I have always been drawn to Hispanic culture. For my Master’s of Library Science thesis, I wrote a 100-page study examining the portrayal of Hispanic characters in contemporary young adult books. Though I’ve never traveled to Latin America, I keep it on the top of my list of places to visit. I display diverse books throughout the year in my library but in September, I always create a large display for Hispanic Heritage Month. Here is a lineup of related books, with my reviews of two favorites:
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
Sometimes books seem to find me. I had no idea that this beautiful novel had anything to do with grief when I picked it up. Ever since my dog died, I’ve been trying hard to get through the pain. Reading this book was like a therapy session. Though there was sadness in it, the prose was uplifting and inspiring. Alvarez finds words for the mysteries of life, the complexities of human relationships, and the ways we try to make sense of the world around us.
Antonia Vega, whose family came to America from the Dominican Republic years ago, recently retired from her job as a teacher of literature at the local college. Her husband, Sam, died from an aortic aneurysm on his way to meet his wife for a celebratory dinner. Antonia has been mourning him for almost a year and as she tries to keep herself busy in her small Vermont town, she contemplates her life and reminisces about Sam, sometimes talking to him about her dilemmas. She has close-knit relationships with her three sisters but her siblings bring much drama into her life. When one of the sisters goes missing, Antonia helps the other two investigate what happened to Izzy, whom they suspect is suffering from bipolar disorder. In the midst of this crisis, a Mexican worker from her neighbor’s farm enlists Antonia’s help in bringing his girlfriend to Vermont. When the young girl arrives, she is pregnant and in desperate need of someone to guide her. Antonia, who wrestles with defining her obligations to others, offers her assistance and sets the girl up with a doctor at the local clinic. As Antonia navigates the chaos around her, she relies on her inner strength to face the unimaginable, proving to herself that life continues to go on even in the darkest times.
Alvarez’s writing is stunning, her sentences like intriguing works of art. There is an indescribable tone running through the narrative that is both soothing and engaging. This book is intelligent, well-written, and profound.
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
This beautiful book about five women in Uruguay is one of the most unique narratives I’ve ever read.
It is 1977 and Uruguay is in the holds of a military dictatorship. Five city women, looking for a break from the stifling confines of city life, are brought together through various means. They travel as a group to Cabo Polonia, a deserted beach town on the coast. By the end of the week, the five of them have formed a bond that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Though their circumstances differ in many ways, there is one thing that ties them together–their desire to be intimate with other women. Flaca, Anita, Romina, Malena, and Paz have all been affected by the subversive political situation. Curfews, arrests, and an overall feeling of fear has caused them to crave a short time where they can be themselves. In Polonia, living in a tiny mud-floor shack, with no running water or beds, they spend time in the ocean, under the stars, and reflecting on their situations. The destructive regime has put an end to all sorts of freedoms, but the most dangerous one to practice is the one they are all guilty of–the simple act of desiring women instead of men.
De Robertis highlights the struggles of these well developed, fictional women in a patriarchal, authoritarian society before the gay rights movement arrived there. The book is a slow burn, one that lingers on long conversations and streams of thought. The landscape is breathtaking, and though there are horrific circumstances uncovered, the overriding vibe is one of pure Latin-American charm.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.