For many in the United States, there are huge portions of national history that remain obscure, if not forgotten entirely. Thankfully, there are educators and creators working to fix that problem.
Ten Speed Graphic brings us Sí, Se Puede: The Latino Heroes Who Changed the United States. The comic opens with a set of guests arriving at an immersive museum experience dedicated to preserving Latino history. They are immediately welcomed by Camilo, who serves as guide to these characters and the reader through centuries of Latino history. From the early Aztec and Mayan empires right up until the modern day, the book covers politics, sports, entertainment, science, social movements—a whole range of places in society where Latinos have left their mark. Along this journey, the immersive nature of the museum drops the characters into vibrant recreations of key moments with a readily accessible mix of factual information and natural dialogue about the process of learning a history so often overlooked.
Written by Julio Anta, the book is upfront that its primary purpose is one of celebration. From broad cultural achievements to specific individuals who have shaped the nation, the book is brimming with cultural pride for the rich heritage it describes. Even with its primary focus being educational, the text never feels like a dry recitation of facts. The information is direct, but its delivery is bursting with energy befitting a celebration of Latino culture. In broad strokes, it’s a familiar style for other educational materials aimed at youth, though never so juvenile in tone that older teens or adults will be put off.
The book touches lightly on some of the terrible hardships and atrocities faced by Latino communities of the past and present, but these are not dwelled on, as Anta keeps the primary focus on the success and endurance of these historical figures. It’s a complex topic to distill down to a single volume. The text does touch on useful and sometimes uncomfortable considerations when discussing such a broad group of people—debates about terminology, colonialism, colorism, and often conflicting worldviews that have complicated the Latino journey throughout time. The book is not a complex examination of the figures it highlights, nor does it claim to be. It is not intended to be the final word on any of the subject matter it illuminates. Rather, it feels as though Anta positions the text as a first step, to ignite pride in Latino history and encourage the curiosity to dive deeper.
Yasmín Flores Montañez provides the illustrations throughout the volume, and each page of art captures a colorful palate of diverse people and rich history. Balancing moments of triumph with the multitude hardships Latinos have had to overcome, the visuals keep pace with the shifting tone of the writing, propelling the reader along with the museum guide and guests. Emotions and action are clear, the art is a pleasure to look over, and the representations of individuals across the pages show a full spectrum of skin colors, body types, ages, and genders. Through each chapter, Montañez matches the pride and energy of the writing, bringing these chapters of history to life in dramatic fashion.
Whether Latino or not, any reader seeking more familiarity with Latino heritage or forgotten moments of history will find plenty to enjoy here. The cultural pride is evident as each new story unfolds and it is both enlightening and emotional to gain insight into this wide range of figures who have changed modern life in sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic ways—figures whose names are unknown by far too many. There is plenty more depth that could be provided about the information presented here, but Anta and Montañez succeed in their primary goal: to celebrate the tapestry of Latino history and welcome readers into a better understanding of the threads that make up the whole. The volume ends with an index of topics and a list of additional resources for anyone wishing to dive deeper, while the finale of the narrative seeks to empower Latino readers to embrace the strength of their own heritage.
As an entry point into the subject, as a work of graphic nonfiction, and as a celebration of the proud history of a rich ethnic heritage, Sí, Se Puede is a work well worth adding to any collection and can hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for further conversation, learning, and celebration of the vital diversity that has shaped the United States since its founding.
Sí, Se Puede: The Latino Heroes Who Changed the United States By Julio Anta Art by Yasmín Flores Montañez Ten Speed Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781984860910
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican Character Representation: Black, Latinx, Queer, Genderqueer, Trans
Amazona is a newly translated graphic novel written and illustrated by Canizales, a Columbian illustrator. This book tells a powerful story of a young Indigenous woman in Columbia on a mission to expose an illegal mining operation that has forced her family from their village.
The book opens in Cali, Colombia, where Andrea shares a 600 square foot apartment with 37 others. They are pushed into the shadows of the city, forced to steal bright pink mangoes from a nearby tree for sustenance. Their lives here are not sustainable. They are meant to be in the homes forcibly taken from them, deep in the rainforest.
Andrea sets out on her own, with a jaguar from her dreams as her guide, across the difficult terrain, to their sacred lands. An imposing fence and armed guards surround the land, devoid of vegetation and life. After begging for entry, she is reluctantly given permission to bury a baby she recently lost but sneaks in a camera to gather evidence against the illegal miners.
She is on a mission to take pictures of the illegal mining operations to share with a lawyer in the hope that her community can return home. Activism against violence, corruption, and human rights violations often involve difficult court battles. Andrea’s story is fictional but not unique. According to Amazona’s back matter, the Indigenous peoples of Columbia often face displacement, extreme poverty, and violence. A number of organizations and individuals advocate for the rights of displaced peoples. Even as they fight, many have no home to return to after their lands have been stripped of vegetation and life. Their work is difficult and often dangerous. In Amazona, Andrea is sexually assaulted and threatened with rape or murder; according to the back matter an estimated 500 activists were murdered between 2016 and 2019.
The illustrations carry much of the emotional weight. Canizales illustrates this story in shades of gray with occasional splashes of red and pink. The effect is powerful. Andrea’s village in the rainforests of Columbia should be vibrant and full of life, however when the mining operation strips the land from her people, with it they take all life and color.
The illustrations include many elements painted in watercolor and few images are enclosed in traditional panels. This unique style draws readers into the emotion of the scene. Flashbacks to moments in the middle of the night are saturated in black. Details are hidden in the dark. The pages are filled with terror and sadness. Later in the story, in a moment of dread, hope comes in the form of a red jaguar-eyed butterfly as it lands on a hard black gun. It is a powerful and beautifully illustrated scene.
This is a definite purchase for my high school library collection. I have students who are refugees from this area of the world, and it is important that they see stories such as this in our collection. Other students may read this story and put a human face to the plight of Indigenous communities in Colombia and elsewhere. It is a beautifully written and illustrated story about living through trauma and violence. I highly recommend it for teen and adult graphic novel collections.
Amazona By Canizales Graphic Universe, 2022 ISBN: 9781728401706
Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Colombian Character Representation: Colombian
Nightlights is a book about possibilities. When a child wields a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, the possibilities abound.
Readers follow Sandy from the inner sanctum of her sketchbook and her dreamscape to the soul-crushing classrooms of her Madeleine-esque Catholic school. One day at recess, while lost among her drawings, she meets Morfie, a slight, purplish-haired pupil. Morfie takes an interest in Sandy’s artwork, but it soon becomes clear to Sandy that Morfie isn’t a student at the school.
If you’re focused on trying to figure out what kind of imaginary species Morfie is, or what internal logic and magical physics she abides by, you’ll miss the magic of the story. Alvarez leaves the genesis and motives of Morfie somewhat open-ended, and that gives readers an opportunity to think about how we want to shoehorn the characters we meet in stories into archetypes the same way the nuns want the children at school to memorize digits of pi.
Alvarez’s artwork contrasts pure white with darker tones to provide some tension between fantasy and reality. The beginning and end of the story are flooded with white, giving us a visual framing device that makes readers wonder whether the entire story is generated from Sandy’s drawings, while the exposition is a combination of full spreads and frameless panels. Both Sandy’s dreamscapes and daily life are depicted sumptuously. In the dreamscapes, we see Sandy float among a reef of round-faced creatures, and in real life, the dapples of the sky and the blades among the grass are drawn and colored with care. This book shows the beauty of the small things, like how a slightly miscolored floor tile at school could be a source of inspiration for a dreamer like Sandy.
Visually inspirational, this book represents a high water mark in comics for young children. While it is probably too conceptual to become a favorite among young readers, it shows off the possibilities of sequential art.
Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez ISBN: 9781910620137 Nobrow, 2017 Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker pulls the true story of Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez out of the ghetto and into the spotlight. Melendez’s family immigrated to New York City from Puerto Rico shortly after he was born, settling in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. However, like many other Puerto Rican and African-American families, the Melendezes were soon displaced by urban planner Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway, the first highway built in a densely populated urban area. While immigrant families like Benjy’s were flooding into the Bronx, many white families were moving out of the borough and into new white-only suburbs. As author Jeff Chang introduces Ghetto Brother: “Young people like Benjy came of age amidst malign neglect, re-segregation, and the politics of abandonment. They sought solidarity, security, and kicks in gangs.”
Ghetto Brother tells the story of the titular gang’s formation and its ultimate transformation. The graphic novel begins powerfully in medias res with the death of “Black Benjie” in 1971, depicted on a single page featuring ten panels and very little text. The somber sparseness of this opening scene contrasts sharply with the jam-packed panels to come, in which a present-day Melendez reflects on how different New York City was only 40 years ago. While Black Benjie’s death could have served as the catalyst to an explosive all-out gang war in the Bronx, it instead led Benjy Melendez to call for a truce and the unification of various street gangs in a larger group called “The Family”. As the divisions between groups broke down, other opportunities arose, including collaborations that led to the hip-hop movement and breakdancing, as well as Benjy’s personal religious journey.
Julian Voloj’s writing and Claudia Ahlering’s artwork combine to offer readers an absorbing glimpse of life in the Bronx during the 1960s and 1970s. The conversational tone of photojournalist Voloj’s writing creates a sense of intimacy, as though Benjy is speaking directly to the reader; indeed, Voloj spoke with Benjy for three years before writing Ghetto Brother. Ahlering’s black-and-white illustrations complement the writing, conveying a sense of history and gravity and emphasizing the innumerable shades of grey between black and white in both art and life itself. The lack of color also softens the visual depictions of violence in Ghetto Brother: instead of bright red blood that stands out against the background, it is a dark black pool of blood that gathers under Black Benjie’s afro, making it difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Although there are few depictions of extreme violence in Ghetto Brother, librarians, educators, and parents should be aware that the graphic novel contains some violent content and strong language. That being said, the language feels authentic and thus powerful, rather than a disingenuous attempt to shock the audience.
Addressing myriad issues involving race and power, religion and persecution, and war and peace, Ghetto Brother is a true story of American history that needed to be told. This powerful coming-of-age tale makes a wonderful addition to teen graphic novel collections, where it will likely appeal to fans of hip-hop music; those interested in Civil Rights and activism, immigration and racism, and/or the culture of the 1960s and 1970s; and graphic memoirs in general.
Frontmatter includes an introduction by Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Backmatter includes an author’s note, “The Story Behind the Story,” in which Julian Voloj provides more information about the impact of the gang truce on the hip-hop movement, photographs of Melendez and other key figures, and suggestions for further reading and viewing. This is Voloj and Ahlering’s first graphic novel.
Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker by Julian Voloj Art by Claudia Ahlering ISBN: 9781561639489 NBM, 2015