10 books from 2019 by and about Latinos you shouldn't miss

The best Latino books in 2019 include poetry collections, novels and memoirs from Teresa Dovalpage, Joe Jiménez, Carolina de Robertis and others.
Image: Best Latino Books
“Where We Come From: A Novel” by Oscar Cásares; “Staten Island Stories” by Claire Jimenez; “Cantoras: A Novel” by Carolina de Robertis
By Rigoberto González

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2019 was yet another extraordinary year for fans of Latino literature.

Among the year’s highlights are Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s “Sabrina & Corina,” a debut collection of stories that was named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction; Angie Cruz’s “Dominicana,” a novel that launched Good Morning America’s Cover to Cover book club, and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House,” whose inventive approach to narrative single-handedly reimagined the memoir.

These three books will continue to be talked about in 2020 and beyond. Aside from these, here are 10 other noteworthy books by and about Latinos you might want to add to the list of titles you plan to explore in the coming year.

1. “Where We Come From: A Novel” by Oscar Cásares

Where We Come From” tells the story of Orly and his elderly godmother Nina, both of them having become entangled in a human trafficking ring. What begins as a favor to her Mexican maid escalates into a burden for Nina as her guesthouse transforms into a drop house. She must keep the ordeal a secret from her godson who is visiting with her for an extended stay.

After the traffickers eventually vacate, taking the undocumented immigrants with them, Nina believes the threat is over. That is, until she discovers (as eventually Orly does, as well) that a boy has been left behind. Their efforts to protect the child and come to terms with the cruel realities of the U.S.-Mexico border make this novel a book of and for our times.

2. “Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall” by Daniel Chacón

The Wall in Chacón’s imaginative story collection is a futuristic database where all digital information is stored, ranging from photographs of cultural artifacts to any given person’s unsent emails. It’s those untold stories that inspire these glimpses into humanity at its most flawed and vulnerable. In “The Cauldron,” a waiter becomes unsettled when he serves a customer but is unable to see his dining companions. In “Water and Dog,” a father becomes emotional when his son encounters an actual canine, now a relic of the past. Each story offers a biting social critique that amplifies the absurdities of today’s norms and their significance to our collective future.

3. “Queen of Bones” by Teresa Dovalpage

This murder mystery set in modern-day Havana tells the story of a Chinese Cuban man who flees the island on a raft and returns two decades later to a country that, despite its changes, is still reconciling with its embattled past. When Juan Chiong is accused of murder during his visit, a skeptical Lieutenant Marlene Martinez takes her sleuthing skills on a surprising journey through the mystical world of Santería in order to uncover a killer who is set to strike once more. The intricate plot and the descriptions of today’s Cuban culture and society make this novel an entertaining and illuminating read.

4. “Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family” by Anika Fajardo

This touching memoir about gathering the shards of a fractured family and piecing them back together is both life-affirming and inspiring. Fajardo grows up in Minnesota knowing she is different: Her skin tone is darker than anyone else’s in her American family and her father is noticeably absent. As she enters adulthood and faces the prospect of starting a family of her own, she’s compelled to reconnect with her Colombian father and the country in which she was born. Instead of mourning what could have been, she embraces the better late than never. This, in turn, allows her to come to terms with her complicated identity and — eventually — feel complete.

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5. “The Accidental: Poems” by Gina Franco

This long-awaited collection by the author of “The Keepsake Storm”is a meditative and spiritual exploration on the body and the soul:

this simultaneous dying and blooming all too familiar

and, well, sad, too sad to keep looking though mostly

we ignore what grieving comes from putting everything, me,

on exhibit.

The image that launches this inner journey is of a flood victim who’s been recovered from a tree, her suspension in mid-air echoing a lynching and the crucifixion. Franco returns frequently to that tree — a symbol of life and death — and her speaker inhabits the space in between, loyal to neither side but sustained by both: “But upheld, if so, it is all so beautiful.”

6. “Staten Island Stories” by Claire Jimenez

This collection is inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” in which the infamous author shares the tales of people on a pilgrimage, providing insight into the 14th century England Chaucer’s characters inhabit. Jimenez’s contemporary take offers a rare view of New York City’s southernmost borough, Staten Island. Though most people’s perception of Staten Island might be shaped by headlines, Jimenez labors to show the vibrant communities within it while addressing the racial tensions that placed Staten Island on the map. In “The Grant Writer’s Tale,” for example, the story of Eric Garner’s murder looms heavily over a Puerto Rican man who finds himself caught in a protest of police brutality after boarding the ferry home. Though more than 75 percent of Staten Island residents are white — according to the latest U.S. Census data — Jimenez brings to the surface the experiences of its black and Latino inhabitants.

7. “Rattlesnake Allegory” by Joe Jiménez

The poems in Jiménez’s second collection are odes to heartbreak, to the knowledge that the body must survive even when it feels shattered:

I’m undergoing guilt like an atom-smasher

& sandblasters seem less a foe to my bones

than the idea I have lost you because I have harmed you, Love.

So when I hold your sighs in my mouth just call it mesquite.

Imbued with the startling imagery of the desert that gestures toward both desire and danger, these poems chart a gay man’s resurfacing by finding language to define the darkness that befell him:

the hardest part about loneliness… I exist,

in no less a world than a world equal to his.

8. “The King of Adobe: Reies López Tijerina, Lost Prophet of the Chicano Movement” by Lorena Oropeza

Reies López Tijerina was an ardent New Mexico activist in the 1960s considered a key figure in the Chicano Movement because of his advocacy for the land rights of marginalized groups, including Native Americans. Oropeza’s in-depth research delves into the personal life and motivations behind this civil rights legend to present a portrait of a complicated man with a background of religious separatism. He weathered scandals and adversaries to become a proponent of militant action in the fight against systemic racism. However, Oropeza’s biography also offers a valuable lesson on what it took to form a resistance that evolved into a national movement during a critical struggle for racial and social justice.

9. “I Offer My Heart as a Target / Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana” by Johanny Vázquez Paz

In this bilingual edition (superbly translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel) Puerto Rican poet Vázquez Paz grapples with the violence against the psyche (“Without strength to fulfill the vengeances/ I wreak every night in my sleep/ when I dream I am another woman/ who doesn’t awaken in me.”), and with the violence of displacement (“The city swallows the remains of my enchanted island/ gargles and then spits out its salty sea.”). Both consume the speaker, so she must find a way to make peace with her troubled past and with her life away from home. These poems are a celebration of female strength and imagination: “I am a woman: I endure much/ but the day is short.”

10. “Cantoras: A Novel” by Carolina de Robertis

Taking place on the coast of Uruguay during a period of military rule in the 1970s, de Robertis’s novel traces the lives of five cantoras who create a private refuge in order to live their truths as queer women. Each cantora (coded language for lesbian) must contend with her individual demons, but each is empowered by the affection and compassion of their collective. Eventually, each woman must find her own footing outside the haven, a symbolic second coming out that’s as difficult — but no less rewarding — than the first. De Robertis writes with unparalleled elegance, giving each character a rich and textured life. “Cantoras”is not only a story of survival, it’s also an illustration of how women, despite the odds, can thrive.

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