This book for children aged 8-12 features vignettes about twenty Hispanic American men and women who have made outstanding contributions in their respective fields. The author begins with the observation:
“In a land of immigrants, it is an irony that Latino lives have been largely ignored. Although there have been incredible contributions by Hispanic Americans since the beginnings of this nation, their pioneering roles often have been oversadowed and their identities besmirched by terms such as ‘alien’ and ‘illegal.’”
Herrera tried to include a mix of people from diverse fields, from community organizers César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, to the astronaut Ellen Ochoa, to physics Nobel Prize winner Luis W. Alvarez, to Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor.
I didn’t know much about some of those he featured, such as the New Mexico-born Dennis “Dionisio” Chavez, 1888-1962, who served in the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and for four terms as governor of New Mexico. While in office, he pushed bills to protect Indian rights, voting rights, and to promote fair employment practices.
People may know the name of Desi Arnaz, but tend to think of him as Lucille Ball’s henpecked husband on “I Love Lucy.” He was much more than that. It was Arnaz who first filmed a sitcom in front of a live audience. He used a multicamera setup for the first time and also created the concept of the rerun. The studio he had with Lucille Ball, Desilu, was bigger than any other in Hollywood in the 1950’s and ‘60s. As the author writes, “Desi’s revolución could be seen in everyone’s living room. He changed American television – behind the scenes and on the screen.”
Helen Rodriguez-Trias was born in 1929 in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, and spent her life as an activist for Puerto Rican rights, inter alia. She became a doctor at age thirty-one. Through her efforts to support abortion rights, abolish enforced sterilization, and provide neonatal care to underserved people, she expanded the range of public health services for women and children in minority and low-income populations all over the world. She endeavored to end sterilization abuse, inform women about lead paint hazards, and catered to women with HIV. The author writes, “She believed that issues of social change – helping people make their lives better – were inextricably linked with better health care.”
One could go on and on; the short biographies are so inspirational! Each profile is accompanied by a beautiful full-page painting of the subject by award-winning illustrator Raúl Colón. Using a muted palette done in watercolor, colored pencils, and litho pencils, Colón creates an effect somewhere between intaglio and pointillism that gives his portraits a gauzy appearance.
At the back of the book, there is a list of recommended readings on every hero covered by the book.
Discussion: In an interview, the author pointed out that everyone wants awareness of the stories of their forebears, but he was “bowled over at the lack of materials” on Hispanics. He hopes more writers will undertake the task of remedying this omission. It is all the more critical in times when the President of the United States avers that immigrants are not people but “animals.” Moreover, the current administration further vitiates the truth about contributions of immigrants by bruiting the erroneous claim that immigrants overburden social welfare programs. This, of course, is not true; on the contrary, native-born Americans aren’t footing the bill for immigrants so much as immigrants are contributing to a welfare system that many of them can’t take advantage of. And many of those immigrants, as Herrera shows, have excelled admirably.
Evaluation: Herrera has made his “heroes” into relatable people with engaging stories. The bios aren’t too long to get tedious, but give just enough information to create interest in finding out more.
Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group, 2014