Book Review & Giveaway: The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer

 

Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first author to win the Pura Belpré Award for her first young adult book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. On December 30, 2016, she passed away at the young age of 64, due to cancer. This week, we celebrate her life and work with reviews of four of her books and a giveaway. Please scroll to the end of this post to enter!

Reviewed by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOKLa nina seria, the serious child. That’s how Consuelo’s mother has cast her pensive, book-loving daughter, while Consuelo’s younger sister Mili, is seen as vivacious—a ray of tropical sunshine. Two daughters: one dark, one light; one to offer comfort and consolation, the other to charm and delight. But something is not right in this Puerto Rican family.

Set in the 1950s, a time when American influence is diluting Puerto Rico’s rich island culture, Consuelo watches her own family’s downward spiral. It is Consuelo who notices as her beautiful sister Mili’s vivaciousness turns into mysterious bouts of hysteria and her playful invented language shift into an incomprehensible and chilling “language of birds.” Ultimately Consuelo must choose: Will she fulfill the expectations of her family—offering consolation as their tragedy unfolds? Or will she risk becoming la fulana, the outsider, like the harlequin figure of her neighbor, Mario/Maria Sereno, who flaunts his tight red pedal pushers and empty brassiere as he refuses the traditional macho role of his culture.

This affecting novel is a lively celebration of Puerto Rico as well as an archetypal story of loss, the loss each of us experiences on our journey from the island of childhood to the uncharted territory of adulthood.

MY TWO CENTS: The Meaning of Consuelo is Judith Ortiz Cofer’s first young adult novel. It won the 2003 Américas Award and was included on the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age 2004 List.”

It is set in the 1950s, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The time period is evoked in the conservative social views and in the unquestioning obedience children are expected to give to their parents. Mami is described as speaking like the Pope, with infallibility. Also evoking the 50s is the consumerism of household appliances meant to make life simpler. There is a passage about the family’s vacuum cleaner. Papi, in his enthusiasm for new gadgets, buys it from a door-to-door salesman, even though their house of ceramic tiles has no need of it. Mami uses it anyway, on a small rug, to please him. The senselessness of this is both funny and sad.

The novel begins when Consuelo is eight and ends when she is a teenager. The first character we meet is actually the neighbor Maria Sereno, who was born as Mario. Maria is an outrageous, highly sexual, and thoroughly enjoyable character. He (the book refers to Maria as “he”) embodies the term fulano, which is a major theme of the novel. The women hire Maria to do their nails, but only if their husbands are away, and he must use the back door. They ignore him in public. This is confusing to Consuelo and her sister Mili, who don’t yet understand the dualities of adults. Maria is not a major character in the story, in that he only appears now and then. But his outsider status is illustrative of the closed-mindedness of the community. When at the end of the book we glimpse a ray of hope for Maria, we find hope for this whole world.

Consuelo is the designated caretaker for Mili, who is four years younger. Mili, a “Puerto Rican Shirley Temple,” is a lively, imaginative character and we understand why the family is protective of her. Mili lives in her own world, is often unaware of her surroundings, and can wander off. Her behavior becomes more and more concerning and we feel the real pain of her parents, who don’t know what is wrong or how to care for her. When they are told she may have psychological problems, Papi doesn’t want to discuss the possibility. Ortiz Cofer hints throughout at a coming tragedia, which is tied to Mili. This builds an ominous feeling, a feeling which is justified when, indeed, a tragedy strikes this fragile family. Consuelo has been typecast as the doting daughter, the responsible one, the one who will sacrifice herself. But that is not the life she chose and she risks becoming a fulana herself as she tries to assert her independence.

Her cousin Patricio is another fulano. He is Consuelo’s only playmate, aside from her sister. They play with puppets Patricio makes. I loved reading about how they enact scenes at the hotel where Papi works, some puppets playing the roles of annoyed American tourists. The family begins to shun Patricio when they discover he is gay. When his father takes him to New York for a fresh start, we are happy to see him escape this stifling atmosphere. But Consuelo grieves at being left behind.

Her home life is not harmonious. Papi craves an American lifestyle, but Mami does not share his admiration for all things American. Abuelo, Mami’s father, is an outspoken critic of the U.S. and vigilant about maintaining the culture of the island. Consuelo immerses herself in his library, which is filled with Puerto Rican literature and history. The Americanization of the island looms like a threat or a promise, depending on your viewpoint, as does Papi’s desire to move the family to New York.

This novel has a more literary tone than some of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s other young adult books. It’s marked by both elegance and solemnity. There is a great sense of loss here. The loss of a way of life, and the loss of a family. This is my favorite of her books and the one I would most recommend to adults. Engrossing, suspenseful, and devastating, Consuelo’s story is both an immersion into one Puerto Rican family and a timeless coming-of-age tale.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find The Meaning of Consuelo, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

judith ortiz coferABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Ortiz Cofer is an award-winning author known for her stories about coming-of-age experiences in the barrio and her writings about the cultural conflicts of immigrants. She is the author of many distinguished titles for young adults such as An Island Like You, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and The Line in the Sun. She was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. In 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

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toni margarita plummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondo Fellow, a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize, and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for more than ten years. Toni now freelance edits and lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Visit her website at ToniMargaritaPlummer.Wordpress.com.

 

We will be giving away a copy of each of the Judith Ortiz Cofer books reviewed here this week to one lucky winner! The titles are: Call Me MaríaIf I Could Fly, and The Meaning of Consuelo and the picture book A Bailar/Let’s Dance.

 

ENTER HERE TO WIN FOUR JUDITH ORTIZ COFER BOOKS!

Book Review & Giveaway: If I Could Fly by Judith Ortiz Cofer

 

Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first author to win the Pura Belpré Award for her first young adult book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. On December 30, 2016, she passed away at the young age of 64, due to cancer. This week, we celebrate her life and work with reviews of four of her books and a giveaway. Please scroll to the end of this post to enter!

Reviewed by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Fifteen-year-old Doris is used to taking care of herself. Her musician parents have always spent more time singing in nightclubs than watching after her. But when her ailing mother goes home to Puerto Rico to get well and pursue a singing career there, and her father finds a new girlfriend, Doris is more alone than she’s ever been. Disconnected from her family and her best friends, who are intertwined in terrifying relationships with a violent classmate, Doris finds refuge in taking care of homing pigeons on her apartment building’s roof. As Doris tries to make sense of it all, she learns that, just like the pigeons, she might have to fly far distances before she finds out where she belongs.

MY TWO CENTS: If I Could Fly is the sequel to Judith Ortiz Cofer’s award-winning YA short story collection An Island Like You. Readers of the first book will remember invisible-feeling Doris, her artistic friend Arturo, her self-described “dangerous” friend Yolanda, and her musician parents. The title comes from something her mother says when frustrated with her father: Si yo tuviera alas. Literally, if I had wings.

Doris proves herself the worthy heroine of a novel. Her bewilderment and sorrow over her mother’s unexplained departure immediately makes her sympathetic. Her strength makes her admirable. Papi doesn’t know how to relate to her and is often busy managing two bands. Doris can deal with that, but what is less tolerable is when the singer who replaces Mami also ends up spending a lot of time in their apartment and tries to play mother. There are problems at school, too. Arturo is bullied by a member of the neighborhood gang. This escalates into two violent crimes committed by Doris’s classmates, but Ortiz Cofer doesn’t handle these in a preachy way. She seems to understand that troubled teenagers sometimes do stupid, even hateful, things and does not demonize the guilty parties. If one is looking for a lesson, readers can relate to having friends with problems. It is best to treat these friends with compassion, but also to remove yourself from dangerous situations.

Between the drama at school and with her parents, the apartment rooftop is the one place where Doris can find peace. There she spends time with Doña Iris, an elderly woman who thinks Doris possesses facultades, or clairvoyance. Together they examine the shiny things that Martha, the lead pigeon, brings back to the coop. It is lovely to see how Doris relates to the much older woman, and the comfort they give each other. (Doris’s grandmother in Puerto Rico is another memorable, sassier, older woman character.) In the part titles, Ortiz Cofer uses quotes from Derek Goodwin’s book Pigeons and Doves of the World to describe bird behavior. City pigeons aren’t normally thought of as that interesting or beautiful, but this information makes you appreciate them in a new way and enriches Doris’s story with potent metaphors about home and flight. Doris is torn. Should she stay in New Jersey with her mostly absent father or go to Puerto Rico to live with Mami? And does Mami even want her? She has the chance to visit Puerto Rico and imagine a life there. What’s clear is that, with her parents living in different places, life is never going to be simple.

Judith Ortiz Cofer writes an emotional, thought-provoking story about a girl grappling with the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, a strange but well-meaning potential stepparent, and her mother’s scary health issues. No less daunting is the fear that her mother is choosing her singing career over her. Amid the bad are bright spots, like a passionate drama teacher who urges Doris and her classmates to reimagine West Side Story. Embracing her creative abilities and imagination is what saves Doris, and this story will especially resonate with creative types who face similar obstacles.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find If I Could Fly, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes and Noble.

judith ortiz coferABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Ortiz Cofer is an award-winning author known for her stories about coming-of-age experiences in the barrio and her writings about the cultural conflicts of immigrants. She is the author of many distinguished titles for young adults such as An Island Like You, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and The Line in the Sun. She was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. In 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

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toni margarita plummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondo Fellow, a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize, and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for more than ten years. Toni now freelance edits and lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Visit her website at ToniMargaritaPlummer.Wordpress.com.

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We will be giving away a copy of each of the Judith Ortiz Cofer books reviewed here this week to one lucky winner! The titles are: Call Me MaríaIf I Could Fly, and The Meaning of Consuelo and the picture book A Bailar/Let’s Dance.

ENTER HERE TO WIN FOUR JUDITH ORTIZ COFER BOOKS!

 

Book Review & Giveaway: ¡A Bailar! Let’s Dance! by Judith Oritz Cofer

 

Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first author to win the Pura Belpré Award for her first young adult book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio. On December 30, 2016, she passed away at the young age of 64, due to cancer. This week, we celebrate her life and work with reviews of four of her books and a giveaway. Please scroll to the end of this post to enter!

Review by Toni Margarita Plummer

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “A bailar! There’s music in the park today—let’s dance!” Marita and her mother are finishing their Saturday chores and anticipating Papi’s salsa concert in the park that night, so Mami makes the broom her dance partner to show her daughter how to dance to the music. “Listen to the claves, the bongos, and the cowbells. Listen to the maracas, the timbales, and the giro, they will tell you how to move your shoulders, your hips, your feet.” They dance faster and faster, so fast that they fall down on the floor laughing.

That afternoon, they put on their best dresses and dancing shoes, and old Don Jose says they look like “dos lindas flores.” He follows them slowly, “his cane tapping out a salsa beat on the sidewalk.” The music floats in and out of the barrio’s alleys, calling listeners to move, move, move. Soon Marita and her mother are leading a parade of neighbors and friends dancing and singing their way to the concert. And at the park, Papi plays notes on his trombone that are a secret between him and Marita: te veo, te ve-o, te ve-o. I see you, I see you, I see you!

Judith Ortiz Cofer’s lyrical text combining English and Spanish is complemented by Christina Ann Rodriguez’s vibrant images of the neighborhood’s unique characters—viejitos, fruit sellers, boys on skateboards and even babies—reveling in the beat of the music. Families will delight in reading together this warm, energetic look at one community’s enjoyment of the sights and sounds of salsa music.

MY TWO CENTS: The story begins with Mami and Marita singing and dancing while they clean in the kitchen. They have made up a song to Papi’s music, and Marita makes claves out of spoons to tap out the beat. The lines of the song, given in Spanish and English, permeate the book, weaving in and out of the other text. “Move move move to the rhythm that makes us…that makes us feel happy.” This creates a lovely rhythm, one which the reader feels propels the mother and daughter on their walk to the park, where Papi’s salsa band will play.  On their walk/dance Marita and Mami recruit more people, calling out to all they meet, singing their song. One stop is the hairdresser’s, where they enlist a woman who comes out still wearing her curlers and salon cape. In this way they gather a substantial following, and though not everyone can join them, they bring joy to all they meet.

Christina Ann Rodriguez’s illustrations are beautiful. My favorite was the one of Marita and Mami on the kitchen floor, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. It’s such a happy, spontaneous moment. We can feel their laughter. Another touching one is of Marita when they arrive at the park, a little girl surrounded by taller adults, trying to find her father on stage. The illustrations are dotted with musical notes, which hits home the idea that music is an integral part of this world. Children will enjoy finding the little dog (a Pomeranian, I think) in each spread as he follows Marita and Mami to the park, crossing the street, looking up at a skateboarder, sitting high atop a stack of watermelons.

Judith Ortiz Cofer takes young readers on a delightful journey which highlights the joy of music and the warmth of neighbors and a community. This is a book for older children, ages five to eight, as there is quite a lot of text. But even younger children will enjoy the colorful pictures and the rhythm of the words.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find ¡A Bailar!/Let’s Dance! check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

judith ortiz coferABOUT THE AUTHOR: Judith Ortiz Cofer is an award-winning author known for her stories about coming-of-age experiences in the barrio and her writings about the cultural conflicts of immigrants. She is the author of many distinguished titles for young adults such as An Island Like You, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and The Line in the Sun. She was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. In 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

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Image result for Christina Ann Rodriguez illustratorABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Christina Ann Rodriguez obtained her BFA in illustration from the University of Hartford. Her work has been included in various publications, including Spider Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.

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toni margarita plummerABOUT THE REVIEWER: Toni Margarita Plummer is a Macondo Fellow, a winner of the Miguel Mármol Prize, and the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe. She hails from South El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, and worked as an acquiring editor at a major publisher for more than ten years. Toni now freelance edits and lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Visit her website at ToniMargaritaPlummer.Wordpress.com.

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We will be giving away a copy of each of the Judith Ortiz Cofer books reviewed here this week to one lucky winner! The titles are: Call Me MaríaIf I Could Fly, and The Meaning of Consuelo and the picture book A Bailar/Let’s Dance.

ENTER HERE TO WIN FOUR JUDITH ORTIZ COFER BOOKS!

Book Review: The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

26594801DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

Things/People Margot Hates:
Mami, for destroying her social life
Papi, for allowing Junior to become a Neanderthal
Junior, for becoming a Neanderthal
The supermarket
Everyone else

After “borrowing” her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded. And by grounded, she means working as an indentured servant in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts. With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal. Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises—the admittedly good looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood—keep her from her goal.

MY TWO CENTS: It is no surprise that life, for a teenage girl, is complicated: trying to fit in, finding purpose, inspiration, friends, and dealing with family dynamics. Add to all of this, growing up bicultural! We meet Margot Sanchez, our Puerto Rican protagonist, spending the summer working at her father’s bodega in the Bronx, as punishment for using her father’s credit card without his permission. We quickly find out about Margot’s family dynamics; her family sent her to a prep school to give her a better education and a brighter future—for herself and the family. Her brother, Junior, is a college drop-out who now works in Papi’s bodega and is expected to take over the business in the future. Both Papi and Mami want the best for their children and operate under traditional Latinx gender values that allow Junior to easily occupy the public space, drink, smoke, and be sexually active, while Margot cannot.

Margot’s understanding of her own place in society is complicated by her parents’ decision to send her to a prep school. She quickly begins to change her look, part of her identity, and adopt those of Camille and Serena—white, rich classmates who often treat Margot as a project by giving her fashion tips, relationship advice, and suggesting that it was perfectly fine to “borrow” her father’s credit card to shop for clothes that were clearly beyond her family’s budget.

In The Education of Margot Sanchez, Rivera tackles issues of peer pressure, family expectations, gender bias, and community. While Margot has several people in her life who are constantly suggesting what she should look like, how she should act, and what she should do, Moises, a local community activist, and Elizabeth, her childhood friend, are the people that make her face her own insecurities, question her sense of belonging, and deal with her constant desire to fit in with her prep school values. Rivera walks us through Margot’s summer of “real” life education, full of lies, sex, and betrayal.

Although the novel hints at a romance between Moises and Margot, their interaction is one that helps her grow, accept herself, and understand how her community is being negatively impacted by gentrification and big corporations moving in; in fact, even her own family business is feeling the change. Throughout the story, Margot learns about her family’s shortcomings and how unhealthy family traditions and cultural norms can push each of them to make wrong choices.

As I was reading this book, I could almost hear my teenage daughters say, “Get over it, Margot! Quit listening to Camille and Serena!” Because Margot, quite frankly, is annoyingly desperate for their approval. Yet, we also see that Margot is trying not to be an outcast at her new school and does anything to be accepted by the popular girls, including stealing. Rivera helps us see that teenagers, although subject to peer pressure, also have the capacity to change, re-invent themselves, ask for forgiveness and restore relationships.

TEACHING TIPS: The Education of Margot Sanchez can be used to teach about public vs private education, formal education vs life/street education, and, although minimal, the values of different Latinx families.  It is also an opportunity to talk about family relationships, love, friendship, and gentrification—this last topic is a current trend, happening in many mid-size to large cities across the United States. Who experiences gentrification? Are “clean up” the neighborhood projects always negative or positive? How can people who face gentrification organize? What communities typically experience gentrification? What minority groups? Only minority groups? Research on these topics can add value to class discussion and can help further understand this present day issue affecting our communities.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Education of Margot Sanchez, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Hi-res image. Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr. 

Photo by Julian Sambrano Jr.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer and author of The Education of Margot Sanchez, a contemporary young adult novel forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on February 21, 2017. She is a 2016 Pushcart Prize winner and a 2015 Clarion alumni with a Leonard Pung Memorial Scholarship. She has been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Her short story “Death Defiant Bomba” received honorable mention in Bellevue Literary Review’s 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, selected by author Nathan Englander. Lilliam was also a finalist for AWP’s 2014 WC&C Scholarship Competition.

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio.

 

How Do I Keep My History? How Do I Honor It? A Guest Post by Author Mia García

 

By Mia García

Okay, here’s the thing, I’m a rambler. I tend to talk in circles until I figure out what I need to say, which usually boils down to a sentence.

So bear with me if you can – if not I totally understand; I’m sure there are many things you could be watching on Netflix right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about stress and fear, particularly in relation to family and history, which sounds horrible and insulting, but it will make sense. At least I hope so.

For years, I’ve been that person who wanted to do that Ancestry DNA thing, but never had the time or the money or the motivation (most likely these last two). Plus as a Puerto Rican born and raised in PR, I’ve always been taught that my ancestry boiled down to Spanish, African, and Taíno. (Which is a crazy simplification of the diversity of people who lived on the island, which include the above and Chinese, Irish, Scottish, French, German…Okay, I should stop here before I go into a full history of the island and this parenthesis gets crazy long.)

But in terms of actual knowledge, I only know a little bit about my Spanish side, like which city my great-grandparents came from and a whole lot of nothing about the rest of it, which after the test (I finally did it!) turns out to be about eight different things, half of which made my parents go: “Where did that come from?”

For those interested, it included Spanish, African, Italian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Great Britain, and a few small traces in Caucasus and Ireland. My parents’ “WTF?” reactions came from the Great Britain, Caucasus, Middle East, and Ireland revelations.

The test itself didn’t cause the anxious thoughts, but rather sparked interest in my past. The fear and stress came from the links to my past that are slowly disappearing. It’s sad to think about the family history and stories I know nothing about and will, most likely, never know anything about because as time passes there are fewer connections to it.

Not long ago, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which after a few years of paralyzing sadness made me realize that I needed to safeguard as many of his memories as I could. And recently, I almost lost my mom due to a serious medical issue, but we were blessed enough to get the news we needed in time. Because of these events, I re-ignited my plan to sit my parents and family members down to talk about, well, anything they can remember while I record them on my computer (this is something that truly annoys my mother because I never give her enough time to fix her hair and make-up, but I digress), which doesn’t always happen, which then leads to the stress, the worry, and fear.

Even If the Sky Falls CoverHow much do we lose with each generation? What will I remember for my children? (I don’t have any at the moment, but that doesn’t stop my mind from going there.) But that’s only where it starts, because it’s not only about how do I keep this history, but how do I honor it? Then I start spiraling into thoughts about my book. A sweet romance about a Puerto Rican in New Orleans hanging out with a musician for a night…but maybe it should’ve been a book about my parent’s history? What have I done to represent and document my family, my people, or my culture?

I should’ve done it all in one book. Clearly, I am a failure.

And there it is.

That tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories, trying to capture every moment that has made up our lives (but not too much, because then it’s a memoir, right?), holding on tightly to the past because if we don’t who will do it? Wondering if it’s okay to just tell a story about a young Puerto Rican girl falling in love without a history lesson or maybe just a small one. Feeling like your culture flows in your veins, but you haven’t quite honored it yet…

I realize now this is not just a blog post but a conversation. That I don’t want to talk into the void, but I want to hear from my fellow Latinx community. So if you are reading this, I want to hear from you!

Have you had similar thoughts? Do you feel like you need to represent every part of your culture when you write? Tell me about yourself, your family, the stories you write!

What do you think?

If you are a Latinx creator and want to discuss the “tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories,” please email us at latinosinkidlit@gmail.com with your blog post idea. We’d love to keep this conversation going.

 

5pv_6utvxrzzwbjesfqoku0ic1kqe1dzq1c5cnsydmyM. García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York where she studied creative writing at The New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. Her debut novel, Even If the Sky Falls, from Katherine Tegen books (an imprint of Harper Collins) is out now. Visit her at MGarciaBooks.com

Book Review: The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande

the-distance-between-us

The original version of this memoir was written for general audiences. This review is based on an advance reader’s copy of the young readers edition.

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoes of Cinderella reverberate throughout Reyna Grande’s forceful and captivating memoir of a family torn apart by internal and external stressors, centered in a years-long separation across the U.S.-Mexico border. The Distance Between Us thrums with novelistic tension and detail, offering chiseled portraits of individuals and rendering the settings they come from in vivid form. As the story lends breath and heartbeat to a particular Mexican girl and her struggle to overcome unimaginable obstacles related to poverty, migration, and family turmoil, it also humanizes the faceless, nameless stream of undocumented migrants that we hear so much about in the news.

Due to the physical and cultural distances that develop between members of the family, Reyna spends much of her childhood feeling like an orphan. The memoir begins as her mother, Juana, leaves Reyna and her two siblings under the care of Evila, the children’s paternal grandmother. Motivated by the promise of steady work and higher wages, Reyna’s father has already left Mexico for El Otro Lado, and this happened so long ago that four-year-old Reyna must rely on a framed photo to remember what he looks like. Later, Juana decides she must migrate, too, and although she vows to return within a year, the separation stretches out much longer, stranding her children—Reyna, Mago, and Carlos—in a bleak, loveless existence. Even as the three siblings tend to chores and subsist on meager rations, Abuelita Evila lavishes treats and special privileges on Élida, another grandchild living under her roof. Although some of Élida’s spoils come from the money that Juana and her husband send for their children’s necessities, the couple remains unaware of these abuses. Each time they call to speak with their kids, Evila hovers nearby to make sure they don’t disclose anything negative.

When Juana returns from her two-and-a-half year absence, she is almost unrecognizable to Reyna. Her hair is dyed bright red, her clothes are much fancier than anything she used to wear, and there is a new baby in her arms. Worse yet, she demonstrates a chilling degree of detachment toward her children. Before long, Juana acquires a boyfriend and foists all four kids off on their other abuelita—a far poorer, but kinder woman whose house is a one-room shack constructed of bamboo sticks. A river nearby subjects the house to serious flooding.

When the children’s father finally returns to Mexico for a visit, eight years have passed. He reluctantly agrees to take Reyna and her two older siblings back to El Otro Lado. This will involve a bus trip of two thousand miles from the Mexican state of Guerrero to Tijuana, where they will engage the services of a coyote. But at a critical moment before they leave, Reyna catches a glimpse of Juana as she used to be and, aching to believe that her mother loves her, she is tempted to stay behind. Then it dawns on Reyna that her sister, Mago, is the true maternal figure in her life, the one who has offered sacrificial love and protection at every turn, and if Mago is fleeing Mexico, Reyna will, too.

In many aspects, Reyna’s story is reminiscent of the mother-son alienation described in Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, reviewed here. Like Enrique’s odyssey, Reyna’s story reveals conditions of unrelenting poverty, and shows the personal drive and courage of individuals who dare to leave behind all that is familiar in order to make a better life. The book also shows the steep costs, both literal and metaphoric, of migration in general and chain migration in particular. (Chain migration refers to the practice of one or more family members setting out to establish a home and/or save up money, usually in preparation for the rest of the family to join them.) We see this especially in how separations intended to be brief often last much longer than planned and lead to deep relational breaches. For those of us privileged with predictable lives of plenty, it is all too easy to pronounce judgment on parents who take such drastic steps, yet stories like The Distance Between Us illuminate the complex dilemmas faced by immigrant families caught in extreme poverty with no apparent recourse in their countries of origin.

Although this memoir offers an eye-opening opportunity to grasp the bigger picture, most young readers will home in on Reyna’s personal journey, as she crosses figurative and literal landscapes pocked with obstacles. Once she and her family take the plunge toward the better life they imagine is waiting for them in El Otro Lado, readers will clutch at their hearts, rooting for Reyna with every page turn. And their hopes will be rewarded.

Reyna Grande is the author of two novels, Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies. The original edition of her memoir, The Distance Between Us, was a finalist in the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Awards. She is a speaker and workshop leader for creative writers, and is the recipient of scores of awards and honors. Visit her official website to learn more.

Reyna Grande has made many televised appearances and other interviews which are available on video. Here are a few:

BookTV interview:

Informal conversation with KBeach Radio:

Reyna’s video of Abuelita Chita:

Here is an excellent interview in Spanish. There are no subtitles, but even non-Spanish speakers will enjoy the images.