Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book review: Esmeralda Santiago’s “Conquistadora”

Conquistadora is the tale of a strong, feminist Latina living in the wrong century.

Esmeralda Santiago, best known for her 1994 memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, has written the epic story of Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a 19th century Spainard who yearns to live an adventurous life overseas after reading the journals of her ancestors who traveled to the New World three centuries earlier. At the age of 18, she convinces her husband, Ramón, and his identical twin brother, Inocente, to run a sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico.

“I don’t expect to be happy all the time,” Ana tells a friend. “I’d rather be surprised by one moment every so often to remind me that joy is possible, even if I have to pay for it later.”

Good thing she has that attitude because, over the course of two decades, Ana endures the death of loved ones, adultery, family disputes, a fatal cholera epidemic, and bad accounting practices. But Ana leads the large plantation to success, employing more than seventy-five workers – many of them slaves. At the same time, the United States is in the midst of the Civil War over its slaves. Some of Ana’s family members support abolition in Puerto Rico, and the slaves’ uprising leads to the story’s tragic conclusion.

But readers can be tested to reach the ending of this thick book. The story drags at times – especially when Santiago provides historical background that, while providing context, makes the novel seem like a history book. Still, readers will keep turning the pages because they will want to know how Ana handles the next obstacle in her way.

More on Esmeralda Santiago:

• Santiago talked about and read from her book to PBS Newshour earlier this month.

• She wrote an essay about retirement for AARP VIVA.


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Filed under 2011 Books, Book Reviews, Fiction

All about the children

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I read the Little House on the Prairie, Ramona Quimby and Judy Blume books, and hung out with Strawberry Shortcake. You can’t get any whiter than Laura Ingalls Wilder and Strawberry Shortcake.

Fortunately, the book and toy industry discovered Latinos after I grew up. Nowadays, Hispanic children have Dora and Diego. Girls can play with a ridiculously overpriced American Girl doll that looks like them. Half-Puerto Rican Carmen Lowell is a character in the popular The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares.

Unlike teenagers, children seem to have more options when it comes to books. Here’s a list of some great resources:

• The great children’s writer Pat Mora features a list of Hispanic children’s writers on her website, in addition to her own books. She created El día de los niños/El día de los libros, Children’s Day/Book Day Dia, a day devoted to Hispanic children’s books. The event, which takes place at the end of April, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.

• The prolific Gary Soto has at least a dozen children’s and young adult books listed on his website.

Pam Munoz Ryan have written books for younger students, including Esperanza Rising.

• For tweenagers, Veronica Chambers has written the Marisol and Magdelena books about two Panamanian best friends.

• Legendary Latina author Julia Alvarez has gotten into the children’s book business with her Tia Lola books, about a Dominican woman who takes care of her extended family, according to this AARP VIVA article.

• The Association for Library Service for Children rewards the Pura Belpré Award to a “Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

• Here are some good lists of children’s books from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the website Latino Stories, and Scholastic.

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Meet Screenwriter Alvaro Rodriguez

Alvaro Rodriguez is the pen behind a border-set exploitation film, a frenetic kids’ movie and a vampire western, among others.

Rodriguez co-wrote the screenplay for this year’s hit movie, Machete, as well as 2009’s Shorts, and 1999’s From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter. An avid movie buff, he is also presenting classic Mexican movies at film festivals this fall in the Rio Grande Valley, where he grew up and now lives.

Rodriguez, a University of Texas at Austin graduate, worked as a newspaper reporter before embarking on his screenwriting career. He is a cousin of Robert Rodriguez, who directed El Mariachi, Grindhouse, and Spy Kids.

Q: How has the success of Machete and other Rodriguez films helped other Hispanics? Will this encourage Hollywood to look at more Hispanic screenwriters?

A: Machete was a moderate success — it certainly created a buzz and looks to spawn a sequel or two, so that’s a positive thing. I’m hopeful that it will encourage more Latino-driven movies to be made, and frankly, they’re out there and they’re coming soon. I don’t attribute that to Machete itself, but to the time being right for more Latino-themed stories and Latino storytellers getting recognition and making films. I think you also have to acknowledge the success of the Spy Kids series of films that Robert wrote and directed as something that opened doors and made entry seem possible.

Q: What can be done to encourage more Hispanic screenwriters?

A: The most encouraging thing for young Hispanic writers and screenwriters out there right now is knowing that a market exists for their work and it is the mainstream. Look at the films we’ve had this year — everything from Lionsgate’s No Eres Tu, Soy Yo to Chris Weisz’s A Better Life, not to mention the success of shows like Modern Family. There is a market for these stories out there, and there are new voices coming to the table all the time. It’s important, too, to tell a good story. “Write what you know” isn’t physical advice but emotional — tell a story with a deeper sense of your own personality and voice.

Q: What Hispanic authors/books have inspired/influenced you?

A: I appreciate stories that are tapestries, labyrinths and sometimes seemingly simple tales that hide a deeper truth, everything from Jorge Luis Borges to Dagoberto Gilb, from Juan Rulfo to Oscar Casares. I recently read a book of bilingual short stories written by David Bowles and Angelica Maldonado, The Seed (Absey and Co, 2011), which was very rich and personal. I’m editing a book of border-set “noir” stories to be published by Valley Artistic Outreach in 2012. Also, I’m presenting a classic Mexican film from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in September at the Cinesol Film Festival and at the Museum of South Texas History in October — another rich vein of fascinating material from which to gain inspiration and insight. Hispanic writers can gain so much by looking south of the border to the art and literature of Mexico and beyond. The issues and ideas those writers and filmmakers are exploring have so many correlations to what we experience and what inspires us today.





Filed under Author Q&A, Movies

Happy Birthday, Jorge Luis Borges!

Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges was born 112 years ago today, and Google celebrates his birthday with this great doodle on its home page.

 The Guardian features an article about Borges, calling him the “master of magic realism.”

The Garden of Jorge Borges and The Garden of Forking Paths are two websites devoted to Borges – both take their name from Borges’ first book, The Garden of Forking Paths.


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Book Review: Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name”

Francisco Goldman has turned his pain into one of the most eloquent and most praised novels of the year.

Goldman writes about his young wife’s death in the book, Say Her Name. Goldman was married to Aura Estrada, a Ph.D. candidate in literature who died in a swimming accident in 2007, and he keeps their names and many real life incidents in the novel.

In the book, he describes their first meeting, their difficult families, and their lives spent in New York City and Mexico. The first hundred pages are particularly riveting and, although the subject can be heavy, Goldman’s details make the reader know the characters intimately and feel Francisco’s heartache. Many times Goldman sounds like a teenage boy who can’t believe his crush likes him back – such as this passage in the beginning of their relationship, when he calls Aura and her roommate answers the phone:

“She had a young cheerful voice that came through the phone line like a fresh breeze of spring. Aura was in the shower, she told me. She was in the shower. That phrase evoked so much – it was about six or seven on a weekday evening, normally not an hour for showering unless she was going out, most likely on a date, or whatever it is, I thought grad students call ‘dates.’ Even now it hurts to imagine her engaged in that sweet ritual for anyone other than me: coming out of the bathroom with her hair turbaned in a towel, another wrapped around her torso, choosing her dress, blow-drying her hair, putting on the dress, studying herself in the mirror, applying makeup, taking off the dress and putting on another – one that’s less pretty and sexy but that’s in a way that covers the yin-yang-faced sun-moon tattoo on her chest above her left breasted that she’s had since she was fifteen – reapplying her lip gloss with a Zen calligrapher’s perfect touch, padding around the apartment in still bare or stockinged feet, in that state of restrained excitement just before going out into the night.”

Looking back on her life, Goldman is charmed even by Aura’s annoying characteristics – such as her habit of losing or forgetting things. And his grief is so profound, he kisses a tree that he walks by every day because he imagines seeing her face on it, and he even goes out in the middle of a frigid night because he had forgotten to kiss the tree earlier that day.

Just as Goldman is haunted by his wife’s memories, readers will be haunted by his words.

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Tough crowd

School will start soon, and many Hispanic teenagers will be stuck reading about white people again.

When I taught English at a high school with a predominantly Hispanic population, I struggled to get my students to enjoy any type of book. But it was even tougher to find young adult books with Hispanic characters. Of course, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima are part of the canon. When students were looking for books for independent reading, I steered students toward Gary Soto’s novels – and then I had to recommend non-Hispanic authors.

It’s crucial to get young Hispanics to read. In 2009, 17 percent of Hispanics dropped out of high school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Hispanics had the highest dropout rate for any ethnic group, although the rate has been decreasing each year.

Here are a few good resources for finding Hispanic-oriented young adult fiction:

• Houston–based publisher Arte Publico has its own young adult section, which includes You Don’t Have a Clue: Latin Mystery Stories for Teens, a book of 18 short stories, according to AARP VIVA.

• The American Library Association lists several Hispanic-themed books in its 2010 Best Books for Young Adults, including David Hernandez’s No More Us for You and Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here.

• The Austin Public Library’s Connected Youth website features a great list of Hispanic-oriented books for young adults.

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All in the name

A few years ago, I read three books for one selfish reason – the characters had the same last name as me.

My last name, DeLeon, isn’t common, so it was exciting to see my name in print. The first of these books, Rick Riordan’s 2006 Mission Road, featured a character named Ana DeLeon who was tangled up in the investigation of an unsolved murder. Mission Road, unlike Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, isn’t particularly memorable, but the other two DeLeon books are awesome.

The most famous of these books is Junot Diaz’s 2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The lead character, Oscar DeLeon, is a misfit whose Dominican-American family suffers a curse brought on by a former dictator from their homeland. This funny book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with Diaz becoming the second Hispanic to receive that honor.

But my personal favorite DeLeon character comes from Stewart O’Nan’s 2008 Last Night at the Lobster, which depicts Manny DeLeon’s last day on the job as manager of a New England Red Lobster on a snowy day. DeLeon is just an ordinary guy living an ordinary life, but his sense of decency makes him one of those characters that you wish you had as a friend. I’m proud to share the same last name as him.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classic Books, Fiction

Welcome to The Hispanic Reader

Hispanics are frequently seen on popular TV shows and movies – but hardly on the pages of best-selling novels.

Sure, bookstores will devote some space to Hispanic writers. But you don’t see them as characters in mainstream fiction, even though Hispanics account for nearly 16 percent of the United States population and are one of the country’s fastest-growing ethnic groups, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Because I’m a nerd, I write down the books I read. When I look back at my list of books I’ve read in recent years, I found only a handful of books featuring Hispanic characters – the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; Rick Riordan’s thriller, Mission Road; and the wonderful Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan – and those books’ main characters shared the same last name as me (which will be the topic of an upcoming post).

People of color are often absent from mainstream books. When I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, I was happily surprised to see that the main character was of Indian descent, not the same old white girl that occupies many novels.

I want to see more Hispanic characters.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m working on a novel featuring a Hispanic woman in the lead role. I still have a lot of work to do before I finish that book, so I created this blog about Hispanic literature. I’ll be reviewing classic and mainstream books with Hispanic characters; spotlighting Hispanic writers; and analyzing the role of Hispanics in literature. Join me.

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