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The Pura Belpré Award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.
We have been marking the award’s 25th anniversary in different ways on the blog. Today, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Cecilia Cackley talk with Meg Medina and Jenny Torres Sanchez.
MEG MEDINA is a Newbery award-winning and New York Times best-selling author who writes picture books, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction. Her works have been called “heartbreaking,” “lyrical” and “must haves for every collection.” She lives with her family in Richmond, Va.
JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader..
Cecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc
Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Pulga has his dreams. Chico has his grief. Pequeña has her pride.
And these three teens have one another. But none of them have illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Even with the love of family, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the trio knows they have no choice but to run: from their country, from their families, from their beloved home.
Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico, they follow the route of La Bestia, the perilous train system that might deliver them to a better life–if they are lucky enough to survive the journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and desperation drumming through their hearts, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know there is no turning back, despite the unknown that awaits them. And the darkness that seems to follow wherever they go.
In this striking portrait of lives torn apart, the plight of migrants at the U.S. southern border is brought to light through poignant, vivid storytelling. An epic journey of danger, resilience, heartache, and hope.
OUR TWO CENTS: In We Are Not from Here(2020) Jenny Torres Sanchez tells the story of three Guatemalan teenagers Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña who, despite their loving families, are surrounded by danger in their pueblo, Puerto Barrios. The narrative voice switches between Pulga and Pequeña. At the beginning of the novel, Pequeña is about to give birth while also experiencing extreme rancor towards the baby and the baby’s father. Chico and Pulga are best friends, brought together by tragedy. After witnessing a horrific act of violence against a local store attendant, Chico and Pulga agree that it is best to risk the journey traveling to the United States than either work for or die at the hands of the local gang leader, Rey. Pequeña, who’s also afraid of Rey and desperate to escape, decides to join Chico and Pulga. The three flee wearing layers of clothes and their backpacks containing what’s left of their lives on what seems to be a never-ending and grappling journey aboard La Bestia, the fast-pace train known as the route most (im)migrants take to cross from Mexico to the United States. La Bestia is dangerous, and one wrong move may cost them their lives. The three of them travel from Guatemala to cities in Mexico like Ixtepec, Lecheria, and Guadalajara under extreme conditions. Their journey is full of new dangers and violence. Their commitment to one another and to a better life is what gives them hope and strength on their trek to the United States.
With We are Not From Here, Torres Sanchez makes an important contribution to existing conversations around immigration through Mexico and into the United States. In the last decade, Central Americans have made up the majority of (im)migrants attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico. In the U.S. popular imaginary, immigration at the U.S./Mexico border is often conflated with the Mexican experience. However, when we read and watch in the news about the babies, children, and parents in cages at the border, we cannot willfully ignore the fact that the majority of them are Central Americans fleeing the violence created by U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, it is also necessary to recognize the violence Central Americans experience at the hands of the Mexican state while journeying through Mexico. Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña experience these multiple levels of violence as they journey to the United States.
One of the most significant aspects of this novel is the subtle critique of the violence Central American (im)migrants experience while traveling through Mexico. About half way through the novel, Pulga says, “‘Some don’t want us here […] We are to Mexico what Mexico is to the States” (Torres Sanchez 153). Later in the novel, Pulga adds, “Mexico doesn’t want us any more than the United States does. You’d be an immigrant here, Chico. If you try to work here, live here, whatever, Mexico will deport you right back, too” (Torres Sanchez 210). In both of these passages, Pulga points out the systemic violence they experience as Central Americans that is symptomatic of the U.S. empire. These young people in We Are Not From Here are very much aware that their subjectivity puts them at risk anywhere they go. All of this is not to say that Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña don’t experience kindness in Mexico–because they do. They stop at shelters who care for them, there are other Mexicans on La Bestia who try to guide them, and they make connections along the way that will help them further on. However, these individual acts of kindness do not erase the state-sanctioned violence against Central Americans in Mexico that needs to be addressed. Torres Sanchez touches on these topics with great care. There isn’t an overt, political critique but instead she allows her characters to make observations and share knowledge about the reality around them–which in and of itself is a political move.
Torres Sanchez’s attention to language and voice captures the emotional turmoil of making this journey. The repetition of certain words or phrases helps emphasize the uncertainty and extremity of situations. For example, when the trio begin their journey, they have trouble with their sense of direction. Despite having had collected as much information as possible about the route, Pulga feels helpless: “And Pequeña and Chico are looking to me for answers. But I don’t know. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I don’t know” (Torres 126.) Here the repetition reveals the anxiety Pulga feels at having been named the leader of the group without having a real sense of how to make the journey safely–never having done it before. The repetition also reminds the reader that the characters are young people making this journey on their own–there are no guides, just children risking their lives for a better one. The repetition of phrases, images, and memories are constant throughout the novel.
Additionally, the emphasis Torres Sanchez places on the characters’ internal thoughts allows readers to experience the roller coaster of emotions these young characters feel as they travel. In one instance, for example, Pulga and his friends are emotionally and physically exhausted as he narrates his thoughts: “I imagine I am an animal. Skulking through the darkness. Keen. Instinctive. Alert. Alive. Some don’t make it. But some do. Why not me? Why not us? I hold on to this thought as we walk. Why not me? my feet say with each pound to the ground. Why not us?” (Torres Sanchez 159). Pulga’s determination to continue walking, to push past exhaustion, demonstrates the inner strength needed to survive this journey. There are several, powerful moments like this throughout the novel where the characters must find individual strength and where they need to remind one another of that courage. That Pulga asks, “Why not me? Why not us?” is another example of Torres Sanchez’s talent with language because not only is Pulga trying to convince himself to keep going but these questions also force readers to question the value (or lack thereof) our society places on (im)migrant lives.
We Are Not From Hereis a multi-layered story and Torres Sanchez tries to give space, not just to tell the story of the trio, but to also tell the story of a community and of many more unaccompanied minors. However, the character who stood out to us the most is Pequeña. Only the reader and the ghost bruja that appears to Pequeña every once in a while are witness to the sexual violence she endures in her hometown in Guatemala. When readying to join Pulga and Chico on their journey north, Pequeña chops off her long hair to pass for a boy because she knows of the violence women experience on this journey. After buying supplies at the market, she reflects:
I wonder if it’s coincidence that the razors and the switchblades are in the same area of the pharmacy as the birth control and morning after pills. At night, I go to sleep thinking of ways to be deadly. How to cover my body in razors. I imagine them covering my body like scales. I imagine anyone who touches me being cut and sliced and pierced. A warning. Nobody come near me.
(Torres Sanchez 87)
The razors, the blades, and the contraceptives serve as ways for Pequeña, and young women like her, to protect her body because she knows that the world won’t–she knows from experience. This scene shows Pequeña’s pain and agency. She reveals to the reader the cruel reality of violence against women in different settings–at home and while (im)migrating. She indicates that this has happened to her. But by imagining herself covered in razor blades, she arms herself against patriarchal domination. She is readying herself to fight and survive at all costs. That she needs to live this way in the first place is terrible, but that she won’t surrender is a form of empowerment.
There’s no denying that the trek on La Bestia through Mexico is traumatizing on various levels. But it’s also important to point out that this novel is also full of hope. One passage that stands out happens between Soledad, a woman in charge of a shelter in Mexico, and Pequeña. Soledad says, “You must always remember your name. Say it to yourself. You cannot forget who you are. La Bestia, the wind, a lot of people on the other side, they will try to make you forget. They will try to erase you. But you must always remember” (Torres Sanchez 208). Soledad ends this affirmation by repeating Pequeña’s given name. The act of remembering one’s name is also tied to family history, to culture, and to a sense of self. Soledad reassures Pequeña that what she knows about being an outsider is true–there will be those who “will try to erase you.” But she also encourages Pequeña that as long as she knows who she is, erasure is not an option. This naming scene is in contrast to an earlier scene in the novel, part of Torres Sanchez’s magic with repetition, where Pequeña comments on how the world tries to make her small, even her name is small (Torres Sanchez 12). Having Pequeña declare her given name and leave her nickname behind is an act of defiance to society’s attempt to make her small or to erase her entirely.
Torres Sanchez has created tender and vulnerable characters with Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña. The authentic and harsh reality of this story is one of i(m)migrants fleeing violence and enduring violence for the sheer hope of a different possibility. We Are Not From Hereis a beautiful and powerful must-read. Torres Sanchez tackles the story of three Guatemalan unaccompanied minors with compassion and fortitude.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (From her website) Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERS: Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.
Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on.
But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own.
Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.
MY TWO CENTS: Dani Falls has a complicated and fractured relationship with her mother, Ruby Falls, who in Dani’s eyes is a not good mother in any regard. In fact, for dozens of pages, Dani often explicitly states that she hates her mother because she has always felt unappreciated, unloved, and ignored by her. By Dani’s account, we are led to believe that Ruby is objectively a selfish and neglectful mother. It is all Dani has known, and because she is the narrator, we are inclined to empathize with her side of the story. Dani believes she knows who her mother really is deep inside, that her ugliest aspects are the real her. But what Dani doesn’t know is that she really doesn’t know her mother at all.
In the Author’s Note for Because Of The Sun, Jenny Torres Sanchez states that Albert Camus’s The Stranger inspired her novel. In The Stranger, Meursault’s mother dies early on in the story, and his emotionless and detached reaction made Torres Sanchez curious about his mother. Was she a terrible person or simply an imperfect individual?
Like Mersault’s mother, Dani’s mother also dies early in the novel, tragically. She is inexplicably attacked by a black bear in her own backyard. The grisly story shocks the neighborhood, but readers see the aftermath play out through Dani’s perspective, which is bleak, detached, and emotionless. The way Dani deals with the trauma of her mother’s death is fascinating, though often hard to read, and readers may wonder if Dani’s cold reaction is warranted. But people cope with tragedy differently, and we don’t know all the details of her and her mother’s relationship. So it’s best to read on without passing any judgment on Dani.
As she has no family left in Florida, Dani must move to New Mexico to live with an aunt, Shelly, she never knew existed. This is only one of many secrets Dani’s mother kept from her. For weeks, Dani lives with her aunt, but seldom leaves the house and rarely speaks more than two words at a time. This part of the novel is slow and contemplative, when Dani is at her lowest. Hours, days, and weeks blur into each other and become indistinguishable. The language and mood of the book during these pages are bleak and stifling. One wonders if Dani will ever find light in her life again.
But one day, Dani wanders out into the scorching New Mexico sun and walks for miles, until she comes across a gas station. There, she meets Paulo, a young Mexican-American boy who aspires to be a filmmaker. It is after she meets Paulo and his grandmother, Doña Marcela, that the potential for hope and light enters Dani’s life.
It is important to note that Dani is not Latina, a fact that is not explicitly stated until she meets Latinx people at her new school, who make references to her whiteness almost immediately. This happens about a third of the way through the novel, after which Latinxs play a regular and important role in the story. It is Paulo, and especially Doña Marcela, who provide moral and emotional support for Dani when she needs it most. Paulo is ambitious and kind; Doña Marcela is brave and loving. Together, they provide Dani with examples of what healthy familial relationships can look like, and show her that people are allowed to care for and love each other. That Latinx characters are the most positive influence on the novel’s protagonist is worth noting. I certainly appreciated it.
Eventually, Dani connects with her aunt Shelly, who reveals the tragic secrets of her family’s past. Dani then realizes that she never really knew her mother and must face the fact that she hated a woman she only knew on a surface level. This understandably makes Dani resent Ruby even more, for shutting her daughter out all her life. But her budding romance with Paulo, the strong role model she found in Doña Marcela, and her growing bond with Shelly — these relationships teach Dani that there are things to appreciate in the world. Perhaps the trauma of her mother’s death and their lack of closure will always follow her, but Dani has met people who can help her move forward with her life, even if progress is slow.
Though it’s not without flaws, there’s much to like and commend in Because Of The Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez writes Dani’s story in haunting, beautiful prose that creates an atmosphere that aptly approximates Dani’s bleakest moods and lowest moments. There are several dreamlike sequences in the novel reminiscent of magical realism that stand out as the strongest parts of the story. Reading Because Of The Sun is a singular and somber experience that will resonate with teens who understand the complexities of love and loss.
Nazahet Hernandez is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of color and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog ReadDiverseBooks.com.
Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)
By Jenny Torres Sanchez
I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.
On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.
Years later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.
Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.
I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.
I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: How do you know someone after they’re gone? Frenchie Garcia didn’t know she would be the last person to see Andy Cooper alive. She barely knew him. So why did he choose to be with he before he committed suicide? Her imaginary pal Em (a.k.a Emily Dickinson), who Frenchie visits regularly at her favorite place–the cemetery–is the only one who knows about her last hours with Andy. With guilt and confusion mounting, can Frenchie pull off the one thing that could give her closure?
MY TWO CENTS: Frenchie goes on a road trip with a super-cute new “friend” Colin to make sense of what happened the one and only night she hung out with Andy Cooper, the boy she loved from afar through high school. Frenchie is haunted by the usual questions when grieving: Why? Why him? What could I have done to help him? Could I have stopped him? The last two questions are most painful because she was the last person to see Andy before he died, and, therefore, feels responsible. Sanchez easily blends heart-wrenching grief with regular teen angst, serious moments of conversation with quips like, “Get up, Loser!”from Robyn, Frenchie’s friend who knows something is wrong, but isn’t sure what. Also, Frenchie Garcia is a Latina protagonist in a book that isn’t about being Latina. Frenchie is an artist who likes punk rock and Emily Dickinson; she’s a young Latina who doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish in the novel. Some readers/writers/bloggers have asked for more books with diverse characters who are not dealing with issues of ethnicity, culture, race, etc. This is a good example.
TEACHING TIPS: What student wouldn’t fill an entire notebook about a day they’d like to do-over? This is a perfect before-reading activity that could be revisited and added to as the novel continues. As Frenchie leads Colin through her last night with Andy, students could write about their chosen “do-over” night, what they’d do differently, and what they’d discover. By the end, students have read a cool book and written a personal narrative!
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is made for close reading, which is all the rage with the new Common Core State Standards. Students could read and re-read any of Dickinson’s poems featured in the novel. Close, multiple readings allow students to analyze work down to the word level to gain deeper meaning. In this case, students would gain a deeper understanding of Dickinson and Sanchez’s novel, as they could discuss how the poems fit with the novel.
AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Orlando, Florida with her husband and children. Before writing her debut novel, The Downside of Being Charlie, she taught high school for several years. She credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.
When I was in school and I’d read a story in my English textbook, many times there was a photo or an art piece that went along with it. And there’d always be a question at the end of the story that would ask how the art piece and story go together. Some people hated that question.
I loved it.
I’ve always loved the idea of art going together. It makes sense to me, the way they connect. The way one piece of art can inspire another piece of art, or how you can see a story in a painting, or how a story can paint images in your head. I LOVE that. I guess that’s why I find a lot of inspiration in other forms of art. Not only do I enjoy them for what they are (a striking painting, a haunting photo, a song that you can’t get out of your head), but I also enjoy them because of the stories I see in them.
Music? Listen to the lyrics; there’s a story there. Paintings? Full of story, either of the subject or the artist. Photography? Setting. People. Captured moments. It’s kind of like an artist is setting me up for a story, igniting that spark that helps me write. For me, all art is striving to make a connection, with the reader, with the listener, with the viewer. It’s striving to ask you to look inside yourself, or outside yourself, and really wonder and think and feel. And I think you really need to feel to write, so for me the two go hand in hand.
But I also think art can be more than inspiration.
In my books, my characters often turn to art in some way while they’re going through a difficult time. In The Downside of Being Charlie, Charlie finds he can make better sense of the world through the lens of a camera. He is incredibly vulnerable and scared and unable to express himself or deal with his family issues. But in photography, he finds a way to do that. Actually, with Charlie, photography becomes this way of seeing things, exposing things no one else around him wants to see. So, photography also becomes this very powerful and empowering thing for him.
In Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, Frenchie is fascinated by Emily Dickinson’s poems, specifically those about death because she’s is in a dark place in her life. Her high school crush has just committed suicide after an amazing night of adventure with her. Dickinson’s poetry reflects Frenchie’s own feelings, and helps her to come to terms with something that just doesn’t make sense.
I don’t set out to make my characters artsy but they usually end up that way. I think it’s because I also see the arts as something that can save us (I hesitate to use the word save, I really do, because I think ultimately, we choose to save ourselves). But I truly believe music, art, writing, stories can offer us a safe haven and inspiration. A place to hang out for awhile, sometimes as an escape, sometimes as a place to make better sense of whatever it is we are going through. Sometimes it is conscious, and sometimes, not so much. Either way, the arts really can be a sort of salve for anyone who has gone through tough times. I like salve better than save. Add the L.
Overall though, art is pretty amazing in any medium. It asks us to feel. It offers us comfort and understanding. And that can’t be bad.
From the Running Press site: Jenny Torres Sanchez lives in Florida with her husband and children where she currently writes full time. Before her debut novel The Downside of Being Charlie she taught high school for several years, where she credits her eclectic students for inspiring her to write young adult novels.
On Thursday, her second novel, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia will be featured on our Libros Latin@s post.