STARRED REVIEW

September 15, 2021

Reading recommendations for National Hispanic Heritage Month

From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate the history, culture and contributions of Latinx people in the United States—and what better way to celebrate than with a book? Check out these 17 great reads for all ages by Latinx authors who are breaking new ground in American literature.
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Carolina De Robertis’ conversational fifth novel is as much about storytelling as it is about José “Pepe” Mujica. The former Uruguayan leader is known as the “world’s poorest president,” as he donated nearly 90% of his presidential salary to charity. Without ever naming him outright, The President and the Frog takes Mujica’s stranger-than-fiction life story and imbues it with a quirky, mystical grace.

De Robertis’ Mujica is an old man at the tail end of his political career. After surviving well over a decade as a political prisoner and then serving as president, he now lives as a humble flower farmer “in a near-forgotten country.” On a November afternoon, he entertains the questions of a prying Norwegian journalist. He endeavors to hide the reality of his past from her, but his mind cannot help but drift back to the years he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and the reader is transported back in time with him. We discover that he survived those difficult years through the help of a talking frog.

This premise calls to mind Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the president uses (deep, hilarious, tangential) conversation to survive the literal and figurative darkness of incarceration. De Robertis also breaks up this darkness by describing the president’s present-day surroundings, a lush landscape that is reflective of his passion for making things grow. He is a charming man who pours endless cups of yerba mate to share with anyone who cares to take a sip, and the novel that surrounds him is similarly inviting.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: In The President and the Frog, Carolina De Robertis explores the socio-political transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country: “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”


La novela del dictador—“the dictator novel”—is a staple of Latin American literature that explores the political and psychological implications of authoritarian governments. Think Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000). As the novel’s gaze turns toward contemporary North America, however, De Robertis goes a step further by remixing the genre. In North America rather than Latin America, a celebrity “dictator” has risen to power. This political leader is never named outright as Donald Trump, just as De Robertis’ protagonist is never dubbed Pepe Mujica—yet there is no room for doubt. Despite this grand statement, De Robertis is ultimately less concerned with critiquing political systems than with unveiling how survival might be achieved within them.

While De Robertis’ choice not to name the people and places of her novel may be viewed as stylistic bandwagoning, it allows her to remain engaged with the “once upon a time” dreaminess with which her novel kicks off. Yet it is perhaps because the novel is inspired by a real man’s life that it ultimately succeeds. The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

The President and the Frog reminds us that hope can be found anywhere, even in the most wretched conditions. And that is a shot in the arm we all could use.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Like Burgos herself as a child, the narrator must share a bedroom—and her big sister snores!—so she’s jealous of her family’s overnight guests and the attention they receive. “It would be so much fun to have the whole living room to myself!” she declares, not fully grasping that for children like Lisa, whose grandmother cleans offices, or Edgardo, whose mother plays music gigs that last until the wee hours of the morning, it’s not that simple.

Being separated from their families and sleeping on the unfamiliar cot affects each overnight guest differently. Raquel asks to keep the light on, while Edgardo discovers that the narrator’s mother doesn’t know his favorite lullaby. The narrator nonetheless maintains that the situation is unfair until one night when the cot isn’t occupied and she sleeps on it herself. Suddenly, she realizes how scary it is to try to fall asleep in a strange, dark room, and her newfound empathy helps her to come up with a creative way to comfort Raquel the next time she comes to stay.

Gaby D’Alessandro’s warm illustrations depict the family’s home as a safe and welcoming place. City buildings appear through the windows and on blocks of the colorful quilt that’s depicted on the book’s bright, decorative endpapers. Both Burgos and D’Alessandro are Dominican American, and D’Alessandro incorporates subtle cultural details, such as floral paintings and a Carnival mask displayed on the family’s living room walls.

Burgos, author of the middle grade novel Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (2018), writes in spare, evocative prose that makes the narrator’s journey of personal growth feel natural and genuine. Text and art work in harmony to create a portrait of a close-knit community where neighbors help one another through small but meaningful acts and where hard work is a way of life. The Cot in the Living Room beautifully captures the gifts we receive when we open our hearts to others.

Author Hilda Eunice Burgos’ heartfelt first picture book is the story of a Dominican American girl who lives in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood. The girl’s parents keep a cot in their living room where children whose parents work late or overnight shifts can sleep.

Through her popular historical novels, bestselling author Chanel Cleeton offers a fresh glimpse into Cuba’s tumultuous past. Her latest, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, as the island country is ravaged by conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish military.

The story unfolds through the eyes of three women: Evangelina Cisneros, a beautiful socialite who finds herself in the infamous Recogidas prison after rebuffing the advances of a Spanish military official; Marina Perez, who along with her husband is aiding the revolutionaries while living in deplorable conditions at a reconcentration camp; and Grace Harrington, a cub reporter trying to make her mark at William Randolph Hearst’s New York newspaper.

The women all come from wealthy families yet have chosen their own paths as they seek more than the comfort provided by their privilege. This is a recurring theme in Cleeton’s work: women turning their lives upside down to fight for what they believe in. For Evangelina and Marina, they’re fighting for the dream of a liberated Cuba. For Grace, it’s a career as a serious journalist in an era when few women (aside from Nellie Bly and Ida B. Wells) could imagine working for a newspaper. Their fates intersect when Hearst places Grace on the Cuba beat, reporting from the front lines.

The heart of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is ostensibly Evangelina, who is the title character and based on a real person. And indeed, her story is fascinating. She was briefly the most famous woman in New York after a daring rescue landed her stateside to advocate for Cuban independence. But Cleeton’s examination of the state of journalism at the turn of the century is an equally compelling part of this engrossing book. The battle of Hearst versus Joseph Pulitzer for the biggest circulation is fascinating. Both of their newspapers used the discord in Cuba to bolster their sales and arguably influenced the conflict more than was appropriate for a supposedly neutral press.

Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

Chanel Cleeton delivers a sweeping story of love and courage, as well as a sobering reminder of the power and responsibility of the media.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Xander Amaro, the restaurant’s new hire, has never really felt at home anywhere. Originally from Mexico, he’s spent the last 10 years living with his grandfather in the U.S. without legal documentation, always looking over his shoulder, always feeling he doesn’t quite belong. If only he could track down his biological father, Xander thinks, he might finally feel comfortable in his own life. 

When a dangerous loan shark threatens the community, Pen and Xander must work together with their families—the ones they were born into and the ones they’ve made—to save the restaurant. Along the way, they discover exactly where they’re meant to be.

Laekan Zea Kemp’s debut YA novel, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet, is fueled by vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, from the chaos of the kitchen on a busy night to the smells of the restaurant that linger in Pen’s hair after each shift. Chapters alternate between Pen’s and Xander’s first-person perspectives as Kemp explores their nuanced personalities and never shies away from their dark places, including Pen’s depression and Xander’s anxiety about his immigration status. Kemp develops these aspects of her protagonists with respect, making them parts of their whole, complex selves. 

Pen explains to Xander that Nacho’s Tacos employees are a family, and this perfectly describes the cast of characters Kemp has assembled. Though the book’s villain, El Martillo, feels a bit underdeveloped, the other supporting characters are as complex and well-crafted as the protagonists. This is a powerful, heartwarming story of family, first love and resilience.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Laekan Zea Kemp reflects on the role that hunger has played in her own life as well as in her first book.

For as long as she can remember, Penelope Prado has felt at home at her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, where she cooks love into food that brings her community together. Pen wants to open a pastelería alongside the restaurant, but her parents don’t approve, so she’s torn between following her dream and disappointing them, or following their dreams and giving up on her own.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

Expanding on her short story with the same title, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds begs the question: What makes a sacrifice selfless?

In three parts that unfold over the course of a year in the aptly named New Mexico town of Las Penas, The Five Wounds is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window. Quade’s characters are experts at pushing love away, especially when intimate connection is most necessary.

The novel begins with a crucifixion. Amadeo Padilla is a ne’er-do-well who is hand-selected by the devout men of Las Penas to play Jesus in the annual reenactment of Christ’s Passion. To carry the cross is a great honor, and Amadeo treats this invitation as an opportunity to redeem himself in his mother’s eyes. He also sees it as a way to opt out of parenting his pregnant 16-year-old daughter, Angel, who has recently arrived on his doorstep.

While the terrain of Las Penas seems inhospitable at first glance, life pushes up through the fractured earth. As each member of the Padilla family battles their personal demons, hope shimmers like a mirage over everyday life, a sweet what-if that Quade expertly suspends above the text. What if parents put their daughters first? What if compassion were a two-way street? What if love were enough?

After Quade’s 2015 short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, it is a treat to see the author’s exceptional command of pacing on display in a novel. Proof that what you say is just as important as how you say it, her precise lines are wanting in neither substance nor style, and her darkly hilarious, tender, gorgeous use of language is one of the crowning pleasures of the novel.

In The Five Wounds, Quade expands a familiar biblical tale—a 33-year-old guy shoulders the pain of the world and gets crucified—into an irreverent 21st-century meditation on the restorative powers of empathy.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s novel is a knife-sharp study of what happens to a family when accountability to other people goes out the window.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. 

Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter, Jeanette, with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. 

Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own.

Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each woman’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance—or not.

Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives—perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”

In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature.

Set in the tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, Jamie Figueroa’s debut novel centers on two bereaved half siblings, Rufina and Rafa, as they navigate their palpable grief. Four months after their mother’s death, they are still reeling from her crushing loss, which Figueroa captures in vivid, evocative prose: “Grief waited at the edges, sniffing the boundaries of their bodies, waiting to be let in.” The ghost of their mother literally hovers nearby as the siblings try to reckon with her death.

Rufina, desperate to help her disconsolate brother, decides they will take to the streets to perform for white tourists. Perhaps if they make enough money over the weekend, they can move away and escape their misery.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer combines folklore with magical realism in a manner reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Along with ghosts who appear as recurring characters, the prose is cut with imagery and metaphor in rhythmic patterns, adding another otherworldly element to the story.

Figueroa addresses important issues, including depression, suicide and personal and generational loss, with nuanced insight. She also skewers the tendency of white Americans to exoticize people with darker skin, portraying the impact of this prejudice in a deeply stirring manner. A lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past, Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is an exquisitely woven story about resilience and trauma.

Ghosts hover over Jamie Figueroa’s debut, a lyrical contemplation of how we can never run away from our past.

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is a 21st-century odyssey about a Colombian family bifurcated by immigration rules. It’s an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Escaping poverty in Colombia, the family initially arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas that later expired. They remained together until the father, Mauro, was briefly imprisoned and then deported. Unable to bring infant Talia to her minimum-wage jobs, mother Elena sent the child, the youngest of three, to live with Talia’s grandmother in Bogotá. 

The story opens as Talia, now a nervy 15-year-old, breaks out of a Catholic reform school where she was sent after an impulsive, violent act. One of the novel’s multiple storylines follows Talia as she hitches rides back to Bogotá, where Mauro waits with a plane ticket to the United States, offering the possibility of a long-delayed family reunion.

Another major storyline follows Elena, who tries to make a life for herself in New Jersey with her two older children. She is mistreated by one employer in a restaurant and disrespected by another. She finally lands a job with a wealthy family, taking care of a son who forms a stronger bond with Elena than with his own mother.

Infinite Country joins a growing category of fiction about the U.S. and its attitude toward Latinx immigrants, and Engel stands out as an especially gifted storyteller who elevates this saga through the use of Andean folk tales. She also heightens our interest by shifting the novel’s perspective to Talia’s sister in New Jersey more than midway through the book, and her voice adds a new dimension to the tale.

Engel does a marvelous job of rendering these characters as individuals, each with a unique story. Mauro’s journey is illuminated by his visits to the sacred Lake Guatavita outside Bogotá, where gods of wisdom reside, and where the birds above the lake mirror the family’s mantra: “We are all migrants here on earth.”

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

“My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims,” writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. “They were subordinate and had no resources or voice. . . . My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever.”

Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was rejected by Chile’s macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel García Márquez, she’s also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today.

Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy.

Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.

 

In The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende describes the experiences that imbued her with the feminist grit and tenacity that define her today.

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