América Is Her Name

author: Luis J. Rodríguez
illustrator: Carlos Vásquez
publisher: Curbstone Press, 1997
grades 3-8 
Mixteca, Mexican

América is the name of a Mixteca child from Oaxaca, living with her family in the Pilsen barrio, an economically stressed and depressed neighborhood in Chicago. Her mother cleans houses, her father works the factories when work is available, and her uncle also works—and drinks. There are “desperate men without jobs standing on street corners…stuck in a gray world where they can’t find their way out.” The child’s school experiences are equally depressing: her dismissive ESL teacher considers her students “difficult” and refers to América as “illegal.”

“How can anyone be illegal?” she thinks. “How can a girl called América not belong in America?” This child has dreams. She dreams of Oaxaca, her home. She dreams that her uncle doesn’t drink. But here, in this strange, hostile land, she is losing her voice.

And then, one day, a poet comes to visit, and everything changes for América. Speaking in Spanish, he encourages the students to write poetry, to talk poetry, to reach inside themselves and bring out their dreams. He tells the class, “When you use words to share feelings with somebody else, you are a poet, and poets belong to the whole world.”

Rodríguez based his story on his experience as a poet-in-residence, working with Spanish-speaking children and their parents in Chicago “on writing from their lives and imaginations.” “It is not enough to prepare our children for the world,” Rodríguez writes, “we also must prepare the world for our children.”

Carlos Vázquez’ vibrant full-color illustrations, which combine elements of folk art with surrealism, are amazing. In almost every picture, there is a little bird perched on América’s shoulder or nearby. When she dreams of home, the animals, the flowers, and a carpet of green are there with her. When she writes with her mother at the kitchen table, lines connect what’s on the paper with what’s in their hearts.

What sets this story apart is that it deals with the harshness and violence of poverty in a way that does not dehumanize people who are poor. Young América is neither hero nor victim; rather, she is simply a child with dignity and courage, a child who is finding her voice.

This title is also available in Spanish, La Llaman América. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/5/13)

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