Friday, June 28, 2024

Looking Forward - Hot Books For Summer

Just when you thought you were all caught up in your reading -- here comes another list of new, highly anticipated books scheduled for late summer release dates. ¡Ándale! 

And don't forget the book launch event for Ramas y Raíces:  The Best of CALMA.  The anthology from the Colorado Alliance of Latino Mentors and Authors (CALMA) is set for June 29, 2:00 PM at 1390 Brentwood in Lakewood, CO.  Several contributors will read from their contributions.  See you there. 

The anthology editor is La Bloga's pal Mario Acevedo.  The book's Forward comes from the mighty pen of La Bloga's Ernest Hogan.


Désirée Zamorano
Rize - September 9

[from the publisher]
Manuel Galvan is separated from his parents and sister during the mass expulsion of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the 1930s. He grows from a small, lost and confused boy into a wandering and angry teenager pushed out of high school and into the dockyards. Later as a loyal, passionate husband he is a man searching for a life of value and dignity despite his losses. Set against the backdrop of (Mexican) American history in Los Angeles, forced deportations, the demolition of Chavez Ravine, sterilization of Latinas, student protests and rising political consciousness, this story spans his life, from 6 to 60, and his search for his missing family, the missing pieces of his life.


Gabino Iglesias
Mulholland Books - August 6

[from the publisher]
For childhood friends Gabe, Xavier, Tavo, Paul, and Bimbo, death has always been close. Hurricanes. Car accidents. Gang violence. Suicide. Estamos rodeados de fantasmas was Gabe’s grandmother’s refrain. We are surrounded by ghosts. But this time is different. Bimbo's mom has been shot dead. We’re gonna kill the guys who killed her Bimbo swears. And they all agree.

Feral with grief, Bimbo has become unrecognizable, taking no prisoners in his search for names. Soon, they learn Maria was gunned down by guys working for the drug kingpin of Puerto Rico. No one has ever gone up against him and survived. As the boys strategize, a storm gathers far from the coast. Hurricanes are known to carry evil spirits in their currents and bring them ashore, spirits which impose their own order.

Blurring the boundaries between myth, mysticism, and the grim realities of our world, House of Bone and Rain is a harrowing coming of age story; a doomed tale of devotion, the afterlife of violence, and what rolls in on the tide.


Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey - August 6

[from the publisher]
1950s Hollywood: Every actress wants to play Salome, the star-making role in a big-budget movie about the legendary woman whose story has inspired artists since ancient times.

So when the film’s mercurial director casts Vera Larios, an unknown Mexican ingenue, in the lead role, she quickly becomes the talk of the town. Vera also becomes an object of envy for Nancy Hartley, a bit player whose career has stalled and who will do anything to win the fame she believes she richly deserves.

Two actresses, both determined to make it to the top in Golden Age Hollywood—a city overflowing with gossip, scandal, and intrigue—make for a sizzling combination.

But this is the tale of three women, for it is also the story of the princess Salome herself, consumed with desire for the fiery prophet who foretells the doom of her stepfather, Herod: a woman torn between the decree of duty and the yearning of her heart.

Before the curtain comes down, there will be tears and tragedy aplenty in this sexy Technicolor saga.


There Is a Rio Grande in Heaven: Stories
Ruben Reyes Jr
Mariner Books - August 6

[from the publisher]
An ordinary man wakes one morning to discover he’s a famous reggaetón star. An aging abuela slowly morphs into a marionette puppet. A struggling academic discovers the horrifying cost of becoming a Self-Made Man.

In There Is a Rio Grande in Heaven, Ruben Reyes Jr. conjures strange dreamlike worlds to explore what we would do if we woke up one morning and our lives were unrecognizable. Boundaries between the past, present, and future are blurred. Menacing technology and unchecked bureaucracy cut through everyday life with uncanny dread. The characters, from mango farmers to popstars to ex-guerilla fighters to cyborgs, are forced to make uncomfortable choices—choices that not only mean life or death but might also allow them to be heard in a world set on silencing the voices of Central Americans.

Blazing with heart, humor, and inimitable style, There Is a Rio Grande in Heaven subverts everything we think we know about migration and its consequences, capturing what it means to take up a new life—whether willfully or forced—with piercing and brilliant clarity. A gifted new storyteller and trailblazing stylist, Reyes not only transports to other worlds but alerts us to the heartache and injustice of our own.


Alejandro Puyana
Little, Brown, and Company - August 20

[from the publisher]
In 1964, Stanislavo, a zealous young man devoted to his ideals, turns his back on his privilege to join the leftist movement in the jungles of Venezuela. There, as he trains, he meets Emiliana, a nurse and fellow revolutionary. Though their intense connection seems to be love at first sight, their romance is upended by a decision with consequences that will echo down through the generations.

Forty years later, the country’s political landscape has drastically changed, as have the trajectories that Stanislavo and Emiliana followed in the intervening decades. When a young boy is accidentally shot on the eve of the attempted coup against President Chávez, Stanislavo’s chance encounter with the boy’s mother forces a reckoning with past missteps and the ways his actions have reverberated into the present.

With its epic scope, gripping narrative, and unflinching intimacy, Freedom Is a Feast announces a major new talent. Alejandro Puyana has delivered an extraordinarily wise and moving debut about sticking to one’s beliefs at the expense of pain and chaos, about the way others can suffer for our misdeeds even when we have the best of intentions, and about the possibility for redemption when love persists across time.


Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. Read his latest story, Northside Nocturne, in the award-winning anthology Denver Noir, edited by Cynthia Swanson, published by Akashic Books.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Chicanonautica: Hanging with Alienígenas Americanos

by Ernest Hogan

It glowed on the library shelf. Another volume to help me practice my Spanish. And amuse me.

Alienígenas Americanos: La Historia Extraterrestre de Nuestro Continente by Juan Salfate and Francisco Ortega. Looked like it would be a fun way to practice my Spanish.

Also, I actually had what J. Allen Hynek called a close encounter of the first kind,  saw lights in the night sky, a UFO over the Superstition Mountains–emphasis on unidentified. I have no idea what that chingadera was. Local tribes say they are sorcerers. Flying sorcerers. Hmm . . .

Besides, I found in the past that UFO lit from the Hispanophonic world is a special kind of strange, full of things that are out of bounds to the puritanical Anglo-Saxon imagination.

I was not disappointed.

The authors–Ortega writes novels and graphic novels as well as “ufologicals,” and Salfate is a film critic\TV presenter–see the whole UFO/paranormal (how they have overlapped over the years!) subject as folklore, so it’s not a lot of paranoid conspiracy theory crap.

It turns out to be an excellent guide to reportage of the UFO phenomenon from mostly South America, though some of the material is from the North American continent up to the U.S./Mexico border, but then why should UFOs have a respect for the way we divide up this planet?

And to my delight and surprise, there were things I hadn’t run across in my lifetime of wallowing in the weird.

The stories go back to before Columbus brought those aliens over on his unidentified floating objects. They link to the local mythologies, and folklore, from the Virgin of Guadalupe to el Chupababra. They find pre-1990s precedents when I had thought that the Chupa was the result of Spanish language networks going intercontinental via satellites.

Made me rethink my preconceptions. Always a good thing.

There are also South American Roswells and encounters with military aircraft, with political implications, but the don’t get into QAnon territory.

The accounts are kept short, so there’s no obsessing over minutiae.

Of course, Erich Von Daniken and J.J. Benitez are cited, and there’s a detailed bibliography.

And there’s art, on the cover and inside, by Dadlov Maslov that keeps it fun.

There’s nothing worse than one of those books where the author is sure they’ve found the absolute truth and you’re doomed if you don’t believe it: “ THIS IS THE TRUUUUTH! YOU HAVE TO BELIEEEEVE IT!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an English translation someday.

Meanwhile, keep watching the skies, cabrones!

Ernest Hogan, the Father of Chicano Science Fiction, will be teaching his “Gonzo Science Fiction, Chicano Style” class again at the 2024 Fall Somos en escrito Writing Workshop

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

2024 Pura Belpré Celebración

Sunday, June 30, 2024 

1:00 PM - 3:30 PM PT

Hilton Bayfront Hotel

Indigo Ballroom BF

San Diego, CA

Pura Belpré Awards honoring Latinx writers and illustrators whose children's and young adult books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience:

“Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir,” illustrated by Pedro Martín, is the 2024 Pura Belpré Youth Illustration Award winner. The book was written by Pedro Martín and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Three Belpré Youth Illustration Honor Books were named: 

“Mi papá es un agrícola/My Father, the Farmworker,” illustrated by José B. Ramírez, written by J. Roman Pérez Varela and published by Lil’ Libros.

“Papá's Magical Water-Jug Clock,” illustrated by Eliza Kinkz, written by Jesús Trejo and published by Minerva, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers, a division of Astra Publishing House.

“Remembering,” illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia, written by Xelena González and published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.


“Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir,” written by Pedro Martín, is the 2024 Pura Belpré Children’s Author Award winner. The book is illustrated by Pedro Martín and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.


Five Belpré Children’s Author Honor Books were named: 

“Alebrijes,” written by Donna Barba Higuera and published by Levine Querido.

“Aniana del Mar Jumps In,” written by Jasminne Mendez and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

“Benita y las Criaturas Nocturnas,” written by Mariana Llanos, illustrated by Cocoretto and published by Barefoot Books.

“Papá's Magical Water-Jug Clock,” written by Jesús Trejo, illustrated by Eliza Kinkz and published by Minerva, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers, a division of Astra Publishing House.

“Something Like Home,” written by Andrea Beatriz Arango and published by Random House Children's Books, a division of Penguin Random House.


“Saints of the Household,” written by Ari Tison, is the 2024 Pura Belpré Young Adult Author Award winner. The book is published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group.


Two Belpré Young Adult Author Honor Book were named: 

“The Prince and the Coyote,” written by David Bowles, illustrated by Amanda Mijangos and published by Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Levine Querido.

“Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey,” written and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez and published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Co.


Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Poetry & Plática From Immigrant Hearts: Redux in Burbank

The Buena Vista Branch Library occupies a beauteous parkland near beautiful downtown Burbank. The library's spacious community room hosts the four-poet panel, "Writing from Our Immigrant Hearts." Tonight's discussion and reading has come to Burbank as part of the library's One Book, One County program.

Discussion leader, Dr. Thelma T. Reyna tells me, in advance of the program, tonight's audience is an unknown. Discussions with the library didn't get into the "who comes to these events", so the poets will be flexible and respond to conditions.
Discussion host Dr. Thelma T. Reyna

Responsible to their art and the panel, all have arrived early. This gives opportunity to go through the agenda and any last-minute adaptations.
There are quite a number of Burbankers floating into the room to share the poets' stories. None a typical or stereotypical immigrant, each will relate to listeners the poet's origin story, why their destiny carries them to the west coast of the United States from birthplaces in Italy, Spain, and Vietnam.
Kyle Moreno, Reader Engagement Librarian welcomes his guests. He's proud of the excellent facility. The amplification system has powerful loudspeakers and the panel and Q&A will share two microphones. The technology works as intended.

Thelma Reyna manages the panel around a pair of questions:
•Tell us about your homeland,  culture,  and circumstances surrounding your decision to emigrate to the US.
•Describe your overall experiences as an American,  hopes, dreams, and goals.
The questions kick off a discussion of biographical facts seasoned with personal disclosure that compares the poets' "here" with their "there" lives and longings, dreams and careers.

Immigrants, indeed. Foreigners, not at all. 

Toti O'Brien

Toti O'Brien


Venus rose from the sea, they said. Of course, naked. 

Long, curled hair, echoing the rippling of waves. 

Perhaps, she had a mermaid tail (mythologies melt). 

Like the Lady of Guadalupe, she stood on a crescent 

(hers was abalone). Like that Mary, she niched in a 

sort of vulva lined with mother of pearl, and was 

haloed by cool layers of blue. 


Athena rose dressed from the head (the brain) of her 

father, Jupiter, king of gods. Dressed means with spear, 

shield, armor—and clothes, underneath. Shoes were 

on her feet. She looks marble in sculptures, but she 

was splattered in blood, at least from the ax blow 

that split open her father’s skull. She did not wash. 

No need. She was bound to war. 


When she stepped out of the mess of gray matter, 

she marched on. She didn’t turn back, oblivious 

already of the place she had come from. Soon 

she was on horseback, and they called her Joan 

the Maid. She donned a red tunic under the chain 

mail, waved a red flag, her mount was harnessed 

red—all preluding to her firing farewell. 


She was seen afterwards, still in scarlet tunic, 

playing Malinche. She spoke many tongues, and 

too well. She went on, always marching westward

like a sun vainly looking for its resting place, 

fated to constantly resurrect. They say she never 

met her half-sister, the azure goddess, 

or the pious mother of Christ. 


She was not invited to family parties. Fairies missed 

her baptism. No aunt demonstrated how to make 

apple pie. She knew not the flavor of milk. At night, 

she drank straight from the bottle as she leaned against 

the iron rail of some bridge, listening to the roar of 

water smashing on stone, catching (out of the corner 

of her wide open eye) a meteor falling. 

Toti O'Brien 


They kept her for long hours

standing on a small chair 

so her eyes would be level 

with theirs, pupil into pupil. 

They asked her all the questions 

for which she had no replies

secrets you never told her. 

“No,” she murmured, “no,” 

meekly enduring the torture. 

But later she had her fill. 

Briskly, she grabbed her skirt 

at the edges, both sides. She 

held it up and started her mad 

zapateo. The skirt swell

became large like a tent 

under which four campesinos

could hide from the farmer,

though it was never worn 

in a field. Four boys on the run 

could abide, quietly breathing 

the damp warmth of no secrets. 

Skirt of heaven and hell.

Matrix of all secrets.

Toti O'Brien


So they asked Joan of Arc

why always your thighs? 

They allow, she replied 

the longest consecutive lines. 

There would be my back

it is true. But the story, then

should be written by somebody 

else. My thighs are at hand.

Why the inside? The surface 

is softer, a bit easier to carve. 

And they open and close 

like a notebook. 


Teresa Mei Chuc

Teresa Mei Chuc
Deep in a forest
in the Northernmost
part of Vietnam,
in a Vietcong 
reeducation camp,
my father watched
to see if the
chili peppers
would spin
in the clear water.
If the peppers
were still,
then the water
was not poisonous.
Father said
the best way
to get water
was to cut
a bamboo tree
or a banana
with a knife.
The water
in the heart
is pure.

Teresa Mei Chuc
Praying at the Cemetery on Con Son Island
Endless gravestones 
a yellow star on each stone
lights the night 
I try not to breathe in spirits 
but I breathe in 
the smoke of incense. 
A bat flutters by
A green grasshopper lands by my foot
Someone is saying hello
Perhaps it is a girl who died in a Tiger Cage
There are not enough
incense sticks for all
of the graves on Con Son Island.

Alicia Viguer-Espert

Alicia Viguer-Espert
Al Viejo Algarrobo
          que llamábamos “el árbol curvado.”   

Como entonces,
entra en mis ojos, luz,
alúmbrame el sendero de regreso a mi hogar, 
señálame el viejo algarrobo con tus dedos luminosos,

el vasto universo de su fronda,
los matices de sus nacientes hojas ebrias de clorofila, 
y las oscuras veteranas ya endurecidas.
Enséñame el camino labrado 
con rojo violento de amapolas y cantos de ruiseñores, 
como entonces.

Para encontrarte, árbol curvado, 
enfocaré mi mirada melancólica 
en el místico entorno de estos campos abandonados.           

Sé que mañana 
cuando el anciano guitarrista del viento taña 
el instrumento musical de tus ramas 
oleré tu fragancia de especies, la dulce nana del monte de mi infancia.

Luz, vuelve a mis ojos desde la distancia del tiempo, 
únete a mí, desnuda las sombras,
que el aroma de mi viejo algarrobo me guiará al centro de mi hogar, 
como entonces.

Alicia Viguer-Espert
To The Old Carob Tree
   we climbed as children

Like then,
enter my eyes, oh light!
illuminate the path to return home,
point at the old carob tree with your luminous fingers,

the vast universe of its foliage,
the shades of its ancient leaves drunk with chlorophyl
and the darker veteran ones already harden.
Show me the road embroidered
with violent reds from poppies, nightingales’ songs,
like then.
To find you, carob tree
I’ll focus my melancholic gaze
on the mystic milieu of these abandoned fields. 

I know that tomorrow
when the ancient guitar player of the wind strings
the musical instrument of your branches,
I will inhale your spicy fragrance, the sweet lullaby of my childhood mountains. 

Light, return to my eyes from distance and time,
join me, undress the shadows,
let the aroma from my old carob tree guide me to my home’s center,
like then.

Alicia Viguer-Espert
Nocturnal Fear

I listen to the smooth rowing of his breath
From one shore to the other side of dreams,
Consciousness, a gently rhythm of sloshing 
Water fills the bedroom like music.

I panic when it deviates its course
The length of a median size rock. 
I fear the boat not reaching its destination,
Getting stucked in the middle of the river, 
Currents frozen, wind paralyzed in midair, 
A suspended cloud adrift from her sisters, 
Gone, dissolved into nothingness. 

He’s not aware, of course, of my anxiety,
My watchful eye scanning the surrounding
Darkness, my attuned ear bent like a leaf
In the direction of his green center.

I cross my hand over his heart, 
Let it rest until I feel a movement, 
The soft vibration of the soul
Inhabiting his chest. 

The poets read selections of their work, giving the audience a wondrous listening experience to the sounds of bilingual writers expressing thoughts and experiences particular to the writer but understanding and shared, in ways, with the audience.

A lively Q&A follows the readings, then an outstanding element of tonight's audience takes place.
When a writer has occasion to read to audiences, the writer's goals include selling books. If at a bookstore or festival, an effective presentation helps the bookstore's sales. The Burbank library set up a table display of tonight's artists' chapbooks. It is encouraging that people attended tonight not only to listen but to buy books.

Number of books schlepped back home is not an exact index of a succesful reading but it's a sign of an effective presentation of self and writing when buyers line up three deep for a chance at the table.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Poetry Connection: Creating Community Through Poetry and Typewriters

Melinda Palacio, Santa Barbara Poet Laureate 

Fourteen poets gathered on State Street for First Thursday on June 6 to type free poems, composed on the spot, on any subject, for anyone. Thanks to Simon Kieffer who provided typewriters and tables, we were able to make this month’s event even bigger than last September, when we only had five poets on five vintage typewriters. It was wonderful collaborating with Simon to bring poems to so many people. We had poets who could write poems in Spanish, English, and German. At least those are the languages that people requested. I know we had poets who could also write in French and Russian at our typewriter poetry extravaganza. 


Typewriter on-demand poetry has become a cherished event for all the poets involved. I love how the event keeps growing as more local poets have expressed an interest in participating. The first hour is always slow. At 5pm, people are still getting off of work and First Thursday Early Birds are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on with the long tables and people seated in front of a typewriter. Some folks are still a little bashful once they figure out that we are offering them a free poem. There is no gimmick, the poems are free and you do not have to provide your email or phone number or offer a tip. In fact, in consideration of the city’s panhandling ordinance, it’s best if you expressed your gratitude with a smile. However, we were not panhandling, but offering a free service with no requirements or expectations for compensation. Kindness in the form of a free poem. 


In addition to free poems, we offered entertainment, thanks to Mark Zolezzi and Jesse Felix of the Gruntled. Mark on vocals did a great job of using his microphone to explain about the free poem business. My typewriter had a meltdown and the ribbon was completely destroyed. Although we had one typewriter down, I had planned to take a break to take in the scene and capture some photos and to play some music. Mark and Jesse were kind enough to let me use their set up and play some songs on my ukulele. I ended my short set with one of my original songs, “Letter to Time,” that I often play on guitar. Our poets enjoyed hearing The Gruntled over our clacking of keys. I was sad to learn that it was The Gruntled’s last performance. Jesse Felix is moving to New Mexico. Santa Barbara loses another creative and kind human. My selfish wish is that he will be in town visiting when we have our next typewriter on-demand event. 


By six o’clock, once people figure out they can receive a poem for free, is when I wish we had enlisted more poets and brought more typewriters. Some of our poets were overwhelmed with orders. Next time, I will make sure to brief each poet and let them know not to start more than one poem at a time. However, I understand the instinct not to turn anyone away. At any given moment there were six to seven poets available to type. 


Poets had the opportunity to get to know someone outside their regular circles. We meet people out on the town with their family, friends, and pets. There’s something so gratifying and spiritually rewarding about providing poems for free to a stranger. I especially enjoyed learning people’s stories. The human connection and interaction is always my favorite part of typewriter poetry. I have no doubt that in our next iteration, the event will be even bigger. Look for another typewriter extravaganza this year. 


*An earlier version of this column was published in the Santa Barbara Independent

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Friends in Cuba




On the steps of the capitolio, Cuba's National Palace

  Juneteenth? President Joe Biden made it a national holiday in 2021. I didn’t think many Americans knew about Juneteenth. I taught a community college course in ethnic literature before I retired in 2016, and I knew nothing about it. Had it been another American secret?

     Lincoln abolished slavery in 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery continued. Even after the Civil War, two years later, in 1865, Americans continued the heinous practice of owning other human beings. Imagine, northern armies riding around the South telling slaves they were free. After 200 years of bondage, where did they go? What did they do? What did they even think? You’d think newspapers, telegrams, and messengers could have announced it sooner than men riding around on horseback, or just, maybe, nobody was in a hurry to really end the slave trade in the U.S. Free labor! That’s a big deal in a capitalist country.

     Way out west, Anglo Texans held on to their slaves, even after suffering a massacre at the Alamo in 1836, a battle with Mexico's forces, that was as much about legalizing slavery in the Lone Star Republic as it was about independence, which Texas received in 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Yet, it still wasn't until months after Congress outlawed slavery with authorization of the 13th Amendment, Texas, probably, and this is just an educated guess, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, too, had to set their slaves free, on June 19th, two years after Lincoln had outlawed slavery.

     On June 19th, 1865, the U.S. Army rode into Texas to enforce the law: “No more slavery anywhere in the country. The end of free labor,” but, over the years, where were the celebrations, the music, the fireworks? 

     In Europe, the European Union and NATO celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the U.S., when the end of slavery rolls around, whether 1863 or 1865... crickets. Here, today, some politicians are trying to get teachers to stop teaching slavery or anything too sensitive, like Jim Crow, Indians on reservations, the U.S. invading Mexico, killing, pillaging, and taking the Southwest by force, or incarcerating Japanese in detention camps, afraid of offending children. 

     So, I thought, as I prepared to write today’s La Bloga post, how does this day, Juneteenth, affect me, or any Americans in 2024? We should be proud, a time to celebrate. The U.S. did the right thing. African Americans hold their own celebrations, usually small community affairs but nothing on a national or state level, as if the holiday is an embarrassment rather than s source of pride.

     With me, I guess, it’s about people, friends I’ve made over the years, of all ethnicities, just people, "everyday people," as Sly Stone sings, friends and neighbors, who share a common history, and a human bond, something beautiful, even if it is, sometimes, uncomfortable. All this reminds me of a trip I wrote about recently in La Bloga, an eye-opener of a trip, in so many ways, not just visiting a foreign country, but getting a sense of our history, making new friends, of all colors and creeds.

     It was August 2001. They told us our trip was the first commercial flight from Los Angeles to Havana since 1961, history-making. Cuba, Hispanola, the first populated island the Spaniards visited in the Americas, way back in the 1500s, and the beginning of the slave trade, first with the Taino Indians then with Africans, today, proud Cubans. 

     Tom, who sat next to me, was co-owner of an African American bookstore in Los Angeles. He said, “Man, I wish I could speak Spanish. I took classes in school but never learned anything.” He said it more to himself than to me. I gave him a few tips, like how to say, “Thank you,” “Hello,” and order coffee, that kind of thing.

      My friend, Benny Blaydes, a beloved counselor among students, where I taught at Santa Monica College, invited me to join him and his friends, all African Americans from Los Angeles, teachers, counselors, and a librarian. I was the sole Mexican. They said, “An honorary soul brother,” and the only one in our group who could speak Spanish.

     As educators traveling to Cuba, we promised the U.S. Treasury Department, which, for some reason, supervised travel to Cuba, to attend all functions Cuba Travel Service placed on our itinerary.

     Once in Havana, settled into our modern hotel, we received an orientation on Cuban culture, mostly question-and-answers, conducted by a young female professor from the University of Havana. After, the professor turned us over to a tour guide who took us through the city and pointed out important sites, walking us through Havana Vieja and ending up at the Museum of the Revolution, where we learned something about Cuba's history, its people, and the ingenious ways the U.S. government tried getting rid of Fidel Castro over the years, even an exploding cigar. The tour guide offered, "Yes, we are poor. The embargo has hurt us, so we live in a state of siege, a state of war, always prepared for an invasion."

     We understood what he meant when we noticed the empty shelves in many stores. Tom and I buddied up. We decided to explore the city together. We didn’t know if we should wait for an official escort or armed guards. We’d been so brainwashed by our media about life on the island. The tour guide told us we were free to roam. I asked, “Any place?” He answered, as if I was joking, “Of course.”

     So, we did, searching each neighborhood, surprised by new ways of seeing Cuba, kids playing with home-made toys, like we did back in the 1950s, making skateboards out of 2x4’s and old skates. Kids playing marbles. Young girls in colorful, frilly dresses, going to some celebration, maybe a birthday party. Men singing and playing guitars on park benches. Others arguing, in groups, debating something or other. Still, it wasn't just the pounding heat but the grinding poverty, the dust, and the decaying buildings that stifled the soul. Yet, the people persisted.

     The two of us, Tom and I, Americans, one black and one Mexican, adjusting, little by little, to the culture shock, especially the big one, the one Cuba-watchers in the states don’t mention, so many African Cubans in Havana, of all shades. For Tom, Cuba was disconcerting, a world of Spanish-speaking Africans.

     I told Tom it reminded me of 1966, when I arrived in Vietnam, a group of Puerto Rican soldiers was walking past, one, an Afro-Rican, said something to his friends in Spanish. A white soldier standing next to me, with a heavy Southern accent, murmured, “I’ll be got-damned, a Spanish-speaking….” You can fill in the blank. Was our America that segregated? Tom said, “Believe it or not. That’s how I feel, sort of out of place.”

     "Weird, man," I said, listening to the sounds of Spanish, and the laughter, Latino laughter, something I recognized. "I feel right at home."

     On the flight over, Tom and I had talked, like old friends, wondering about Cuba, a mystery to Americans, many who thought they knew more about the place than they really did, just like with Vietnam, so many fabricated stories leading to so many unnecessary deaths. In the states, we’d been fed fantastic news stories, Cubans slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Cubans during and after the revolution. Oh, I'm sure it had been ugly, Cuba's retribution on the dictator and his followers, it's lack of tolerance for those loyal to the government who questioned its new socialist policies.

     However, a library search showed Cuba’s executions after the war, though tragic, much less than say, executions in U.S. backed dictatorships, like Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other revolutions around the world. Though, some might argue, so secretive are governments, no one can know the true numbers.

    Then there was the Elian Gonzalez affair. Who knew what to believe? Was Elian saved from communism by his mother who brought him to the U.S.? Or had Elian been kidnapped from his father who claimed to know nothing of the mother's actions? He wanted Elian back, or was he being manipulated by the government? It didn’t help Elian, when photos emerged in Miami newspaper covers, of him decked out with new flashy gym clothes and gold chains around his neck. 

     On the other side, in Cuba, we heard, Elian was back on the island, happily studying in a private school, surrounded by friends, his father working at his job as a service-worker, in Cuba a better job than even doctors and lawyers. Service workers, we were told, earned tips. What to believe? What was real? What was propaganda?

     Tom knew I taught ethnic and Chicano literature. On the flight over, he wanted to know what I thought about Cuba, like what we’d find, once we arrived, the kind of people we’d meet? I said I thought it would be like Belize, Guatemala, or Venezuela, a mix of Euro-Hispanos, mestizos, mulattos, and Africans.

     Once on the ground, closer than a bird’s eye view, we saw so many more Afro-Cubans than Hispano-Cubans. Tom wondered if Castro had led a racial rebellion rather than a socio-political rebellion. Or did he, like so many other leaders, use Hispano-Africans to help win his cause? 

     Tom saw it as something of a homecoming, so many Africans in one city, except, of course, for the Latino culture, the language, food, music, religion, and just about everything else, which was “Latinized.” We discussed how strange it all was, thinking of Havana as not even a Watts, more like a “black” East L.A in the Caribbean.

     We stopped for mojitoas at different bars along the way, musicians, the Afro-influence clear in the music, welcoming us inside, song and dance everywhere, more than in any other Latin American country I’d visited, or have visited since. On our way to the capitolio, Havana’s capitol, modeled, ironically, after the U.S. capitol in D.C., we walked across a main plaza, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis (1628), where the basilica of St. Francis (1548) is located. The hip, younger generation of Cubans, including a few, not so subtle, ladies of the night, have given the old plaza a modern feel, hip-hop echoing out of tape decks.

     In the corner, I saw a man standing in front of a small newsstand. I wanted a copy of Cuba’s party newspaper Granma. Tom followed me. The man, in his 70s, maybe 80s, ebony skin, a black-Cuban, smiled as we approached.

     I asked the man for a newspaper, and immediately, in a machine gun laden Spanish, he started asking me questions, about myself, where I came from, where I learned Spanish, about Mexico and my Mexican ancestors, about how long I’d be staying, where we’d be visiting, etc. etc.? I confess, I missed some of his words, as he swallowed the last syllables, something like a Spaniard from Andalucia.

     Like an uncle, the man called me, “Hijo,” and the more we talked, he switched to, “Mijo.” Tom got excited. He wanted me to translate. I tried. The old man was respectful of Tom, but he’d made a connection with me. His eyes gleamed as we talked.

     Funny thing, language, and culture. They get to the heart of things. If there was a color between the man and me, it quickly faded. We were two people, sharing a common culture, like a spiritual exchange. He could have been a relative, not Tom’s but mine. The affectionate term rang in my head, his shaky voice, “Ay, si, hijo/”

     He asked me to return another day. He looked sad when I told him I’d try but couldn’t promise anything. As we walked away, Tom said, “Man, that was something. I wish I could understand.”

     “Tom, you’re black, and I’m ‘white,’ Mexican. That old man is black, an African Cuban. It’s weird, right. Which of us do you think has a closer connection to him, you or I?”

     Tom thought about it. “I know what you mean. Man, I’d have to say that you and that old man are closer, like brothers, just something about the way you two talked. I could feel it.”

     “Yeah, that’s what I think, too. Strange, right, in some ways, how skin color doesn’t even matter.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

2024 Américas Book Award Winners

The Américas Award is given in recognition of U.S. works of fiction, poetry, folklore, or selected non-fiction (from picture books to works for young adults) published in the previous year in English or Spanish that authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean or Latinos in the United States. By combining both and linking the Americas, the award reaches beyond geographic borders, as well as multicultural boundaries, focusing instead upon cultural heritages within the hemisphere. The award is sponsored by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP).

2024 Américas Award Winners

Saints of the Household 
By Ari Tison 

Max and Jay have always depended on one another for their survival. Growing up with a physically abusive father, the two Bribri American brothers have learned that the only way to protect themselves and their mother is to stick to a schedule and keep their heads down.

But when they hear a classmate in trouble in the woods, instinct takes over and they intervene, breaking up a fight and beating their high school's star soccer player to a pulp. This act of violence threatens the brothers' dreams for the future and their beliefs about who they are. As the true details of that fateful afternoon unfold over the course of the novel, Max and Jay grapple with the weight of their actions, their shifting relationship as brothers, and the realization that they may be more like their father than they thought. They'll have to reach back to their Bribri roots to find their way forward.

Told in alternating points of view using vignettes and poems, debut author Ari Tison crafts an emotional, slow-burning drama about brotherhood, abuse, recovery, and doing the right thing.

By Pedro Martín 

Pedro Martín has grown up hearing stories about his abuelito—his legendary crime-fighting, grandfather who was once a part of the Mexican Revolution! But that doesn't mean Pedro is excited at the news that Abuelito is coming to live with their family. After all, Pedro has 8 brothers and sisters and the house is crowded enough! Still, Pedro piles into the Winnebago with his family for a road trip to Mexico to bring Abuelito home, and what follows is the trip of a lifetime, one filled with laughs and heartache. Along the way, Pedro finally connects with his abuelito and learns what it means to grow up and find his grito.

2024 Américas Award Honorable Mention Titles

Brighter Than the Sun 
by Daniel Aleman

Every morning, sixteen-year-old Sol wakes up at the break of dawn in her hometown of Tijuana, Mexico and makes the trip across the border to go to school in the United States. Though the commute is exhausting, this is the best way to achieve her dream: becoming the first person in her family to go to college.
When her family’s restaurant starts struggling, Sol must find a part-time job in San Diego to help her dad put food on the table and pay the bills. But her complicated school and work schedules on the US side of the border mean moving in with her best friend and leaving her family behind. 

With her life divided by an international border, Sol must come to terms with the loneliness she hides, the pressure she feels to succeed for her family, and the fact that the future she once dreamt of is starting to seem unattainable. Mostly, she’ll have to grapple with a secret she’s kept even from herself: that maybe she’s relieved to have escaped her difficult home life, and a part of her may never want to return.

Spanish Is the Language of My Family 
By Michael Genhart. Illustrated by John Parra 

As a boy prepares for his school’s Spanish spelling bee, he asks his grandmother for help with some of the words he doesn’t know how to spell yet. When she studies with him, she tells him how different things were back when she was a girl, when she was only allowed to speak English in school. This only inspires him to study even harder and make his family proud.

Based on stories author Michael Genhart heard from his mother as a child, Spanish is the Language of My Family is about the joy of sharing cultural heritage with our families, inspired by the generations of Latino people were punished for speaking Spanish and the many ways new generations are rejuvenating the language.

Simultaneously published in Spanish as El español es la lengua de mi familia, Michael Genhart’s text is as touching as it is poignant, and it’s paired with the striking artwork of multiple Pura Belpre Award-Winning Illustrator John Parra. Extensive material at the back of the book includes essays from the author about the history of Spanish suppression in U.S. schools and information about the Spanish alphabet.

Hispanic Star: Sylvia Rivera 
By Claudia Romo Edelman and  J. Gia Loving. Illustrated by Cheyne Gallarde.

Meet Stonewall uprising veteran Sylvia Rivera―once just a kid from New York City. A transgender Latina, Sylvia became an influential gay liberation and transgender rights activist who fought especially for transgender people of color. In the 1970s, Sylvia and Marsha P. Johnson founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group devoted to providing services and advocacy for homeless LGBTQ+ people. Nearly two decades after her passing, Sylvia and her legacy continue to have an impact on the LGBTQ+ rights movement and remain an inspiration for marginalized queer people everywhere.

Hispanic Star proudly celebrates Hispanic and Latinx heroes who have made remarkable contributions to American culture and have been undeniable forces in shaping its future. If you can see it, you can be it.

9 Kilometers 
By Claudio Aguilera. Illustrated by Gabriela Lyon. Translated by Lawrence Schimel.

The sky is still dark when a young boy leaves home for school. He has a long path ahead: nine kilometers—over five-and-a-half miles—through the mountains and rain forests of Chile. But the boy doesn’t mind. While he walks, he can count butterflies and lizards, and he can think about where the 15,000 steps he takes every morning could lead. Nine kilometers could bring the boy across ninety soccer fields, up the world’s ten largest buildings, or into a classroom at last…

Set against the lush backdrop of southern Chile, this book features one of the many children around the world who travel long distances in order to go to school. After the story, thoughtfully illustrated back matter explores the unique birds of Chile and the courage of similar students’ journeys in other countries. Striking and timely, 9 Kilometers will open lasting conversations about social inequalities, the value of learning, and the resilience of those who push past obstacles toward a better future.