ROBERT RODRIGUEZ’S FEVER-DREAM: ‘ALITA’ AND THE BUILDING OF LATINX SCI-FI WORLDS

Incredible write up by Frederick Luis Aldama, which you can read here: https://www.latinxspaces.com/latinx-film/robert-rodriguez-fever-dream-alita-and-the-building-of-latinx-sci-fi-worlds?fbclid=IwAR0DFJIWW3WWZQFLEsAmubBSzCqLr5HAYwQCS1OfLeDK2_zAyRfr8Tvjy9g

 

Most sci-fi films focus time and attention to building new worlds for us to experience. From Georges Méliès 1902 Trip to the Moon through Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel today, filmmakers have used their cinematographic storytelling skills to build new worlds for us to inhabit.

 

To different degrees, however, such sci-fi storyworlds have either erased or exoticized Latinxs—and people of color generally. Take Ridley Scott’s world-building in the utterly mind-blowing Blade Runner (1982)Its slow, magisterial sweep and camera push-in gave us the time to absorb and relish this vanguard vision of a future-set L.A. (November 2019, actually). Scott’s exquisite crafting of a total vision of an earthbound future-set world continues to marvel.

However, once Scott (with DP Jordan Cronenweth and the team of modeling designers) spiral us down into the LA streets, it’s business as usual: Latinx, Middle Eastern, and Asians function as ornament. The Anglo characters (Replicants included) are infused with complex of mind and action. Giant pixelated billboards advertise Japanese Geishas. Amalgamated Asian logographics scrawl across dilapidated edifices. Throngs of figures in rice-field sartorial wear (bamboo hats included) and low-tech rickshaws fill backdrop street scenes. Cinemas showing Mexican films, stands selling sushi, and Turkish-style bazaars feature exotic (robotic) snakes. Cultural artifacts and bodies of the Other adorn. They add cultural texture to Scott’s sci-fi cyberpunk Look.

Courtesy Warner Bros.Courtesy Warner Bros.

The impulse to reduce Asian (and cultures of the Other generally) to exotic ornament is not new, nor the exclusive domain of sci-fi. The late Edward Said threw this in the spotlight when he carefully excavated 19th-century European literature, travelogues, and scholarship that crystallized into an ideology of appropriation and oppression. European systems of writing and “knowing” Asia spun an Us vs. Them Manichean allegory: Europeans as good and civilized vs. Asians as evil and uncivilized. This system known as “orientalism” helped bolster and justify real, barbarous European colonial and empire building practices in the Middle East and Asia. Threaded through this Us vs. Them orientalist ideology appeared various iterations of the beneficent paternalist and white savior attitude. The upshot: the spinning of propaganda as knowledge that sanctified cultural appropriation and obliteration of racialized Others.

Orientalism is the backbone to mainstream sci-fi flicks, and not just in the world building strategies already identified with Blade Runner. It’s prevalent, too, in casting choices. Think Anglo-Brit actor Tilda Swinton cast as the Tibetan mystic (in the comic book), The Ancient One, in Scott Derrickson’s Dr. Strange (2016). Think Anglo-US actor Scarlet Johansson cast as Major (Asian cyborg supersoldier in the comic book) in Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell (2017). We are seeing more sci-fi characters played by actors of color, including Latinxs. However, they continue to be relegated to secondary or even tertiary roles in plots, often appearing for just enough time to throw a dash of spice and color into the storyworld.

cinema of rr.jpg

This is the contextual backdrop needed to understand the significance of Latinxs in Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi world building of Alita. Robert’s always been about putting Latinxs in front of the film camera. As he mentioned to me in an interview for The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez, his dedication to and prodigious output quickly grew a Latinx star system—within and outside the Hollywood system. Even as recent as the 1990s, he reminds us that there were no Latinxs working in Hollywood—a very conservative and “reactive business” (141).  Latinxs like Danny Trejo, Benicio del Toro, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Alexis Bledel, Michelle Rodriguez, Demi Lovato, and Rosa Bianca Salazar are the drivers of plots. They are the figures audiences engage with. From Desperado and Spy Kids to Machete, Planet Terror to today’s Alita, Robert builds worlds that feature Latinxs as more than a spiced-up, exotic ornament. They are the complexly rendered agents of the action. Latinxs are the saviors of community, the planet—the universe.

With Alita Robert does this—and more. He builds his sci-fi world in and through all facets of Latinx life and culture as it reaches across an Américas in time and space. Robert’s make-over of Yukito Kishiro’s runaway bestselling cyberpunk manga Gunnm (1990-1995) relocates the temporal-spatial setting from the US to a hemispheric Américas. When building out the massive set for Iron City (60,000 square feet of Trouble Maker Studios lot in Austin), Robert and his set designers studied carefully the built spaces of Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, Cuba’s Havana, and Panama’s Panama City.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

In each case, they were especially attentive to the way architecture in the Américas is a palimpsest of pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial histories. Where, for instance, pre-Colombian designs co-exist with Spanish colonial edifices. So, with Robert’s building of the Iron City world we see these hybrid blends—including those cuartos de azotea that appeared atop colonial-era vecindades—that remind of how layers of time and space reverberate in and through the built spaces of the Américas.

Of course, Robert and his design team also want to transport us into the future—300 years in the future.So, they overlay this spatiotemporally layered architecture of the Américas with an industrial, steam-punk low-tech look; retrofitted tubes and exoskeletal wires remind us that we are in a future—but a future that continues to recall the wounds of the brutalities of colonization.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Robert and his crew stamp and sign-post (literally) Latinx culture all over Iron City. Street and shop signs are in Spanish (“Clinica” and “Ciggaros”, for instance). Food and drink are recognizably Latinx. Latinx rhythms fill Iron City’s airwaves; on a street corner we see and hear a Blatinx musician strumming multineck guitar. Braided chili and garlic ristras hang from eaves. Robert’s (and DP Bill Pope) camera-eye lingers over Hugo and Alita bonding while nibbling some chocolate; Robert wants us to soak up the scenes’ importance: the highlighting of xocolatl (Aztec)/ kawkaw/cacao (Mayan) to celebrate our pre-Columbian, indigenous way of life. Robert provides a similar pre-Colombian palimpsest with the bounty-hunter, McTeague (Jeff Fahey). When the camera first introduces McTeague in the cantina-styled bar, “Kansas”, he’s surrounded with a pack of cyborg dogs. Think: canine deity, Xolotl, the twin brother to Quetzalcoatl, and guardian of sun as it travels to the underworld every night. This same camera-eye lingers over Alita’s writing the number 99 on her shoulder. Not only is this an important moment when she writes on and claims her cybernetic body, but, given all of Robert’s deliberate Latinx signposting throughout the film, this act also resonates with the number 9 in Aztec and Mayan cosmologies: in the former, the underworld Mictlan consists of 9 levels and in the latter, there exists earth, with 4 spaces above and 4 below.

In Alita there’s a deliberate, deep infusion of Latinx culture in all its multilayered spatio-temporal hemispheric reach. This continues even when the story briefly steps outside of Iron City. When Alita and her multiethnic crew (Hugo, Tanji, and Koyomi) leave the city, they pass through a giant wall—a wall that surrounds the city and that controls the flow of people in and out. Once outside of the city, Robert fills the landscape with an amalgam of tropical flora and Central Texas flora. They walk through rubber trees and cedar elms. It’s a deliberately reconstructed hybrid equatorial/north American flora used to further conveys the film’s placing us deliberately within a hemispheric Latinx sensibility.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Robert doesn’t stop here. This hybrid weaving of hemispheric Latinoness informs Iron City’s economic system and infuses the ontology of its people. It’s a barter system where people trade repurposed objects (waste) for repurposed objects. It’s an economy of rasquachismo. In his 1988 essay “Rasquachismo, a Chicano Sensibility” Tomás Ybarra-Frausto used the term rasquachismo to describe a process that grows from “visceral response to lived reality” and that identified an “aesthetic sensibility of los de abajo, of the underdog” (155–162). It’s also rasquachismo of ontology. Indeed, Dr. Ido uses repurposed robotic parts to create differently abled, hybrid human-machine beings. He’s a doctor of rasquachismo. Alita is reborn (twice) under Dr. Ido’s rasquache surgical skills.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Robert builds this Latinx sci-fi world with Latinxs front and center. Indeed, with his casting of Latinx (Peruvian ancestry), Rosa Bianca Salazar he gave her a platform to embrace her Latinidad; up till this moment, Rosa’s Latinoness had gone unmarked and unremarked in and around films such as Bird Box and the Divergent and Maze Runner series. With the release of Alita, Rosa’s out and proud as Latina, giving special attention to her Quechua-speaking abuelita, for instance. Robert and his casting team’s choice to bring onboard Anglo/Latinx (Chilean/Mexican) actor Keean Johnson as Hugo along with Dominican-born Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Tanji, and Michelle Rodriguez as Gelda (seen in flashback sequences) importantly builds out a cast of phenotypically varied Latinxs.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The heroes stand in sharp contrast the casting of white, male actors as the sociopathic villains: the British actor and rapper Ed Skrein as Zapan and a whiter-than-white Edward Norton as Nova. By reversing the Manichean silver-screen scripts (white/good vs. brown/bad), Robert vitally reframes expectation and engagement of sci-fi storyworlds.

With Robert’s films, we know that there’s always more happening than meets the eye. It’s certainly the case that he’s flipped the mainstream business-as-usual with sci-fi film stories. Latinxs are not the exotic and ornamental; they are not the helpless and hapless.  But there’s more that Robert does with Alita. He affirms. He empowers. He throws us existential conundrums.

This isn’t new for Robert. In all of his films he smuggles into the genres he uses (and abuses)—from Western and Mexploitation to Teen, Horror, Sci-Fi, even music videos—doppelgängers, existential crises, political critique, patriarchal corporatocracy, mestiza affirmation and empowerment, and much more. With Alita he smuggles into the mainstream imaginary the question of what makes us human in and around hybrid (Latinx) subjectivities that exist in a hemispheric Américas. He smuggles into the mainstream imaginary the deep affirmation of mestizo selves that resonates beyond the silver screen; they reverberate in our minds as allegories of the birth and rebirth of an empowered mestizas: it’s only once the body and mind meld that Alita comes to know her self—a warrior self informed by a 300-year-memory of her armed resistance to colonization.

It would be remis of me not to mention a couple of nit-picks before I wrap up this thought piece on Robert’s Latinx sci-fi world building. As some have, I’m not going to take issue with Alita’s second rebirth into a full-bosomed cyborg body; there’s nothing about the costuming, lighting, or lensing that raise those fanboy wish-fulfillment sexual fantasy flags. I do think Robert, the screenplay, and his casting crew slip hard when it comes to Nurse Gerhard; and, not because of the choice to cast a woman of color (African American actor, Idara Victor) in the role. It’s that by having her play the role of a silent, ready-to-please appendage to the white scientist, Dr. Ido, the film takes us twenty steps back in terms of representational politics. And while we might argue that costuming of and pig-tail hair design for Vietnamese American Lana Condor as Koyomi is the film’s way of gesturing toward its manga source material, this stands-out like the fetishistic, orientalist sore thumb that it is.

Finally, and this is more of a personal preference, Robert has skillfully used 2D cinematographic storytelling to excellent use in most of his films; he knows well how to lens and light a shot to guide our brains to create dynamic depths of field. His use of 3D doesn’t work here. It doesn’t distract like yesteryear’s 3D. It’s just that its constant presence of 3 depth planes assign importance simultaneously to objects and characters in the foreground, middle-ground, and background. This overloads our perception system, unnecessarily.

Robert Rodriguez’s Alita might not be exactly the Latinx Wakanda we’ve been waiting for. It is, however, a world building that powerfully reminds us that we can make thrilling sci-fi stories that include Latinxs as more than just ornament. In an interview, Robert told me that with his films he wants to pull us into his “fever dreams” (139).  Alita is a fever-dream that proactively welcomes all—and Latinxs especially.

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David Bowles on order among chaos and lifting the voices of Mexican Americans

“The real heroes are groups of people—families and communities—that stand in solidarity against great odds and use their love and collective will to enact change.”

 

Author David Bowles has published fourteen books since 2009, and his latest, They Call Me Guero, is winning ALL the awards, it would seem. Lone Star Lit caught up with David via email to get all (well, almost all) the scoop.

 

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: They Call Me Güero is EVERYWHERE right now: it’s the 2019 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award winner, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an honor book for the Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children’s Literature in the Young Readers category, a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Notable Poetry Book for children, and a Best Book of 2018 at Shelf Awareness.  Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico is on the best YA of 2018 list at Kirkus.  I follow you on social media, and you seem genuinely blown-away as the awards are stacking up.  What has this been like for you?

David Bowles: It’s definitely a dream come true. I’ve received awards before (for The Smoking Mirror and Flower, Song, Dance), but the reception of this little book has been humbling and energizing. Above all, I’m excited that the additional exposure will mean that it gets into the hands of more children—both Latinx and non-Latinx kids—which is ultimately the goal.

Why do you see the book as important to both those groups of young people?

For Latinx kids—especially Mexican American ones—it’s really important that they see themselves, their families, their culture as important subjects of literature, as worthy of being depicted in positive, uplifting ways. The present climate makes this need frankly poignant. When so many messages in society around you indicate that you’re a problem, a crisis, an unwanted burden … well, you need books, you need poetry, to counter that despicable depiction.

And frankly, that’s why non-Latinx students need books like this. They need to see the reality of their Latinx peers, to see them reflected in literature as three-dimensional, engaging individuals whose lives are rich and meaningful. Right now, an average of 3500 books are published each year for kids. Only around 100 are centered on the Latinx experience. That needs to change.

You are focusing on writing for young people. Was that a conscious decision on your part or a general metamorphosis in your work?

Definitely a conscious decision, though partially a metamorphosis that occurred before my first book was published. Throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was working on an adult science fiction series, but my experiences as a teacher of middle- and high-schoolers, retelling the legends my grandmother Marie Garza had told me when I was a kid, set me on the path to reaching out to young people through literature. My first book, The Seed, arose from that desire to craft YA fiction that tapped into our shared cultural traditions and spooky stories.

Of course, I have been writing for a general or more adult audience as well. There are stories I want to tell that don’t always fit the strictures of kid lit. But my main concern is writing for Mexican American youth and their peers.

The Smoking Mirror, a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book, is the first in your super-hero series about the Garza twins, Carol and Johnny. Since then, two more books in the series have been published, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves (2016) and The Hidden City (2018); two more are in the works,Wings Above the Burning Earth (2020) and The World Tree (2022). What challenges will the twins face in the next installments in the series and how have they developed to meet those challenges? Do you know if their story concludes with the fifth book?

From the moment I started the first book, I knew how the series would end. I have the very last chapter of the fifth book sitting in my head, and everything the Garza twins go through is pushing them to a particular point, to a decision that frankly will surprise many readers.

Without giving it away, I’ll say this: I’m convinced that individual power is not enough to combat chaos and destruction in our lives. The real heroes are groups of people—families and communities—that stand in solidarity against great odds and use their love and collective will to enact change.

Raw, naked power—the godlike abilities that Johnny and Carol will continue to accrue in books 4 and 5—is ultimately dangerous to wield at all. Like nuclear weapons, all such superpowers ensure is mutual destruction. And now I’ve probably said to much.

There will be lots of incredibly cool things along the way, mind you. Mesoamerican giants and elves and harpies. Gods, both dark and light. Betrayal, love, sacrifice. All a young teen could ask for from a fantasy series.

You are one of the authors working with Adam Gidwitz on a new middle-grade series from Penguin Dutton called The Unicorn Rescue Society.The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande will be published in April.  How did this collaboration come about, and what has that process been like for you?

Once Adam had decided to use his position and power to craft a series of books co-written with writers from marginalized communities, he knew he wanted to do one set on the border (he has a great relationship with students in Laredo), featuring chupacabras as the cryptid (each book has a different creature in need of rescuing). When he approached Matt de la Peña, wondering who might be the best collaborator for that book, Matt immediately said, “Mexican American? Border? Chupacabras? Middle grade? You need to talk to David Bowles.” Or words to that effect, heh.

So Adam reached out to me and I agreed! Working together was really fantastic. We hit it off well, and once I’d outlined the story and we’d revised that outline with the rest of the team, we set about alternating two to three chapters. Writing that way helped us to maintain a rhythm and voice that was true to the other books. But ours was indeed quite different, more politically charged by virtue of its setting. Early on we realized we couldn’t avoid talking about the border wall and misconceptions about border folk, so we took a different tack: we centered that controversy and met it head-on in a compassionate way that kids will be able to understand.

They Call Me Güero and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico were both published by Texas institutions, the Byrd family and Cinco Puntos Press, in El Paso. How did your relationship with the Byrds and Cinco Puntos come about and what is it like to work with the publishers of such beloved authors as Benjamin Alire Sáenz?

Given the fact that they published four of Luis Alberto Urrea’s early books as well as many by Ben Sáenz, I am tempted to call them kingmakers. Both those men are role models for me, both as humans and as writers, and they are respected on an international level for their beautiful, important prose and poetry.

Cinco Puntos is one of the most important advocates of marginalized voices. Their books for kids have transformed lives in the Rio Grande Valley and can be found in so many classrooms. The Byrds are delightful, simple, loving people. Accomplished authors and translators themselves, they approach each project not just from a marketing or editorial vantage point, but as creative minds seeking to maximize the beauty and relevance of the work.

They are also really damn funny.

You were inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) in 2017 and currently sit on the board. The newly elected TIL inductees were announced in January. What was it like for you to take part in the process of selecting new TIL members?

Humbling and exciting! Getting to know authors that I’ve perhaps heard of or whose work I’m somewhat familiar with, diving into their writing and background, realizing just what luminaries our state produces … it’s quite amazing. I feel so fortunate, and I take my responsibilities seriously. Of course, the joy you feel upon seeing them react to the announcement is also a rush. And given the diversity of the new crop of nominees and inductees, I’m not indifferent to the weight of helping to reshape the TIL so that it more accurately reflects the state of Texas letters in the 21st century.

You’re an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. What are your goals in teaching Mesoamerican literature and, hopefully, the next generation of writers?

My goals in teaching kid lit and Nahuatl language and literature intersect with my goals as an author: to lift the voices of Mexican Americans, celebrating our culture in the US, its origin in Mexico, and Mexico’s roots in Mesoamerica. I want to normalize this long and storied heritage for students who have not been exposed to it in US schools, even those just scant miles from the border in communities that are majority Mexican American. We need more writers, yes. And we need more teachers using the books those writers craft. We need more Chicanos learning indigenous Mesoamerican languages, decolonizing their minds, integrating some of the highly developed pre-Colombian philosophy and science into their daily lives.

These things make us better people. They enrich and complicate the variegated traditions of North America, combat and interrogate the dominant US narrative.

The banner at the top of your website reads, “order amidst chaos.” Why did you choose that phrase to headline your website? What is particularly chaotic for you personally, and how do you attempt to impose order? Are you successful in the attempt?

For ancient Mesoamericans, the principal conflict in the cosmos wasn’t good versus evil. They would have found such a notion naïve. All things contain good and evil. Even the gods. Instead, chaos and order were the crux of things. The point of life wasn’t, however, to eliminate chaos. Without it, order was meaningless. Without destruction, nothing can be created. Without creation, there is nothing to be destroyed. Existence itself requires both. The conflict becomes a search for balance between them.

This sophisticated indigenous conception of the universe deeply moves me. All around us, deliberate destruction and inexorable entropy pull at the foundations of our lives. Being a human means not fighting that, but not giving in to it, either. Instead, we bend that entropy, repurposing the destruction into new creation, new order.

Every book I write is a reshaping of fading ideas into bright, novel configurations. They, too will darken and crumble. Before they are lost to oblivion, however, I trust—I must believe—that another will fan those embers and use the fleeting flames to forge something even more enduring.

This struggle happens within us as well. Gloria Anzaldúa wrote of the Coyolxauhqui process, the reassembling of broken selves. My book of poetryShattering and Bricolage delves deep into that remaking of the self. One of the poems got quoted recently on Criminal Minds, in fact: “When wounds are healed by love / The scars are beautiful.” The poem’s title is “Kintsukuroi,” the name of a Japanese artistic technique in which a finished ceramic piece is deliberately broken and the pieces rejoined with silver or gold solder so that the brokenness becomes part of the object’s beauty.

When I first contacted you, you teased that there is big news on the horizon; are you ready and able to spill on it yet?  If not (DRAT), what else do we have to look forward to?

While there is big news coming about a new series for young readers, that’s as much as I can say at present. But I do have a graphic novel coming from Tu Books in 2020: Clockwork Curandera, a YA reimagining of the Frankenstein story that blends indigenous magic with steampunk technology, set in an alternate northern Mexico/South Texas called the Republic of Santander in the year 1865. I also have a second graphic novel coming out in 2020 … that will be announced pretty soon.

I should also point out that the University of Arizona Press is re-releasing Francisco X. Alarcón’s Snake Poems in March, twenty-five years after its original publication. I helped fulfill the late poet’s dream by translating his work into Nahuatl for this special edition.

 

My mind is blown with all you have accomplished and are accomplishing. I need to ask some fluffy questions to decompress. Commence the Lightning Round…

Favorite book? Right nowThe Tale of Genji. Answer changes each year.

Number of books on your nightstand? eReader? A dozen.

Strange habit? Plucking stray long hair from my beard.

Interesting writing ritual? Listening to electronica and drinking coffee.

Funniest flaw? My kids assure me it’s my “dad jokes.”

Favorite quote? “I change myself, I change the world.” ―Gloria Anzaldúa

Something interesting that few people know about you? I’m a musician and singer with several independently released albums.

Pet peeve? Uh, very few trivial things bother me. But I do wish people would set off direct address with a comma.

Most underappreciated author/hidden gem author? Juan Sauvageau (Stories That Must Not Die)

Team Oxford comma? Not unless it eliminates possible ambiguity.

A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, DAVID BOWLES is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written a dozen or so books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, the critically acclaimed Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths, and They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems. In 2019, Penguin will publish The Chupacabras of the Rio Grande, co-written with Adam Gidwitz, and Tu Books will release his steampunk graphic novel Clockwork Curandera. His work has also appeared in multiple venues such as Journal of Children’s Literature, Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Huizache, Eye to the Telescope, and Southwestern American Literature. In April 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for his literary work. Visit David Bowles on his website.

New Literary Magazine: Palabritas

article by Juan Siliezar found here: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/02/harvard-senior-launches-latinx-literary-magazine/?fbclid=IwAR3ctLYdRFC4GW-ZX_EB0HDw6Hn2OH663V_D5yFzzrr3kwCTp402LnNPcRw

 

Ruben Reyes Jr. ’19 has written numerous columns and editorials for The Crimson, poems and essays for literary journals and websites, and most recently a short story for the Florida Review Online.

While that experience has given Reyes the confidence to call himself a writer, it’s also made it poignantly clear to the southern California native: Measuring writers’ success by what they’ve published says to writers who haven’t gotten published that their work doesn’t matter.

For Reyes, that kind of exclusivity is a problem. Words can have power whether they are written by an author for a prestigious publication or they are sitting unseen on the laptop of someone who writes fiction as a hobby. To help change that disparity, Reyes recently launched a literary magazine that showcases authors from all walks of life who not only have stories to tell, but are empowered as the best writers to tell them.

The magazine, Palabritas, means little words in Spanish, and features the voices of 34 writers who, like Reyes, identify as Latinx, a gender-neutral term for Latinos and Latinas.

The multilingual magazine is off to a strong start in that quest. It features poems, essays, and works of fiction that challenge popular assumptions of what it means to be Latinx, including perspectives from Latinx communities that are often ignored, such as Asian Latinx, Latinx people living in non-Latin countries, and queer and transgender Latinx authors.

“When I was thinking about this publication, access as broadly as possible was one of our main missions,” Reyes said. “In every issue, we’re aiming to publish people who have never shared their work publicly along with people who already have bylines in other literary magazines. [We want to] publish these people side by side.”

Reyes, who grew up in Diamond Bar, Calif., sees a space like the one Palabritas offers as crucial for growing a writer’s confidence. It’s also a place where Harvard students can explore working in publishing. Reyes assembled a team of 10 student editors and multimedia designers to put together the magazine. So far, more than 200 copies of the first issue have been distributed.

For Reyes, early confidence boosts played a major role in why he kept writing. Serving as fuel for him was the community response received because of his columns in The Crimson and a Latinx newsletter (which he named Palabritas after) re-publishing an essay he wrote.

“It really helped me think of myself more as a writer, as a serious writer,” said Reyes, who believes the craft can serve a larger purpose to heal, process real events, and think about the future.

For Reyes, writing serves a mix of those purposes.

“I just started writing down thoughts, feelings, and eventually those made it into full stories,” said Reyes, who first put words to paper as a teenager. “I wrote about angsty-teenage stuff — growing up in the suburbs, arguments with friends, uncertainty about what life would be like after high school, a desire to leave my hometown. They seem like petty concerns now, but they meant a lot back then, and I turned to fiction to work through them.”

Today Reyes’ writing stems mainly from his identification as Latinx. He often uses El Salvador, from where his parents immigrated, as a foundation. The short story he published in the Florida Review Online was about a Salvadoran family dealing with an aging grandparent. An essay he published this fall in the Brain Mill Press was about discovering Salvadoran authors. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories exploring the lives of Salvadoran immigrants.

“It influences everything,” Reyes said. “I think that’s why I’ve turned to writing to bring more dignity to a region and a people that I know really well because they’re my family, my parents, my grandparents, a lot of my friends here.”

Through writing, Reyes is combatting simple narratives surrounding El Salvador and its people. With Palabritas, Reyes wanted it to do the same for all Latinx people. To achieve that, Reyes and his team opened submissions not just to Harvard’s Latinx community but worldwide. Eighty-five writers submitted more than 100 pieces (most in English but some in Spanish or both languages.)

Standouts in the first issue include: an essay by Jasmine Hyppolite ’21, who spent a summer in Peru where she experienced racism as an Afro-Latina; a poem by New York-based Óscar Mosés Diaz reacting to President Trump’s announcement blocking temporary protected status for Salvadorans; and a short story about a kidnapping, by marketing and communications professional Santiago Jurksaitis, who was born in Colombia but lives in the Czech Republic.

“What we were looking most for was to show as many narratives and versions of being Latinx as possible, which is why we made a big effort to include a lot of people who are often overlooked in popular conceptions of Latinx people,” Reyes said. “I think the first issue, for sure, is so much better for that.”

Though Reyes, who is a concentrating in history and literature and applying for graduate school, graduates in May, Palabritas will continue to establish itself as a new space for Latinx writers and editors. That sense of community building was one of the key ideas behind starting the magazine, Reyes said. Harvard’s Latinx community, which is about 12 percent of the student body, is tightly knit. Reyes hopes Palabritas adds value by showing readers the power Latinx stories and words have, especially in seeing their own words published.

“It took me a while to consider myself a writer,” Reyes said. “I’m convinced that all someone has to do to be considered a writer is write. One of my hopes is that Palabritas can be a supportive publication for people to share their work and become comfortable calling themselves writers.”

April 6th: San Antonio Book Fair

Now’s not a bad time to play a trip to San Antonio. And if you’re there on April 6th, make sure you stop by the free book fair! The lineup features Carmen Tafolla, Meg Medina, Julissa Arce, David Bowles, Oscar Cásares, Reyna Grande, Jean Guerrero, and I could go on and on. Shoot, check out the list right here!

https://festival.saplf.org/news/san-antonio-book-festival-announces-2019-lineup/

What a great way to spend the day talking books and meeting authors!

The 7th annual San Antonio Book Festival will take place on April 6, 2019 at the Central Library (600 Soledad) and Southwest School of Art in beautiful downtown San Antonio. The Festival runs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Meg Medina on Winning the Newbery Medal

Meg Medina has gotten “the call” before. It came on a Sunday night in January 2014 when the chairperson of the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré committee telephoned to say that her YA novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick), had won its gold medal for narrative. That award goes to a writer whose work best portrays the Latinx cultural experience in a work of literature for children or teens.

“They called about 10 at night, so when the phone didn’t ring this time, I thought, ‘Oh well, that’s it,’” Medina said. She went to bed and rose early to go to the YMCA for her cardio class. But Merci Suárez Changes Gears(Candlewick) had received five starred reviews. Medina was right to think her middle-grade novel about an irrepressible Cuban-American girl might have been on the radar of one of ALA’s many award committees. “Psychologically, you fight expectation, but there is this tiny seed of hope that you’ve won something, that one of these awards will have your name on it, but you’re afraid to hope too much.”

And as it turned out, the phone did ring at 10 at Medina’s home in Richmond, Va., but this time it was 10 a.m., which was 7 a.m. in Seattle where the Newbery committee members had assembled to make their calls. Medina was back from the gym and getting into the shower when she saw an unfamiliar number on her phone’s and answered by saying, “Who is this?”

“When she [chairperson Ellen Riordan] said it was the Newbery committee and I had won the medal, all of the emotion I had been holding back, not only for this day, but over the entire course of my career as a writer, just came crashing forward and I sank to the floor of my bathroom and had a big messy cry,” Medina said. “Those poor people. I have no idea what I even said to them but I’m so grateful that they loved Merci and the Suárez family.”

 

Merci Suarez is Medina’s seventh book but only her second middle grade novel. She also won recognition from the Pura Belpré committee in 2016 for Mango, Abuela, and Me, a picture book. Other than her first novel, Milagros: Girl from Away (Holt, 2008), all of her books have been edited by Candlewick’s Kate Fletcher.

“And she doesn’t speak a word of Spanish!” Medina said. “I am working on her, though.”

The novel, which stars 11-year-old Merci but prominently features her extended Cuban-American family, began as a short story Medina contributed to Flying Lessons and Other Stories, an anthology edited by Ellen Oh (Crown), and produced in cooperation with We Need Diverse Books. The collection included short stories by Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander and others. “All the heavyweights and me,” Medina said. Medina gave Merci her own childhood love of bike-riding and her birthplace, setting the story in South Florida, where Medina’s parents emigrated to when they left Cuba in 1960. Medina was the first of her family to be born in America.

She found that even after turning in the story for the anthology, Merci had a lot more to say. “I wasn’t finished with her, or she wasn’t finished with me,” Medina said. “You know how Merci is. She keeps coming at you.”

Medina also felt strongly that the moment was right for a story about the particularities of the immigrant experience and the universal truths about growing up.

“I worry for children right now, especially in Latino families, around the issue of immigration,” she said. “These children are not deaf. They are hearing all of this political talk. We need books that sound and look the way we as Americans look, books that get into the corners of children’s experiences.” And though her Pura Belpré Awards are cherished achievements—“It’s the award of your language, of your home, of your parents,” she said—the Newbery will bring a much wider audience to Merci’s story. “That sticker is like a magic portal,” she said.

There is also this: the Newbery conveys on a book something close to immortality, and on its author membership in a very exclusive club. “Just to join the amazing authors who have already won, that my name is going to be part of that list, that is why my knees buckled, why I wept,” Medina said. “One day, my grandchild will walk into a library and see the title of my book as a Newbery winner and say, ‘My abuela wrote that.’”

Not that she is an abuela, yet, mind you. “No, right, don’t make me a grandmother yet,” she said. “Someday in the future, my grandchild will say that.”

March 15-16: The Latino Comics Expo hits Modesto, CA!

THE LATINO COMICS EXPO comes to Modesto Junior College, courtesy of MJC Literature and Language Arts & ASMJC. The nation’s premiere Latinx comics convention will host an exhibitor hall and a variety of panels and workshops celebrating Latinx creators in comics, animation, design, illustration and more!

Admission is free and open to the public. Free parking.

Where!? Modesto Junior College West Campus

2201 Blue Gum Ave, Modesto, CA 95358

New Book: El Norte by Carrie Gibson

https://groveatlantic.com/book/el-norte/

About the Book

Because of our shared English language, as well as the celebrated origin tales of the Mayflowerand the rebellion of the British colonies, the United States has prized its Anglo heritage above all others. However, as Carrie Gibson explains with great depth and clarity in El Norte, the nation has much older Spanish roots—ones that have long been unacknowledged or marginalized. The Hispanic past of the United States predates the arrival of the Pilgrims by a century, and has been every bit as important in shaping the nation as it exists today.

El Norte chronicles the sweeping and dramatic history of Hispanic North America from the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century to the present—from Ponce de Leon’s initial landing in Florida in 1513 to Spanish control of the vast Louisiana territory in 1762 to the Mexican-American War in 1846 and up to the more recent tragedy of post-hurricane Puerto Rico and the ongoing border acrimony with Mexico. Interwoven in this stirring narrative of events and people are cultural issues that have been there from the start but which are unresolved to this day: language, belonging, community, race, and nationality. Seeing them play out over centuries provides vital perspective at a time when it is urgently needed.

In 1883, Walt Whitman meditated on his country’s Spanish past: “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them,” predicting that “to that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts.” That future is here, and El Norte, a stirring and eventful history in its own right, will make a powerful impact on our national understanding.

Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice

Malvern Books in Austin is hosting a very special event on Friday, March 8th from 7-8 pm. Get more information here: http://malvernbooks.com/event/borderless-conversations-on-art-action-and-justice-8/?instance_id=2836

 

In the interview series Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice, emerging and established writers and artists talk with host Chaitali Sen about the power of words and the role of art in reflecting and changing our world. This month’s guest is Monica Muñoz Martinez.

Monica Muñoz Martinez is the Stanley J. Bernstein Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and an Andrew Carnegie fellow. She an award-winning author, educator, and public historian. Her research specializes in histories of violence, policing on the US-Mexico border, Latinx history, women and gender studies, and public humanities. Her first book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Harvard University Press, Sept 2018) is a moving account of a little-known period of state-sponsored racial terror inflicted on ethnic Mexicans in the Texas–Mexico borderlands. She is currently at work on Mapping Violence, a digital research project that recovers histories of racial violence in Texas between 1900 and 1930. Martinez is also a founding member of the non-profit organization Refusing to Forget that calls for public commemorations of anti-Mexican violence in Texas. Born and raised in Uvalde, Texas, Martinez received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.

Chaitali Sen is a writer and educator based in Austin, Texas. She is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky, and numerous stories and essays which have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, Colorado Review, Ecotone, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, New Ohio Review, and other journals. She is the founder of the interview series Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice.

* A note on parking: Our landlord has requested that we ask everyone to please only use the store parking lot for attending events at Malvern Books and stores within the Park Plaza Shopping Center. Unfortunately, if you leave your car before or after an event (if you park out front with the intention of getting a meal across the road before attending an event here, for instance), there’s a chance your car could be towed or booted, and we’d hate for that to happen! If parking is unavailable in the store parking lot, please use residential streets. Or, for evening events, you can park at Breed Hardware, 718 W. 29th Street, when they’re closed (they close at 7pm Mon – Fri). *

Elizabeth Acevedo and ‘The Poet X’ Add Printz, Pura Belpré to Awards Collection

Elizabeth Acevedo, whose debut novel won over the publishing world, critics, and award committees in 2018, continued her streak into the new year as The Poet Xnabbed the 2019 Michael L. Printz Award and the Pura Belpré Author Award at the Youth Media Awardsceremony at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Seattle on Monday.

“I was shaking when I got the call for the Printz; I was shaking when I got the call for the Pura Belpré,” says Acevedo. “Then, when I actually watched them announce my name, my heart was pounding. I knew it was coming but still, it was like, ‘This cannot be real.’”

The Pura Belpré Author Award shocked Acevedo—who says the recognition of a Latinx writer whose work best “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience” wasn’t on her radar as an award she might win.

“To get that honor is so special,” she says. “There were so many good books this year written by the Latinx community. I was really honored. That one caught me by surprise.”

The Poet X , which also won an Odyssey Honor for its audiobook version on Monday, had already won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Best Fiction. Acevedo can’t and won’t rank the honors. The most important thing is each different honor affirms that the story spoke to a different group of people, she says. The Printz commitee saw a unique combination of attributes in Acevedo’s work.

“It’s that rare combination of kick-ass literary novel and resonant, readable story,” said committee chair Rachel Fryd.

Winning the Printz will likely bring the title to an even wider audience, as librarians, educators, and parents often look for the award winners when selecting books.

“I hope so,” says Acevedo. “I hope that while my book was written so specifically and with so much of my heart directed at a particular community that allowing other folks into that heart will make them realize how connected we all are. That’s the exciting part of this, realizing this kind of story can have such a wide reach behind who I ever imagined would read it.”

When Acevedo thinks about the recognition, the many awards, she feels a pride that she makes clear is “not pride as a creator, but pride as in God, I wish as a reader I had seen this kind of story and this kind of life and this kind of protagonist being told, ‘You deserve to be celebrated,’ because it would have changed my life.”

And she has reaction she describes as, “Heck yeah, a story like this deserves to be on the same shelves as so many other stories. Yes, this girl. Yes, a novel in verse. Yes, this community. It’s about time, right?”

Then there are those final thoughts she can’t shake.

“None of it makes sense to me,” Acevedo says, with a laugh. “I keep waiting for folks to be like, ‘Eh it’s not that good. There’s a lot of hype.’”

Now working on her third book, she hopes people will love her new characters and stories as much as they did her first novel. But if readers always want to talk to her about Xiomara and The Poet X, Acevedo knows that’s OK. She was “lucky” enough to talk to Speak author Laurie Halse Anderson, who told her sometimes a first book has such an impact on readers, they will always want to come back to it.

“‘It’s ok to let people have whatever experience they want to have with whatever books you put out and you just keep working toward the next thing,'” Acevedo remembered Halse saying. “‘That doesn’t stop you from working on your craft, that doesn’t stop you from writing better books.’..So that’s really what I’m trying to zoom in on.”