5 Books to Read for Hispanic Heritage Month

Sept. 15th through Oct. 15th is Hispanic Heritage month: a time to learn, understand and expand one’s knowledge of their own or other Latin backgrounds and experiences. Aside from a few friends whose knowledge I dip into every now and again, I am not that well versed in the Hispanic experience. That’s why reading others’ journeys and representations are so important. So, here are five books written by Hispanic authors about Hispanic characters. The genres range from fantasy to memoir to poetry, and although all the authors share similar cultures, their stories are vastly different and paint contrastive images of what it means to be Hispanic. All of these books deal in some way with the idea of identity and how that blends with culture. I definitely learned a lot from these books, and I hope you do, too. 

  1. 1. Make Your Home Among Strangers (2015) by Jennine Capó Crucet 

    This dimensional look into the Cuban American experience focuses on Lizet, a Miami native and daughter of immigrants who is transplanted to New York City for college. Here, she encounters a prejudiced culture that corners her into the mold of a minority student. She is unequipped for this world as she is the first person in her family to graduate from college, and her mother is not supportive of her chosen path. While trying to adjust to her tumultuous freshman year, her family fractures as her parents get divorced and her younger sister becomes a single mom.  Set in the late 1990s, Lizet’s mother is an advocate for a young Cuban boy, Ariel Hernandez whose mother died while they traveled from Cuba to the United States. This event is based on the real-life story of Elián González’s mother, Elizabeth Rodríguez, who died in a similar fashion in 1999. Confused and irritated by the choices of her family, Lizet begins to make some not so great decisions in her first year of college that could tear her family apart.  

    What could be more appropriate for college womxn than stories about college womxn? This story is not unlike many students’ experiences here at the University of Florida; the majority of students are white, and those who aren’t, struggle to find their place or feel pigeonholed into one certain minority experience. The Floridan setting of the majority of this novel also makes it well suited to UF readership. 

    Jennine Capó Crucet is a Miami native and received the 2016 International Latino Book Award, among many others, for Make Your Home Among Strangers. Her writing focuses on the immigrant experience in the United States and the “American dream.” 

    You can purchase the book here.

  2. 2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

    Set in the 1980s, this is a young adult fiction in which two teen boys essentially figure themselves out.  Aristotle, Ari for short, is a Mexican American boy who is angry and angsty and has no friends. He seemingly has nothing in common with Dante, a free-spirited and creative boy, when they meet in the local swimming pool one summer. They teach each other new things and navigate the true meaning of life.

    Ari struggles to connect or even care about his family while his big brother is in jail and neither of his parents is willing to talk about it. Nothing makes sense, but Ari and Dante discover that nothing has to or ever will. This novel is laced with Ari trying to understand his feelings for Dante as he begins to unpack his emerging queerness. Identity – as a Latino boy, a teenager and a potentially gay man – is what no one, including himself, has yet to understand but is what Dante will help him discover. 

    Most describe this novel as “lyrical” and with no real plot as most of the novel is a rapid-fire dialogue between Ari and Dante discussing the universe and having existential crises. However, this is designed so the reader fills in the little gaps that normal emotion descriptions do for you, creating an effect similar to poetry. This novel has won numerous awards including the Stonewall Book Award for excellence in the LGBTQ narrative and the Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for excellence in portraying the Latinx experience. 

    Benjamin Alire Sánez is a writer of young adult fiction and, in addition to him being Hispanic, is queer and came-out late in life. Most of his novels capture the LGBTQ experience and take place in El Paso, Texas. 

    You can purchase this book here.

  3. 3. Ordinary Girls (2019) by Jaquira Díaz

    Jaquira’s one goal is survival. Surviving her family falling apart and her mom being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Surviving violence, depression, and sexual assault. Surviving with coming to terms of her own queerness in a world that hasn’t even accepted her Latinness yet and considers lesbianism a crime. She is surrounded by girls she meets in juvie and boys that are killed in shootings. These are the people she is desperately seeking comfort and stability from, while also searching for her next thrill to avoid her overwhelming situation.

    Based on the short story about her experience in the Puerto Rican and Miami Beach slums, this memoir is her transformation into the womxn she is now proud to be. Recently published in 2019, Díaz uses this novel as a platform to discuss our nation’s current immigration policies and the violence committed against peaceful Puerto Rican activists. 

    Memoirs are one of my favorite genres because I think it takes real courage to bare all to an unknown audience with unpredictable repercussions. Having such a personal perspective on such a raw journey is empowering. This memoir is no exception. Ordinary Girls is frequently described as disjointed and sporadic due to its stream-of-consciousness narrative style, in which she jumps along her timeline frequently; however, this stylistic choice represents how she remembers her past as chaotic. 

    Now, Jaquira Díaz is a prominent Black and Puerto Rican queer writer. If you like this book and want to read more from her, she has a new book, I Am Deliberate: A Novel, coming out soon

  4. 4. Cemetery Boy (2020) by Aiden Thomas

    In this fantasy world, young boys – brujos and girls – brujas, are blessed through a ceremony by Lady Death to have the ability to allow souls to cross over from the moral realm. Yadriel, a transgender man, is determined to prove to his family that he is a true brujo despite their transphobic ideals following the gutting death of his mother, one of his only advocates. His family does not understand his trans and queer identity and expects him to conform to the gender norms set by his Hispanic culture. Yadriel is trying to desperately fit his sexual identity somewhere into his Hispanic identity. After performing the ceremony on himself along with the help of his best friend Maritza, he accidentally summons the ghost of Julian Diaz, a very dashing boy from his school. As Yadriel attempts to help Julian pass over into death, they slowly begin to fall in love and things just end amazingly after that.

    Fans rave about the representation in this book because it checks so many boxes. Trans protagonist? Check. Latinx experience? Check. A fantasy world with ghosts and blood magic? Check. A romance that makes you believe in love again? Check. Overall engrossing characters that sweep you into their world so that you never what to leave? Double check! 

    Cemetery Boys tackles some aspects of being Latinx that other novels don’t, like the transgender experience with all the misgendering, deadnaming, and transphobia included. Thomas’ characters are not flat caricatures of the Latinx stereotypes, but rather dynamic and colorful representations of a culture that deserves portrayals such as this. 

    Aiden Thomas is a queer, trans, Latinx author and this is their debut novel. 

    You can purchase it here

  5. 5. The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2009) by Margarite Engle

    Do you know anything about Cuba’s three wars for independence in the 19th century? Well, I didn’t, but this book paints a vivid image of Cuba during this period as the country and its people's fight for independence from Spanish colonialism. Written in free verse, this novel alternates between perspectives, including the healer Rosa and a slave hunter named Lieutenant Death, as Cuba fights the Ten Year’s War, Little War, and Cuba’s War for Independence. 

    These characters, who are essentially children, are fighting against slavery and racism and oppression. Rosa starts a hospital in the hidden caves after the Spanish start forcing the Cubans into concentration camps, helping anyone that she can. Based on the true story of Rosa La Bayamesa, The Surrender Tree will open your eyes to Cuban history. 

    Poetry is not my go-to when choosing something new to read; however, this book hits deep. Each line is sparse yet impactful and beautifully written. If I could have taken all of my history classes by reading in verse maybe I would have enjoyed it more because this book is epically informative. This skinny book packs a punch. 

    Margarite Engle is a Cuban American author, a Newberry Medal and a Pura Belpré Narrative Medal recipient. 

    You can purchase the book here.

There is no one way to be Hispanic and there is certainly not a solitary story to be told. Hispanic people come from many different countries and cultures, and these books are just a few samplings of what there is to offer in this expanding field. If you’re looking for more books about people of color, check out Dr. Elizabeth Garcia’s blog, Brown Stories, for more suggestions. She is a professor in the Women's Studies department at UF.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month and happy reading!