“The cholo tree” Daniel Chacón

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 248 pp.

TheCholoTreeFourteen-year-old Victor is an aspiring artist and cook in his low income, gang filled neighborhood and, like most kids his age, doesn’t like school. He was very close to his father who was killed when Victor was very young, and holds his mother at an emotional distance. Though not a cholo (gang member) she believes he is one, and doesn’t trust him.

Victor doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life and is reluctant to choose a path, despite direction from a teacher he trusts and a very smart girlfriend who gives him some inspiration. As he aimlessly wanders through the life he’s chosen for himself, Victor has to sort through layers of experiences to decide if he already is a cholo. Does he want to be a cholo, or does he want to break free of the mold he created for himself in order to live the way he was meant to live?

Don Quixote-type fantasies intermingled with Victor’s hazy memories of his father, along with stories of his life, are pieced together to show four years of his struggles to discover who he is and what he wants to be. Though I wasn’t a big fan of the book, I did enjoy the author’s portrayal of Iliana as a strong, independent woman. She knew what she wanted, and went for it full speed ahead, the complete opposite of Victor. She didn’t let feelings get in the way of her future, and I admire her for having a goal and sticking to it.

Recommended for ages 14 and older.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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“Deep in the shadows: Undercover in the ruthless world of human smuggling” Hipólito Acosta

Rated 3 stars *** 2017. Arte Público Press. 319 p. (Includes photographs and an Appendix).

DeepInTheShadowsHipólito Acosta grew up in a tiny Texas town and, in 1975, was hired by the U.S. Border Patrol. After working locally for a little while he was assigned to Chicago, becoming one of the first Hispanic agents to work undercover for the agency. There, either single handedly or with fellow agents, he infiltrated gangs and cartels to root out drug dealers, human smugglers, and sellers of false identity papers. Later in his career, assigned to work in higher leadership roles in the Philippines and Mexico, he continued to set the bar high in his single-minded pursuit of justice.

In simple, understated narrative Acosta details his innovative, yet very dangerous experiences working to uphold his oath to protect our country’s borders. His memoir is loaded with names, dates, and facts, which can be overwhelming at times. It would have been nice if an alphabetical glossary or timeline, with associated page numbers, was included to help readers better associate the details of his career.

Recommended for Adults.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

“Shame the Stars” Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Rated 5 stars ***** Tu Books (Lee & Low). 2016. 288 pp. (Includes “Author’s Note”, “Book Recommendations”, “Newspaper Clipping Sources,” and a “Glossary.”)

shamethestarsBefore Texas became a territory and then a state, it was part of Mexico. As happened when European immigrants took control of land occupied by its original inhabitants, the Anglo American colonists who settled in Tejas, Mexico in the early 1800’s decided they wanted the land upon which they had settled, and fought to get it from Mexico. Ultimately the land they conquered became the state of Texas. Just as Native Americans had their lands stolen from them, so too did the Mexicans who had originally lived and farmed their own lands in Tejas for generations.

“Shame the Stars” is set in 1915, and tells the story of Tejano families struggling to understand and survive brutalities inflicted upon them by the Texas Rangers (a group of “lawmen” who randomly killed and raped Mexican Americans, imprisoning them without trial, and stealing their land.)

Joaquín Del Toro and Dulceña Villa are teenagers in love during this tumultuous time in the fictitious city of Monteseco. Though suffering from the devastation brought upon them and others by the Rangers, they refuse to keep their heads bowed low in servitude. They, and many others, determine to make a difference for their people and stand for their rights. “Shame the Stars” is their story.

This book is marketed as a “rich reimagining of Romeo and Juliet,” but I feel this simplistic overview is a disservice to McCall. “Shame the Stars” is so much more than this, as the author’s rich and powerful narrative opens the eyes of her readers to an atrocious chapter in the history of the United States that had been a secret for many years. It is closer to the history of Segregation and the crimes committed by segregationists than it is to Romeo and Juliet.

The “Refusing to Forget” Project, started in 2013, created an exhibit of this time period called “Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920.” It was on view in Austin, Texas from Jan. 23-April 3, and was a visual complement to the events in the book.

I sincerely hope McCall’s excellently written and researched book will win an award of some type at the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards in January, as it deserves a place in every high school and public library. McCall is a previous winner of the Pura Belpré award however, since “Shame the Stars” is intended for a much older audience, my fingers are crossed that it will receive a Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature from YALSA.

Highly recommended for ages 16 and older.

I received a copy of this book from Lee & Low in exchange for an honest review.

 

“We never asked for wings” Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Ebook. Ballantine Books. Published August 18, 2015.

WeNeverAskedForWingsLetty Espinosa never learned to be a mother to her fifteen-year-old son Alex and six-year-old daughter Luna. Ever since she got pregnant at the young age of 18, she left them with her mother so she could get drunk and go out on the town. When her parents decided to move back to Mexico, Letty is desperate.

Certain her children will come to harm if she’s in charge, Letty realizes she will have to grow up and learn how to be a mother before it’s too late. However getting mixed up with undocumented immigrants, and Alex’s first love crisis, will strain her resolve and make her realize she is not alone in the struggles of motherhood and life.

“We never asked for wings” is a heartfelt look at the struggles of a single mother as well as those of undocumented immigrants. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended for Adult readers and mature teens.

“Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines” Eric Blehm

Rated 5 stars ***** ARC. Crown (Penguin Random House.) Published April 28, 2015. (Includes “List of Characters,”Military Terms, Acronyms, and Abbreviations,” an “Index,” and various maps.)

LegendOn May 2, 1968 Roy Benavidez, then a Staff Sergeant with the Army’s Green Beret Special Forces unit stationed in Vietnam, willingly jumped onto a helicopter to enter no-man’s-land in Cambodia where 12 men from his team were pinned down by enemy fire, sustaining heavy loss. Without thinking of his own safety, Benavidez jumped from the helicopter and into Special Forces history with his daring rescue of the surviving 8 men despite suffering devastating wounds. “Legend” tells his story, along with the years long battle to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Using eyewitness accounts, archival and military records, among other sources, Blehm gives readers insight into Benavidez’s home life and what led him to become a member of the Green Berets, along with minute-by-minute accounts of the events leading up to the Special Forces unit’s foray into the supposedly neutral country of Cambodia which had been giving support to the North Vietnamese. At times the narrative becomes bogged down with technical lingo, but the urgency of battle and the story of the heroic men who suffered that day, shines through the technicalities.

Highly recommended for Adult readers.

“Muerte en Una Estrella/Shooting Star” Sergio D. Elizondo

Rated 4 stars **** Arte Público Press. 2014. 310 p. (First published in Spanish in 1984 by Tinta Negra Editores, this 2014 version contains both the original Spanish version and the English translation).

MuerteEnUnaEstrellaShootingStarIn 1968, sixteen-year-old Oscar Balboa and nineteen-year-old Valentín Rodríguez were shot in the back and killed by several Texas policemen. With a dreamlike quality, Elizondo takes readers through Oscar and Valentín’s rambling thoughts as they lay dying in the field where they fell.

Oscar and Valentín had recently arrived at Camp Gary to learn new, employable skills that would help them escape the difficult, poor paying migrant worker lives of their parents. They soon became inseparable. Valentín had a protective “big brother” outlook towards Oscar and big dreams to make something of his life. Oscar was a dreamer who loved Valentín and classical music, and was desperate to escape the fields. He was sure there was more to life than what he was experiencing, and envisioned himself in a whole new world.

Oscar and Valentín’s memories and experiences speak about the heavy prejudice and police brutality they and others experienced in Texas, while bringing readers alongside César Chávez as he worked to improve migrant worker’s lives. “Shooting Star” opens reader’s eyes to a time in Chicano history which has been largely unknown or forgotten, but is still relevant today.

Recommended for Adult readers.

“Can you see me now?” Estela Bernal

Rated 3 stars *** 2014. Piñata Books (Arte Público Press). 161 pp.

CanYouSeeMeNowAmanda’s life changed forever the day she turned thirteen. On that day, a drunk driver killed her father and her mother decided it was all her fault. Amanda had loved her father, and felt her life crumbling without his gentle, guiding hand, as her mother couldn’t be bothered to spend time with her, sending her to live with her grandmother. Being without her father and mother was hard, but dealing with the bullies at school made everything worse.

After observing the guidance counselor talking with students, Amanda decided she would look for lonely kids to counsel. It didn’t take long to become good friends with Paloma, ridiculed for wearing strange clothes, and Roger, an overweight classmate. Despite missing her father, and resenting her mother’s absence, Amanda learned to draw strength from herself and from her friends, facing life with a new outlook and finding that things aren’t always as bad as they may seem.

“Can you see me now?” shows a young girl’s struggle to reconcile with a loved one’s passing and her mother’s indifference, while trying to empathize with others’ heartaches. Amanda seems to be quite mature for her age, but her real life hopes and dreams will ring true with readers.

Recommended for ages 11-13.