Lee & Low, 2011
In 2012, the American Library Association announced the winners of the Youth Media Awards, an event one colleague compared to opening a pile of holiday gifts. The “gift” that made me the happiest this year was the Pura Belpré Award for Writing, which went to Guadalupe García McCall’s debut novel-in-verse Under the Mesquite, one of the most achingly beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time. It is a story from the heart, not written to fit into a marketing category but to remember, to honor, and to bear witness.
In Lupita’s freshman year of high school, her beloved mother is diagnosed with uterine cancer. Over the next three years, the budding poet and star student who is the oldest of eight children, chronicles the ups and downs of her mother’s chemo treatments, remission, relapse, and desperate journey from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Galveston in search of a miracle cure. Lupita’s father drains the children’s college accounts to finance his wife’s treatment, and when he accompanies her to the medical center in Galveston for several months, Lupita struggles to control her seven siblings, some of whom withdraw while others rebel and begin to hang out with a fast crowd. Without their father’s regular income and with their savings gone, the eight children go hungry and must beg food from neighbors in their impoverished Mexican-American community. Despite all their love, prayers, and devotion, Mami dies. Lupita finds solace and resolution on a visit to relatives in Mexico, and she comes to realize that she must follow her dreams of higher education and writing rather than continue to sacrifice everything for her family.
Under the Mesquite combines beautiful poetry and a compelling story. The reader sees Lupita’s talent, and her poetry invites us into her rich internal life. It expresses her love for her mother, her dedication to her family, her changing relationships with friends, and her dreams for herself. The poems are layered in meaning and contain words of wisdom passed down through generations: “…while friends / are the familia we choose / for ourselves, we still have to work / at staying close.” The condensed language of the poetry gives this novel emotional power and is perfectly suited to a story about a large, close family thrown into crisis by a mother’s diagnosis of cancer.
A hallmark of great literature is its ability to reveal “between the lines” a culture, a time period, and the struggles facing individuals and communities at that time. As I read Under the Mesquite, I could not help but think of the family impoverished by Mami’s medical bills, the emptying of eight children’s college accounts—their ticket to a brighter future—and children forced to scavenge for food and clothing. Texas has the highest rate of people without health care in the country, leaving thousands of families to make the choice to let loved ones die for lack of funds or face poverty and homelessness in an effort to save them.
I hope that the prestigious Pura Belpré Award, given to the best book written and illustrated by an author of Latina/o heritage, helps to give Under the Mesquite a wide readership. This book is truly a gift. Highly recommended.