Cultivating Latino Cultural Literacy

Pura Belpré Award-Winning Books in Library Programming for Teens and Tweens

By Jamie Campbell Naidoo

The following article appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Young Adult Library Services. Booklists and a full set of references can be found there.

Established in 1996 by the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA) and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the Pura Belpré Award recognizes Latino authors and illustrators “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” The award’s namesake, the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system, was dedicated to bringing rich stories imbued with Latino cultural elements to the children and youth that she served in barrios and ethnically diverse neighborhoods throughout the city from  the 1920s and 1930s and later in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2011, the Pura Belpré Award celebrated its quinceanera, marking fifteen years of works that carry on the mission first started by that energetic and visionary librarian so long ago.

Belpré Winners and Honor Books for Young Adults

Approximately seventy books have been recipients of either Belpré medals or honors since the award’s inception. While many of the books can be used with tweens and teens by creative YA librarians, specific titles hold special appeal for this audience and provide librarians with springboards for vibrant book discussions, art projects, studies in visual literacy, digital storytelling activities, and much more. The sections that follow profile various Belpré books under thematic headings and provide suggestions for youth programming for tweens and teens.

Daily Experiences of Latino Youth

Books that examine the day-to-day lives of Latino tweens and teens are often some of the most powerful and heart-wrenching titles on the Pura Belpré Award list. These books cover topics such as terminal illness, anti-immigration laws, poverty, gangs, and substance abuse. Like other YA books, these titles also include their fair share of teenage angst, teen-family conflicts, school and peer relationships, and typical teen drama. However, because these books are strongly rooted in the Latino cultural experience, they also highlight the close bonds of family andc ommunity, conflicts with machismo attitudes, and distinct cultural elements endemic to particular Latino subcultures: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc. Tween and teen  characters are often portrayed in these books as fluidly moving across borders real and metaphoric.

In the 2012 Belpré Author Award book, Under the Mesquite, written by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, the main character, fourteen-year-old Lupita, faces the loss of her mother to  cancer. The oldest of eight children, Lupita has always had a hand in caring for her  brothers and sisters. As the first child and oldest daughter in the family, she has a very strong connection to her mother, which strengthens as she matures. Lupita’s family is not rich, but they have always had enough. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, everything changes for Lupita. Written in an emotive, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking voice, this novel in free verse captures Lupita’s journey to self-discovery. From the opening poem, readers are immediately drawn into the world of Lupita, sneaking glances in long forgotten purses and holding gross tesoros that bind the teenager to her mother. The well-executed poems slide effortlessly across the page in a beautiful rhythm, conveying Lupita’s joys and sorrows. The book radiates with many Mexican and Mexican American cultural references, from Mexican folktales to passages that underscore the strong sense of community and family present in Latino cultures. The text also paints a vivid picture of a Latino family juggling past and present cultures and lives. Garcia McCall’s depiction of a Latina youth wanting to assimilate into the American school system mirrors the lives of many Latino tweens and teens today. However, never does the author suggest that the American culture is better than the Mexican one—a strong feature of the book. It is also quite refreshing to read a border-crossing story that depicts Latinos freely visiting family on both sides of the border without fear of la migra.

Not just a book for Latino youth, Lupita’s story holds appeal to teen girls from all cultural backgrounds that enjoy books about overcoming life’s heartbreaks and struggles such as those presented in Lurlene McDaniel’s titles. The book will also attract tweens and teens that have lost a parent or relative, particularly to cancer, serving as a form of bibliotherapy.

Belpré-winning titles such as Under the MesquiteParrot in the Oven: Mi Vida by Victor Martinez, or An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer provide readers with insight into the private thoughts and secret emotions of the Latino teen protagonists. By exploring these experiences with the characters, tweens and teens can be encouraged to record their own personal narratives through journal-style writing, poetry, or digital storytelling. A digital storytelling program can ask young adults to write a script for a specific event or instance in their lives and then create a digital story with personal photos, music, and narration or record a live version of the story via a digital video recorder. If young adults write journal-style narratives or poetry, they can share their work at an open mic night. Alternatively, the library can compile teens’ writings in a zine or self-published book and add the compilation to the YA collection.

In the recent Belpré Author Honor book Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller, written by Xavier Garza, readers are also drawn into the life of a Latino youth via a lighthearted romp overflowing with elements of the Latino cultural experience. In Garza’s bilingual English/Spanish novel, eleven-year-old Max is a huge fan of lucha libre wrestling with a particular penchant for the masked luchador called the Guardian Angel. While at one of the Guardian Angel’s wrestling matches with his uncle Lalo, Max discovers that his uncle and the Guardian Angel bear a striking resemblance. Soon the boy discovers that the Guardian Angel is his mother’s long-lost brother that the family thought was dead or at the very least missing in action. The Guardian Angel decides that he would like to retire and have someone carry on the luchador tradition in the family—will it be Lalo or Max? The humorous text beckons readers into Max’s story, and there is just enough suspense to carry the narrative forward. Drawing upon his own enthusiasm for lucha libre, Garza successfully captures the thrilling excitement that a Mexican American tween demonstrates when he discovers that his favorite lucha libre wrestler will be in his hometown and might be a family relation.

Non-Latino readers are introduced to an aspect of Mexican culture unknown to most outsiders and can make intercultural connections between WWE wrestling and that of lucha libre wrestling. The strong bond of familia and community in the Latino culture is realistically portrayed in the interactions of Max and his extended family. Male youth from all cultural backgrounds will devour this book, and it would be perfect for reluctant readers because librarians can convince them that the book is only half as long as it looks due to the bilingual format. A great way to introduce reluctant readers to elements of the Mexican and Mexican American culture, the book has a contemporary setting but is not issue-focused. Books like Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel lend themselves to exciting and funny book trailers that tweens and teens can create themselves. Considering that the elements of mystery and humor are combined with the topic of wrestling, activities with this book can have high appeal for reluctant readers and attract a male audience that is often scarce in young adult programming. Add a wrestling mask or costume or invite someone from the local school wrestling team, and let the possibilities begin!

Another, equally funny and endearing Belpré Award book for teens is Nancy Osa’s Cuba 15, which follows fifteen-year old bicultural Cuban-Polish-American Violet Paz as she explores her Cuban heritage while resisting her abuela’s tragic attempts to get her into an outlandish gown for a quinceanera birthday celebration out of this world. Tween and teen readers, particularly young women, will revel in Violet’s witty and biting observations about her tragic life as she tries to develop her own personal identity. Both Latino and non-Latino young adults can see reflections of their families in Violet’s, and are sure to gain an appreciation for the odd behaviors of parents, grandmothers, and other relatives. Osa’s writing, like Garza’s, is both lighthearted and refreshing, and introduces readers to an aspect of Latino culture that may be unfamiliar. The fact that Violet does not fit the stereotypical image of Latinas painted in the media is another boon for the book.

YA librarians wanting to use this book in a program can consider having teens create either digital stories or handwritten accounts of their most embarrassing family moments. In a community with a significant Latino population, a fashion show of quince dresses or a workshop for planning quinceaneras on a dime might also be successful. Programs might also draw comparisons between sweet sixteen parties and quinceaneras, and YA  librarians can even host a special quinceanera in honor of Pura Belpré, showcasing the fifteen years of relevant tween and teen books.

Latino History

A large number of the Belpré Award books depict specific events or time periods in Latin American history, taking the form of historical fiction and novels in verse for tweens and teens. These important titles introduce readers to historical events that are often glossed over, inaccurately represented, or entirely missing from history textbooks. Like other historical fiction books, Belpré award-winning titles in this genre provide opportunities for youth to step into the shoes of characters and experience events firsthand with all the emotions and drama that are missing from dry historical texts.

Perhaps one of the most well known Belpré winning authors of historical fiction is Margarita Engle. Her historical works, often set in Cuba and heavily researched, give a voice to the voiceless and introduce readers to the horrors of slavery outside the United States. Teens in U.S. schools often study the slave trade from Africa to America, but rarely do they have the chance to learn about slavery in Cuba, some of the first reconcentration camps, or Taíno natives’ encounters with pirates. Using free-flowing, highly emotive prose, Engle leads teens along to times long past and horrific histories some feel are best forgotten. Her accessible offerings can often be read in one sitting but present youth with problems and conflicts that linger long after the last page. Some of her past Belpré-winning titles with particular appeal to teens include Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate ShipwreckThe Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, and The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

Since many of Engle’s books include poems told through the viewpoint of a particular character, librarians interested in creating programs with her novels might consider having teens choose different characters from one of the books and performing either dramatized readings or even digital storytelling snapshots that summarize the main emotions and struggles of their character. Librarians could also encourage youth to do background research on the time period being described in order to add extra historically accurate elements or visual details to their storytelling. School librarians might consider using Engle’s books and some of her recommended resources to have students explore the historical differences between Engle’s books and popular history textbooks or novels on the same topic. Certainly, the various examples of Cuban slavery and struggles for freedom could be compared to events in other cultures such as South African apartheid or the Holocaust.

Set during the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic during the early 1960s, the Belpré winning title Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez builds upon the author’s childhood  experiences and that of her cousins. Before We Were Free introduces tweens and teens to twelve year- old Anita, who is struggling to understand the political and social changes brought about by life under a dictatorship. Along with Anita, readers begin to understand how first one little change and then another, accompanied by secret meetings and disappearances of friends and relatives, can lead to tragic, life-altering events. Through suspenseful scenes, teens and tweens have an opportunity to experience the tension that youth living in war-torn and politically oppressive environments undergo throughout Latin American and other parts of the world. A book that is sure to spark discussion about governmental control, freedom of speech, and the loss of innocence, this Belpré title can be used by librarians not only in book discussions but also in structured debates. Teens can read this title along with books such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl or The Red Umbrella and critically examine the lives of three adolescents in war-torn countries around the world and in different time periods.

Great Lives of Latinos

In addition to depicting the lives of average Latino youth in both contemporary and historical settings, the Belpré Award books also highlight the achievements of great Latinos and their contributions to society. These books are significant in promoting Latino cultural literacy because they provide Latino youth with examples of successful men and women from their own cultural heritage. This is particularly important since many of the famous individuals studied throughout the formative years are predominantly

European. Through literary experiences with role models from their cultural background, Latino tweens and teens strengthen their ethnic identity and can be proud of their roots. At the same time, books about great Latinos can assist non-Latino youth in understanding the noteworthy past and present contributions of Latinos to our world. This positive association can also help them gain a better appreciation for their Latino peers.

Belpré-winning titles about famous Latinos include three titles by poet and author Carmen T. Bernier-Grand. In her books César: ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!Diego: Bigger Than Life; and Frida: ¡Viva La Vida! Long Live Life!, Bernier-Grand introduces both tweens and teens to the hopes, dreams, joys, sorrows, and major accomplishments of world-renowned artists and important civil rights activists. Each book is a collection of poem providing biographical information on César Chávez, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, respectively. Extensive research and author notes are provided on the important roles that these Latinos played not only in Latin American art and history but also in history and art throughout the world. Readers learn about César Chávez’s nonviolent methods and can compare them to those of Martin Luther King, Jr., making connections between their own culture and Latino and African American cultures. Tweens and teens can be inspired by the artistic styles of Rivera and Kahlo and learn how  contemporary art has been influenced by their works.

Librarians considering programming ideas around these titles can develop programs related to art history and creation where teens study the artwork of Rivera, Kahlo, and other famous Latinos and then create their own  masterpieces incorporating the artistic styles of the masters. For a program on César Chávez, librarians can have teens and tweens practice civic engagement by researching an injustice in their community and developing a plan to assist those who are suffering. Youth can also research other civil rights activists throughout the world to learn about world issues and problems that need nonviolent solutions. Teens might develop digital stories related to empowerment in their lives and in the lives of others and share them with community organizations such as the Rotary Club, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers Big Sisters programs.

Another Belpré-winning book that gives a nod toward Latin American history and culture is the picture book Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. In this unassuming book, readers are introduced to both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos through lyrical language sprinkled with Spanish phrases. Lurking in many of the illustrations are ghosts, ghouls, and spirits galore representing important characters
from Mexican and Latino history and folklore. These cultural and historical allusions include Simon Bolivar, Sor Juana Ines, Senora de las Iguanas, Cabeza Olmeca, La Planchada, La Llorona, and Diego Rivera to name a few. When tweens and teens first encounter the book, they may not notice these references if they are unfamiliar with Mexican or Latino culture. But, with the guidance of a knowledgeable librarian interested in visual literacy, youth can be directed towards the Internet to gain background information on these characters from the illustrator web page or resources on Latin American history and culture, and then return to the book to develop a richer understanding. Librarians can extend programming by delving deeper into Day of the Dead celebrations and encouraging tweens and teens to build ofrendas to honor deceased loved ones or important historical figures. Young adults can also create their own artwork with hidden visual references. The artwork can then be displayed in the library, and other librarians and teens can search for visual clues that will unlock the secrets within. With an activity such as this one, the possibilities are virtually limitless and youth are certain to have a ghoul of a time! .

Long Live Pura Belpré

Only a few of the Belpré award-winning books with special appeal for tweens and teens have been profiled in this article. Librarians working with young adults to promote Latino cultural literacy and intercultural connections between Latino and non-Latino youth can use many other suggested titles in their programming. The list included in this article contains all of the recommended Belpré titles appropriate for this age group. Hopefully, young adult librarians will be inspired to take the suggestions provided in this article along with their own past programming experiences and integrate the Belpré books into their library programs, proclaiming to the community “¡Viva Pura Belpré! Long Live Pura Belpré!”

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