, travel, and trade. Then, as if in a dream, President Obama announced the first steps toward improved relations. The announcement came during the same week when advanced review copies of Enchanted Air arrived on my doorstep. Joyfully, I revised the author’s note, transforming my plea into a song of gratitude.

With equally dreamlike timing, the U.S. Embassy in Havana re-opened exactly ten days after the release of Enchanted Air. For me, this feels like an era of miracles. Nevertheless, the process of healing the rift between nations will be complex, just as the process of facing childhood emotions to write a memoir is not simple. In Just Write, Walter Dean Myers advised: “I believe your skills as a writer are not so much defined by intelligence or artistic ability as they are by how much of yourself you are willing to bring to the page. Be brave.”

Yes, be brave. There is no other way to face the wounded child inside one’s own mind—a child who never completely outgrows the magic realism of growing up with a memory that contains two distinct ways of perceiving the world. A memory that can turn into verse, where a divided childhood can be made whole, setting the poet free.

MargaritaMargarita Engle is the author of many books for young readers. Her long list of literary honors includes the Pura Belpré Medal, the Newbery Honor and the 2014 PEN USA. The themes and characters of Margarita’s books often reflect her Cuban heritage, including the titles pictured below. Learn much more on her official website.

Margarita offers an abundant selection of books based in Cuba or featuring Cuban characters, as seen below.

MountainDog.highrescvr  drum dream girl cover  Tropical Secret   The Wild Book  Surrende Tree Notable  Poet Slave  Hurricane dancers notable  Firefly notable  Enchanted Air

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina

Photo of me & blond girls from class

My Cuban Evolution

By Laura Lacámara

Growing up Cuban-American in suburban Southern California, I teetered back and forth between feeling different, like I didn’t belong, and feeling exotic and special.

The feeling different part came mostly when I was little.

We spoke Spanish at home, while all my friends spoke English.

We ate lechón (roast pork), black beans, and plantains on Christmas eve (nochebuena), instead of turkey, stuffing, and yams on Christmas night.

Then, there was that same embarrassing question asked by all my friends who came over to the house: “Why are your parents fighting?”

“They are not,” I would respond, “they are just talking about what they want for dinner.”

In high school, being Cuban meant getting an easy “A” in Spanish. By the end of high school, being a Spanish-speaking Cuban had gone from totally embarrassing to super cool. I was the “exotic” one among my group of white suburban friends. (I knew I wasn’t really exotic, but I didn’t contradict them because I liked feeling special!)

Me on hood of carFinally, in college, came exploring my roots, and ultimately embracing (and being proud of!) my Cuban-American identity.

Of course, the whole Cuban roots and identity thing comes with the inevitable responsibility to comment on Fidel Castro.

So, when asked that obligatory question by my white, non-Cuban friends: “Don’t you think it’s great that Castro’s revolution has given every Cuban citizen access to a pair of shoes and an education?”

Rather than launching into a big political discussion about the whole embargo thing (which I am totally in favor of lifting, by the way), I now offer the following joke:

“Comrades, what are the three great successes of the revolution? Healthcare, education, and sports. What are the three failures? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Politics aside, being Cuban remains a very personal thing for me. Sometimes it has felt like missing pieces I can only catch glimpses of here and there, but never quite own.

As a Cuban-American author writing stories inspired by growing up in my Cuban family, I’ve been able to explore some of these pieces and the quality of what Cuba, or being Cuban means to me.

Yes, I have lived in the U.S. most of my life, and I can express myself (verbally and on paper) better in English than in Spanish.

But, deep-down, that Spanish-speaking part of me, the one that finds “home” in a plate of black beans and rice with a slice of my mom’s homemade flan, will always be Cubana!

Dalia Cover    Floating

Laura_photo_2015-300 dpiCuban-born Laura Lacámara is the award-winning author and illustrator of Dalia’s 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 Mama’s 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 Mama’s Song was a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2010 and was a Tejas Star Book Award Finalist for 2011-2012.

You can learn more about Laura’s work at her official website.

 

Cheeseburger by Day, Guayaba by Night

Juan Medina and LIdia Metauten wedding_NEW copy

Meg Medina’s parents at their wedding

By Meg Medina

My parents left Cuba as part of the political exodus in the early sixties. I was the first person in my family born in the United States. I learned Spanish from my mother and English from Romper Room. I grew up biculturally: Cheeseburger by day, guayaba by night, so to speak. All to say that I find that I am Cuban to Americans. To Cubans, I am from the US.

When I consider Cuba, I can only rely on black and white photos and on dreamlike stories – perhaps even the obsessions – of my family. I cut my teeth listening to yarns about a place where you wore only a sweater in the winter, where mangos the size of softballs were heavy with sweetness. It was a place of rivers and beautiful ocean waters where you could see your toes. It was the place of tobacco on their fingertips, a place where my family was happiest and the place that broke their hearts.

Image 7

Two of Meg’s relatives on the streets of Havana

My own memories are these: Months of waiting for letters to arrive on thin airmail paper and my aunt’s voice reading the words aloud. A box of old photographs that arrived decades later, the images bored through by insects, and how those photos made my old mother cry. The odd catch in my chest when I see how dire need somehow got recycled into kitschy tourists waving from the seats of classic American cars.

People often ask: “Have you been to Cuba?”

I have never set foot on the island, but in a way, I have been there every day of my life. But how do we talk about Cuba as phantom limb? And, more important, how do we knit ourselves back together – los de aquí y los de allá – and move forward in search of new and better times?

 MANGO_jacket_for_Meg  Tia Isa

ad6df-yaquiMeg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and YA fiction.

She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book Tia Isa Wants a Car.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Petite Shards Productions

Her most recent picture book, Mango, Abuela, and Me, a Junior Library Guild Selection, has earned starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and  is included in the 2015 American Booksellers Association’s Best Books for Young Readers Catalog.

Meg’s other books are The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and Milagros: Girl From Away.

Read a wonderful write-up on the Cuban inspiration of Meg’s newest book, Mango, Abuela and Me, at her blog, where you can also find information on her speaking schedule and much more.