I love to read, especially memoirs and fiction, mostly by Latina authors but not exclusively. Everyone who knows me knows this about me. My mother read to me since before I can remember. She was an avid reader herself and I often saw her tucked away at the end of the night, a lamp glaring over her head, a book cradled in bed with her. When I was bored, she’d tell me to read a book. It was an instant cure.
I love a lot of books but some stand out to me as the ones I will always love, the ones I re-read when I’m not trying to get through my To-Read list. Here are some of them, in no specific order, just as they come to mind.
When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
This book blew my mind. The language was exactly what I spoke – English sprinkled with Spanish from Puerto Ricans who came and went from the island. It was like reading about my own soul. Even though the experiences in the book did not mirror my own, they did for so many people I loved. I even read the book in Spanish, and I don't normally read Spanish. It is the first of three books that make up her memoirs and each of them are great but the first one will never leave me. I love this book so much that I want to be cremated with it – or buried, whatever – that’s how much I love it. If I ever meet Esmeralda Santiago I will probably just stare at her in wonder and then burst into tears at her feet.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I have to admit, I had to read this book a few times to really capture its brilliance. I read it for the first time as a sophomore in high school and it was hard to digest. However, there was something about it that stuck with me. I read it again as a freshman in college and it was a whole other experience, and I loved it. The way that everything fits together with a hint of implausibility throughout, and the passionate, deliberate characters is the thing of legends. There’s no way this book won’t haunt you in the best way possible.
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
This was my go-to book whenever I was bored and my mom would tell me to go read a book. I would flip the pages and open to a random page and no matter what poem I opened to, I was hooked and my boredom disappeared. I love that my daughter loves this book, too.
This going to sound ignorant, but it wasn’t until reading this book that I realized that there were books about Latinas like me. I had read Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel but they were from Latin America, not from where I was born and raised. Their books were originally written in Spanish and translated into the English version I read. They are incredible writers, but they didn’t capture the Latina experience I was living. Alisa did. This book changed my life. I became nearly obsessed with Latina authors writing from perspectives I could relate to. It set me on a path of research to discover other such books and started my collection. If you want a book recommendation by a Latina author – an adult, YA or middle grade book – let me know, I’m pretty sure I own the book. Whether I am able to part with it so you can borrow it is another question,and I make no promises.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
The first word that comes to mind when I think of this book is raw. He was writing the real, edgy, in-your-face, this-is-how-we-live-so-deal-with-it before Juniot Diaz, before Michele Serros. My mom gave me this book when I was in high school and I was shocked, awed, and moved to tears. I read it in a day. Just seeing my well-worn copy of the book gives me chills. It is one of those books that I will praise to the moon and back but will never let you borrow my copy.
Night by Elie Wiesel
My heart was in my throat for most of this book. I closed it, tried to think, then turned to page one and read it all over again. Amazing on so many levels.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I didn’t expect to like this book but it grabbed me. I loved it so much that I used it for all my college essays. To this day I credit it with my acceptance into Grinnell College, NYU and Columbia University.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The story kept my attention but it was the struggle was real to me, so relevant to what I saw in the families trying to make ends meet in my neighborhood, in my family. It was heart-breaking and fascinating and it made me want my own stories to have a social message that would live past my years on this earth. It made me consider becoming vegetarian but my mother put an end to that pretty quickly since I was 14 at the time and she still provided most of my meals.
Blubber by Juby Blume
I was fat as a kid and I hated it. Reading about another fat kid who endured worse teasing than I ever did was a comfort. Judy Blume is up there with Esmeralda Santiago for writers I would lose my mind over if I ever met. I read all her books and loved each of them. When my daughter checks them out of the library it takes all my will power not to grab them from her, curl up with them and read them all over again. I resist, but it is difficult.
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina
Even though this is a young adult novel, I read this as an adult and it still left a powerful impression. Medina was unflinchingly honest in the depiction of the bully. She wrote her in such a way that you could not hate her because you want to know why she’s hurting so much that she hurts others for no reason. Medina never tells you why, she never “fixes” her and I love that because that’s how life is. At the end of the day, villains, bullies and bad guys don’t end up rehabilitated and remorseful. Life goes on for them and those left in their wake. I also loved that the book is filled with female characters who are strong without a love interest to affirm that. We need more Latina characters like that in our books, on our TV, in our lives!
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judy Barrett
Aside from the Bearstein Bears series, this was my all-time favorite picture book. Food falling from the sky?!? Are you serious?! Can I live there? It made this little fatty very happy and hopeful.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I related to this character so much that I wished he was real. I wanted to be his friend. Like him, I went to an all-white school where the students were as foreign to me as I was to them. I questioned parts of me every day and I cried nearly as often because I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. Alexie captures that in a way that made me nod my head in agreement, nearly shed tears, and laugh out loud – sometimes within minutes of each reaction.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Writing is hard. It’s often fantasized as a person sitting in front of a computer, a brilliant story flowing from their brain to the keys, plots perfectly worked out, characters developed from inception. This book tells it how it is. It is agonizing, heavy work. It takes practice, commitment and a tough skin because you are your worse critic before the reviews and the blog posts are even thought of. Lamott reassures me that even when my story feels like it’s killing me, it’s really not and I will live to write another day – one word at a time. I need that reminder every once in a while so I constantly look up quotes from this book.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I went through a phase when I was obsessed with the Holocaust. I couldn’t believe humanity let that happen and secretly feared that one day the United States would start to hate Puerto Ricans – a people without a country, in my opinion, and try to wipe us out like the Nazis did to the Jews. I think I was nine at the time and it made perfect sense in my young mind. I still get sick at the thought that there are children living in the kind of fear that Ellen lived with in the book. It reminds me that there is work to be done to eliminate hate.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
One of those books that breaks your heart and fills you with hope at the same time. I aspire to infuse my writing with the honesty and no-holds-barred commitment that Grande achieves in this memoir.
I wanted to be in their club. I wanted to live in a neighborhood like the one these girls enjoyed, that never included worrying about what colors you wore because they might be of a rival gang, guys with nothing better to do cat-calling you from street corners, and fear of drive-bys. I didn't get into fantasies with fairies and dragons. The upper middle-class lifestyle depicted in these books was fantasy enough for me.