Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bless Me, Ultima

I had so much to write about Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Really! Just take a look at my copy that is not only long overdue (eep!) but is covered in those little sticky tabs and dog-eared where I didn't have sticky tabs handy. Unfortunately, it's taken me some time to get around to writing this entry so a lot of what I wanted to say has slipped my mind. That happens to me sometimes. I'd never read this classic of Chicano literature but the fact that we are both celebrating the same birthday this year (does that make me a classic too?) and its place on the lengthy list of books that were part of the now defunct Mexican American Studies curriculum in Arizona prompted me to pick up finally pick up a copy. It did not disappoint. And again, I was left wondering why none of my honor and AP English teachers ever introduced me to this book.

Bless Me, Ultima is the coming-of-age story of Antonio Marez, a young New Mexican boy. The story is set at the end of World War II and spans about three years of the child's life beginning with the arrival of Ultima, the well-known curandera and family friend who movies in with Antonio's family. While the story is primarily Antonio's, the boy's coming-of-age is also symbolic of, in a sense, the transitions his own family and surroundings are going through. Ultima's arrival poses the potential for upheaval in the family structure, but in reality, she serves as the anchor and the last link to a past--a culture and a way of life--that is quickly changing.

The story is told from Antonio's point of view, a child between the ages of about seven to about ten, and yet the it feels like it could be a teenager or even an adult. His struggles and fears have the potential to resonate with all because they are so typically human, those enduring issues that make up life no matter what your age--faith, good versus evil, change. Antonio reminds me of what it was like to be a child so full of questions and wonder and fear. We witness the experience of being a Mexican American child, not able to speak English, in a classroom of White children.

"At noon we opened our lunches to eat. Miss Maestas left the room and a high school girl came and sat at the desk while we ate. My mother had packed a small jar of hot beans and some good, green chile wrapped in tortillas. When the other children saw my lunch they laughed and pointed again. Even the high school girl laughed. They showed me their sandwiches which were made of bread. Again I did not feel well."

And at the end of his first school day:

"The pain and sadness seemed to spread to my soul, and I felt for the first time what the grown-ups call, la tristesa de la vida. I wanted to run away, to hid, to run and never come back, never see anyone again."

But along with this sadness we also see the comfort of family and community:

"We always enjoyed our stay at El Puerto. It was a world where people were happy, working, helping each other. The ripeness of the harvest piled around the mud houses and lent life and color to the songs of the women. Green chile was roasted and dried, and red chile was tied into colorful ristras. Apples piled high, some lent their aroma to the air from where they dried in th sun on the lean-to roofs and others as they bubbled into jellies and jams. At night we sat around the fireplace and ate baked apples spiced with sugar and cinnamon and listened to the cuentos, the old stories of the people."

Bless Me, Ultima was National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection, an honor that recognizes its deserved place in American literature. Despite being focusing on a very specific community, it tells the story of the kinds of changes people throughout the country were experiencing--the effects of war on family, the loss of old ways to new ways. Here we see these changes from the eyes of a child who is also dealing with growing up. I think about this book in the context of its subject matter and the time in which it was published, and I feel grateful that it has endured.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Speaking of Awards, or Christmas in July

Over the past two years, I have been working toward a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) at the University of Illinois' Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). As my time in the program comes to an end I thought it a good time to post one of the most fulfilling projects I had the opportunity to work on. As a student in LIS514: History of Children's Literature course I was required to create a Website in which I provided a study of a historical text. I selected Marie Hall Ets' Nine Days to Christmas, the 1960 Caldecott Medal winner. I had the honor of traveling to the University of Minnesota and spending a day going through the Marie Hall Ets papers in the Kerlan Collection. Among the items in their possession was Ets' Caldecott medal, an item that is breathtakingly beautiful. But not to get so easily lulled by that lovely medal in its soft, midnight blue velvet box, the most interesting insights about the project were not so much about the book itself, but about the Caldecott award in the context of Latino children's literature:

* Only two Caldecott medal winning books prominently feature children of Latin American heritage: Leo Politi's Song of the Swallows (1950) and Marie Hall Ets' Nine Days to Christmas (1960).

* Only one Latino illustrator has ever won the Caldecott Medal: David Diaz for Smoky Night (1995).

* Only two Caldecott honor books have prominently featured children of Latin American heritage: Leo Politi's Juanita (1949) and Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street (1947).

I may have overlooked titles, but I don't think I did. Four medal or honor winners featuring children of Latin American descent, all published before 1960, in the past seventy-four years. And we're not even going to get into how accurately or inaccurately those books represent the specific group and culture depicted. One Latino illustrator awarded either a medal or an honor in the seventy-four year history of the award.

If you look at seventy-four years worth of Caldecott winners you're looking at a pretty homogenous world. Of course, I realize that the Caldecott isn't awarded for how well a book represents our multicultural society. It's awarded to the "most distinguished American picture book for children." There have been so many amazing Latino children's book illustrators to come around since 1995 that it's hard not to wonder why not a single one has been honored. This brings to mind the controversial topic that makes the occasional appearance in the pages of the Horn Book Magazine regarding the need for awards like the Pura Belpré and the Coretta Scott King.* Do we still need them? Would these books find a place in the world of Caldecott? Or would they simply disappear? Yeah, I'm calling you out Caldecott, on this, your seventy-fifth year.

*See Marc Aronson's "Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes" in the May/June 2001 issue of the Horn Book Magazine and Nikki Grimes' "Speaking Out" in the July/August 2009 issue.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Pura Belpré Winners at ALA

Yes, all of these images warrant an exclamation mark after their captions!

Xavier Garza, who won a Pura Belpré Honor for his book Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel patiently signs the stack of books I brought to the Cinco Puntos booth!

Xavier's books. Look, there's the Maximilian cover with its shiny Belpré sticker!

Guadalupe Garcia McCall, winner of the Belpré Award for narrative for Under the Mesquite, signs ARCs of her new book, Summer of the Mariposas!

Duncan Tonatiuh signs a copy of his Belpré Award winning Diego Rivera: His World and Ours!

Margarita Engle, who won a Belpré Award for Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck, signs copies of her latest book The Wild Book!

And a little clip of Xavier speaking at the Beyond Books: Graphic Novels and Magazines of Color session on Sunday. What enthusiasm! Xavier is a great spokesman for comics and graphic novels in libraries.

Pura Belpré Awards 2012

If you're already considering your must-do for next year's ALA conference, the Belpré Award ceremony is definitely something not to be missed. The Grand Ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel was a place filled with a joy and a passion that I find hard to imagine happening anywhere else during the conference.

The program

Award winners (L to R): Rafael Lopez, Xavier Garza, Duncan Tonatiuh, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Margarita Engle (not pictured is Sara Palacios who was not in attendance)

I took a few short videos with my phone. Is the Belpré ceremony filmed or otherwise recorded? Because it really should be!

Sandra Rios Balderrama reciting her poem "The Pura Belpré Award: Remembering Our Roots"

A little snippet of Guadalupe Garcia McCall's speech. I love that she gave a shout-out to all the other winners in her speech. Later she talked about how she came to write the story of Under the Mesquite, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

The amazing young dancers from the Ballet Folklórico Renacimiento. 
These kids brought out the Mexican in everyone in the room!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Got Libros?

La Casa Azul, a bookstore selling books by and about Latinos recently opened in East Harlem! This is so very exciting. The New York Times featured the store in a recent article.

Chavela and the Magic Bubble

Chavela and the Magic Bubble. Written by Monica Brown; Illustrated by Magaly Morales. New York: Clarion Books, 2010.

   Who, as a child, did not at some point dream of blowing a bubble so large it might lift them away? Chavela, who never met a piece of gum she didn’t like, has a gift for blowing bubbles. She blows bubbles in the shapes of dogs and butterflies and one day, chewing an entire pack of “Magic Chicle” she buys on a trip to the market with her abuela, Chavela blows a bubble so large she is flown across the landscapes of California, Arizona and Texas to her grandmother’s childhood in the rainforest of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. In the forest, Chavela learns of the sapodilla, a tree whose sap is the base for chewing gum, and of the chicleros who slash z-shaped cuts into the trunk of the sapodilla to harvest its sap. Through her encounter with the young daughter of a chiclero, Chavela also comes to learn about her own history.  

   In the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism, Monica Brown connects the real with the fantastical and the past with the present. Brown takes a simple childhood past time and creates a story that is in part about an endangered ecosystem and a declining way of life, but also about familial love and a child’s place in the larger world. Chavela and the Magic Bubble emphasizes the important role of grandparents as care givers and as guardians of history and memory, a theme often found in other children’s books featuring Latino protagonists. While Chavela’s journey takes her to the rainforest where the sap of the sapodilla trees is being harvested, the story does not go into great detail on the conditions of the forest and the lives of the workers. Brown simply introduces these individuals and way of life and taps into a reader’s curiosity. The author’s note provides more information about the Mexican rainforest, the harvesting of chicle, and the destruction of these ecosystems with resources for more information. Also included in the author’s note are the music and lyrics to the Latin American song "Tengo Una Muneca" ("I Have A Doll"), which is sung by the children Chavela meets on her journey.

   The story is engaging, filling the reader with wonder and excitement for what will happen when Chavela is swept away by a bubble, but the real strength of the book is its design and illustration. From the bright bubble gum pink end papers to the typeface and text, the design of the book allows the reader the opportunity to experience what is happening in Chavela’s world. Typeface changes to emphasize words. A bubble letter font, similar to the bubble letters all young children learn to draw at some point, highlights the word “bubble” throughout the text. Different colors and fonts are used for Spanish words as well as other key descriptive words of action, color, texture and direction. Text wraps around images to emphasize shape and movement as when the reader sees Chavela blowing a bubble from her “Magic Chicle.” Within the bubble the text spirals outward: “Chavela chewed and chewed and then took a deep breath and blew a great big bubble that got bigger...and bigger...and bigger until....” The font grows with each “bigger” and the reader can practically feel the anticipation of blowing a bubble that continues to grow until.... What? You must turn the page to find out! Text floats, climbs, descends and follows the waves of the hills and of Chavela’s flight to and from the rainforest giving the sense that you are following the little girl on her adventure.

   Magaly Morales’ rich, brightly colored acrylic paintings of Chavela and the children of the chicleros exude the joy and magic of childhood. The children sing, play, march and leap. Morales’ illustrations of the natural world, including the sun, the moon, plants, birds and butterflies, with their swirls and curlicues, are reminiscent of Mesoamerican art. Chavela is followed on her journey, and in each illustration, by a Resplendent Quetzal, the colorful, long-tailed bird that is found throughout the tropical cloud forests of Cental America. Each illustration engages readers by challenging them to look for the bird.

   Chavela and the Magic Bubble is as sweet as the chicle Chavela loves to chew. The illustrations, design, and story work together beautifully to make this a book that is a delight to look at and fun to read. The variety of themes, as well as the design and artwork make Chavela and the Magic Bubble a perfect candidate for a story time that focuses on any one of a number of themes including the environment, Hispanic heritage, Latin American history, or learning about the origin of common products found in our everyday lives (especially those of interest to children). While it may appeal to children of all genders and races who enjoy stories involving magic and adventure, as an addition to the canon of picture books featuring multicultural protagonists, Chavela and the Magic Bubble should also be noted for its potential appeal to Latino children looking for books that feature faces not unlike their own.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Border Town Giveaway!

Post a comment here or on the review of Malin Alegria's Crossing the Line for a chance to win a copy of the book! Deadline to post is Sunday, June 3!

Crossing the Line (Border Town Series)

In an interview with NPR, Malin Alegria described her new teen series, Border Town, as being like Sweet Valley High, "but with brown kids." Depending on your view of Sweet Valley High and other books in that particular genre, one might be a little hesitant to get excited. Formulaic plots? Cheesy writing? Kinda lame high school drama? One dimensional characters? Ehhh. Do we really need more of that? The teen romance series has gone of the way of the dinosaur for a reason, yes? 

Fortunately, there's a lot to like about Crossing the Line. The protagonist, Fabiola Garza, isn't your typical teen series character. She's not one of the cool kids. She's kind of awkward, but isn't bothered by fact that she doesn't really fit in with any particular group at school. She actually, gasp, seems pretty content with who she is! After describing the many cliques that exist at school to her younger sister Alexis, who is about to start high school, Alexis asks Fabi the loaded high school question: "What are you?" To which Fabi responds: "I guess I'm normal." Nothing wrong with that!

Throughout the novel Fabi contends with her younger sister's growing popularity as she finds a place for herself among the popular kids, a mean girl bully, and the mysterious attacks on undocumented workers, including one of the employees at her family's restaurant. Is there romance? There is a boy, but for now they're just friends. Which is a refreshing change from so many books and movies for teens where the existence of a romance seems to be a requirement.

Crossing the Line has its moments of teen angst in the form of conflict between Fabi and her younger sister who is in love with a popular football player, and Fabi's occasional bullying at the hands of Melodee. But it is also full of humor as seen in the funny opening scene in which Fabi attempts to by a box of tampons on the down-low, but realizes it's a nearly impossible feat in a town where everyone knows everyone. Lest we think it's all fun and games, the storyline in which a group of teens is attacking and robbing undocumented workers sheds light on the anti-immigrant sentiments currently seen around the country.

Unlike the Sweet Valley High books, the story lines aren't flat, the characters are multi-dimensional, and conflicts don't come off feeling contrived and formulaic. The only character who seems to be a sort of stereotype and perhaps around for the sake of additional conflict is Melodee, the popular (white?) girl who once dated the football player Alexis is interested in and who bullies Fabi. I also have a bit of an issue with the cover featuring two very similar-looking thin girls since the description in the book of the sisters is one of opposites. Alexis is described as having "light-colored skin and petite figure" while Fabi has "strong indigenous features and thick frame." Hmmm. The issue of misrepresentation in book covers is an ongoing one.

I'm curious about the fresas, the rich kids from Mexico. Is there conflict between Mexican-American kids and fresas? I would also be interested in knowing what kind of reception this (and the rest of the series) gets from teens who live in border towns. The text is peppered with Spanish words, but no worries, the terms are explained in a "Tex-Mex for Beginners" glossary at the end of the book.

This would make a great summer read. The next book in the series is due out in early July. Can't wait!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mexicans in Sweet Valley? Si!

Last fall I posted the link to an interview with YA author Malin Alegria in which her new teen series Border Town was mentioned. Having grown up reading teen romance series from Sweet Valley High to Couples to The Girls of Canby Hall (seriously, I read them all) I was excited about this new series that Alegria described as being like SVH with brown kids. I pre-ordered the first book in the series, and while I waited for it to come in I thought I'd revisit my youth and read some Sweet Valley High. 

While we can assume that Penny Ayala, one of Elizabeth Wakefield's newspaper pals, is either Latina or bicultural based on her last name (I'd have to read the series from the beginning to find out if her ethnicity is ever mentioned--summer project?) it isn't until book #42, Caught in the Middle, that a Latino character is prominently featured. Finally, some representation in the curiously all-white California world of the Wakefield twins!

In Caught in the Middle, popular (though secondary character in the series) cheerleader Sandra Bacon has met the boy of her dreams. The only problem is...he's MEXICAN! Say it ain't so! 

Throughout the book (written by Kate Williams) we are reminded of just how different Sandy and Manny are. Manny and his family are: ______________ fill in the blank with whatever stereotype about Mexicans you can think of. Okay, I'm exaggerating. There's that scene when the couple goes to the Dairi Burger and Manuel mentions that he happens to know the burger is the specialty of the house. I was expecting him to say he knows this because his uncle / cousin / other family member is actually the cook at the Dairi Burger! But he doesn't. The point is, they come from different worlds, and his world is, well, weird! Williams writes on page 5: "After all, Manual came from a completely different world. His family was from Mexico and still spoke Spanish at home." We are also informed that, among his distinguishing characteristics, he has a lot of younger sibling he has to care for which is why he seems so mature. His mom makes tortillas from scratch. His home is repeatedly described in way that indicates it's cozy or homey but the subtext is that it's kind of run down and not as nice as the homes of Sandy and her white friends.

Sandy's parent, by the way, really dislike Mexicans. "Those people" are different, Mrs. Bacon tells Sandy when Sandy is trying to tell her about her new boyfriend. Sandy's parents don't want her dating a Mexican guy. What does she do? Of course, she hides this from them. She lies and betrays the person she claims to love. She even almost lets him get in trouble with the law by denying that she knows him. There came a point where I appreciated the Bacons' at least openness about their views on Mexicans. Sandy? I just wanted to slap that girl hard by the time I reached the last few chapters of the book.

Of course, in SVH style, all is resolved in the end. Sandy confesses to her parents. Just as Manuel is about to be arrested on suspicion of tampering with her boat and possibly causing it to explode, she confesses that not only does she know him but she's actually MADE OUT with him AND he didn't tamper with the boat, he saved her life! The Bacons have a change of heart, at least toward this one Mexican. Mr. Bacon even shakes his hand. And they live happily ever after. 

Whew! That's a lot of SVH for one post. Part II coming soon!

Friday, April 20, 2012

For All the Dreamers

A quién le puedo preguntar
qué vine a hacer en este mundo?

Whom can I ask what I came
to make happen in this world?

These lines from poem XXXI in The Book of Questions stay with me. Isn't this the question we are forever in search of an answer to? Such a seemingly simple and human question, but with so many possibilities and answers. 

Confession: I am not a poetry person. While years can pass before I pick up a poetry book to read in its entirety, there are a few poets who I enjoy. Pablo Neruda is one of them. Years ago, I read Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions / El libro de las preguntas, and it felt so familiar. All those strange, beautiful questions with no answers and many answers resonated with me. It gave me the same feeling I often experience when I suddenly look at something that is so much a part of my everyday world in a new light that reveals its extraordinary nature. So often we miss out on how beautiful and amazing the world around us is because we are looking for these qualities in something bigger, something inaccessible, something out of the ordinary that we've never encountered. Pablo Neruda saw the world as poetry. He found the beauty and the uniqueness of daily life, of all the little things that often go ignored. His words stir curiosity, imagination, and a sense of yearning and of hope.

I don't know if Neruda ever wrote any poems specifically for children, but his poetry in The Book of Questions would easily appeal to a younger audience. It combines child-like wonder with the complex questions that children often ask. Like children, it comes from a place that is both immersed in the  fantastical, but also so very much grounded in the world as we know it. 

There are a few children's books about Pablo Neruda including the exceptional novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Dreamer, and Monica Brown's picture book Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People. Both books manage to tell the intriguing story of Neruda's life in writing styles that are are as poetic as the work of Neruda himself. Through the story of Neruda's childhood, the reader learns how the poet grew up to be a man who spoke up for the rights of the oppressed and who sought to bring beauty and justice to the world. Despite being the story of a child growing up in another time and in another country, the life of Neruda is reflective of the hope and wonder that lives in all children. Pablo Neruda's work is so rich with imagery that it seems illustrations couldn't possibly add any more to the visuals his words draw for the reader. Yet, Peter Sis (The Dreamer) and Julie Paschkis (Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People) manage to complement and add to the story of Neruda's life and work. 

Like Neruda's poetry, both of these books make me think of that poem all the kids know. I bet you know it too. I would eat these both without a fork or spoon, without a plate or a napkin. 

The Dreamer. Written by Pam Muñoz Ryan; Illustrated by Peter Sis; New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. Ages 9 and Up.

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People. Written by Monica Brown; Illustrated by Julie Paschkis; New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011. Ages 4-11.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Skeletons Crossing Borders

Here are the slides from my presentation at the National Latino Children's Literature Conference. Obviously, they don't tell the complete story so if you're curious about anything feel free to contact me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel

Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller. Written and illustrated by Xavier Garza; Spanish Translation by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Carla Gonzalez Campos; El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011. Ages 8 - 12.

When I was in junior high I was a professional wrestling FANATIC. I do not use all caps lightly so believe the intensity with which I loved my wrestling. I read the magazines. I watched about nine hours of wrestling every weekend, from the big organizations like the N.W.A. and the WWF to the smaller wrestling organizations based out of Texas and Florida. I even attended a live professional wrestling event where I managed to get the autograph of my very favorite wrestler at the time Kevin Von Erich. Yes, I still have that autographed picture in my possession. But even before that, as a child, I watched movies that featured the masked wrestler known as Mil Mascaras--One Thousand Masks! His movies took place in a world of Mexican villains and heroes, something I didn't see too much of in the American wrestling of my junior high years. 

Imagine my surprise when I first came across the work of Xavier Garza several years ago. His picture book Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask was not only like a blast from the past, but such a breath of fresh air in the world of children's books. From the red end pages covered in images of masked wrestlers and stars and into the story of a little boy who attends a lucha libre event for the very first time and ends up having an ever bigger adventure than anticipated, Garza managed to create a book for younger readers that is action packed, pitting the good forces of wrestling versus the evil, as well as a colorful feast for the eyes. Who can resist getting caught up in the excitement and cheering on the technicos (good guys)?

Now Garza has done it again. In Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel Xavier Garza has created a unique middle grade novel that pays homage to the Mexican tradition of masked wrestlers. Maximilian is a fan of lucha libre and especially of the Mexican luchador known as the Guardian Angel, one of the technicos who fights rudos (bad guys) like Vampire Velasquez and Diablo Rojo. One day he has the good fortune to attend a wrestling event featuring the Guardian Angel in his hometown of San Antonio. Like Carlitos in Lucha Libre, Maximilian unexpectedly finds himself in the middle of real life wrestling drama! 

One of the enduring mysteries of masked wrestlers is, of course, that of identity. Who is it beneath that mask? There is speculation, but not until a face is revealed does one truly know.  There is the neighbor who is convinced that under the Guardian Angel's mask is Pedro Infante, the Mexican singer and actor who died in a plane crash in 1957. But it is Maximilian (or Max, as he prefers to be called) who is about to set his eyes on who lives under those flamboyant masks, to learn family secrets, and in the process, to discover a little more about himself. 

When I think of words that describe this book I see them inside the kind of "bubbles" used to highlight action in comic books:  Exciting! Fun! Suspenseful! Pow! With his illustration style that has a sort of old school comic book aesthetic to it, I could see this as a comic book series and as the type of book that would appeal to readers of action or superhero comics. Garza draws from Mexican culture as well as that of his native San Antonio, like the legend of Donkey Lady Bridge, and weaves these elements into his story and his illustrations. 

The book, as mentioned in the subtitle, is bilingual. Spanish text is laid out parallel to the English. We don't often see middle grade novels that are bilingual and that include male Latino protagonists. Garza and Cinco Puntos Press have really outdone themselves in hitting on all of these areas that are lacking in the world of children's books. Fortunately, the Pura Belpre Award committee thought so too as the book was selected a 2012 author honor book. Here's to more books like this in the near future!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ethnic Studies and Why We Need Them

In case you haven't heard, there is some serious business going down in Arizona. In 2010, the state passed a bill calling for the dismantling of ethnic studies programs. Last month, in compliance with the state ban on ethnic studies classes, the Tucson Unified School District began removing books found on the reading lists of Mexican American Studies courses from classrooms. The list of books includes textbooks, award winning books and classics. Debbie Reese, a former school teacher and a scholar who studies American Indians in children's literature, has been closely following what is happening in Arizona. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll point you to her blog in which she includes a chronological list of stories and posts related to the events.

Needless to say, it is disheartening to read about what is happening in Arizona. A 2009 Pew Hispanic report (based on the 2009 American Community Survey) found that 31% of the state's population is "Hispanic" with 91% of that group being of Mexican descent. But we didn't need to look up that information to know what Arizona is like, right? Those in opposition of ethnic studies courses argue that they distort history, stir up anti-Caucasian sentiment (though I'm not sure if they ever actually name which race is being targeted by these angry mobs of Mexican American kids) and basically get  "minorities" riled up. Books can be powerful and scary, yes?

Back in May of 2010 when the Arizona ban on ethnic studies classes passed I wrote something for another blog I was keeping at the time. So, I thought this a good opportunity to repost this piece about the role ethnic literature and ethnic studies played in my own life as the child of immigrants and the first and only person in my family to graduate from college:

I was, in many ways, lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood that was all brown all around. With the exception of some of my teachers, I can recall having one White (Anglo, non-Hispanic) classmate during my elementary and junior high years--hi, Marsha Hoover, wherever you are! Aside from any interaction I had with White adults in, say, a store or at the library--and this rarely happened because my neighborhood branch was predominantly staffed by African-Americans and we did our shopping in neighborhood stores owned and staffed by Latinos--I didn't interact with Whites. When I went on to high school we had less than twenty White kids in our school. So when I left home for a small college town a six hour drive north of Miami, I suffered major culture shock. College culture in itself was something foreign to me, and something that kids with college graduate parents knew as second nature. There was a language and way about it I wasn't familiar with. Nevermind the fact that after growing up a majority I was suddenly a minority. Despite having graduated in the top ten of my class, I struggled for most of my undergraduate years. I had no support system. My fellow high school classmates who were with me at the same university were all kind of flailing for a lifeline too, and it wasn't like we could call home and get words of comfort and encouragement since most of our parents didn't really even get why we felt the need to leave home for college. I felt like an outsider. I didn't feel engaged. Perhaps, if I were a different kind of person, my experience would have been different too.

During my third year of college three things happened that were huge for me. First, I read Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. I grew up a reader, and I was an English major, but the first time I saw myself in a book it was in this book that I read during my summer break (thanks to a Sassy magazine review of all things!) The second thing that happened was that my work study brought me to the Office of Minority Affairs and Special Programs (which has since been renamed, no longer reflecting its role in the college life of underrepresented students) where I worked as an office assistant and, later, as a peer counselor. The department housed the offices of the Associate Dean of Minority Affairs for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the head of the Afro-American Studies Department (who was one of the first two African-Americans to be hired as faculty in the Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences), and the Upward Bound program. The office also provide peer counselors for students who came in on probationary status to help them transition into college life. Many, if not most, were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The third thing that happened was that I took an Ethnic Literature class, taught by the aforementioned head of the Afro-American Studies Department (which is now called the African American Studies Program) where we not only read about the African-American and Mexican-American experiences, but also about the Jewish and Japanese-American experiences, among others. My Ethnic Literature professor went on to become a good friend and mentor. These three things were instrumental in my finding a sense of place as a college student and as a person caught between worlds.

Being away from home and a stranger in a strange land prompted me to learn more about my own history and culture. It suddenly became very important for me to hold onto something I took for granted growing up and, oddly, something I felt like I didn't know enough about. My parents, being from two different countries, never really immersed us in their own cultures. We got a little bit here and there, probably more of my father's Cuban culture because he was the bread winner and made most of the household decisions, and because I grew up in a city heavily populated by Cubans. The fact that my mother came to this country from Mexico in her early teens and never expressed much desire to be near her family or her native country or rehash old times and traditions ensured that we were raised in a household that was more Cuban than Mexican. Decades later, I still feel like I walk the tight rope not only between what my world was like growing up (and what it is like when I return home to visit) and the mostly White world I now live in, but also between my parents' cultures. I never feel enough of anything. My Spanish isn't Mexican enough. My ways aren't Cuban enough. I'm quite obviously not White. Quite honestly, I still often still feel a bit confused and lost. With a little one who is half White, I struggle to figure out what cultural practices to pass on to him. What is my culture? It's a lot of things that often feel like they don't quite mesh. And yet, they do, in me.

Did I get off on a tangent again? I think I did. My initial reason for this post was as a reaction to the madness that is going on in Arizona. The anti-immigrant law hurt, but the anti-Ethnic Studies law feels like it hits a lot closer to home for me because as a college student it was my ethnic literature class and my involvement with the OMASP that made all the difference in my ability to stick it out. I've seen a number of articles where it's pointed out that the law prohibits Ethnic Studies classes that promote hatred of other races and segregation as a form of see-not-ALL-ethnic-studies-classes! But who determines what falls into these categories? It's so much easier to make a full on clean sweep, right? Tom Horne compares ethnic studies classes to the "old South." That seems to be such an extreme and inaccurate comparison. To compare a group that has always run the show to one that can barely find enough books that represent their place in this country? I wonder how many elementary and secondary schools even offer ethnic studies classes, especially in light of the fact that public education today is mostly about teaching to a test. Is there even time or money for these types of classes? Perhaps this law doesn't even mean much of much, but what nags at my thoughts is: what goes next?

The locked books image comes from this story on the Colorlines Website.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Day Rising! Pura Belpre 2012

Bright and early this morning the American Library Association announced its 2012 youth media award winners. So many great books for kids. And yes, the anticipation of hearing those last two awards--the Newbery and the Caldecott--put my morning run on hold until it was all over. But most exciting of all was, of course, the Pura Belpre announcements!

The Illustrator Award went to Duncan Tonatiuh for Diego Rivera: His World and Ours

Illustrator honors went to The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred illustrated by Rafael Lopez and written by Samantha R. Vamos, and Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match / Marisol McDonald No Combina illustrated by Sara Palacios and written by Monica Brown.

I don't want to say that I knew it, but I knew it. When I read Guadalupe Garcia McCall's Under the Mesquite I immediately thought Pura Belpre winner. And so it is!

The Author Award went to Guadalupe Garcia McCall for Under the Mesquite

The Pura Belpre committee awarded author honors to Margarita Engle for Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck, and to Xavier Garza for Maximillian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller. I loved Garza's Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask and having grown up watching Mil Mascaras movies and a HUGE professional wrestling fan I am definitely looking forward to reading his latest book.