Latina Girls Dreaming

Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers
By Juliet Menéndez

As a second-generation Dominican child growing up in Harlem, I was steeped in my culture at home. From mangu to merengue, my family made sure I never forgot my roots. But once I ventured out, everything was American, including my heroines. I learned about Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, Madam C.J. Walker and many other Black women who were trailblazers. Few were Black Latinas. I often wondered about the Rosa Parks of the Dominican Republic, the Marian Anderson of Brazil.

“Latinitas,” by Juliet Menéndez, attempts to fill those gaps by finding, celebrating and educating readers about women such as the Bolivian Juana Azurduy de Padilla, who became the voice of oppressed silver miners in a war for independence from Spanish rule, and the Dominican Solange Pierre, who sued her government to gain basic human rights for Dominico-Haitians.

In easily digestible vignettes, Menéndez — a Guatemalan-American illustrator who worked as a bilingual art teacher in East Harlem — brings to life 40 Latinas from all over Latin America and the United States, from the 1650s to the present.

What will pull young people in is that Menéndez depicts these women as children (Latinitas), both visually and anecdotally. Readers get to imagine the Puerto Rican astrophysicist Wanda Díaz-Merced in her pajamas, sailing through the stars with her sister in an imaginary spaceship, “holding tight to their bedposts”; the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende chasing ghosts her grandmother summoned during séances; the Brazilian artist Maria Auxiliadora da Silva drawing on a wall with coal from the kitchen stove while the food she was supposed to be watching for her mother “burned to a crisp”; the Argentine architect Susana Torre and her cousin building homes for birds out of twigs and mud.

What will keep these readers engaged is how their soon-to-be heroines bloom into their future selves on the page. The Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou, who as a child collects caterpillars and ladybugs in jars, writes her first sonnet at 14 and by 17 has enough poems to publish a book. The Salvadoran topographical engineer Antonia Navarro defies her brothers’ teachers, who tell her, “Girls aren’t smart enough to do math,” to become the first woman in all of Central America to graduate from university. The Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who as a little girl sleeps with ballet shoes under her pillow, runs away at 15 to New York and, while battling vision problems in her early 20s, becomes an overnight sensation as a last-minute replacement in the role of Giselle.

In refreshing contrast to the prevalent whitewashing of Latina pioneers and innovators, Menéndez bathes these figures in a range of sun-tinged terra-cotta hues. Most striking to me is her illustration of the Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla. While Selena was portrayed in a Netflix series by an actress with lighter skin than she had, in the book she appears more like the Selena fans remember. Young girls who can’t find themselves in the mainstream will appreciate the multitude of shades with which Menéndez paints Latinas.

At the end of the book there is a sort of lightning round where Menéndez briefly lists the contributions of a handful of additional Latinas, such as Sylvia Mendez, the first Latina child to desegregate an all-white U.S. school, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut to go into space. I hope to learn more about these women, perhaps in a sequel.

Sandra E. Garcia is a Styles reporter for The Times and a co-author of “Finish the Fight! The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote.”

Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers
By Juliet Menéndez
120 pp. Henry Holt. $18.99.
(Ages 8 to 12)

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