Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Book review: Raquel Cepeda’s “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina”

BirdofParadiseRaquel Cepeda wasn’t sure of her cultural identity. Even her friends and family weren’t sure.

“Papi said I wanted to be Black because I love hip-hop, and a low-class Dominican because I like graffiti and b-boys. The kids … said I wanted to be white because I played tennis … Casimiro said I needed to recognize and embrace my natives indios and africanos in order to strengthen my spiritual guide … Caridad told me I had a vibe of a Black and white gringa. And Blackie said I could be from anywhere. But I like being Dominican, sort of, especially one born in Harlem who likes to wear socks in the winter.”

Her search for her personal and culture identity is the subject of her memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina (Atria). Readers may be inspired to investigate their own heritage after reading her book.

Cepeda divides the book into two parts, beginning with her personal life. Her parents split up early and Cepeda moved between her relatives – in the Dominican Republic and New York City – throughout her life.

Unfortunately, she was frequently abused by her father and neglected by her mother. Cepeda uses a conversational tone, good description and dialogue to keep the story moving, but these sections are intense and hard to read at times. (Some readers may be turned off by the explicit language.)

Cepeda found solace in the hip-hop world, becoming a music journalist. But when she has her own family and her father almost dies, she yearns to learn more about her heritage and persuades her parents to take DNA tests. She finds her father’s family can be traced to Africa and her mother’s family to Europe. Cepeda delves into Dominican Republic history, noting that many of its residents (and Latinos in general) can claim to be several races.

She quotes Ken Rodriguez, a software trainer and avid genealogist.

“ ‘In my opinion the biggest misconception is that Hispanic is a race in the first place. Hispanic people are generally a mix of different racial backgrounds. You can be White, Black, Asian, Amerindian, Jewish, and still be Hispanic,” he says, echoing a sentiment of many Latino-Americans. ‘What unites us is the Hispanic culture, not our race.’”

Cepeda creates a fascinating and compelling look at the complex issue of ethnicity by personalizing the issue. You even may want to get your own DNA tested.

cepeda_raquelMore about Raquel Cepeda:

Cepeda has written for various publications and edited the anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. She also directed and produced the 2007 documentary film Bling: A Planet Rock.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World”

MyBelovedWorldSupreme Court justices are so private that they almost don’t seem human. But readers can get to know Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who in 2009 became the first Hispanic to sit on the United States’ highest judicial branch, in her memoir, My Beloved World (Knopf).

The book begins with a gripping scene in which seven-year-old Sonia is determined to learn how to inject a needle of insulin. Sotomayor was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, which can lower one’s life expectancy if not treated properly. That and other life events – her alcoholic father’s death when she was nine, growing up poor in the Bronx – made her determined to succeed in life.

“Along with discipline, that habit of internal awareness was perhaps another accidental gift from my disease. It is linked, I believe to the ease with which I can recall the emotions attached to memories and to a fine-tuned sensitivity to others’ emotional states, which has served me well in the courtroom.”

The first 100 pages are the best of the book, with descriptive anecdotes about her childhood – playing with her younger brother and friends in their neighborhood, winning a forensic tournament, trips to her family’s native Puerto Rico. In one touching scene, she recalls her abuelita singing the poem “To Puerto Rico (I Return),” written by José Gautier Benítez and translated for the book by novelist Lyn DiIorio.

As she goes to Princeton University and pursues a legal career, she does more telling than showing. But readers will be charmed by her naïveté – such as the time she threw away an invitation from Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious sorority, because she thought it was a scam – and will emphasize with her honesty – such as this passage about the end of marriage:

“The truth is that since childhood I have cultivated an existential independence. It came from perceiving the adults around me as unreliable and without it I felt I wouldn’t have survived. I cared deeply for my family, but in the end I depended on myself. That way of being was part of the person I would become, but where once it had represented salvation, now it was alienating me from the person I had vowed to spend my life with.”

My Beloved World is a great, inspirational book about the making of a Latino hero.

Sonia_SotomayorMore about Sonia Sotomayor:

In her free time, Sotomayor enjoys salsa dancing. Check out this narrated album of family photos and interview with Sotomayor from the NPR website, and this New York Times article about her book tour that has drawn thousands of fans.

Source: I purchased this book from La Casa Azul Bookstore.

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Classic book review: Esmeralda Santiago’s “When I Was Puerto Rican”

Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (De Capo Press) is a beautiful book – one whose beauty often comes from deep pain.

The book is a memoir of Santiago’s early childhood in Puerto Rico, where the country dwellers are called jibaros. She grew up poor, describing her home as “a rectangle of rippled metal sheets on stilts hovering in the middle of a circle of red dirt.”

Through the years, young Esmeralda – called Negi by her parents because she was so dark as a baby – moves from the country to the city and, eventually, to Brooklyn – as her unmarried parents separate and reunite repeatedly. Negi takes care of her seven younger siblings as she experiences school, impending womanhood and, in one amusing chapter, the food program from the United States.

The book’s strength comes from Santiago’s style of writing – so simple that the book is a fast read, yet so elegant in its gorgeous and inventive descriptions.

Take this passage when Santiago’s family flies to New York City:

“Several times I bumped into Mami as I walked backwards, unwilling to face the metal bird that would whisk us to our new life … Neither one of us could have known what lay ahead. For her it began as an adventure and turned out to have more twists and turns than she expected or knew how to handle. For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased and another one was created. The Puerto Rican jibara who longed for the green quiet of a tropical afternoon was to become a hybrid who would never forgive the uprooting.”

Although Santiago never feels sorry for herself, my heart broke for her all that she had to through in her young life. Fortunately, the great ending makes you grateful you went on the tough journey with her.

More about Esmeralda Santiago:

When I Was Puerto Rican was Santiago’s first book. She wrote two sequels, Almost a Woman and The Turkish Lover, as well as several novels, including America’s Dream and Conquistadora.

Source: I purchased this book at Barnes and Noble.

Note: This review is part of a series of classic books by Latinas. (I’m running a bit behind.) Next up: Chicana Falsa by Michelle Serros.

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In the news: New books by Cisneros; book festivals; and tons of links about Junot Díaz

(Note: This post was updated to include the Junot Díaz award from the MacArthur Foundation.)

It’s October, and that means news books, book festival season and Dias de los Muertos. Find out more below:

Already out: Sesame Street actress Sonia Manzano’s young adult novel The Revolution of Everlyn Serrano depicts a Puerto Rican teen growing up in Spanish Harlem in the turbulent 1960s. Manzano talked to the TBD website about the book.

• Oct. 1: Guadalupe García McCall, author of the Pura Belpre winning book Under the Mesquite, releases Summer of the Mariposas, a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey through the eyes of five sisters.

Oct. 2: Sandra Cisneros writes about her missing cat in the illustrated book, Have You Seen Marie?

Oct. 9: In the young adult novel A Thunderous Whisper by Christina Díaz Gonzalez, a 12-year-old girl is caught up in spying during the Spanish Civil War.

Oct. 16: Benjamin Alire Saenz releases a collection of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. In The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by Cesar Aira, a doctor discovers he has superhuman powers.

Junot Díaz alert:

Junot Díaz was awarded the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Award” on Oct. 1. The honor is given by the MacArthur Foundation to outstanding individuals in the arts, humanities and sciences.

Need a Junot Díaz fix? Lots of people do since his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, was released last month. Nearly a thousand fans crammed into a New York City Barnes and Noble, causing a near riot, according to the ColorLines website. He chatted with The New York Times Magazine’s recent “Inspiration” issue about what has influenced his writing, and a nice slideshow is included. He talked about the main character’s game to NPR; his Dominican background to NBC Latino; genre fiction to Capital New York; and the perceived sexism in his book to The Atlantic. He also went bar-hopping with Grantland. But wait, here’s more articles from Latina magazine, the NPR radio show Latino USA, Huffington Post, the Good Reads website and CNN. Here’s some podcasts from The New York Timesand the Brooklyn Vol. 1 website, where Díaz discusses his passion for comic books. He talked about his love for the Hernandez brothers (of Love and Rockets fame) to the NPR radio program Latino USA. Still can’t get enough of Díaz? Check out his Facebook feed or the new fan website, Junot Díaz Daily.

Book Festivals:

Oct. 1-6: The San Diego City College Int’l Book Fair will include Reyna Grande (left), Gustavo Arellano, Rudy Acuña, Matt de la Peña and Herbert Sigüenza.

Oct. 13 – The Los Angeles Latino Book & Family Festival will feature Victor Villaseñor and Luis J. Rodriguez.

Oct. 27: The Boston Book Festival will feature Junot Díaz and Justin Torres, right.

Oct. 27-28: The Texas Book Festival in Austin will feature Gustavo Arellano, Nora de Hoyos Comstock, Junot Díaz, Reyna Grande, Diana López, Domingo Martinez, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, René Saldaña Jr., Esmeralda Santiago, Ilan Stavans, Duncan Tonatiuh, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Ray Villareal and Gwendolyn Zepeda.

Literary magazines:

Aztlan Libre Press has released the book Nahualliandoing Dos: An Anthology of Poetry, which was influenced by Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo, Caracol and Nahualliandoing.

• Here’s an interesting article from Ploughshares literary magazine from Jennifer De Leon (no relation) about whether to italicize foreign phrases in literary works, with a mention of Junot Díaz (him again!).

Events:

• Las Comadres Para Las Americas will host a writer’s workshop Oct. 6 in New York City. Speakers include  Sonia Manzano, Lyn DiIorio, and Caridad Pineiro.

• The Festival de la Palabra, which includes discussions and readings from from Rosa Beltrán, Ángel Antonio Ruiz Laboy and Charlie Vásquez, takes place Oct. 9-11 in New York City.

Other news:

• The Southern California public radio station KPCC covered a reading of Ban This! The BSP Anthology of Chicano Literature, written in response to the state of Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies.

• Poet Lupe Mendez was named one of the Houston Press’s top 100 creative people.

Héctor Tobar’s 2011 novel The Barbarian Nurseries may be adapted into a movie, according to ComingSoon.net.

• The film version of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima premiered in El Paso, according to the El Paso Times.

• A new film based on Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America is being released.

Justin Torres, author of 2011’s We the Animals, was named to the National Book Founationa’s 5 under 35 list of emerging authors.

Also this month:

• Celebrating birthdays this month: Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias, right, on Oct. 19.

• The Nobel Prizes will be announced this month, and Book Riot has its predictions. (It’s not likely a Latino or an American will win this year.) Here’s a look at Latinos who’ve won the award.

• Looking for some books for Dias de los Muertos? Here’s The Hispanic Reader’s round-up from last year.

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Book review: Carlos Andrés Gómez’s “Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood”

Carlos Andrés Gómez wants men to stop acting like Superman.

In his memoir, Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood (Gotham), the spoken word poet uses his own personal experiences to show how men should be open to expressing their personal emotions, including crying and asking for help and forgiveness. As he writes:

“I was taught to wipe my tears and steady my expression as a kid. Don’t talk about what’s rumbling inside of your chest. Stay stoic and quiet. It’s part of the unspoken male code. ‘Toughen up, son,’ ‘suck it up,’ ‘man up’ – this is how we learn to process emotion. This is the cause of our emotional illiteracy. No wonder so many men bury their wounds and insecurities in alcohol and drugs and violence.”

Gómez has an interesting background. His father was from Colombia and worked for the United Nations, moving his family around the world when Gómez was young. His mother is a “traditional Southern WASPy American” with a doctorate in linguistics. His parents divorced when he was young, but Gómez earned good grades and served in leadership positions in the high schools he attended on the East Coast. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked as a social worker and teacher.

Even more interesting is the chapter called “Sex: F—king, Making Love and F—king Up.” Earlier in the book, Gómez says he’s only slept with six women in his life. But then he describes various encounters of “hooking up” in vivid detail – how Clinton-esque of him. The chapter comes across as self-serving and hypocritical – although he later concedes that he was using “the girls.”

But the book provides some interesting insights and it becomes stronger in the end, thanks to Gómez’s well-written, easy-to-read prose. Take this passage in which Gómez describes how he healed his relationship with his father:

“When I started studying acting at twenty-three it was turning point, and I realized how impersonal all of my poems had been. Why was I so passionate and loud in my delivery of all of them? … And one day it clicked: all of those poems were about my father. I had been getting up on stage for years yelling at my father. These poems had been a vehicle to heal from the hurt I felt from our relationship. From the broken promises and the move and changing schools and the family being split apart, I was screaming with such intensity, making my throat go hoarse, because I wanted to acknowledged. More than anything else, I just wanted to be heard.”

I also enjoyed his poetry – which is included in the beginning of each chapter – and I wished the book included more of his work.

Man Up is a great book for young men to find themselves – and for women to understand a little bit about men.

More about Carlos Andrés Gómez:

Gómez has performed his spoken word poetry at more than 200 colleges around the world. He appeared in the 2006 movie Inside Man and in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. Check out his performances here.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Happy Birthday, Gloria Anzaldúa!

Gloria Anzaldúa was born Sept. 26, 1942, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and died Oct. 4, 2004. Her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera, is considered a landmark book in Chicano and feminist studies.

Anzaldúa worked the fields with her family as a child growing up in South Texas. She received her bachelor’s degree at Pan American University and her master’s and doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin.

She co-edited the book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color with Cherríe Moraga. But it was Borderlands that has drawn the most acclaim. In an article for The Week magazine, writer Dagoberto Gilb said, “Anzaldúa transmuted scholarly writing into a kind of poetic prose that was fiercely political,” adding that she “treated the border not only as the physical presence that it is but as a metaphor of both gender and sexual identity.”

A collection of her essays, poetry and other works is compiled into The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Here’s a terrific profile of her from Ms. Magazine.

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Book review: Joy Castro’s “Hell or High Water” and “Island of Bones”

Class and cultural identity are two topics that don’t get as much attention as much as they should, but Joy Castro tackles the issues in her suspense novel Hell or High Water and a book of essays, Island of Bones.

Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s Press) begins with an intriguing premise. A young woman is kidnapped from a restaurant in broad daylight. The book then turns to Nola Céspedes, a Cuban-American newspaper reporter who’s assigned to investigate sexual predators in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

The book only devotes a few passages to the kidnapping that hooks the reader. Instead, it delves into the Nola’s long interviews for her article and her personal struggles. Nola is supposed to come off as ambitious and sarcastic, but I found her snobby and pretentious, especially when she talked about her job.

“I’ve got no intention of sticking around,” she says. “The plan is to write a few knockout features, get noticed, pack my bags and then take my clips to some real newspaper in some real city.”

Well, aren’t you special? In 2008, the year the story (somewhat randomly) takes place, and even today, she would have been lucky to have any job in newspapers.

I also wanted the book to be more about the potential killer on the loose than on Nola. And as a former newspaper reporter, I found the newsroom scenes could have been so much more – which may by why I’m more critical of this book than if Nola had been a police detective or a private investigator.

Fortunately, Castro writes clearly, so the book was an easy read. And Castro is terrific at bringing up class issues that many other writers ignore. In one scene, she talks to two lower-income women about sexual predator laws.

“Neither of the women has heard of Megan’s Law. Neither knows she can access a sex-offender registry online. Neither one owns a computer.”

At the end of the book, I understood more about the decisions that Nola makes. But I wished I could have liked her more.

I liked Island of Bones (University of Nebraska Press) much better. The collection of essays covers Castro’s personal life, including a horribly abusive childhood, and her career working as the rare Latina in academia in the Midwest.

The title essay examines the stereotypes people have about Latinos, such as their faith and looks. Another great essay, “Fitting,” discusses the subtle barbs of female friendships and the importance of a good spouse.

Like her novel, Castro excels when she discusses class issues. Coming from a poor background, she is amazed at the food spreads in the faculty meetings at the college at she works.

In one of the best essays, “On Becoming Educated,” she points out how academia doesn’t reach out to everyday Latinas.

“I’m a first-generation college student, here by fluke on fellowship, and the theorists’ English seems foreign to me, filled with jargon and abstractions at which I can only guess. They say nothing about wife-beating or rape or unequal wages or child molesting, which is the charge that finally got my stepfather sent to prison. They say nothing about being a single mother on ten thousand dollars a year, which is my own situation. The feminist writers respond to male theorists – Lacan, Derrida – whose work I haven’t read. I can’t parse their sentences or recognize their allusions, and I don’t know what they mean or how they’re helpful to the strippers and dropouts and waitresses I know, the women I care abut the most, to my aunt Lettie who worked the register at Winn-Dixie and my aunt Linda who cleaned houses.”

Fortunately, in Castro, women like Lettie and Linda have someone that’s writing about them.

More about Joy Castro:

Joy Castro’s first book was the 2005 memoir The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses. She is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Source: I checked Hell or High Water out of the library. I received a review copy of Island of Bones from the publisher.

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