Talk about timing! I was lamenting my failure to find new Latin authors when Edgewater resident Celia C. Perez’s first book appeared in my mailbox.
In January I started the website PopSugar’s year-long reading challenge and decided I’d use the time to explore new Latino fiction writers. Talk about a challenge! Lists I found online feature all the same authors I’ve already read.
This was puzzling and a bit disheartening. Latinos make up more than half (some 54 percent) of the entire U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. With numbers like that I thought there’d be this burgeoning group of Latin fiction authors. If there is, I wasn’t finding it.
So I was glad to hear about Perez, a community college librarian, and read her very enjoyable book. Although “The First Rule of Punk” is aimed at younger readers, it’s a relatable story for all ages. Twelve-year-old Maria Luisa – Malu to her friends – must leave behind Florida, her dad and lifetime friends. Mom, a college English professor, is going to teach two years in Chicago; Malu must accompany her.
All this is happening as Malu – who shares dad’s love of punk music – is grappling with her identity. She may be Latina but has little interest in the Mexican history her mom – who Malu has nicknamed SuperMexican – tries to share with her. And cilantro, the herb that’s in many a Latin dish? Forget about it.
Despite a rough start at the new school and a haughty queen bee type, Malu eventually finds friends. Through punk music she learns to not only appreciate the differences that make her Malu, but her heritage as well.
Often when Latinos are the subject of an artistic vehicle, it’s to tell the story of a social issue, be it immigration, gang violence, drugs. So it was refreshing that while Malu is Latina and struggles with her identity, we also see her life is typical preteen. “She’s Latina, yeah, but she’s also just a kid,” says Perez, pointing out Malu’s story is universal. “We’re all looking for a place to belong in this world.”
Not surprisingly, Perez and Malu share traits. No cilantro for her, either. In the book, Malu creates ’zines to express her feelings; that’s something Perez has been doing since college.
On a more serious note, Perez is the daughter of a Cuban dad and Mexican mother and “growing up I felt I never was enough of either one.”
I thought Perez was the perfect person to discuss my unfruitful author search. With a growing number of people of color in our country, Perez says children’s librarians have been pressing for books whose stories, illustrations and authors represent that diversity.
“A push for representation has definitely been [going on] in the world of children’s books,” in the last five years, says Perez.
But when it comes to new Latin authors writing adult fiction, the growth doesn’t seem to be coming as quickly. “It’s shocking to think how slowly that change is happening,” says Perez.
The one positive I see is that younger generations, who will have grown up on children’s literature with diverse stories and characters, will demand the same once they are adults.
Then again maybe that trend I’ve been searching is on its way.
Nominees for the 2017 National Book Awards were just announced; the fiction candidates include two Latinos – Daniel Alarcon and Carmen Maria Machado.
New names for my list!
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