This past weekend I came across a School Library Journal article about the Pura Belpré award, which is given to outstanding literature for young people written by Latino authors living in the United States, which focuses on the Latino cultural experience. The award this year will be awarded at the ALA Annual conference over the summer. This article and award resonated with me, as I realized that since graduating from college I haven’t been exposed to as much culturally diverse literature, especially that of my own Latino heritage.
While not something that’s always apparent upon my appearance, I am of half Latino descent. My mother’s family is from El Salvador, a small country in central America below Mexico and near Guatemala. While I’ve been born and raised in the United States my entire life, I’ve always felt a strong and close connection with my Latino heritage as my I grew up extremely close with my mother’s side of the family. While I am aware that I’ve been influenced by my father’s Western European descent and can connect with novels and protagonists of similar backgrounds, I’ve always found I have a strong pull and connection to the Latino writers and works that I have read, though I haven’t purposely sought them out for the sole purpose of their cultural diversity.
Reading about the award made me curious as to what books I had read that were granted the honor, as it’s geared toward children and young adults and I run a young adult book blog. It turns out that I’ve only read two, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz (which I read back in 2014 and reviewed on my blog) and Esperanza Rising by Pan Munoz Ryan (which I read back in elementary school). I started thinking about other the Latino narratives I’ve read, and if they seem slim in YA because there’s a lack of them, or simply because I haven’t done my due diligence in seeking them out. The only other YA story I could think of having read was Matt De La Pena’s short story in the My True Love Gave to Me holiday anthology, “Angels in the Snow.”
As I mentioned earlier, in college I took several contemporary multicultural literature classes, and was reading much more widely when it came to culturally diverse books. It’s how I came across one of my now-favorite authors, Junot Diaz, after reading his raw, brash short story anthology Drown, and then his magical realism novel The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes contemporary literary adult fiction). It was the first time I really read and analyzed Latino literature in depth, and made me realize it really changed the reading experience for me, made it more personal and intimate, especially when I encountered a tradition or word that was pulled straight from my childhood that may have not held any significant meaning for my classmates. It made me realize there are specific themes associated more strongly within the writing of certain cultures (such as magical realism in Latino fiction). Exposure to Latino narratives in college, with writers from a culture I shared, made me engage with fiction in a way I hadn’t before.
I’ve decided that in 2016 I want to make an effort to read more narratives by Latino authors, and consider both my culture and the culture of others’ when reading, as seeking out such narratives can lead to such a rich reading experience. My shortlist TBR is made up of a mix of YA and adult novels, with some focusing heavily on the Latino experience while others featuring characters from Latino and Hispanic families. Some I read excerpts for in my advanced Spanish classes in school (such as Like Water For Chocolate and One Hundred Years of Solitude) and some I didn’t even know featured Latino themes/characters until I started research for this post.
Do you make an effort to seek out books that include your cultural background? If so, does it change the reading experience for you? Do you find it difficult to find culturally diverse books in YA? Have you ever read a book featuring a culturally diverse protagonist that made you more interested in learning about a certain culture? Were you ever surprised to read a book and find diverse characters that you weren’t initially expecting? What are some book awards that hold meaning for you or that you seek out when finding a book to read? Let me know in the comments!