Coming-of-age books by and about Latinas — and why you should read them

Young adult books for Latinas covering immigration, feminism, & sexuality including "Make Your Home Among Strangers" and "Call Me Maria".
Image: "How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez; "The Education of Margot Sanchez" by Lilliam Rivera; and "When I was Puerto Rican" by Esmeralda Santiago.
"How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez; "The Education of Margot Sanchez" by Lilliam Rivera; and "When I was Puerto Rican" by Esmeralda Santiago.
By Rigoberto González

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These are some notable stories about the journey from girlhood to womanhood written by and about Latinas. The most popular and bestselling title is, without question, Sandra Cisneros’s "The House on Mango Street," which continues to set the standard because of its popular appeal, complex characters, and emotional truths—there are many other Latino-centric books you should consider, too. The following are excellent companions to that beloved book. Some are already classics in the Latinx genre, others will soon find their place in the hearts of readers everywhere, standing proudly next to Cisneros’s cherished Chicana, Esperanza.

1. "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez

First published in 1991, Alvarez’s novel-in-stories chronicles the lives of four sisters from the Dominican Republic as they navigate cultural displacement, assimilation and feminism. Growing up in New York City offers exciting challenges and freedoms, but their journeys and awareness of their privileges is inextricably bound to the García family’s status as political refugees fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship. Each of the sisters works to overcome her unique personal struggle, but it’s Yolanda, the writer, who takes on the role of memory-keeper, clinging to family history to avoid forgetting.

2. "Make Your Home Among Strangers" by Jennine Capó Crucet

Cuban American writer Capó Crucet creates a kindred spirit for all of those young Latinas who are daughters of immigrants and first-generation college students. Lizet Ramírez trades her familiar Florida surroundings for a chance to study in a private college located in upstate New York. This eye-opening dislocation allows Lizet to fully appreciate her Cuban community’s complicated relationships to exile, but she’s also painfully aware that she has access to resources and knowledge that will widen the rift between her experience and those of the people she left behind. Capó Crucet’s dazzling novel shows that leaving home is never easy, and neither is coming back.

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3. "The Distance Between Us" by Reyna Grande

Grande’s two novels Across a Hundred Mountains (2006) and Dancing with Butterflies (2009) dealt with the sacrifices Mexican families make to secure a better life for their children, and how the harsh realities of separation from homeland and even from each other affect a person’s emotional well-being. In this inspiring memoir, Grande details her own experience as a girl left behind in Mexico, who eventually joins her parents in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. Her family members are strangers in a strange land, but Grande pushes past the stigmas of poverty and her immigrant status, finding her voice by pursuing an education.

4. "Cup of Water Under My Bed" by Daisy Hernández

Strengthened by the cultural lessons of her Colombian-Cuban ancestry and a deep respect for her family’s spiritual beliefs, Hernández, a bisexual woman of color, prepares to confront the disappointments and hard-won triumphs of the professional world. This empowering memoir traces Hernández’s path from the comforts of home to the discomforts of school and beyond. She learns that what makes her unique will also be subject to suspicion, exclusion, and even ridicule. But no matter what kind of unexpected encounter awaits her, her self-esteem and pride, fortified by love, remains unshakable.

5. "Call Me Maria" by Judith Ortiz Cofer

This legendary Puerto Rican author passed away only a few months ago, but she left behind an incredible literary legacy: poems, fiction and nonfiction that spoke to the immigrant journeys, usually experienced by women. Her other well-known books include Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) and The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women (1993). In this 2004 novel, Ortiz Cofer writes beautifully about one young woman’s struggle with depression. Separated from her mother and the motherland, she taps into her own imaginative powers to make poetry out of heartache, to find hope while in despair.

6. "The Education of Margot Sánchez" by Lilliam Rivera

The most recent title on this list is a young adult novel about a Puerto Rican teen who feels as much of an outsider at her fancy prep school as she does working all summer at Papi’s grocery store in the Bronx. Margot’s goal is to join the popular kids partying in The Hamptons, but her path to belonging is disrupted by the tough revelations about her parents’ marriage, her brother’s demons, and her own misguided values. This exquisite debut introduces a spirited and memorable protagonist in a coming of age tale that’s certain to become a classic. Rivera is a talent worthy of keeping company with the best of our Latina storytellers.

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7. "When I Was Puerto Rican" by Esmeralda Santiago

Yet another legendary Puerto Rican writer, Santiago’s memoirs include the bestselling Almost of a Woman (1999) and The Turkish Lover (2004), but her story began with 1993 publication of When I was Puerto Rican. As the oldest of seven children, Esmeralda becomes the de facto second mother after her parents separate, a difficult task for a girl with big dreams of independence. When the family moves to New York City, young Esmeralda sees possibility and freedom within reach, but the pull of her familial responsibilities keep slowing her down. Eventually she strikes a balance between doing what’s expected of her and being clever about shaping her own future.

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