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With a population of over 60 million, the Latino community in the US represents over 18% of the country’s overall population, a significant power across the country, from politics and the economy to science and innovation.
Despite the vast contributions of Latinos to the US, political and social discourse have fostered grounds for anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment, but knowledge can create space for empathy and understanding.
Literature is an excellent way to learn about the experiences of the Latino population. While this community is often viewed as one monolithic group, there are a wide array of identities, experiences, and cultures represented. For example, as a biracial, third-generation Mexican-American, my experiences may vastly differ from those of a recent immigrant.
Beginning as a commemorative week in 1968 to honor the contributions of the Hispanic population, what is now Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 through October 15. Additionally, many Central and South American countries celebrate their Independence Day during this period.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are 20 books that can help you better understand the intersectionality and diverse experiences across the Latino community.
“The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $12.35
Author Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard, but it wasn’t until after the 2016 election that she decided to share her truth of being on DACA. Traveling around the country, Cornejo Villavicencio meets with other undocumented immigrants, learning about their unique stories, and discovering more about herself along the way. “The Undocumented Americans” brings these voices to light.
“Finding Latinx” by Paola Ramos, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $10.39
The diversity and intersectionality of the Latino community are often overlooked: From Afro-Latinos and Muslims to the queer and undocumented, Latinos are often put into one monolithic group, ignoring its rich diversity. Exploring the rising use and visibility of the controversial term “Latinx,” journalist and activist Paola Ramos embarks across the country to discover the people defining this term and finds how it’s given a sense of belonging and solidarity to Latinos that have felt invisible. “Finding Latinx” is essential reading for those looking to understand the complexities and diversity of the Latino community.
“Borderlands/Frontera: The New Mestiza” by Gloria Anzaldúa, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $22.95
Through poems and essays, Gloria Anzaldúa explores issues of gender, race, and identity from the Latino experience. As a Chicana, lesbian, and activist, Anzaldúa draws on her own experience and examines the various meanings of the term “border,” whether geographical or invisible.
“Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism” by Laura Gómez, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $20.25
Laura Gómez, an author and leading expert on race, law, and society, explores the shifts in Latino identity over time, exploring the race-making, unmaking, and re-making of the Latino identity. “Inventing Latinos” also delves into the roles the US has played throughout Latin America, which have caused instability and increased immigration north. This book will help readers better understand how all of these factors have shaped current discourse and events.
“Once I Was You” by Maria Hinojosa, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $14.49
Emmy Award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa uses her family’s immigration story to illuminate decades of immigration policy in the US and how it has shaped the current landscape. As a Mexican-American growing up on the South Side of Chicago with her family, Hinojosa paints an intimate portrait of the many challenges and emotions immigrants experience — feelings of shame, pride, belonging, or the lack thereof, and trying to build a life in a place where you may feel invisible.
“Before Night Falls” by Reinaldo Arenas, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.30
Reinaldo Arenas, a queer Cuban author, tells his story from growing up impoverished in Cuba and fighting for Castro, to having his writing suppressed and being imprisoned for being gay, to eventually moving to New York and dying of AIDS. This memoir is a raw and honest window into the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution.
“In the Country We Love” by Diane Guerrero, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $11.99
When Diane Guerrero was 14 years old, her parents were detained and deported to Mexico: Being born in the US she was able to stay in the country. Guerrero’s personal memoir sheds light on the immigration system and the fears many undocumented families face every day.
“Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa” by Rigoberto González, available on Amazon from $19.95
Rigoberto González is a first generation Chicano who grew among Mexican farmworkers. In this memoir, he tells his story of growing up poor, losing his mother at the age of 12, coping with abandonment by his father, and coming to terms with being gay in a culture of machismo. This memoir is a beautiful coming-of-age story exploring identity, sexuality, and class.
“Children of the Land” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $14.49
When Hernandez Castillo was just five years old, he suffered stress-induced blindness while his family was crossing the border into the US. In this memoir, he shares his story of growing up undocumented, his encounters with ICE, and the trauma and fears fostered for just trying to live. Beautifully written, “Children of the Land” gives readers an insight into the immigration system and the broken dreams and families it leaves behind.
“Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina” by Raquel Cepeda, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $13.59
“Bird of Paradise” is essential reading for anyone struggling with their identity and embracing their heritage, Latino or otherwise. Cepeda takes the reader through her journey with genealogy to discover her ancestors and the mix of races and ethnicities that make up her Latina identity.
“When I Was Puerto Rican” by Esmeralda Santiago, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $10.59
In her memoir, Esmeralda Santiago recounts her story of moving with her family from the barrios of Puerto Rico to New York, to eventually attending Harvard. Readers get an insight into the challenges of acclimating to a new place and finding one’s identity amid a new culture and language.
“How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.59
When the García sisters’ father plays a role in attempting to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, the family must flee to New York City. Arriving in 1960, the four sisters must learn how to navigate life between two cultures, while their parents try to hold on to their culture. “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” is a familiar story of the immigrant experience and finding a sense of belonging.
“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina García, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $14.99
Cristina García’s novel accurately depicts the Cuban revolution through the experiences of three generations of women. Taking place in both Cuba and the US, “Dreaming in Cuban” contains elements of political divides amongst family, exile, and the loss of one’s culture against the backdrop of historical Cuban events. “Dreaming in Cuban” is an excellent read for those looking to understand the Cuban experience and culture amid the revolution.
“Next Year in Havana” by Chanel Cleeton, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $11
As a result of the revolution, Elisa Perez fled Cuba and settled in the US. Years later, her granddaughter arrives in Havana to spread her late grandmother’s ashes. During this time she uncovers family secrets and discovers more about her identity.
“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $7.28
Through short vignettes, Cisneros draws on her experience growing up in Chicago to tell the story of 12-year-old Mexican-American Esperanza Cordero. Growing up in her Latino neighborhood, Cordero confronts elements of class, race, sexuality, gender, and identity, giving the reader a glimpse into the Chicano experience.
“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L Sánchez, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $7.39
Taking place in Chicago, Julia deals with the pressures and expectations of growing up in a Mexican-American family, while also coping with the loss of her sister and the negative ways her family channels their grief on her. “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” is an unflinchingly honest story involving grief, mental health, and coming of age amid two cultures.
“Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $5.94
Part of the Scholastic Gold line, “Esperanza Rising” is a YA classic, one that I loved reading in grade school. When a tragedy strikes, Esperanza and her Mama must flee their privileged life on their family ranch in Mexico to a migrant camp for farm laborers in California. Dealing with a strike for better working conditions and Mama’s sudden illness, Esperanza faces more challenges amid finding her place in a new country, culture, and class.
“Mexican WhiteBoy” by Matt de la Peña, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $9.19
Being half-Mexican, I’ve always struggled with identity and finding stories where I can identify with the challenges of finding belonging while feeling stuck between cultures. Matt de la Peña’s “Mexican WhiteBoy” is one of the first books I’ve discovered that speaks to me personally, but will also speak to any teens finding their place in the world, especially those who are mixed-race.
“Furia” by Yamile Saied Méndez, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $10.07
Set in Argentina, Camila is a rising soccer star who is overshadowed by her soccer-star brother and her parents’ expectations of her. Camila needs the permission of her parents to take her soccer career further, but they would never allow a girl to play soccer. “Furia” gives hope to those trying to build their own life while struggling to break through gender norms.
“The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $9.50
Through a series of poems, “The Poet X” follows high school sophomore Xiomara Batista, who explores the challenges of identity and being a teen in her neighborhood of Harlem. Her strict Dominican mother pushes her toward religion as Xiomara questions the church, and she knows her mother won’t allow her to join her school’s slam poetry club. Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this story authentically captures the spirit of many young Latinas.
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