Books don’t offer solutions to the world’s problems, but they are important records of resistance and story, memory and protest, and above all, change.
As the country enters its next governmental era with a conservative administration, it’s more imperative than ever to highlight the work of Latino writers who see past the political din and the noise and can give us a clearer understanding of the times we live in.
This list of recently published books features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by writers whose personal journeys as women, men, artists or activists are informed by their immigrant and ethnic histories or by their political and spiritual beliefs — values that need to be upheld as xenophobia, division and even hate crimes intensify.
1. Kathleen Alcalá, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, University of Washington Press.
A longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Chicana writer Alcalá makes a startling proposition: what if she learned to survive exclusively on what her beloved Bainbridge Island had to offer? That means becoming self-sufficient, resourceful and above all aware of what truly nurtures her.
This unique and fascinating memoir blends the history of Washington with the story of her family’s migration from Mexico, highlighted by informed insights on ecology, economy and gastronomy. Healthy living, Alcalá concludes, is not only securing food for today, but knowing that there will sustenance in the future—a strong warning against neglecting the needs and care of that other living, breathing body, the land.
2. Carolina Ebeid, You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior, Noemi Press.
“I have come to understand how every war holds a smaller war inside of it,” writes Ebeid in this series of quiet yet emotionally smoldering poems that examine one woman’s personal battles as she connects them to those of the world she lives in—“a copy of Eden, a copy that depends on violence.”
Each obstacle brings challenges but also surprising discoveries, like learning the figurative language of an autistic son and negotiating her Arab ancestry as a metaphor for inner turmoil: “I’ll not war, Palestine is not a war, no six day victor come, no seventh day, its waste of daffodils.”
Ebeid’s startling imagery punctuates this search for peace and self-knowledge, a journey that holds up a mirror to today’s troubled atmospheres: “There was darkness there like the afterhours inside a library.”
3. Bryan Allen Fierro, Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul, University of Arizona Press.
Fierro’s dazzling debut collection of stories engages, for the most past, aspects of manhood, masculinity and the male imagination. Set in LA and its immediate surroundings, and usually in Latino neighborhoods, these narratives offer quiet but powerful portraits of Latinos coming to terms with who they are in an ever-changing society.
Southern California is the dynamic arena that paralyzes those men who don’t want to challenge convention and that energizes those who recognize they need to keep up with the times—like the women in their lives are so effectively doing. Cars and sports are particularly influential presences in Fierro’s exquisite prose, underscoring how culture shapes identity for the California Chicano.
4. Jennifer Givhan, Landscape with Headless Mama, Pleiades Press.
This moving collection of poems is Givhan’s literary debut, heralding the arrival of an edgy and candid voice in Latina letters. The speaker is a woman coming to terms with the loss of her mother (“how can I help but wear her presence into the afterhours”) as she navigates such “alloys of sadness” as an unexpected pregnancy, the suicide of a crush, who was gay, a series of miscarriages and, later, the tough questions of her adopted son.
The inherited affliction is melancholia (“a beautiful flower in another family tree”) yet the speaker finds the strength of womanhood in her daughter’s imaginative streak (“Jesus is a woman in all my daughter’s stories”) and in the few but precious good memories of her mother “who couldn’t keep us from aching, no—who gave us song.”
5. Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, The Sleeping World, Touchstone.
Of Cuban-American and Spanish ancestry, Fuentes sets her novel in 1977, during that uncertain and unsettling period just after General Francisco Franco’s death. The ghosts of the dictatorship continue to haunt Mosca, a young woman whose parents were “disappeared” and whose brother’s whereabouts remain unclear.
Determined to find him, she joins a crew of student dissidents in a search through the ruins of their fascist-torn country, hope and spirit dwindling gradually as they become aware of the impossibility of their mission and the monumental journey that awaits their nation’s recovery. Fuentes’ heartbreaking story has Mosca mirror Spain’s devastated society, but the saving grace is that Mosca also reflects her homeland’s strength of character and the determination to survive.
6. Donna Miscolta, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories, Carolina Wren Press.
Miscolta’s Filipino and Mexican heritage and history inspire the 15 linked stories that span across three generations of women, and the men they love or who trouble them. Lupita Camacho is the unflappable matriarch who, forty years after crossing the border, still doesn’t speak English, though with each new generation comes the conflict of cultural and linguistic difference, and distance caused by gradual assimilation and interethnic marriages that “introduced Filipino, Polish, Irish, and Caribbean genotypes into [her] Yaqui-dominated Mexican bloodline.” Miscolta offers heartwarming and humorous takes on what is lost and what is gained for the immigrant family that works hard to achieve the bittersweet American dream.
7. Maceo Montoya, Chicano Movement for Beginners, For Beginners Books.
In the prologue to this introductory history of a social and political activist fervor that took shape during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Montoya proudly declares: “I grew up in a Chicano home, my family considered the Chicano Movement to be very much alive, and its important events and leaders were mentioned with frequency and seemingly at every opportunity.”
In turn, he now shares that legacy with the next generation of American youth by gathering essential knowledge about the prominent people, issues and events that empowered the Chicano community. Boxed text highlights key figures like Filipino labor organizer Larry Itliong and feminist crusader Enriqueta Vásquez, and Montoya’s illustrations give the book a graphic novel texture that is sure to appeal to younger readers.
8. Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja, Civil Coping Mechanisms.
Described as a dreamoir (“a literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind”), LA-based writer Ortiz continues her innovative soul-search by weaving dream with memory in order to piece together a poignant story from the elusive symbolism of the subconscious.
She sharpens the lens on the fogginess between sleeping and waking but eschews interpretation, choosing instead to allow the surreal and surprising imagery to remain intact. A few entries into this stunning dreamoir, it’s evident that Ortiz is making bold statements about love, desire and womanhood as she defiantly navigates the absurdities and strangeness of everyday reality and taps into the comforting properties of fantasy and daydream.
9. Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours, Thomas Dunne Books.
McLemore’s use of magical realism introduces YA readers to serious social issues like prejudice and discrimination. Her debut novel "The Weight of Feathers" had a Romeo and Juliet theme embedded within a rivalry between the Palomas and the Corbeaus, two family cultures of sideshow performers.
In this latest book, the critically acclaimed Mexican-American author offers a fairytale-like story about Miel, a Mexican girl who grows roses on her wrists, and Sam, a Pakistani trans youth, whose ethnic and sexual differences make them vulnerable to the schemes of the pretty white witches of the town. This magical novel not only imagines a world, very much like our own, in which Miel and Sam’s affections for each other are threatened, but one in which it’s possible for that friendship to blossom into love.
10. Emmy Pérez, With the River on Our Face, University of Arizona Press.
The same river is called Rio Grande by one nation and Río Bravo by another; border history, landscape and people separated by politics and economics. But Chicana poet Pérez, a long-time resident of the Texas valley, where the “tip of Tejas is an oriole’s nest that whorls into México like a galaxy,” offers a more conciliatory perspective.
In her spiritual vision, the borderlands are also inhabited by positive powers: curanderas, (healers) the “bark-winged mariposa from Tamaulipas siphoning sugar,” and a rich literary legacy that celebrates the shared land and struggles of Mexicans, Native Americans and Texans alike.
Above all she praises the role of the poets, those “little gods” who “can build poems faster than the wall’s construction.” Though they don’t overlook the violence of the border, these poems blaze with the desert’s dazzling beauty.
11. Mayra Santos-Febres, editor, San Juan Noir, Akashic Press.
A welcomed addition to the publisher’s popular noir series, "San Juan Noir" has the distinction of being issued in two editions, English and Spanish, to more accurately reflect the Caribbean island’s bilingual culture. Editor Santos-Febres gathers a varied collection of stories she expects will “reveal a side of Puerto Rico otherwise obscured by the tourist trade and preconception.”
To that end, the anthology features writers whose stories take place in a number of San Juan’s diverse districts like Barrio Obrero (in Tere Dávila’s surprising “The Infamy of Chin Fernández”) and Trastalleres (in Luis Negrón’s arresting “Dog Killer”).
Writers of Puerto Rican descent who live off the island, like Ernesto Quiñones and Charlie Vázquez, complete the points of entry into the “pearl of the Caribbean” and its distinct and unexpected moods.