“Pelo malo.” “Mejorar la raza.”/“Bad hair.” “Better the race.”
These are phrases that I’ve heard all of my life. Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets opened my eyes to the dark truth. This anti-Blackness aspect of my Dominican culture was as much a part of me as my love of plátanos and salami. The African influences within the Latinx culture are indicative of the thousands of years of slavery in Latin America. From the dark hues of our skin to the origins of our celebrated dishes, from the drum beats in our music to the Yoruba facets of our religions, the Black roots within the Hispanic people cannot be denied, even though it took me a while to acknowledge how inherent it was to my own identity.
A Pew Research Center survey of Latinx adults shows that one-quarter of all U.S. Latinxs self-identify as Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent with roots in Latin America. Of that same group, only 18 percent reports their race as “Black.” In fact, higher shares of Afro-Latinx identified as white alone or white in combination with another race–39 percent. There are others who have trouble accepting their African roots.
On February 9, 2016, kid lit bloggers and scholars Edith Campbell, Sujei Lugo, and Guinevere and Libertad Thomas hosted a Twitter chat with the theme, “Where are the Afro-Latinxs in American History?.” Special guests included Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, Sofia Quintero, author of Show and Prove and Efrain’s Secret, and Robert Liu-Trujillo, a visual artist and illustrator. That conversation sparked the idea for this column.
Brown, Monica. Pelé, King of Soccer/Pelé, El rey del fútbol . illus. by Rudy Gutierrez.HarperCollins/Rayo. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780061227790; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780061227806.
Gr 1-3 –A bilingual picture book biography about Pelé, the first man in the history of the sport to score 1,000 goals and become a living legend. From the poverty-filled streets of Brazil to the packed stadiums of the World Cup, the dynamic illustrations convey the vigor and verve of the athlete’s life.
Chambers, Veronica. Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa. illus. by Julie Maren. Dial. 2007. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780142407790.
Gr 2-4 –This picture book biography of the Cuban songstress pays tribute to the child from Havana who became salsa royalty. The lyrical text and lovely jewel-tone illustrations successfully portray the struggles and triumphs of the Afro-Latina. An excellent introduction to Celia Cruz and her music.
Colón, Raúl. Draw! illus. by author. S. & S/Paula Wiseman Bks. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442494923.
PreS-Gr 3 –Based on the Afro-Puerto Rican artist’s childhood, beloved and award-winning illustrator Colón’s wordless work, created with watercolor and colored pencils, depicts a sickly boy who uses his creativity to escape the confines of his bed. Traveling through his drawings to Africa, the boy makes friends with the animals he encounters.
Engle, Margarita. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music. illus. by Rafael López. HMH. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544102293.
Gr 1-4 –The award-winning Cuban American author has made her mark on children’s literature with her powerful portrayals of little-known aspects of Cuban history, often shedding light on the Afro-Cuban experience. This work is inspired by the childhood of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke down traditional taboos against female drummers. López’s luminous illustrations represent the island’s diversity. Details of Cuba’s and the protagonist’s Chinese, African, Taíno, and Spanish roots are interwoven into the lyrical narrative and the vibrant acrylic paintings.
Steptoe, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316213882.
Gr 1-5 –A visually stunning picture book biography about modern art phenomenon Jean-Michel Basquiat. Coretta Scott King Award–winner Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork reflect the Haitian Puerto Rican artist’s collage-style paintings that rocketed him to fame in the 1980s. Back matter and an introduction to symbolism in Basquiat’s work help readers appreciate the layers of Black identity and Yoruba influences at play in Steptoe’s illustrations.
Velasquez, Eric. Grandma’s Records/Los discos de mi abuela. illus by author. Walker. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780802776600; Spanish edition ISBN 9781933032184.
Gr 1-3 –Each year, a boy spends the summer with his grandmother in her apartment in Spanish Harlem listening to her records. Grandma is given two tickets to a live concert by a nephew, a percussionist in a well-known Puerto Rican band. When the lead singer dedicates the last song to her, the child is surprised to see everyone singing “Grandma’s special song” (“In My Old San Juan”) with eyes closed and a hand placed over the heart. Velasquez was one of the first children’s book creators to celebrate and bring light to the Afro-Latinx experience. The companion, Grandma’s Gift, won the 2011 Pura Belpré Award.
Velasquez, Eric. Looking for Bongo. illus. by author. Holiday House. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780823435654; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780823437672.
PreS –An Afro-Latino boy searches for his missing stuffed toy. The adorable toddler, depicted charmingly with a puffy Afro, protruding tummy, inquisitive eyes, and pj’s, inquires after the whereabouts of his beloved Bongo. The warm oil paintings illuminate in obvious and not-so-obvious ways the family’s love of music, literature, and their African roots. Velasquez’s Grandma’s Records makes a cameo during the boy’s bedtime ritual. And as in that previous title, this work’s celebration of the diversity within Latinx culture will warm hearts.
Engle, Margarita. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words. S. & S./Atheneum. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481461122.
Gr 5-8 –In this middle grade novel in verse, Engle transports readers to the world of 1870s Cuba. Antonio Chuffat is of African and Chinese descent and acts as a messenger for Chinese diplomats trying to argue for better conditions. While fighting for liberty for the Chinese, Antonio notices that no one is attempting to free the African side of his family. A beautifully written work that addresses social justice issues that are more important now than ever.
Engle, Margarita. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. illus. by Sean Qualls. Holt. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780312659288.
Gr 7 Up –This 2008 Pura Belpré Medal-winning biography presents the true story of a Cuban slave who escaped to become a celebrated poet. Born into the household of a wealthy slave owner in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano was denied an education but showed an exceptional talent for poetry. Qualls’s breathtaking illustrations create a portrait of a life in which even the pain of slavery could not extinguish the capacity for hope. This title serves as a reminder that much of the history of the Caribbean was written on the backs of Black people.
Maldonado, Torrey. Secret Saturdays. Putnam. 2012. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780142417478.
Gr 5-8 –Friends Justin and Sean, both 12, live in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn, are Puerto Rican and African American, and have absentee fathers. Sean is straying further from their friendship, avoiding their scheduled sleepovers, lying, and not doing as well in school. He’s been getting into more and more fights when he used to advocate dissing instead of fists. Where is Sean going on Saturdays? Maldonado explores issues of manhood, friendship, and family in this heartfelt, humorous, and poignant urban tale.
Vigilante, Danette. The Trouble with Half a Moon. Putnam. 2015. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780147515506.
Gr 5-8 –Ever since her brother’s death, Dellie’s life has been quiet and sad. When new neighbors move into the housing projects, Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, is often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. This debut novel authentically captures the diverse community and the characters’ grief, anger, and heartbreak.
Acevedo, Elizabeth. Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths. YesYes. 2016. pap. $12. ISBN 9781936919451.
Gr 10 Up –This book of poems highlights the civil rights abuses affecting Dominican people throughout history. The 21 verses are peppered with Spanish words and cover heavy topics such as rape, abuse, harassment, discrimination, and lynching in a short but resonant volume. Acevedo’s debut YA novel, The Poet X, is slated for publication by HarperCollins in 2018. The author’s own slam poems have gone viral, including the stirring “Afro-Latina.”
Elliott, Zetta. A Wish After Midnight. Skyscape. 2010. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780982555057.
––––.The Door at the Crossroads. CreateSpace. 2016. pap. $15. ISBN 9781515392163.
Gr 8 Up –A speculative fiction series about a teen of Panamanian descent who time travels to Civil War–era Brooklyn with her love interest Judah. In the sequel, The Door at the Crossroads, the young people are separated and Judah struggles to stay alive during the Civil War while Genna travels to New York City during September 11. Elliott’s lyrical writing, thorough research, and excellent pacing make these books a perfect fit for future fans of Octavia Butler and those who enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time.
Herrera, Juan Felipe. Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062447593.
Gr 9 Up –Originally published in 2005, this Americas Award winner was recently reissued for the 9/11 anniversary. A contemplative novel in verse by the 2015-16 U.S. Poet Laureate, the work follows Yolanda, a Puerto Rican young woman, in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers. Through letters and poems, readers experience Yolanda’s loss. Her family’s strength amid tragedy will touch readers.
Myers, Walter Dean. On a Clear Day. Crown. $17.99. ISBN 9780385387538; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780385387569.
Gr 7-10 –In one of his last books, the former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature ventured into the dystopian genre. Dominican American heroine and computer whiz Dahlia joins with a diverse group of young adults to stand up to the eight corporations and a global terrorist that have taken over the world. Perfect for reluctant readers, this work explores social, economic, and racial divides in a slim and accessible novel.
Older, Daniel Jose. Shadowshaper. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545591614; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781338032475.
Gr 7 Up –The 2015 SLJ Best Book follows Afro-Latina Sierra Santiago as she discovers that she’s part of a long line of shadowshapers, people with the ability to infuse magic into their art in order to fight off demons. The Brooklyn teen embraces her Blackness and defends it against the critique of her family members—a powerful statement in YA lit. Fresh dialogue and exceptional world-building will have readers anticipating further adventures in the upcoming Shadowhouse Fall slated for September 2017.
Quintero, Sofia. Show and Prove. Delacorte. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375847073.
Gr 8 Up –Set in 1983 in the South Bronx, this coming-of-age tale by Afro-Latina Quintero presents the friendship between African American Smiles and Puerto Rican Nike against the backdrop of hip-hop, Reaganomics, and war in the Middle East. Quintero explores the racial tensions but also collaborations that flourish between the Latino and Black community with a deft hand. Teens will be fully immersed in the 80s setting.
Adult Books for Teens
Chambers, Veronica. Mama’s Girl. Riverhead. 1997. pap. $15. ISBN 9781573225991.
Growing up in the 1970s in a home plagued by violence, divorce, and double standards, the award-winning author (who wrote this memoir in her 20s) struggled to exceed low expectations and a fraught relationship with her mother. Chambers, who is of Panamanian descent, takes an honest look at the trials that she and her family had to face in the United States. A title that will resonate with many teens.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. Riverhead. 1997. pap. $12. ISBN 9781573226066.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author first burst onto the literary scene with this short story collection about a Dominican teen growing up in New Jersey. The entries explore the stark reality of having to juggle the values of two cultures while never completely fitting in with either. This poignant work has become required reading in many high school courses for good reason. Diaz explores the inherent racism in the United States and his native Quisqueya.
Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. Vintage. 1997. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780679781424.
Thomas’s classic is as relevant today as when it was originally published in 1967. The lyrical memoir follows the coming-of-age on the streets of Spanish Harlem of a Puerto Rican in English-speaking America—a dark-skinned morenito in a family that refused to acknowledge its African blood. Drugs, street fighting, and armed robbery eventually land the 22-year-old Piri in prison for shooting a cop. An eye-opening account of one young man’s journey of identity, marginalization, survival, and transcendence.