Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 8: Mary Louise Sanchez

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the eighth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Mary Louise Sanchez.

Mary Louise Sanchez was born and raised in Rawlins, Wyoming. Family history on both sides of her family fuels her passion to tell the stories of her Hispanic gente who colonized present day New Mexico in 1598.

The Wind Called My Name is her debut novel. Here is the publisher’s description:

Some days, ten-year-old Margaríta Sandoval feels as if the wind might blow her away. The country has been gripped by the Great Depression, so times are hard everywhere. Then she has to leave her família in New Mexico — especially her beloved Abuelita — to move to Fort Steele, Wyoming, where her father has taken a job on the railroad.

When Margaríta meets Evangeline, she’s excited to have a friend her own age in Wyoming. But it often seems like Evangeline, and everyone else in town, doesn’t understand or appreciate the Sandovals’ Hispanic heritage. At the same time, the Sandovals discover they might lose Abuelita’s land and their ancestral home unless they can pay off her tax bill. Can Margaríta keep her friend, help her family in New Mexico, and find a place in Fort Steele for good?

The Wind Called My Name was one of three inaugural 2012 On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Awards from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was awarded the New Visions Award from Tu Books in 2016. This debut book is based on the author’s colonial Hispanic heritage and family history in New Mexico and Wyoming. The author is a retired teacher/librarian and lives in Thornton, Colorado with her husband. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.

 

761DMary Louise Sanchez

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. Ever since I read the Newbery Award book . . . And Now MiguelI’ve been on a quest to read more fictional stories about my unique northern New Mexican culture. I’ve found some adult titles, but children’s novels have been elusive, so I decided to try and write one that I wanted to read. I believe everyone has stories to share–including me.

 

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. I tend to identify with my ten and eleven-year-old self more than my teen self; and thus, enjoy the middle grade books because the characters are becoming aware of their big wide world and yet, they are also learning how to navigate their own emotions and way in the world.

 

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. Stories that touch my soul and linger there are favorites, like Wish, by Barbara O’Connor. A current favorite is Where the Watermelons Grow by a debut author, Cindy Baldwin. Another recent debut middle grade author, Kelly Yang, wowed me with her book, Front Desk. I also enjoyed living a vicarious Pakistani life in Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Please see my growing list of middle grade books I’ve enjoyed on my Goodreads page.

 

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Mary Louise, listen attentively to the details in the stories your grandparents and older relatives share. Their memories and yours will play an important part in your storytelling.

 

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A. Middle grade novels are important because they are a way for readers to vicariously live many lives. The stories can also illuminate ways to interact in this world where you are leaving childhood behind and becoming more independent.

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Book Review: The Victoria In My Head by Janelle Milanes

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Simon & Schuster): A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

MY TWO CENTS: I’m not a voracious reader of romance novels for any age group. This book, however, completely caught me off guard. I won’t say that the book wasn’t predictable. It was, but it would have been disappointing if it had not been predictable.

Without giving too many details away, Victoria Cruz is growing up in a world where all outcomes are designed to please what she thinks others are expecting of her. The Victoria in her head wants so much to be her own person, but she has a hard time dealing with what she thinks her parents reactions will be. Her Cuban parents gave up everything in Cuba and have worked so hard in the United States to give Victoria and her brother the life that is often unavailable in countries like Cuba. Victoria, like so many children of immigrant parents, feels like telling them that she doesn’t want to become a doctor and graduate from Harvard will disappoint them in a way she’s not ready to accept. When she finally takes the plunge and starts rebelling in small ways (which she does with help from her best friend, Annie), Victoria finally starts feeling like herself. In doing this, of course, she lies to her parents, hiding her real self once she begins acting more like the “Victoria in her head.”

Here’s where the predictability sets in. Does Victoria get in over her head with the lies she’s telling to others? Yes. Does she inevitably have to face some truths that she’s been trying to hide from herself? Maybe. Does everything turn out well in the end? Quite possibly, but I don’t want to give any spoilers!

But as I mentioned, that’s not a disadvantage in this case! The version of herself that she tries to hide is a person who is passionate, easy-going, and even incredibly funny. In one passage, Victoria complains about a part of her female anatomy in a way that is “lmao” funny, but in a way that most anyone, regardless of gender, can empathize with. Herein lies Victoria’s real value. She’s a very likable character who makes questionable decisions (just like any of us), is afraid of disappointing her parents, sometimes is a little self-centered, but not maliciously. Readers will want her to succeed, to make the person she is in her head a reality.

Because of her Cuban background, the reader gets a taste of the Latinidad that she identifies with (large family gatherings, celebrating Noche Buena with her abuelita who never lets an opportunity to comment on Victoria’s vegetarianism pass, learning choreographed salsa dances because you’re in your cousin’s quince court). The thing that Milanes does particularly well is she makes Victoria more than just a Cuban-American. While her parents are a little obsessed with her being an exemplary child (for legitimate reasons, of course), Victoria is not defined just by her Cuban identity or her Latina ethnicity. Instead, those things are small parts of the compilation that is a more real representation of identity: where she comes from is important, but so is what she likes and dislikes, who she meshes well with, what her dreams are. The way that Milanes creates a “whole package” character in Victoria is what shines brightest in this book.

TEACHING TIPS: One important lesson to be learned from reading The Victoria In My Head is that it’s important to be true to yourself. Throughout the book, Victoria tries to deny the things that she wants out of life to either please those around her or be the model person that she thinks others want to see. The reader can see her grapple with her identity throughout, and can hopefully associate with her struggle and learn that compromising one’s identity to please the world often leads to catastrophe.

greeceABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Author’s Website): Janelle Milanes is originally from Miami, FL and received her BA in English Literature from Davidson College. A lifelong YA addict, she moved to New York for her first job as a children’s literature associate at Simon & Schuster. For the past five years, Janelle has worked as a teacher and librarian throughout the New York City area. Her first novel reflects many of her own experiences growing up as a second-generation Latina in America. Janelle currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two cats. Her favorite Disney princess is Belle, since she was also a big book nerd.

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Book Review: Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

 

Review by Araceli Méndez Hintermeister

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Moss Jeffries is many things—considerate student, devoted son, loyal friend and affectionate boyfriend, enthusiastic nerd.

But sometimes Moss still wishes he could be someone else—someone without panic attacks, someone whose father was still alive, someone who hadn’t become a rallying point for a community because of one horrible night.

Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.

Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

MY TWO CENTS: As a teenager, all you do is dream of being someone else, but for Moss, it is less about escaping his world and more about escaping himself. Since the loss of his father six years ago due to police negligence, Moss’s life is thrust into a state of disarray that is constantly afflicted by anxiety and self-doubt. Injustice is rampant in his community, and the death of his father is a marker of a world meant to dismantle communities that are different, whether it be in race, gender, sexuality, or other. Moss knows he should fight, but the pain is still real and it immobilizes him. While others want him to fight, rally, and march, Moss first wants to find peace so that freedom from his anger can finally bring about progress.

Through Moss, we learn that all the feelings he experiences are in fact his tools for survival. His mother teaches him that where he sees anger due to injustice, he can also find power, freedom, and strength that can lead to progress. Oshiro brilliantly gives us a challenging and truthful world that will foster profound discussion on a topic we shouldn’t be shying away from. I also admire that Anger is a Gift highlights how oppression targets so many due to their identities and shows us that we cannot ourselves rise while leaving others behind.

TEACHING TIPS: Police violence is a difficult topic to make sense of, let alone explain to others. With honesty, Anger is a Gift allows us to realize that the confusion and array of feelings that come with experiencing sensless violence in our communities are justified. Through Moss, we are allowed to experience how one individual utilizes those feelings to bring action rather than inmobilize him. Anger is a Gift can be used in conjunction to other books that explore police violence, but I encourage you to supplement your readings with news clips and articles that report on police violence. Encourage your students to identify the differences and potential biases in these reports.

RECOMMENDED READING: 

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles
  • All American Boys by  Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE AUTHORMark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and TV series. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015, and is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. When not writing/recording reviews or editing, Oshiro engages in social activism online and offline. Anger is a Gift is his debut YA contemporary fiction novel.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Araceli Méndez Hintermeister is a librarian and archivist with a background in public, academic, and culinary libraries. She has an M.A. in history and MLIS from Simmons College, where she focused her studies on the role of libraries and archives in the cultural preservation of the U.S.-Mexican border. Additionally, she holds a BA in ethnic studies from Brown University. Her research is greatly influenced by her hometown of Laredo, TX, which has led her to work in serving immigrants and underrepresented communities. Her current work is bringing new and diverse literature to the T in Boston through Books on the T. You can find Araceli on Instagram.

 

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 4: Pablo Cartaya

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fourth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Pablo Cartaya.

Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by VikingHe is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

Pablo Cartaya

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. I’ve been a storyteller since I was a little kid performing originally written shows in my living room every time my parents had someone over for dinner. During cena I would quietly (sometimes not so quietly) go over story ideas that would lead to epic performances en la sala while the guests and my parents ate dessert and sipped cafécito on the sofa. My parents always encouraged that creative spirit. In many ways, Mami and Papi were my first inspirations. Since those early days I’ve always had stories swirling around my imagination. These stories have taken many forms over the years: writing plays, teleplays, telenovelas, picture books, nonfiction, poetry (sometimes really bad poetry), and then one fateful day in graduate school, the voice of a fourteen year old Cuban American kid named Arturo made his way into my consciousness. It was the first time I let the character in the story do the talking. What I found was a kid who was like me and who had dared to dream himself into the narrative. The process of discovering Arturo’s world has been one of the great joys of my creative life. In a way, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora is a lifetime in the making of becoming the writer I am today.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. I don’t actually choose to write middle grade novels. It’s more like a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds make the loudest noise in my sub consciousness. I believe writing is an act of submission to the fictive state. Allowing a story or a character to take hold and dictate the terms of what, when, where, and how the narrative will go. As the writer I give in and let the character tell me what he or she wants to talk about. It’s frightening at times but there is something about that act of discovery that is exciting and enlightening. A character usually pops into my head and a scene plays out. For example, in my next novel, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, I imagined this really tall, brooding fourteen year old trying to convince his little brother who has Down syndrome to take a bath. From there, I started asking these characters questions and they revealed parts of their lives they wanted to tell. After that it’s all about revising, revising, and more revising to get to the heart of the character’s story.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. Ah! This question is always the hardest! How do you pick a favorite child? You can’t do it! Okay I’ll name some but they are by no means a final list! We’ll just call it a fluid favorite, okay? As a kid I devoured everything Jules Verne – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of my all time favorites although I don’t know if it qualifies as distinctly middle grade. I also think it’s important to recognize the great work contemporary middle grade authors are writing. Jason Reynolds is doing some pretty incredible work. I just finished Patina and it’s awesome. Celía Perez has a kick butt middle grade out called The First Rule of Punk, Rita Williams Garcia’s Clayton Bird Goes Underground is fantastic. I happen to adore R.J. Palacio because Wonder was the first novel my daughter read from beginning to end and it made her a lover of books. There are so many! Make me stop! Make me stop! I see a great mix of characters and stories out there and I’m excited for what’s to come from these and many other brilliant authors in the field.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t be afraid to fail. You are not perfect nor should you try to be. Find your voice and hold onto it for dear life. Is that too much advice? Would my thirteen-year-old self just ignore me? Probably.

Q. Please finish this sentence: “Middle grade novels are important because…”

A. They are sneaky deep. It’s the time where wonder, adventure, occasional failure, and the possibilities of happiness coexist to create a sense of hope for the future. It’s also a place where kids get to be kids and goof off from time to time. I like that mix.

 

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photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

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.

Author Samantha Mabry on her Debut Novel, a Student’s Shrug, and Straddling Two Cultures

 

By Samantha Mabry

I teach English at a community college in downtown Dallas. Currently, some of my students are reading a book entitled Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. In his book, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in California and El Paso, Texas, writes mostly about his own reporting on the drug trade and corruption in Mexico, but there’s also an interesting, underlying theme he explores regarding identity: what it means to straddle two worlds, to have a foot on each side of the border, but to never feel fully rooted, truly at home in either place. As he puts it, he can sometimes feel too American when he’s in Mexico and too Mexican when he’s in America.

Among my students, discussions have taken place regarding what it means to be a part of two cultures. When I ask if they’re able to relate to Corchado, many nod their heads, and one girl said, “Absolutely.” She then elaborated: “At home, I’m Mexican. At school, I’m American.” Then she shrugged. Like, obviously. She made it seem like it was pretty easy to understand what the different expectations are in different spheres of her life and that it took little effort and not a whole lot of thought to navigate those spheres.

I keep thinking about this student –in particular, that shrug. Like, what’s in that shrug? What does that shrug mean? I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute. I keep thinking about all the comments I could have followed up with: Okay, so you’re Mexican in one place and American in another. Is there an identity that feels more true to you? Are you more Mexican than American? Would you say you are Mexican-American? Would you call yourself Chicana? Latina? Hispanic? Do these words, these markers of identity, matter to you, or am I just really wanting them to matter??

My mother is Mexican-American, though I think she would say she’s just American. Or Hispanic. My dad’s mother was from Puerto Rico, and his dad was white. I’m light olive-skinned with brown hair and brown eyes, but my last name, Mabry, is European. I first heard Spanish at my grandmother’s house but learned it properly in a classroom. I call myself mestiza because that’s what really rings true for me. I think that identity matters, and I think that –particularly for those from mixed backgrounds or with migrations or diaspora in their histories –identity can be fluid. I think that many Latinx people, like Alfredo Corchado, are standing with one foot here and one foot there. Some of them may be standing with an imbalance: one foot rooted in one place more heavily than the other. Some may feel as if they have many limbs, all which are reaching across geography and back into time. Some may feel, however, like they’re not straddling at all. It is not my place, of course, to tell another Latinx person how to be or how to feel.

In my book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, both of the main characters are of mixed backgrounds, racially and culturally. They are a mix of white and non-white. Lucas, the narrator looks white, has a white kid’s name, but there’s something else there, tugging in his blood. Isabel is the product of an English father and native Puerto Rican mother, and sides with her mother when it comes to her identity. I specifically tried to make their histories and their identities complex. They are influenced –haunted and inspired, inspired or haunted –by their past. They are trying to fix centuries-old errors and clear new paths.

So…after all that, we’re back to the shrug. Is it simple, or is it complex? Is it a small gesture that signifies nothing, or something brimming with meaning? Maybe it’s simple: with these people, I am this one thing; with those people, I am this other thing. It’s easy to figure out. Simple, simple. Or maybe it’s complex: a gesture so full that words pale. It’s obvious that I want it to be the latter, but who cares what I want? I wrote a book about complex identities, one that I hoped explored nuance, but of course that’s not the only way to write about identity.  Someone –maybe me, maybe not –needs to write the story about the Mexican-American girl who is Mexican at home and American everywhere else. And maybe she is wildly complicated but not because of that, but because of all the other things that go on in a young woman’s life.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which releases April 12, 2016 with Algonquin Young Readers, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Samanth Mabry author photo

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.