A pair of shoes serves as the constant in a grueling trek across three borders.
Young René and Papá together begin a northbound journey, by foot and bus, away from their native El Salvador. As they cross into Guatemala, then Mexico, and finally the United States, the story repeats a chorus of “Uno, dos, tres,” representing the number of borders they must cross. It is uncertain whether the father-son team is crossing these borders with required documentation until they are waist-deep in a rushing river before joining Mamá on the other side. If there’s a moment when readers realize the perils of their journey, it’s here. Nevertheless, Colato Laínez handles the narration gently. Framing the narrative deliberately and at the center of Vanden Broeck’s illustrations are René’s shoes, often depicted from low angles or bird’s-eye views. Brush-stroked spreads depicting various landscapes—lush, green scenes, muddy trails, mountains, cities, the river—are reminiscent of Central American artwork often depicted on murals, souvenir trinkets, or postcards. Not until the last spread does Vanden Broeck finally unveil René’s smiling face in its entirety. The bilingual narrative is told in short sentences and enlivened with repetition, running metaphors, and sound effects, easily engaging readers.
Inspired by the author’s own story, this tale of a young boy’s arduous escape serves as a crucial, insightful, and timely light shone on a sensitive, highly relevant subject. (author’s note) (Bilingual picture book. 6-10)
The subtitle of Carrie Gibson’s book is The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America. El Norte lives up to it.
These 437 pages are an important correction to centuries of American history which have mostly neglected the vital role of Spanish pioneers (and Native Americans) in favor of settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland. As the author quotes Walt Whitman, Americans long ago tacitly abandoned themselves “to the notion that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands … which is a great mistake …
“To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts.”
This book proves Whitman’s prescience in a hundred ways: the history of Hispanics in the US is indeed “not a separate history of outsiders or interlopers, but one that is central to how the United States has developed”.
The first surprise is the role of Spain in the revolutionary war. In Paris in December 1776, Benjamin Franklin met in secret with the Count of Aranda, quickly convincing him Spain needed to side with the Americans. Ships leaving New England already called at Spanish ports such as Bilbao and Cádiz to purchase cod and flour. Soon their holds were also bulging with millions of reales’ worth of bullets, gunpowder, bombs, rifles and tents. Three years later, the Spanish governor in New Orleans, Bernardo de Gálvez, sent 1,300 men to attack British outposts in west Florida.
Of course, Gibson’s narrative begins much earlier, when the Spanish began their forays into the New World. The author reminds us that the indigenous urban culture of what is now Mexico was much more advanced than anything the conquistadors left behind in Europe.
Tenochtitlan (on the site of Mexico City) had a population of 150,000, “far larger than any European city”. Hernán Cortés arrived there in 1519 and reported to the crown he could “not describe one-hundredth of all the things which could be mentioned”, including a market where “more than 60,000 people come each day to buy and sell, and where every kind of merchandise … is found: provisions as well as … ornaments of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin stones, shells bones and feathers”. When he met Emperor Moctezuma, Cortés was taken to a “vast compound of palaces, apartments, libraries, warehouses, and even a zoo”.
With the typical solicitude of the invader, Cortés soon kidnapped Moctezuma. But he was forced to retreat in 1520, after a battle that killed 400 Spaniards and thousands of Tlaxcala soldiers. A year later, Cortés returned. A plague in the Valley of Mexico would eventually kill millions. The capital fell.
Gibson paints an extremely broad canvas over eight centuries, from early Spanish colonies in Florida and the founding of Louisiana to the battle between the US and Mexico over Texas and Hispanic settlements in California. She reminds us of the immense diversity of Native American culture before the arrival of all Europeans. There were probably 300,000 Native Americans in Alta California before the Spanish arrived, and they spoke “roughly 90 languages under the umbrella of seven broader linguistic families”.
The natives offered resistance. In 1772, a priest in San Diego wrote that Spanish troops “deserve to be hanged on account of the continuous outrages which they are committing in seizing and raping the women”. Three years later, 600 natives attacked the mission with “so many arrows that you could not possibly count them”. The mission burned but it was rebuilt five years later, and by 1823 there were 21 such sites up and down the California coast, “almost all of them concerned with the conversion and subsequent labor of the Indians”. Los Angeles and San José de Guadalupe, on the southern edge of San Francisco, were established for civilian settlement.
Gibson also reminds us of the racism which has underpinned the Mexican-American relationship for at least 200 years.
“Whiteness in the United States,” she writes, “became bound up with the idea of manifest destiny and providence, that the Anglo-Protestants were somehow chosen to spread themselves across the continent.” In 1847, during the Mexican-American war, the American Review said: “Mexico was poor, distracted, in anarchy and almost in ruins” and asked: “What could she do … to impede the march of our greatness?
“We are Anglo-Saxon Americans; it was our ‘destiny’ to possess and to rule this continent … We were a chosen people, and this was our allotted inheritance, and we must drive out all other nations.”
This point of view persists. In the 2000s, the historian Samuel Huntington wrote that “America was created by … settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British and Protestant” – and therefore the arrival of Hispanics in large numbers remained a direct threat. Huntington denigrated such immigrants as people with “dual nationalities and dual loyalties”, because of their Spanish language and Catholic religion.
Of course no recent public figure has done more to stoke such prejudices than our current president. Gibson’s sprawling work makes a major contribution by reminding us of the falseness of Donald Trump’s xenophobic narrative. Her rich account leaves no doubt that America is a vastly more interesting place because of the millions of Hispanic immigrants who have been arriving on our shores for more than 600 years.
A rapidly changing Brooklyn serves as the backdrop for this complex novel about family and acceptance.
Penelope moves back to New York to be close to her elderly father Ralph, and is shocked at how gentrification has displaced her old neighbors with rich, corporate, mostly white yuppies. She teaches art at a local public school, but has an unfortunate tryst with her landlord’s husband. After moving in with her dad, she sees his physical and mental ailments up close, and must decide if a care home may be necessary.
Around the same time, Penelope’s estranged mother, Mirella, contacts her from the Dominican Republic. The prospect of a reconciliation is mixed with her mom’s own point of view as an immigrant to the US and her life beforehand on the Island. Penelope agrees to visit her, but has a big favor of her own to ask.
Coster does an excellent job of crafting characters with flaws that you still feel attached to: Ralph is affable, but a workaholic who put family and marital duties on the backburner for too long. Penelope herself has not yet reached that stage of young adulthood where you see your parents as they are – flaws and all – not as you want them to be. Mirella’s views on parenthood, and notions of authority, prevented her in part from bonding with her daughter.
An engrossing tale of a black Dominican-American family in New York that feels ripped apart at the seams both from within and outside.
Naima Coster’s novel, Halsey Street, has been named a Best Book of 2018 by Library Journal (for pop fiction) and Kirkus Reviews (for best literary fiction and best debut).New York Times, Catapult, Arts & Letters, The Rumpus, Kweli, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She has taught writing to students in jail, youth programs, and universities.
Halsey Street is publication by Little A. Click here to purchase.
A Mexican American bond led the way to DC Vertigo’s new hit series “Border Town.”
Part of Vertigo’s fall relaunch of new titles, “Border Town” (the second issue is available Wednesday in print and digitally) is the creation of writer Eric M. Esquivel and artist Ramon Villalobos.
During their initial plotting conversations over the phone, Esquivel and Villalobos realized their experiences growing up Mexican in the United States could be used as fuel for the flames of “Border Town.” Esquivel, who is Irish Mexican, grew up without his Mexican father (like the lead character of “Border Town”). Villalobos says that both of his grandfathers came to the United States from Mexico and that he considers himself “fully” Mexican. Like Esquivel, Villalobos struggled with identity at times — he would be called out for not speaking Spanish despite being Mexican (a branding that afflicts characters in “Border Town” as well).
“Border Town” writer Eric M. Esquivel. (DC Vertigo)
Esquivel always assumed “Border Town” wouldn’t work at a major publisher, because it leans so heavily on Chicano identity and Mexican folklore. He acknowledges feeling a little angry when pitching the idea to Vertigo, because the publisher (an imprint of DC Comics) had already turned down prior ideas of his for a new series. But Esquivel says those initial ideas were more tributes to Vertigo tales of the past such as “Sandman” and “Y: The Last Man.” He was shocked when Vertigo gave him the green light for “Border Town,” but it stood out because it was so original.
“I never thought in a million years that a company like DC/Vertigo would gamble on a story like that, because it’s controversial just being [a] Mexican [story] in America, and especially in comics,”Esquivel said. “I thought [‘Border Town’] was going to be a black-and-white self-published thing that I was going to do someday.”
The story takes place in the fictional town of Devil’s Fork, Ariz., on the border between the United States and Mexico while also serving as the border between reality and Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, home to various demons and monsters of legend that frequent the pages of “Border Town.”
The protagonist, Frank, a teenage newcomer to town, is loosely based on Esquivel and his experiences moving from Illinois to Arizona as a sophomore in high school. It was an experience that Esquivel says took him from an area that was suburban and “aggressively white” to a setting that felt like “jail in an ’80s movie” because of cliques that were so clearly defined by race. In “Border Town,” Frank quickly discovers that blending in on both sides of a town split by racial makeup is difficult, but he quickly forms a bond with other Latino outcasts at his school.
“Border Town” No. 1 cover art by Ramon Villalobos. Colors by Tamra Bonvillain. (DC Vertigo)
“Arizona is a big part of me,” Esquivel said. “The elements of the book that are based on my actual life read as the most over-the-top, and the ones with the monsters and stuff don’t.”
The literary border of “Border Town” is between horror and the supernatural. When the monsters of Mictlan cross over to Arizona, they have a spellbinding effect on a town that is already defined by division. Whatever the locals fear, that’s what they’ll see when one of those monsters approaches them. An undocumented immigrant might see an ICE agent. An American minority could visualize a tiki-torch rally. But in the first issue of “Border Town,” when a child is approached by a monster, he sees the Batman villain Bane. Esquivel and Villalobos were looking to prove a point with that image.
“That was sort of our commentary that you have to be taught to hate,” Esquivel said. “Everyone else sees all these stereotypes, but the kid sees only [things from Batman.]”
“Border Town” No. 2 is available Wednesday. (DC Vertigo)
Guiding the visual adventure of “Border Town” is the Frank Quitely-inspired art of Villalobos, known recently for work on superhero titles at Marvel. Villalobos has embraced drawing a different type of comic-book tale, one leaning more on horror and teen angst than capes and masks.
“Border Town” artist Ramon Villalobos. (DC Vertigo)
“I love superhero comics, and that’s mostly what my career has been, is just drawing people in tights punching each other,” Villalobos said. “And that’s really fun, but personally, media that I like to intake is not superhero stuff at all. It’s usually romantic comedies and teenage dramas and stuff like that, just because I spend my whole day doing superhero stuff. So it’s refreshing to be able to do [something different].”
When “Border Town” came out last month, many readers focused on how it applied to Latino identity and border politics. At times, lost in the hype was the main story Esquivel and Villalobos are trying to tell, which is more about underworlds than political worlds.
“I don’t want people to feel like we’re doing this in opposition to anything,” Esquivel said. “I’m not putting out this book because Trump is president. I’m putting out this book because it’s a story I want to tell. Because Mexicans exist. We should have always had these stories coming out through all of these companies, and we didn’t.”
“To me [“Border Town” is] a horror story and the fact that it’s being so politicized is a little bit unfortunate,” he said. “I think our readers feel that way, too. But maybe that’s why [this story is] so powerful, because other people are getting to see what our life is like.”
Emmy Pérez’s collection With the River on Our Face is intimately tied to the territory of its origin. Taking as its muse the land, wildlife, and people in and around El Paso and the Rio Grande river valley, the book looks at the Mexican-American border as a place both painfully, powerfully real and yet mythical in its role as a gateway between two worlds. It’s a place where the nation’s xenophobic imagination plays itself out with raids and detention centers, but a place that is largely ignored and forgotten about by most of the country otherwise. As Pérez shows, it’s a place where impossibly delicate butterflies pull nectar from desert blooms, and a place where trained attack dogs savage undocumented immigrants out of sight of America’s conscience.
The river of the title is, of course, the Rio Grande. It’s a river that contains far more depth than mere water; it’s a border between two countries, and rife with symbolism. It meanders through this collection just as it does through the arid southwestern desert to the Gulf of Mexico, and it is shown as both a river of death and a river of holy cleansing. Both brutality and beauty are found here in this space where to be home is to be displaced. In “Rio Grande~Bravo”, Pérez writes of the invisible border line down the center of the river as
“An invisible caesura
Where I want to apply stitches
Like skin healing
Pérez makes use of the language of waterways throughout the collection, even when she isn’t specifically speaking of the river she has lived so much of her life beside. In the title poem, she cleverly states,
“I want to oxbow lake
in this place where children still speak and lose
Beautiful, lyrical images like this are peppered throughout the often distressing poems of this collection, as in “El Valle” where we’re shown
“The tip of Tejas is an oriole’s
nest that whorls into
México like a galaxy.”
Pérez is excellent at blending the setting of urban El Paso and its surrounding cities with the harsh landscape of the neighboring deserts, placing both within one ecosystem with similar rules. These connections are made deftly, with subtle images that are none the less evocative, as here in “Siphoning Sugar”:
“cattle egrets white
flanking cattle exist
and a thousand tinsel triangles rippling
over used car lots”
With the River on Our Face is at its most powerful when it directly confronts the injustices of the U.S. immigration system, and the dignity that is stripped from the hopeful backs of undocumented persons who have jumped a fence, or crossed a river, or crawled under the desert sun only to be treated as subhuman if they’re found by border agents. She shows the pain, fear, humiliation, and grief of these situations unflinchingly, but some of the most heartbreaking lines in these poems are not violent. In “Exit Routes” she explains,
“Shelters do not allow pets
Infants exist The elderly”
These quiet moments are, in some ways, more agonizing as images than those of overt aggression.
Throughout the collection, there is mention of poetry as sacred text, as spiritual salve and weapon. In “Rio Grande~Bravo”, Pérez laments “We can’t build poems faster / than the wall’s construction”, while in “Boca Chica~Playa Bagdad” she intones “When you said you read poetry like Bible verses / I stopped being suspicious of the world”. In “[Why]”, she displays her two muses–poetry and the river–together in one image:
“Diosita, diosito, you who
reads poetry and rivers
like they will save
you, not Jesucristo,
you prepare my daily bread.”
More than anything else, this collection is about documenting a place that most of white America only thinks about in terms of politics. It’s about describing the faces, the stones, the barrios, the lizards, the scrub plants, and, always, the river. Multiple poems in the book are scattered with lists of things that are real, things confirmed as real because this poet testifies to them, good or bad. Dreams exist… Swarms of snout butterflies / splatting on windshields exist… the hooded oriole exists… el Río Grande exists. This quiet insistence refuses to let this land and these people be ignored. While much of American might want to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a literal wall on the border and a figurative wall around anyone perceived as different, Pérez will not allow it that dishonesty. This place of her home is real, and it contains both beauty and misery.
As she says in a poem titled “Upon Obama’s presidential interregnum a year before the opening of Anzalduas International Bridge, not named after Gloria Anzaldúa”, she concludes simply,
“The border, my home
Is a real place.”
Emmy Pérez makes it real for us in these pages. Check out With the River on Our Face if you have the chance.
One of the more exciting things about Phantom Tongue, the first full-length collection by Steven Sanchez, is how skillfully it grapples with the big question of silence. How does a person create in a language not their own? How does someone claim the language of their ancestors? How does someone discover their own language and break their silence?
As the book tells the reader, a phantom tongue is unable to speak the language of its heritage. It is also unable to speak in the language of its own desire. It must remain hidden, either because it believes it cannot speak as it should, or because it risks its own destruction if it does. The fear and frustration of being unable to speak are clearly visible in the nostalgia of “Past Tense”:
“At 10:30, we’d brush our teeth, rinse
our mouths, and she’d sing in Spanish
until I closed my eyes, imagining
small pigeons flying from her tongue,
carrying rolled R’s like small parcels
I’ve never been able to unwrap.”
Here, the speaker’s grandmother is pictured as a source of incredible beauty and wonder. Later, the extended speaker of the collection describes himself, by contrast, as clumsy and dangerous: “my thick accent breaks the legs / beneath each letter and leaves my words // disfigured like that first martyr” (“Joshua Tree”). The reader feels pity for the speaker’s plight—he cannot say what he wishes to say.
The title poems places him in a vulnerable position, under the drill of a racist dentist who both literally and figuratively silences him as he praises a mother who had beat her son when he had protested for equal rights in Baltimore. In this poem, the mouth that is unable to speak the language of its ancestors is silenced at the very moment it starts to strike out. The collection builds on this and other episodes of discovery. Memory and nostalgia weave in and out of the present day to expose truths—how casually, for example, a boyfriend’s prior embrace intertwines with his grandmother’s singing. Religious images and themes are recast in the context of developing new identities. Creation, however surreptitious, becomes a sensuous act forced out of necessity. By constructing new images out of the old, the extended speaker claims himself.
The collection ends with the glorious affirmation of “What I Didn’t Tell You”
“I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray.”
Here we have a speaker who has moved nearer to claiming/creating his own language. The urgency that animates the collection closes with the possibility of further opportunity for discovery. It is an illuminating end to an exciting book.
Steven Sánchezis a recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary foundation. His two chapbooks include To My Body and Photographs of Our Shadows. His poems have appeared in Poet Lore,Nimrod, North American Review, Muzzle, Crab Creek Review, and other publications.
Phantom Tongueis published by Sundress Publications. Click here to purchase
The Rio Grande Valley and two harrowing tales of immigrants’ sacrifice serve as the key ingredients in Natalia Sylvester’s compelling sophomore novel.
On the day of their wedding, Martin and Isabel are visited by the spirit of Martin’s long disappeared father. He then visits Isabel annually and slowly reveals secrets from Martin’s past—things Martin has hidden and things hidden from Martin. Still, this tale is neither speculative fiction nor magical realism—it’s a moving domestic novel.
The plot speeds along quickly thanks to short chapters which alternate between the present, Martin and Isabel’s nascent marriage, and the past, the arrival of Martin’s family to the US. Unexpectedly, a young relative of Martin shows up, is undocumented, and asks them for help. They give him lodging, enroll him in high school, and over time they form a family unit. Things take a dark turn, though, when Martin’s mother gets gravely ill. Also, the constant concern and worry about Martin’s relative, who could be stopped and deported seemingly on a whim, also weighs on them.
Sylvester immigrated to the US from Peru, but has done a great job writing about the Mexican and Mexican-American population on both sides of the border. No character feels pigeonholed by stereotypes. Also, the book’s detailed accounts of undocumented immigration, such as a stash house that feels more like a prison, unflinchingly portray the reality of dangers faced by immigrants in a way that humanizes suffering.
Everyone Knows You Go Home is a gripping tale of family love, sacrifice and secrets revealed.
Natalia Sylvester is the author of Chasing the Sun, her fiction debut. She is a freelance writer who lives in Austin, Texas.
Everyone Knows You Go Home is published by Little A. Click here to purchase.
Elliott Turner is the author of The Night of the Virgin, one of “the top ten fiction books of 2017” according to TheLatinoAuthor.com. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Atticus Reviews, VICE, Fusion, SplitLip Mag, and Transect Magazine.
As immigration from Mexico to the United States grew through the 1970s and 1980s, the Border Patrol, police, and other state agents exerted increasing violence against ethnic Mexicans in San Diego’s volatile border region. In response, many San Diego activists rallied around the leadership of the small-scale print shop owner Herman Baca in the Chicano movement to empower Mexican Americans through Chicano self-determination. The combination of increasing repression and Chicano activism gradually produced a new conception of ethnic and racial community that included both established Mexican Americans and new Mexican immigrants. In Raza Si, Migra No: Chicano Movement Struggles for Immigrant Rights in San Diego (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), Jimmy Patino narrates the rise of this Chicano/Mexicano consciousness and the dawning awareness that Mexican Americans and Mexicans would have to work together to fight border enforcement policies that subjected Latinos of all statuses to legal violence.
By placing the Chicano and Latino civil rights struggle on explicitly transnational terrain, Patino fundamentally reorients the understanding of the Chicano movement. Ultimately, Patio tells the story of how Chicano/Mexicano politics articulated an abolitionist position on immigration–going beyond the agreed upon assumptions shared by liberals and conservatives alike that deportations are inherent to any solutions to the still burgeoning immigration debate.
Jimmy Patino is Assistant Professor of Chicano and Latino studies at the University of Minnesota. His broader research and teaching interests include Comparative Ethnic Studies, Chicano/a-Latino/a History, diaspora/transnationalism/borderlands, social movements and political mobilizations, and Cultural Studies.
An endearing story about a young girl and her curly hair. Greña / Crazy Hair is a short yet empowering, bilingual, children’s book that addresses multiple themes of self-esteem and family love for parents and children to enjoy.
The energetic, curly haired girl, Kiara, teaches us how beautiful, strong, enigmatic and free her hair is, as she demonstrates its beauty and uniqueness through various positive activities. In this story, we witness a girl who embraces her appearance, giving a valuable example for the children of today.
The author, Kianny N. Angtigua has a clear goal in mind—that is to create culturally relevant children’s literature with strong and loving characters. Meanwhile, the illustrator, Vanessa Balleza, fills the pages with soft, fun and distinctive illustrations that will surely paint a smile on the readers face.
Kianny N. Antigua (San Francisco de Macorís, Dominican Republic) is a Spanish Lecturer and writer. She has published Mía y el regalo de Guaguau / Mía and the Gift from Guaguau (C. Lit. 2017), Caléndula (Novel, 2016), among others. She received the XV Concurso Nacional de Cuento Sociedad Cultural Alianza Cibaeña, 2016 and the Premio Letras de Ultramar, Children’s Lit., 2015. Some of her stories have been translated to Italian, French and English.
Greña / CrazyHair is a publication by Kianny N. Antigua. Click here to purchase.
Xiomara, the protagonist in Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut YA book titled The Poet X, is an adolescent navigating her way through the confusions and challenges posed by both her Dominican mother’s strict Catholic expectations and Xiomara’s own inability to believe in the strength of her voice. The novel, set in New York’s Harlem, is a coming-of-age novel, complete with the excitement of first love and the disappointments they often bring. Even so, this novel isn’t first and foremost a love story in the heteronormative sense of girl-loves-boy and vice versa; the greatest love story found in The Poet X is between the poet and her poetry. None of Xiomara’s relationships—not with her parents, her twin, her best friend, her love interest, her teacher mentor—provide the deep sense of courage and completeness Xiomara finds through her writing and eventual performance of that writing. The story testifies to the power of voice.
The Poet X, in its structure, pays homage to the poem. Its first-person narrator reveals herself in a series of poems, many of which are capable of standing alone. From an alternate lens, the structure of The Poet X simultaneously pays homage to the novel, developed in complex and nuanced lyrical chapter-poems that portray the complexity of youth. The Poet X allows non- young adult-aged readers to recall nostalgically their youth while young adult-aged readers find hope that their intrapersonal gifts will sustain them through their interpersonal challenges.
Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City. She is a National Slam Champion, fellow of the Cantomundo poetry workshop, and author of the chapbook Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths. The Poet X is her first novel.
Poet Xis published by Harper Collins Publishers. Click here to purchase