Growing Up a Puerto Rican YA Reader

Growing Up a Puerto Rican YA Reader
  • MERTON SIMPSON AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTIST SPIRAL PAINTING SPIKE LEE 20 X 16 INCHES

I will never forget that grade 9 class where my English teacher Angela Nieves led me to her small classroom library. Excited, I grabbed a copy of Sweet Valley High and was immediately transported to the world of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. Yes, I was that girl who had trouble sneaking around a few readings between exams, and eagerly escaping to different worlds, thanks to Ms. Nieves. Growing up in Puerto Rico, my favorite bookstore at the time was Bell Book and Candle, and once that love of reading was instilled in me, I eagerly rushed on Saturdays to buy the books I had ordered. The owners of the bookstore knew me and it made my weekends even more enjoyable growing up, passing by and leaving with a stack of books.

Growing up, I wasn’t exactly the popular girl. I went to a bilingual school with about 54 other students, from kindergarten to grade 12. I have been bullied at times for being what they called a “nerd,” but this time in my life made me so much stronger and I have amazing memories of my time in school. In my opinion, if being a “nerd” meant reading books, wearing glasses, and getting to know unique characters at the same time, so be it. I look back and some of my favorite memories include sunny days on the beaches of Condado and Luqillo with a dog-eared book. This magical escape from delving into a beloved book is what made me the educator and journalist that I am today.

Inspired by Elizabeth Wakefield from Sweet Valley High, newspaper editor, I quickly started writing for my high school newspaper, which led me to study mass communications and journalism in college. I continued to work in a local newspaper as a film critic and screenwriter, interviewing actors like Benicio del Toro and John Leguizamo; I got a scholarship to study Bilingual Investigative Journalism (in Spanish) in Miami where I covered entertainment and travel; and have had journalism careers in several magazines and newspapers since. You could say that these fictional stories and characters from my youth really shaped me to be who I am today. Young adult books are now even more important in my life as I continue to read and immerse myself in their stories, even being 38 years old cool. Still pretty cool for young adult books, I might add.

Although Elizabeth Wakefield’s heart and her dreams were close to mine, I did not see myself reflected in her physically, nor in most of the books I read at that time. One move I’m proud of is seeing more characters like me in the books, like the Caribbean girl with hopes and dreams and lots of love for her family, the Latina with a voice. In Nina Moreno’s Don’t Date Rosa Santos, the main character is a Caribbean girl who dreams of visiting Cuba and learning more about its history, the one who finds romance even thinking she has been cursed by a family story. In Lobizona recently published by Romina Garber, immigration plays a key role in the story. The character’s voice is fierce and courageous, and I was almost in tears as I read about Manu and his bravery in the face of the realities that come with being an Argentine immigrant (plus a hint of magical realism). In Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera, herself Puerto Rican, my heart swelled with joy as she spoke about landmarks from my youth, such as Plaza Las Américas and the El Yunque rainforest. I’m so happy to see bilingual characters, Spanish words in my young adult books, mostly in English, and so thrilled to see Latin women take center stage in their own stories and gain that well-deserved power to put showcasing their culture.

When I started at Boca Raton High School in the 2015-2016 school year, moving from the newsroom to the classroom, I decided that I could finally let my hair down and be more me. -even; it was my mission to inspire. Now I do it with a Puerto Rican flag hanging in my classroom, a figure of a coquí (The Symbolic and Adorable Little Frog of Puerto Rico), a sign that reads maestra (teacher in Spanish), and bilingual books to take for my kids thanks to donations from places like Books and books and friends of the Miami Book Fair. As an educator, it is my turn to transmit this passion for reading, diversity, inclusion and love of reading. Inspired by the same English teacher who took me to this library, I have my own little classroom library and share it with my 10th graders from various cultural backgrounds. I tell my students that reading is fundamental to their knowledge and growth, and that the adventures they find on the page will lead them to many opportunities in the future, as they have for me.

Romina Garber and I became close friends here in Miami when we bonded in our time working at The Miami Herald. While we were there at different times, we were the only Caribbean and Latin girls in the newsroom, and trust me, that meant a lot to us. I met her while signing her book for the YA Zodiac novel (which she wrote as Romina Russell), and since then we’ve bonded over the importance of diversity in novels for young adults. I’ll never forget when one of my students eagerly devoured Zodiac in two days after his visit to my class; almost in tears, she said: “It’s so cool that she’s from Argentina. I’m also from Latin America and that means so much that she’s done so much in the writing world. In a week, she devoured the whole series. While some may despise a young adult novel, I say look up, read and enjoy these stories, full of bravery and now even more diverse than ever.

In the end, you could say that I was made a reader, by my family, by my teacher (thank you Mrs. Nieves, I see you!) And by my own youthful curiosity. To think that now I see myself more in the pages of a young adult novel, and that others will too, is a beautiful and magical thing. Me, with my raven black hair (which I gave up trying to highlight again to be a rubia, by the way), my accent, and my dreams of doing it. And to think about it, it all started with me taking an American young adult book and being brave enough to agree to be a bilingual reader. I hope others and themselves find comfort in their readings, as I did with mine. Just call me Latina Elizabeth Wakefield, the one who went from the newsroom to the classroom. My heart and soul wouldn’t have it any other way.

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