Latino Holiday Book List

Why not consider the gift of Latino/a literature

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: November 30, 2003

Latino Holiday Book List

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanuka, Kwanzaa, or just love giving presents, why not consider the gift of Latino/a literature? Poetry, novels, artbooks, short stories. It's all represented here in a short list of ten wonderful libros, some classics, some new:

1. Crossing Vines (University of Oklahoma Press) by Rigoberto Gonzalez

If you were unfamiliar with Rigoberto Gonzalez, it wouldn't take many pages of reading his first novel, "Crossing Vines," to suspect that his prior book was one of poetry, not prose. Each sentence, every paragraph, all chapters possess the clarity and music of poetry even in recounting the often harsh and always difficult lives of a crew of grape pickers. In a series of vignettes focusing on different characters, Gonzalez allows us into the lives and painful pasts of these workers. Gonzalez avoids the melodramatic and cliche when it would be easy to fall into such traps. This is a poetic, powerful first novel.

2. Rumba Atop the Stones (Peepal Tree Press) by Orlando Ricardo Menes

Orlando Ricardo Menes brings to bear his Cuban-American identity in this dynamic, magical and, at times, gritty poetic vision. Menes weaves the vastly divergent elements of the Caribbean identity: European, African and indigenous people - along with their languages and distinctive lives - to fill the pages of this book. Menes is a craftsman with soul and an eye for the sublime. His is a voice that cannot be ignored.

3. The Flower in the Skull (Harvest Books)

Kathleen Alcal?'s "The Flower in the Skull" is a haunting, beautiful and well-researched novel that begins deep in Mexico's Sonoran Desert in the late 1800s and follows three generations of women up to the present. Alcal? 's language is clear, evocative and, at times, heart-wrenching as she tells this story of diaspora, lost family connections and personal discovery. One of the most moving chapters (titled, "The Girl in the Closet") is Alcal? at her best as she captures the almost overwhelming fears of a woman beaten down by the sexual transgressions of her employer: "If I just stay here, I will be fine. Before I shut the door, I got a box of crackers from the kitchen, so I will be fine."

4. A Rush of Hands (University of Arizona Press) by Juan Delgado

The lives of Chicanos and Mexicanos have become a welcome and fertile ground for some of our most talented, young poets (Rigoberto Gonzalez and John Olivares Espinoza come to mind). Juan Delgado with his new collection "A Rush of Hands" is no exception. But Delgado also addresses those simple, beautiful experiences that cross all ethnic lines. An example is his short poem, "Kiss":

As you spoke, a cricket sang
In my tumbleweed heart,
And wild sage surrounded us.
When your lips touched me,
A bird felt a fountain
With its fluttering wing.

(If "Kiss" doesn't make you break out in a smile, then you must never have loved!) Both despair and joy permeate Delgado's honest, uncomplicated yet lyrical lines.

5. City of Night (Grove Press) by John Rechy

Though it's been forty years since its publication, John Rechy's "City of Night" still packs an emotional wallop. The novel's storyline is well-known: Rechy writes of one young male hustler who wanders from El Paso to New York to Los Angeles to New Orleans meeting and experiencing male customers, drag queens, tough men and "nellies." While partaking of this life, he is also observing the pain and joy of a world filled with "youngmen" and those who are no longer young. Will he find meaning in any of it? Will he come to terms with his sexual orientation? The answers are not clear. But in the end it doesn't really matter. The prose is powerful, the dialogue poignant and, at times, hilarious. This is a remarkable and unforgettable book that should be read by everyone.

6. So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks: Poems (University of Illinois Press) by Rigoberto Gonzalez

Rigoberto Gonzalez makes it seem so easy: his poems sing with a clear, uncluttered voice about our quotidian existence. But don't be fooled. There is great craft in those easy, flowing lines. This is a beautiful, slender book of poems; a dazzling debut.

7. Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Work, Culture, and Education (Bilingual Press) by Gary D. Keller

"Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Work, Culture, and Education" is a beautifully produced, two-volume introduction to the vibrant, sexy and often political genre of Chicano/a art. Many kudos to Bilingual Press for taking on this huge project. You will find the remarkable artwork of such artists as Rene Arceo, Connie Arismendi, Alma Lopez, and hundreds of others. The reproduced work jumps out at you with life and power. These two volumes were produced with the support of the Center for Latino Initiatives of The Smithsonian Institution, the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, and numerous art organizations. I highly recommend this set.

8. Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge (Bulfinch) by Cheech Marin

Though not as extensive as "Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art" from Bilingual Press, Cheech Marin's "Chicano Visions" is a vibrant, lusty and masterful introduction to Chicano art. If you're Chicano, you might recognize many of the faces and images represented here by such fine artists as John Valadez, Frank Romero, Ester Hernandez, and many others. If you're not a member of the Chicano community, you will nonetheless be dazzled by the powerful images and colors of the culture. The introductory essays by Max Benavidez, Constance Cortez and Tere Romo assist us in contextualizing the art that is often, but not always, steeped in the socio-political rumblings of el movimiento. Hats off to Cheech Marin for sharing these fine works with the world.

9. The Republic of East L.A.: Stories (Rayo) by Luis J. Rodrguez

Luis J. Rodriguez once again has painted a vibrant and complex picture of those who work, live, love and die in "The Republic of East L.A." Rodriguez's prose is straight-forward yet poetic as he tells us about the varied struggles of cholos/as, a budding journalist, a limousine driver, immigrants, working people, all sorts of gente. My favorite story is "Sometimes You Dance with a Watermelon," where forty-year-old Rosalba (an immigrant living in poverty and already a grandmother) needs to escape her crowded home to get a momentary bit of joy. She rouses her favorite granddaughter, Chila, and they drive to Grand Central Market where they buy a watermelon. Rosalba balances it on her head and starts to walk swaying "back and forth to a salsa beat thundering out of an appliance store." She and Chila get caught up in this joyous dance:

"Rosalba had not looked that happy in a long time as she danced along the bustling streets of the central city in her loose-fitting skirt and sandals. She danced in the shadow of a multi-storied Victorian -- dancing for one contemptuous husband and for another who was dead. She danced for a daughter who didn't love herself enough to truly have the love of another man. She danced for her grandchildren, especially that fireball Chila. She danced for her people, wherever they were scattered, and for this country she would never quite comprehend. She danced, her hair matted with sweat, while remembering a simpler life on an even simpler rancho in Nayarit."

This is a potent, beautiful collection.

10. Love to Mam?: A Tribute to Mothers (Lee & Low Books)

Okay, I admit it: I'm biased here. I was lucky enough to have one of my poems accepted for this beautiful children?s anthology of poems by Latina/o writers honoring mothers and grandmothers. But, setting aside my small contribution (I receive no royalties...I've already been paid!), this beautifully produced collection not only includes work from some of our most treasured Latina/o writers (Virgil Suarez, Pat Mora, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Francisco X. Alarcon, to name a few of the thirteen contributors), but each poem is handsomely illustrated by Ecuadorian artist, Paula Barragan, who uses bright, inviting colors and images that draw both young and old into each poem. Because most of the authors use a little Spanish, the book includes an easy-to-read glossary with a pronunciation key. Despite being aimed at the younger reader, adults will enjoy this collection as they read it to their children because each poem will conjure up memories of the love, joy and comfort given by mothers and grandmothers. Why wait until Mother's Day?

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel loves reading books by Latinos/as. Visit his webpage at: http://www.danielolivas.com.

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