Latino/Caribbean-American Literature for Youth

Case-study
The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

In this book, Xiomara, the adolescent daughter of Dominican Republic immigrants living in Harlem, realizes she wants to find out who she is, and for that, she wants to be heard. She rebelled by identifying herself with words and poetry.

The creative process for Xiomara -the main character- is challenging, but liberating and personally rewarding. It is a journey of self discovery. For the main character, her real difficulty is not following her family or, more specifically, her mother’s expectations, nor it is the fact that she can hardly connect with her classmates in school what really stresses her out. Her biggest challenge is to find her own voice… and this is an individual but also a universal issue.

It is only natural to feel the desire to be accepted into a new country for what we are, for what we have inherited from our culture’s birthplace. It is also personally important to be recognized within the culture we were born.  In other words, we -humans- are always looking for acceptance, on every sphere of our lives. However, that doesn’t happen if we don’t acknowledge who we are first. What we are, what we want to be, what we believe… A person can not feel recognized if she doesn’t know first what it is that should be valued. This is the core of the book.

Stylistically speaking, the book is written in free verse, which makes it fluid and easy to read for anyone. It may be particularly enticing for teenagers since it can be read quickly. It is also charged with adolescent energy, rebellion, passion, and expectations. It paints the excruciating battles of young adults journey to adulthood.

What makes this book a good choice for a multicultural bibliography is its multilayered approach, as well as the fact that touches important topics in the Latin culture without labeling characters in a simplistic way. The author definitely portrays, with acuity, some aspects of the Latin American immigrant culture but stripped from stereotypes. The former is an interesting point, because this book is not strictly about the Dominican’s views in Xiomara’s household. It is the view of Dominican immigrants, which adds nuances and enriches the reading experience. Cultures hardly remain unaltered when they are relocated to another geography. These subtleties are described and portrayed skillfully. For instance,  when her father is “trying to watch las noticias or a Red Sox game” (42) or when Xiomara is threatened to be sent back to Dominican Republic if she doesn’t show more devotion and commitment to her Confirmation (16) It is possible to read between the lines how her mother stresses the differences between living in the Dominican Republic and in the US. That extra zealousness can be interpreted on occasions as a reflection on the difficulties to adapt to a different culture. 

The use of foreign words is an obvious, clear way to paint a culture in a book. Nonetheless, the real talent of Acevedo’s writing is the fact that multiculturalism in her book is not supported by dropping words in Spanish language. In other words, even if it were told completely in English, it wouldn’t lose the multicultural landscape reflected in the story. 

The question comes then, if it is not the language that paints the Dominican culture along the reading, what is it that makes it a reflection of a Latin American culture? The answer relies in the fact that the book touches common and very relevant topics to the Hispanic culture like religion, machismo, and authority. The three of them intertwined and deeply rooted. Those ideas are so ingrained in Latin culture that sometimes it is hard to realize they are there -as it happens with Caridad, Xiomara’s friend. Nonetheless, those are the bricks that build the walls which enclose Xiomara to a suffocating point. 

Any Latino immigrant will recognize themselves within the story and identify to a major or lesser degree with the narrative. Here is the power of Acevedo. For an American reader, and using the words of Ms. Bishop, this might be a “window” book  for understanding the behavior of immigrants descendants in the US. For daughters and sons of immigrants, it can be a mirror. Xiomara is, however, the sliding door. She grows to be brave enough to turn her back on what she doesn’t believe or simply what she doesn’t want to do. She rebels, she tears down those enclosing walls, with her own voice, to be herself.

List of resources:

Organizations

  • REFORMA: the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking

Awards

Blogs and Websites

Reviews

Books

  • Multicultural Children’s Literature Through the Eyes of Many Children by Donna E. Norton
  • Multicultural Children’s Literature. A Critical Issues Approach by Ambika Gopalakrishnan
  • Hearing All the Voices by Mary Ann Darby; Miki Pryne
  • From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T Horning
  • Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading by Jamie Campbell Naidoo; Sarah Park Dahlen

“Top 5 Books” list

Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual poems on being young and latino in the United States – Poetry
Edited by Lori Marie Carlson

A sequel to a previous collection, this volume is a mirror of how young Latinos see themselves. The quality of the poetry is simply outstanding and the freshness and honesty each one of them portrays his/her view is inspiring. Covering topics like family, love, identity, and victory, this bilingual edition can be enjoyed by English and Spanish speaking readers with the same intensity.

As in the words of one of the poets

El español es ver doble. Spanish is seeing double
El mundo es dos veces más grande The world is twice the size

From El Español by Gary Soto

When the Stars Go Blue – Fiction
By Caridad Ferrer

Winner of the 2011 International Latino Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel

The main character, Soledad Reyes, a Cuban American high school senior, hopes to get accepted into a professional ballet company. A love triangle and a dancing career intertwined are the main ingredients of the story. The reason for this selection is to give adolescents an engaging, passionate novel where there is a mix of American and Hispanic characters. The point is to break away from the common immigrant topics we see in the Latino literature and provide an enticing  teen read. Additionally, it offers a glimpse of ballet and dance, which has been a strong artistic expression in Cuba. It also combines elements of Spanish heritage suggesting a similarity with the opera Carmen.

The Secret Side of Empty – Fiction
By Maria E. Andreu

No list of Latinx books may be complete if there isn’t at least one book about the hardships of illegal immigrants. In this case, it is the story of a pale skin, blond girl, honor student, originally from Argentina, who has been hiding her immigration status. She knows that after graduating from High School she might not be able to get a driver’s license or go to college. Poignant and also a timely story, this could be an interesting reading for teenagers either to identify with it or to understand the suffering of others. This book could also help break stereotypes.

American chica – Autobiography
By Marie Arana

Issues with identity may rise, not only when people migrate but within our own homes. In this book, a woman writes her memoirs as a hybrid between two cultures. A daughter of a Peruvian father and an American mother, Kirkus reviews describes it as “A rich and compelling personal narrative” 

When identifying Latino literature, there is a tendency to see a uniform landscape inside the household. Nonetheless, there are many mixed marriages and that brings a whole new set of identity issues and views. 

Enrique’s Journey – Non Fiction
By Sonia Nazario

A Honduran teenager is trying to cross the border into the US to escape the terrible conditions in his home country and to reunite with his mother. This book was originally written as adult non-fiction but the author adapted the book for adolescents readers.

Sometimes it is hard for people living in the US, to understand the harsh conditions in which Central American youngsters live. Under our current political climate, this is an important read.

Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet X : a novel. HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Authors

Alma Flor Ada
Jorge Argueta
Carmen Bernier-Grand
Monica Brown
Angela Cervante
Juan Felipe Herrera
Laura Lacámara
René Colato Laínez
Pat Mora
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Roseanne Greenfield Thong
Duncan Tonatiuh
Yuyi Morales
Young Adult
Socorro Acioli
Malín Alegría
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Julia Alvarez
Tracey Baptiste
Ruth Behar
Ann Burg
Skila Brown
Eduardo Calcines
Ann Cameron
Viola Canales
Edwidge Danticat
Matt de la Peña
Alexandria Diaz
Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Michael Dorris
Margarita Engle
Juan Felipe Herrera
Enrique Flores-Galbis
Cristina García
Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Javier Garza
Christina Gonzalez
Ashley Hope-Pérez
Oscar Hijuelos
Ann Jaramillo
Francisco Jiménez
Lynn Joseph
Nick Lake
Sonia Manzano
Meg Medina
Lyn Miller Lachmann
Pam Muñoz Ryan
Sonia Nazario
Daniel José Older
Judith Ortiz Cofer
Nancy Osa
Mal Peet
Marge Pellegrino
Isabel Quintero
Lila Quintero Weaver
Laura Resau
Sís, Peter
Gary Soto
Francisco X. Stork
María Virginia Farinango
Ibi Zoboi