Monthly Archives: October 2011

Celebrating Dias de los Muertos in words

Oct. 31 marks the beginning of the three-day Dias de los Muertos, one of the Latino community’s most important holidays. Celebrants remember their loved ones who have passed away by creating altars and writing calaveras, or poems. The day has roots in the Aztec culture and now coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. As this Associated Press article notes, the celebrations are gaining popularity across the country. Here’s some reading about the day:

• has a great website about the holiday, including a history about the holiday and a list of books.

La Casa Azul Bookstore lists its favorite Dia de los Muertos books for children, including The Day of the Dead/El Dia de las Muertos by Bob Barner.

• Novelist Sandra Cisneros has created an altar for her mother that will be displayed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque until March 2012, according to this article by the New Mexico Daily Lobo.

• The novel, Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, takes place on Dias de los Muertos. In the book, a British man self-destructs while in the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac. Time named it one of the 100 all-time greatest novels.


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Meet storyteller Joe Hayes, the man behind “La Llorona”

Halloween is approaching, and that means many storytellers will be weaving the famous Hispanic scary story of La Llorona, the weeping woman who drowned her children and looks for them along rivers and canals. The folktale, especially popular in Texas, has many versions. Storyteller Joe Hayes turned that story into a book, La Llorona/The Weeping Woman, in 1987, and it has gone on to sell more than 300,000 books for Cinco Puntos Press. Hayes grew up in Arizona, where he learned Spanish from his Mexican-American friends. Hayes has written more than three dozen children’s books that are written in English and Spanish.

Q: Why are people so intrigued by the tale of La Llorona?

There are really three aspects to the character of La Llorona. First, she’s a threatening character you have to look out for, especially if you’re a kid. This by far the best-known aspect. Many people know of her in this role, without knowing the tale behind it, or knowing only the detail that she drowned her children. And then there’s the legendary tale of her. It’s a legend because it’s widely accepted as factual. Finally, there are the many stories of personal experiences involving La Llorona. In my version in The Day It Snowed Tortillas (a collection of his short stories), I include all three aspects of her. And I think these three facets of La Llorona combine to make her so intriguing. Children are fascinated by a vague threat, and even more so if there’s a safety valve, a way to avoid the threat: Stay inside at night. The theme of a mother who kills her own children is widespread in folklore. It’s such a violation of the natural order, that people can’t quite get it out of their minds. And a character who is perpetually mourning and seeking forgiveness also has a strong hold on the imagination. Finally, so many people swear they’ve seen or heard La Llorona, that children can never quite declare that they don’t believe the story. There’s always that sense of “I don’t really think it’s true, but…but…”

Q: The story has many different versions. How did you adjust it to your book version?

I just started telling the story several decades ago, combining things I had heard as a kid with my own imagination. Over the years, the listeners helped me refine the story by the way they reacted to it. The printed version is somewhere between the way I started out telling and how I now tell it. I always tried not to glorify the violence that’s inherent in the tale, but refused to abandoned the essential fact that she drowned her children. I can’t stand some of the contemporary versions that turn La Llorona into a helpful character, or say that she didn’t actually drown the children. They rob the story of it’s mythic quality. The story, at least my story, of La Llorona is highly moralistic. It’s a teaching story.

Q: As an Anglo man, what has appealed to you about communicating through different cultures?

I have always believed that stories belong to those who honor and care for them. Years ago when I first started tellling stories, I knew that the story of La Llorona needed to be perpetuated. No other storytellers were telling it. So, without reasoning why, I just started telling the story. That’s changed now, of course. Many people tell it. I now realize that I’ve been able to make a greater contribution, both to Hispanic and non-Hispanic children, by not being Hispanic than I could ever have made were I Hispanic. It’s opened minds to the fact that words are for everyone, ideas are for everyone. The human family is one big round circle, not a lot of separate straight lines.

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In the news

Puerto Rican/Cuban-American poet Piri Thomas (pictured at left) passed away last week. His book, Down These Mean Streets, described his life growing up in Spanish Harlem and became a staple in classrooms, according to this New York Times obituary.

• Here’s the round-up in book festivals this coming weekend:

Luis Alberto Urrea will speak at the Louisiana Book Festival Saturday in Baton Rouge.

The Dallas International Book Festival, on Saturday, will feature novelist Esmeralda Santiago (pictured at right), children’s author Lucia Gonzalez, young adult author Ray Villareal and poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo.

The 31st Annual Book Fair of Santiago will run from Friday-Nov. 13 if you just so happen to be in Chile.

• Monday will be a big day for Arte Publico Press – it’s releasing several children’s and young adult books that day. The titles are: Don’t Call Me a Hero by Ray Villareal; The Lemon Tree Caper: A Mickey Rangel Mystery by René Saldana Jr.; ¡A Bailar! Let’s Dance! by Judith Ortiz Cofer and illustrated by Christina Ann Rodriguez; Clara and the Curandera by Monica Brown and illustrated by Thelma Muraida; and Adelita and the Veggie Cousins by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and illustrated by Christina Rodriguez.

Dagoberto Gilb, whose short story collection Before the End, After the Beginning comes out Tuesday, will tour several Texas cities with Aztec Muse magazine editor Tony Diaz. They’ll be in San Antonio Nov. 2; Dallas, Nov. 3-4; and Houston, Nov. 16-17. The Texas Observer covered his speech at last week’s Texas Book Festival, as well as Sergio Troncoso’s and Richard Yanez’s discussion about El Paso literature. (Scroll down the page for the articles.) Texas Monthly also excerpted a story in its latest issue. The Hispanic Reader will post a review of his book next week.

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Book Review: Lyn Di Iorio’s “Outside the Bones”

If Kinsey Millhone or Stephanie Plum were Puerto Rican brujas, they’d be just like Fina, the lead character of Lyn Di Iorio’s first novel Outside the Bones (Arte Publico Press).

Like those smartass, crime-solving creations of Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich, Fina uses her wits and attitude when she finds herself entangled in a murder mystery. But unlike many mysteries, Bones features mostly Hispanic characters and uses Afro-Carribean rituals as a mystery-solving device.

Fina is a New York City clerk who has a crush on her neighbor, musician Chico de León (another character with that great last name!). She puts a fufú, or curse, on him that goes badly – and leads to Fina to investigate Chico’s mysterious past in Puerto Rico, where his infant daughter and wife died while he was having an affair. Then his mistress and a woman claiming to be Chico’s daughter show up. So Fina enlists her “badass Godfather in the magic arts,” Tata Victor Tumba Fuego, to help conjure up spirits that may help solve the mystery. And then things start getting crazy.

The book gets its strength from Fina’s voice. If you don’t like attitude, bad grammar and foul language, you won’t like her. But then you would be deprived of such great lines as this, when Fina is taking a rooster to be sacrificed by Tata Victor: “Animal blood is the offering favored by the nkisis and nfuiris. And I understand the primitive principle behind it all. Blood is the most sacred form of energy, and when the spirits drink they become enlivened to help us in this world. But shit, we ain’t on the island no more, we don’t sacrifice in the mountains of Africa or Cuba; we do it in our apartments. Can’t we substitute and modernize a little with the other aspects of the religion? Streamline and make it more up to date?”

Even if you’re skeptical of the supernatural or the plot, Fina may make a believer out of you.

More about Lyn Di Iorio:

• Di Iorio talked to The Hispanic Reader about the inspiration for her book and how to encourage more people to get into Latino literature.

• Di Iorio will make several appearances for her book, including tonight at the Barnes and Noble at New York City’s Upper West Side.

• Di Iorio talked to the New York Daily News about Afro-Caribbean religions.

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Classic Book Review: “The Hummingbird’s Daughter”

In preparation for Luis Alberto Urrea’s upcoming Queen of America, I wanted to read its predecessor, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which was published in 2005. I was intimidated by the 500-page book and its serious description on the book cover, but I shouldn’t have been. Every page was a joy to read.

Daughter, which takes place in the 1800s in a small Mexican village, centers on Teresita, who was born out of wedlock and is abandoned by her mother, Cayetana, but she is later groomed by her father, the womanizing ranch owner Tomás Urrea.

As the story progresses, Teresita discovers has powers of healing. But rebels are stirring up a revolution in Mexico while hundreds of villagers are flocking to Teresita so she will cure them. Soon, the two forces collide.

Besides the tightly paced plot, Urrea imbues Daughter with rich language. One character “had the face of an Aztec carving.” In another passage, Urrea compares the villagers’ complexion to a character’s drink: “Every Mexican was a diluted Indian, invaded by milk like the coffee in Cayetana’s cup.”

Urrea knows how to build tension in a scene – and put in some comic relief, too. Sometimes, he accomplishes it all in one scene, such as when Tomás’s wife, Loreto, confronts him about an affair as several friends, including two named Aguirre and Huila, watch:

“Loreto slapped Tomás.

He spluttered an obscenity.

She slapped his other check.

He raised his hand.

Aguirre rose.

Huila, watching, clenched her hands – this was even better than she’d hoped!”

Here’s another great line: “If you are too blind to see God in Goddamned taco, then you are truly blind.”

And another: “A Mennonite missionary had moved through the ranchos assuring them that Jesus Christ would return to earth by 1880 – maybe He was early.”

Daughter was a fantastic read. I can’t wait for Queen of America.

More about Luis Alberto Urrea:

• Urrea is just as witty in his Twitter and Facebook feeds. His website features a blog, readings from Queen of America and upcoming appearances. Queen of America will be released in December.

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Happy Birthday, Miguel Angel Asturias!


Asturias may seem like an obscure author, but the Guatemalan is only one of a dozen Latinos to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he received in 1967. Asturias was born on this day in 1899 and died in 1974.

His best known books are The President (El Senor Presidente), about living under the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and Men of Maize: The Modernist Epic of the Guatemalan Indians (Hombres de Maize), which tells the life of peasants in his homeland.

The Nobel Prize website and Encyclopedia Britannica have extensive biographies on Asturias.

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In the news

• New on the bookshelves: Kami Garcia’s latest book, Beautiful Chaos, part of her Beautiful Creatures series written with Margaret Stohl, comes out Tuesday. Cain, a retelling of the Biblical story from the late, Nobel Prize-winning novelist José Saramago, was released earlier this month.

• The Texas Book Festival, which runs from Saturday-Sunday in Austin, will feature 250 authors, and it features some great programs with Latino authors:

Dagoberto Gilb (pictured at right) will discuss his latest book, Before the End, After the Beginning.

Mary Romero, author of the non-fiction The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream, and Héctor Tobar, author of The Barbarian Nurseries, will discuss Mexican women working as maids in the United States.

Sarah Cortez, René Saldaña, Jr., Sergio Troncoso and Gwendolyn Zepeda will talk about the mysteries they contributed to the Arte Publico Press book for young adults, You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.

Alex Sanchez (pictured at left), author of Bait, will receive the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.

Troncoso and Richard Yanez will discuss stories from their hometown of El Paso. Kami Garcia, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and Justin Torres will speak at other sessions.

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Book review: Paulo Coehlo’s “Aleph”

Paulo Coelho’s Aleph is not just a novel – but also a guidebook on how to live life in the present.

Coelho is the best-selling, beloved Brazilian novelist of The Alchemist and, like that book, Aleph is about a spiritual journey. The main character – a best-selling, beloved Brazilian novelist – is going through a mid-life crisis when he spontaneously decides to travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to meet his fans.

While on the trip, a 21-year-old woman named Hilal insists on traveling with him. Although he is turned off by her aggressive behavior, he finds peace when he experiences an “aleph” – “the point at which everything is in the same place at the same time” – and sees scenes from his past lives.

They soon realize they’ve experienced the same thing. “The great Aleph,” the narrator tells Hilal, “occurs when two or more people with a very strong affinity happen to find themselves in the same Aleph.”

Now they must figure out their shared connection. They find the mystery frustrating, since Hilal is very stubborn and Paulo is very married.

The book, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a quick read that has an intriguing twist about Paulo’s actions to Hilal in a past life. It is also filled with life-affirming metaphors, such as the mode of transportation: “Life is the train, not the station.”

Whether you love the book depends on your view on life. Some readers, such as those who follow Eckhart Tolle, will enjoy the passages in the book about living in the present and forgiving yourself and others. But other readers may find the book – with its touchy-feely New Age philosophies and talk of reincarnation – not for them.

More about Paulo Coelho:

• has an interesting article on Coelho.

• Coelho discussed his secrets to reaching fans on social media to The Wall Street Journal.

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In the news

Rigoberto González (pictured at left), who was born in California and raised in Mexico, releases his latest collection of poetry, Black Blossoms, today. The book centers on the struggles of women of color.

• The Brattleboro Literary Festival, which runs Oct. 14-15 in Vermont, will feature Julia Alvarez (pictured at right), Martín Espada and Luis Alberto Urrea. Alvarez’s latest children’s book, How Tía Lola Ended Up Starting Over (Knopf Books for Young Readers) was released last month. Alvarez is touring this month in support of the book. For more of her schedule, click here.

• Alvarez and Carlos Eire are scheduled to speak at the Boston Book Festival Oct. 15.

• The Southern Festival of the Books will take place in Nashville Oct. 14-16. Lisa D. Chavez, Lorraine López, Helena Mesa, Justin Torres and Marisel Vera are on the schedule.

• Brazilian Paulo Coelho’s latest book, Aleph, reached number six on The New York Times bestsellers list for hardcover fiction. The Hispanic Reader will publish a review later this week.

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Meet novelist Lyn Di Iorio

Some people fear Afro-Caribbean religions. But Lyn Di Iorio is intrigued by them – so much so that her first book, Outside the Bones, focuses on the mysterious practices. Her novel was released last month by Arte Público Press.

Di Iorio, who was raised in Puerto Rico, teaches English with a focus on Caribbean and U.S. Latino literature at The City College of New York and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, her master’s degree from Stanford University and her Ph.D. from The University of California at Berkeley. 

Q: Tell me about your book, Outside the Bones.

Outside the Bones is a provocative tale of love, murder and mystery steeped in the Afro-Caribbean religio-magical practice of Palo Monte. When the irrepressible, street-toughened, but ultimately tender-hearted main character, Fina, falls in love with her upstairs neighbor, Chico the hot trumpet player, she does what any ghetto bruja would do–takes his picture intending to put a spell on him.  Her spell misfires and two strange women competing for Chico’s favors show up. Fina then ups the ante by asking the powerful Spanish Harlem Palero, Tata Victor Tumba Fuego, for help. All too soon Fina finds herself involved with a spirit whose quest for revenge can’t be stopped. Mixing humor, eroticism and Afro-Latino/a spiritual history, Outside the Bones takes readers on a rollicking, hair-raising, and ultimately redemptive journey through New York City’s Upper West Side, Central Park and Puerto Rico. Fina finds answers that uncover the mystery behind a murder but, more importantly, reveal things about her past she had never suspected.

Q: What inspired you to become a writer?

For one, reading so many great writers. As a child, I loved classic works such as the novels of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and so many other writers from all over the world, but I also loved mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Dick Francis, and others. When I was a teenager, I started reading work by Puerto Rican and Caribbean women writers that really woke up my eyes to the magical and mysterious world that is the Caribbean. I was also always really fascinated by the fact that the Afro-Caribbean religions were regarded with fear by most of the people I knew growing up. Or, on the other hand, people negated their existence altogether.  But the more I discovered about them, the more they fascinated me. I think, in general and this applies beyond my interest in Afro-Caribbean religio-magical practices, I am really intrigued by surfaces that seem commonplace with little cracks or flaws and, the more you explore the cracks, the more you see that the apparently commonplace surfaces are just facades behind which lie completely different realities.

Q: You’re a professor specializing in Latino literature. What can we do to encourage more people to read Hispanic literature?

Well, I think the publishing world needs to recognize that there is a large population of Latino readers with diverse tastes and interests and that they may not be tapping that diversity. Some Latino readers don’t want to read books that are about growing up Latino because they feel they know that, they lived it; they want to read mysteries, for example, not coming of age stories, and would like to read mysteries with Latino characters or that have strong Latino ambiences. I also think that works by Latino writers should be taught not just in Latino and Caribbean literature classes, but in all kinds of literature classes ranging from American literature to classes with more thematic focuses.

Di Iorio is making several appearances in support of her book, including Oct. 24 at the Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Upper West Side. Click here for more information.

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