Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Mexican American authors

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2013, as part of a multicultural roundup, there is….

From the time he was four until he was fourteen-years-old, Francisco Jimenez lived in constant fear. It all started in 1940, when his parents moved the family from Mexico to California, with the hope of leaving their life of poverty behind. At the border, the family dug a hole underneath the wire wall and thereby illegally entered the United States. Although Francisco’s father always hoped to return to Mexico, Francisco liked getting an education. If the family returned, he’d lose this because there wasn’t any school in their village. And so naturally his fear of being deported grew daily. Then in eighth grade, it happened. The first chapter in Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez is about how the family comes to the United States, is forced to return to Mexico, but then re-enters legally with visas. The rest of this autobiographical book, told from the viewpoint of Francisco, is about how the Jimenez adjust to their American life.

What stood out most to me about Breaking Through is how eagerly Francisco tries to learn the ways of his new country. To fit in with his peers, he pays attention to what his peers talk about and do. This leads him to take an interest in music and dances. Many of the songs such as Rock Around the Clock and Venus in Blue Jeans he doesn’t initially understand: “I tried to make sense of them and picture them in my mind. Why would a rock circle a clock? Why would the planet Venus dress in jeans?” He convinces his brother for the two of them to teach each other to dance, because this will help them meet new girls and make new friends. When invited out to a restaurant, he watches for social cues on how to behave. For example, this is how he learns the proper place for a napkin is not on table or floor but on one’s lap. Not everything is about being socially accepted; Francisco also tries to excel in school. When he finds an old Doctor Doolittle book in the dump, he reads a few pages every night to help him learn English. He also watches movies to improve his English. Typing is one of the classes he needs to take to get into college. When he finds an old one, he types every night to improve his accuracy and speed. Last, he copies notes from school onto cards that he studies while on the job.

Breaking Through is largely about being poor. The Jimenez family first moves to the United States from Mexico to escape a life of poverty. For a long time, it seems as if those dreams aren’t going to be fruitful. The father and the children work in the fields, sometimes even during school hours. Despite their multiple jobs, the family isn’t regularly able to pay their rent on time or even put food on the table. Countless times, the family has to find things they need such as sneakers for gym class by rummaging through garbage. This leads to Francisco’s father feeling depressed and to some of the family arguments. Just like Finding Paris is partly a picture of being part of foster care, so Breaking Through is partly a picture of being caught in poverty.

Yet Breaking Through is also about being Mexican. There are references to Mexican foods, music, and heroes. Sadly, there are also run-ins with prejudice. When Francisco’s mom rubs garlic on him to cure him of ringworm, Francisco is called “stinky Mexican”. The two eldest boys have their hearts broken, when girls break up with them after finding out that the Jimenez family is from Mexico. Last, some employers even advise them, “Don’t tell people you’re American. You could easily pass for Americans.”

Happily, in the midst of their struggles are many supportive adults. When Francisco informs his school counselor that he wants to be a teacher, Mr. Kinkade tells him that he’ll need to go college and that this will be expensive but that there are scholarships available. He also looks at Francisco’s schedule and makes substitutions of classes more suitable for college. Later, Francisco’s English teacher also tries to help by writing comments on his papers about how to improve. She encourages him to read for fun to improve his English, but there is no time for newspapers or books. Yet when she gives him Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to read, Francisco is finally able to identify with a novel. The last example I’ll give you is from an assembly. After reading about how valiantly Francisco tried to become American, I wondered if he would ever have a chance to share from his Mexican culture. One day in assembly he does.

Other than a Scholastic interview, I found little information about Francisco Jimenez. In that interview, he shares how he wrote Breaking Through. Besides relying on memory, he interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, obtained his junior high and high school records, and visited some of the places where the family lived in migrant-labor camps.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

 

“I always thought the biggest problem in my life was my name Naomi Soledad León Outlaw, but little did I know that it was the least of my troubles, or that someday I would live up to it.” Naomi, of Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan, has a lot to contend with. Besides her name, there are her clothes, which are sewn in polyester by her Grandmother. She also has difficulty speaking up, although that will change. And her status among her classmates is that of most fifth-graders: nobody special. Yet the worst is to come. One day, after seven years of being gone, her mother reappears.

The bulk of Becoming Naomi León is about family relationships. Until chapter twelve, there are only a few references to Naomi’s ethnicity. She describes herself as having a “disposition towards brownness,” because she takes after her dad’s side of the family. A new classmate starts talking to her in Spanish, because to her Naomi looks Spanish, but then discovers Naomi can’t speak Spanish and has never been to Mexico. The girls become fast friends anyway, because Naomi’s ethnicity does not matter to Blanca. Unfortunately, it does to Dustin who taunts Naomi, “It’s the Outlaws and one looks like a Mexican bandido. Steal anything lately?” The play on name reminds me of how my classmates used to call me Allosaurus after the dinosaur because of my first name and ask me if I had hunted recently because of my last name. Dustin seems to like being mean to anyone who is different; he also calls Naomi’s brother “retard” due to his limp and habit of wearing tape on his clothes to stay calm.

In the second half of Becoming Naomi, Naomi’s grandmother takes Naomi and her brother to Mexico to escape their mother. While in Mexico, Naomi adds “Superb Spanish words” and “Favorite Mexican foods” to her growing collection of lists. We also learn about Nuestra Señora de la Soledad or Our Lady of Solitude. Soledad, is Naomi’s middle name. It’s also a special name in Oaxaca, the town where the family stays in Mexico. Last, we learn about a couple Mexican traditions: Los Posadas and La Noche de los Rabános or Night of the Radishes. In fact, the inspiration to Becoming Naomi León arose from Ryan’s own visit in 1997 visit to the Mexican city of Oaxaca to that latter annual Christmastime event.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Many girls dream of growing up to be rich. Yet initially it might be difficult to relate to Esperanza Ortega and her fairy tale wealthy life. Her family owns a grape vineyard and hires servants to work in it. As such, Esperanza is used to every last chore being done by others. Even routines that most of us take for granted such as washing and dressing ourselves are done for Esperanza. The family wealth also allows for private schools, formal teas, silk dresses, and porcelain dolls. Oh, and then there’s the Quinceañeras or presentation parties. For these, girls who are fifteen years of age wear white dresses and dance with the sons of the richest families. After that, they can be courted. Sounds like the life of a princess.

When disaster strikes, the family migrates to the United States during the Depression Era. Here, Esperanza seems a little more down to earth. Now life involves rides on crowded trains. Her family shares a two-room cabin on farm campgrounds. Laborers all know each other’s business. Even toilets are not private. Everyone has a job to do. If not out on the fields, they might be like Esperanza in having to babysit children and sweep floors. Households have menial tasks to do such as cleaning diapers. And now everyone is poor and lives in dirt-filled quarters. Although our family isn’t poor, I related much easier to this lifestyle.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is based on the life of her maternal grandmother, whose privileged life in Mexico was dramatically altered when she immigrated to the United States. Naturally, throughout the book are many references to the Spanish language and to Mexican traditions. For example, running through Esperanza Rising is the theme: “Aguántate  tantito y la fruta caerá en tu mano” or “Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand.” The rest of the Spanish insertions are of single words. My being from Canada, the Spanish words are mostly new to me and so I wished I could hear Esperanza Rising on tape. The traditions of a fiesta, La Navidad, and a pinata were more familiar to me, although I found the details of interest. At the camp, the Mexican workers also held a jamaica every Saturday night during the summer, where they had music and food and dance.

When Ryan researched into the labor camps, she found prejudice existed. In Esperanza Rising, Esperanza feels prejudice in America because she is Mexican. Most telling are those in the camps. One of Esperanza’s friends failed, despite meeting the criteria of having the highest grades in her class, to become Queen of the May. No one except white girls has ever received the honor. Despite the dream that immigrants have of even the poorest man becoming rich if he tries, Mexicans are hired to lay tracks and dig ditches but never to work as mechanics. When families from Oklahoma receive a new camp, it includes luxuries not given to Mexican such as hot water, inside toilets, and a swimming pool.

Esperanza asks one day why the family drives far away to shop at the Japanese market. The response is that the Japanese storekeeper treats them like people. When Esperanza probes further, she is candidly told:

“People here think all Mexicans are alike. They think that we are all uneducated, dirty, poor, and unskilled. It does not occur to them that many have been trained in professions in Mexico…. Americans see as one big brown group who are good for only manual labor. At this market, no one stares at us or treats us like outsiders.”

The worst example is that when Mexicans speak out against the miserable camp conditions, immigration authorities are called. Not only are illegal immigrants rounded up, but so is anyone who looks Mexican. Sometimes those sent back to Mexico were native-born Americans who had never been to Mexico. According to Ryan, between the 1929 and 1935 repatriation period (in which her book is set), at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Because two of her books were nominated as Golden Sowers, I’m posting Pam Muñoz Ryan’s biography today and will post reviews of her books tomorrow to wrap up the week. Born and raised in California, Pam Muñoz Ryan comes from a background that is an ethnic mix of Spanish, Mexican, Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman. Many of her books explore her Mexican background.

The oldest of three sisters and the oldest of twenty-three cousins on her mother’s  side, many of her childhood memories revolve around big, noisy family gatherings with nearby relatives. Her grandmother on her mother’s side came to the United States from Mexico in the 1930s. They lived around the corner, while her Oklahoman grandmother lived in a nearby town. On her website, Ryan says that when she was with one, she often ate enchiladas, rice, and beans. When she was with  the other, she ate black-eyed peas, fried okra, and peach cobblers.

My grandparents on my mom’s side lived in my hometown. On holidays, all the relatives on my mom’s side would gather together at their home. Through my grandparents, I grew up being exposed to unique home-cooked Newfoundland dishes. They passed away before I moved to the Midwest in 1998. I still miss them.

Ryan’s memories also revolve around books and libraries. For example, until the end of fourth grade at McKinley Elementary, Ryan would walk to her Mexican grandmother’s house after school, where she sometimes had to draw upon her own resources to entertain herself. One of her earliest memories about books is that my grandmother had a set of encyclopedias. She’d tip each of these volumes out of its space, look at the top to see if there were any sections printed in color, and then go to those spots in the book. In primary grades, I loved reading sections of The New Book of Knowledge and my dad’s Richard’s Topical Encyclopedia.

The summer before fifth grade, Ryan’s family moved across town. She became the new kid on the block and at school. Not fitting in, she spent much of her free time riding her bike to the local library to borrow books. It was through books that she coped and fit in. They filled her imagination with possibilities and allowed her to ‘try on’ many lives different from her own. My family moved the summer before I entered fourth grade, but our move didn’t change what school I attended. Going to a new school in seventh grade is what most changed my life. That’s when I became a fan of problem books and movies.

In junior high, Ryan became the editor of the school newspaper, which was printed from a mimeograph machine in purple ink. Although English and composition were her strongest subjects, she didn’t pursue any writing electives in high school. I had the opposite experience. For the most part in junior high, I didn’t pursue any writing except poems. Then in high school, I started a newspaper of which I made myself editor and a drama club for which I wrote the scripts. I also enrolled in creative writing courses, both at my school and through correspondence.

Ryan wanted a profession that something to do with books and thought that would be teaching. Her first job after college  graduation, immediately following the Vietnam War, was as the Red Cross Coordinator for all of the Vietnamese playschools at the relocation camps at the U.S. Navy Base at Camp Pendleton. After getting married, she taught for three years as a bilingual Head Start teacher. Then, after her children were born, she stayed home part-time with them and taught part-time at a local preschool. Even when Ryan’s children reached elementary school and she returned to school to get her Master’s degree in Post-secondary Education, her thoughts remained on teaching.

One day after Ryan finished her Master’s, a professor asked her to stay after class. She asked if Ryan had ever considered professional writing as a career or avocation. When Ryan said no, her professor encouraged her. And so the seed was planted.

Today Pam Muñoz Ryan has written over twenty-five books for young people. She draws on the rich cultural heritage of her family background, as well as important segments of American history. Many of her books explore aspects of the Latino experience in  America, or illuminate little-known but significant episodes in American history. All of  her books are based on extensive research. In an interview with Scholastic, Ryan says,  “Part of the appeal of writing is similar to the enchantment of reading. They are both  quests. Except when I write, I’m the creator and choose the path.”

“Most of the characters in Breaking Through are … members of my family. All of them appreciated my writing their story because they felt that their story was the story of many, many families who experienced the migrant way of life and many families who are experiencing that same life today.”–Francisco Jimenez, Scholastic Interview

From the time he was four until he was fourteen-years-old, Francisco Jimenez lived in constant fear. It all started in 1940, when his parents moved the family from Mexico to California, with the hope of leaving their life of poverty behind. At the border, the family dug a hole underneath the wire wall and thereby illegally entered the United States. Although Francisco’s father always hoped to return to Mexico, Francisco liked getting an education. If the family returned, he’d lose this because there wasn’t any school in their village. And so naturally his fear of being deported grew daily. Then in eighth grade, it happened. The first chapter in Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez is about how the family comes to the United States, is forced to return to Mexico, but then re-enters legally with visas. The rest of this autobiographical book, told from the viewpoint of Francisco, is about how the Jimenez adjust to their American life.

What stood out most to me about Breaking Through is how eagerly Francisco tries to learn the ways of his new country. To fit in with his peers, he pays attention to what his peers talk about and do. This leads him to take an interest in music and dances. Many of the songs such as Rock Around the Clock and Venus in Blue Jeans he doesn’t initially understand: “I tried to make sense of them and picture them in my mind. Why would a rock circle a clock? Why would the planet Venus dress in jeans?” He convinces his brother for the two of them to teach each other to dance, because this will help them meet new girls and make new friends. When invited out to a restaurant, he watches for social cues on how to behave. For example, this is how he learns the proper place for a napkin is not on table or floor but on one’s lap. Not everything is about being socially accepted; Francisco also tries to excel in school. When he finds an old Doctor Doolittle book in the dump, he reads a few pages every night to help him learn English. He also watches movies to improve his English. Typing is one of the classes he needs to take to get into college. When he finds an old one, he types every night to improve his accuracy and speed. Last, he copies notes from school onto cards that he studies while on the job.

Breaking Through is largely about being poor. The Jimenez family first moves to the United States from Mexico to escape a life of poverty. For a long time, it seems as if those dreams aren’t going to be fruitful. The father and the children work in the fields, sometimes even during school hours. Despite their multiple jobs, the family isn’t regularly able to pay their rent on time or even put food on the table. Countless times, the family has to find things they need such as sneakers for gym class by rummaging through garbage. This leads to Francisco’s father feeling depressed and to some of the family arguments. Just like Finding Paris is partly a picture of being part of foster care, so Breaking Through is partly a picture of being caught in poverty.

Yet Breaking Through is also about being Mexican. There are references to Mexican foods, music, and heroes. Sadly, there are also run-ins with prejudice. When Francisco’s mom rubs garlic on him to cure him of ringworm, Francisco is called “stinky Mexican”. The two eldest boys have their hearts broken, when girls break up with them after finding out that the Jimenez family is from Mexico. Last, some employers even advise them, “Don’t tell people you’re American. You could easily pass for Americans.”

Happily, in the midst of their struggles are many supportive adults. When Francisco informs his school counselor that he wants to be a teacher, Mr. Kinkade tells him that he’ll need to go college and that this will be expensive but that there are scholarships available. He also looks at Francisco’s schedule and makes substitutions of classes more suitable for college. Later, Francisco’s English teacher also tries to help by writing comments on his papers about how to improve. She encourages him to read for fun to improve his English, but there is no time for newspapers or books. Yet when she gives him Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to read, Francisco is finally able to identify with a novel. The last example I’ll give you is from an assembly. After reading about how valiantly Francisco tried to become American, I wondered if he would ever have a chance to share from his Mexican culture. One day in assembly he does.

Other than a Scholastic interview, I found little information about Francisco Jimenez. In that interview, he shares how he wrote Breaking Through. Besides relying on memory, he interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, obtained his junior high and high school records, and visited some of the places where the family lived in migrant-labor camps.


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