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Kids' Books

Reading and Role Models for Latino Youth

November 15, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That America is a country of immigrants with a culture built on contributions from every corner of the globe is hardly a new concept. In fact, that message is all around us, from the back of our money--"From Many, One"--to the city banners--"Diversity Is Our Strength"--that recently hung from light posts around downtown Los Angeles.

But celebrating that diversity can be difficult for children if the only literary examples they get are so different from their own daily experiences they become meaningless. And that problem can be especially acute during the teen years, when the search for a personal identity and the need for relevant role models are at their peak.

Which is why the University of Houston's scrappy Arte Publico Press is rapidly becoming an important part of America's multicultural landscape. Arte Publico is the largest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Latino authors and, together with Pinata Books, its children's imprint, it provides the most widely recognized showcase for Latino literary arts and creativity in the United States.

Virtually all of Arte Publico's offerings feature Latino protagonists who struggle with the same coming-of-age problems addressed in most young adult literature, but with a twist because these subjects must also contend with cultural alienation, language difficulties and racism--troubles common to Latino youth but ones frequently ignored by mainstream imprints.

"Rina's Family Secret" (by Gloria Velasquez, 147 pages; $9.95), for example, focuses on the pain and inner turmoil one young woman must confront when she witnesses her abusive stepfather hurt her mother so badly the older woman must be hospitalized. The fourth novel in Velasquez's Roosevelt High School series, "Rina" is told from two perspectives: Rina's and that of Sandra Martinez, a school counselor. And since both characters' ethnicity figures heavily in the plot, the author has casually scattered Spanish phrases throughout the book. (There's a three-page glossary in the back of the book.)

In "The Year of Our Revolution" (97 pages; $16.95), award-winning Puerto Rican author Judith Ortiz Coffer follows teen-aged Maria Elena on a scorched-earth rebellion marking her passage from innocent adolescence to womanhood. The opening volleys in the rebellion come when she removes her mother's religious artifacts from her bedroom wall, adopting poetry and rock music as her spiritual guides and insisting she be called Mary Ellen and not Maria Elena, the Spanish equivalent.

By either name, however, she ultimately learns the high price to be paid for matters of the heart.

Pelayo "Pete" Garcia's semiautobiographical 1997 novel, "From Amigos to Friends" (242 pages, $7.95), continues to resonate in today's headlines. The book follows the trials and tribulations of three boys whose lives are disrupted and families uprooted by the Cuban revolution. By necessity the three are rushed through the transition from carefree, youthful pranksters to adults learning to survive as exiles and refugees. And though the politics may be dated, the experiences are not, as young immigrants from every impoverished or war-torn corner of the world can attest.

And finally, for pure inspiration there's "The Tall Mexican," Robert E. Copley's moving biography of ballplayer, businessman and humanitarian Hank Aguirre (159 pages; $16.95). Although Aguirre was born in Azusa to Mexican immigrant parents, the book makes scant mention of his childhood, focusing instead on his 15-year big-league pitching career and on the multimillion-dollar auto-accessories business he founded in a once-neglected Detroit neighborhood.

Copley was a longtime friend of Aguirre and worked for him as director of communications for Mexican Industries, so don't expect to find much criticism here. But then few found fault with Aguirre, who died of cancer in 1994 at age 63. A year before his death, the National Council of La Raza recognized his unique accomplishments in sports and society by presenting him with the Roberto Clemente Award for Excellence.

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