As our current Vamos A Leer theme, we’ve been discussing race in YA literature and I took my first book recommendation hot off the press from the 2013 Pura Belpré Award list. The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano is the 2013 Pura Belpré Author Honor Book winner and it is well deserved. In this historical fiction novel, written in exciting, inviting and descriptive English with smatterings of Spanish (technical, slang and geographically specific) Manzano traces the lives of New York Puerto Ricans during the late 1960s when the Young Lords emphatically put their struggle into the public eye. (Remember the Young Lords? Click back to this post for a refresher course, there may be a pop quiz). Manzano easily weaves together the multitude of identity-layers a young Puerto Rican girl growing up in the barrio may experience.These identities include being a Puerto Rican, being a teenage girl, living with a step-parent with whom she doesn’t exactly get along, living in poverty, and trying to decide her own space, place and destiny in a world that can seem largely predetermined. Part of her struggles come from the quintessential teenage challenge: your parents. You all remember being there: on the one hand your parents absolutely annoy the heck out of you (as I’m sure you do them… I know I did); on the other hand you start to see them as people with their own history, identity, dreams, wishes, fears and love, which makes your heart ache; on the one foot you still need them for subsistence, permission, life; and on the last foot you have to stand on, you wish you didn’t need them as much as you do. The protagonist, Evelyn, is in the midst of this most crucial moment in her life, and I found myself both laughing and grimacing as I remembered myself as a teenager (sorry Mom and Dad!). But what is different for Evelyn is the environment in which all of this is taking place, the social, cultural and political climate of the microcosm of the Puerto Rican barrio and the macrocosm of the United States. At this time, we had a long coming awakening where African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Asian-Americans and those who stood up with them were fighting day in and day out to be heard, to be recognized, to be equal, to be seen. Manzano speaks beautifully to this in her Author’s note, “I did not think of the plight of Puerto Ricans. Why would I? We seemed invisible even to me.” The awakening in El Barrio came with the Young Lords uprising, which is the crux of Manzano’s book. Manzano neatly mirrors the struggles of the political and racial world with the personal struggles of Evelyn. By doing so, Manzano reminds us that identity is inevitably fought upon multiple battle fields; from the streets to the couch.
Additionally, Manzano gives us a character situated within her time, speaking as though she would have in 1969. As such, the descriptions of African-American characters in particular are the typical food metaphors (i.e. “Dolores’ skin was the color of Hershey’s chocolate”); this may strike some of you as a strange considering my post last week about words and race in YA literature. But I want to be clear that this is a historical fiction novel and as such, offers us a perfect opportunity to show our kids the ways in which people used to talk about people of color and the ways in which people still talk about people of color and how problematic both of those are. Told from the perspective of a young teenage girl in 1969, using these types of descriptions fits. That does not mean I excuse the fact that people in 1969 thought, talked, saw and wrote this way (nor am I naive enough to think a lot has changed), it means that as Manzano herself says, “if Evelyn Serrano used some politically incorrect statements, she meant to offend no one. She is simply a product of her time.” BINGO! “She is a product of her time,” if there was ever a perfect line in a book to get a conversation going about personal responsibility, critical thinking and a revolution of words and language, this is it.
Overall, I find Manzano’s book a great conversation starter on identity, race, teenage experience, politics and culture. I think your classroom will relate to her on the things they have in common as teenagers, and I hope, some of the kids in your classroom will relate to her on the basis of living in the world as a person of color. Appropriate for high school students, The Revolution will pull your kids in and invite them to become part of the conversation.
—“There weren’t too many of us on television, salsa music was almost never heard outside of our own communities, and I wasn’t aware of any books written about our experience. Like many, I accepted this as being the norm[.]” –-Sonia Manzano