LATINITAS by Juliet Menéndez: A Deep Dive Into Heroes Past and Present
We all have blogs that we like to follow. Me? I’m a big-time fan of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. It’s just about one of the finest illustration blogs out there, and no post proves that better than a recent piece Jules presented on Juliet Menéndez and her book LATINITAS: CELEBRATING 40 BIG DREAMERS. I don’t usually say this, but the art of today’s featured book is precisely my jam. I love the precision and the symmetry of the women on these pages. Basically, I am incredibly into picking up whatever it is that Ms. Menéndez is putting down here. So it’s a lucky thing that I too had a Q&A with her in the works.
But first . . . a little background on the book in question. From the publisher:
“In the vein of Vashti Harrison’s bestselling LITTLE LEADERS series, comes the debut children’s book, LATINITAS by Juliet Menéndez, a beautifully illustrated collection of short biographies featuring 40 influential Latinas and how they became the women we celebrate today. In this collection, Juliet Menéndez explores the first small steps that set the Latinitas off on their journeys. With gorgeous, hand-painted illustrations, Menéndez shines a spotlight on the power of childhood dreams.
This book is rooted in Juliet’s experience as a bilingual art teacher in NYC public schools that inspired her to begin illustrating and writing about women who looked like the children in her classroom in order to create an inclusive environment that is so fundamental to early childhood learning. This representation was missing from many history books and from the decorations in her school hallways—evidence of how Latinas have so often been relegated to the footnotes in history. It was important to Juliet to highlight a list of women from all over Latin America and the United States and both historic and modern figures—the book includes portraits and profiles of 40 Latinas who made history as early as the 1600s and women who are still alive and making history today. She also wanted to ensure that a cross section of ethnicities, culture, and professions were incorporated to reflect the variety and richness of experience and perspective, combatting the misconception that the Latinx community is a monolith. In researching this book, Juliet spoke with many of the living subjects while also combing archives, talking to family members, historians, and professors for some of the lesser-known historical figures.”
Juliet was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the book in question:
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, how are you and your family faring during COVID right now?
Juliet Menéndez: Some of my family members have gotten COVID, but they have thankfully recovered and we are all doing okay. Thank you for asking. I hope you and your family are staying healthy, too.
BB: We are, thank you. I’m very glad to hear that your family has recovered. Now I’d love to hear the origin story behind this book. From what I gather, you’ve been a bilingual art teacher in the NYC school system. How did that connect to the creation of LATINITAS?
JM: Just to clarify, I first worked as a bilingual/dual language teacher in public elementary schools and then later became an art teacher. Both times, I worked in Upper Manhattan.
The idea for the book came to me in 2014 when I was working in schools up in Inwood and Spanish Harlem. My students had families that were mainly from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, but the posters on the walls of their schools showed figures like Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, and Dalí. I wanted to see some fresh faces that looked more like my students up on those walls.
I started researching Latinx history trying to come up with ideas for men and women to include, but I kept noticing that something very important was missing: women! And when I did find them, they were being relegated to footnotes. If there was anything that was going to bring out the feminist in me, it was that. So, I decided to dedicate this project to celebrating Latina women.
As I delved into the research, I couldn’t believe all of the fascinating stories I was finding! I was beyond excited to learn about Latinas like Evelyn Miralles who was NASA’s first virtual reality engineer and Victoria Santa Cruz who created her own theater to feature Black artists and musicians and directed, wrote, choreographed, AND composed the music for their shows. And, thanks to a lucky encounter with a little girl at the library who insisted I should include a forensic anthropologist because that’s what she wants to be, I found out about Mercedes Doretti too, digging up the evidence of past war crimes to fight for justice.
The more I found out, the more I realized that posters weren’t going to be enough. I knew these stories needed to be told and that is when Latinitas became a book.
BB: Your book includes portraits and profiles of 40 Latinas who made history as early as the 1600s all the way up to women who are still alive today. What’s significant about the 1600s? Why did you begin around that year?
JM: As soon as I began thinking of these women and their stories as part of a collection, I knew it was important to include women from all over Latin America as well as the United States and across history as well. It is important for children, especially young Latinas, to see themselves within a larger feminist context; to see how women from different ethnicities, races, cultures, professions and backgrounds have influenced each other and played their parts in the narrative.
From my research, one of the earliest and most prominent feminists was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, so I decided to begin there. I wanted children to know that she had been fighting for them, calling out the patriarchy and the elite, since the mid 1600s. From there, I wanted them to see that activists and politicians like Berta Cáceres, Rigoberta Menchú, Sonia Solange Pierre and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are part of the very same story of equality and freedom. And I wanted them to see how the work of scientists, engineers, artists, singers, anthropologists, and librarians fits in, as well: all of them found their own unique way to shine and contribute to their communities.
I want readers to know that they have a place in this story, too. I want them to feel a sense of purpose knowing that their ancestors, the Latinas who are making contributions now, and their own communities are counting on them to bring their talents to the table, too.
BB: Group biographies like this one have a tricky balancing act to maintain. How do you create the most diverse compilation of Latinx women? How do you decide on the order in which they appear? Was that your choice or your editor’s?
JM: I knew from the beginning that I wanted this collection to be as inclusive as possible and I made specific decisions based on that to make sure children had the chance to see Latinas from many different professions, backgrounds, and historical eras. Early on, I decided that I wanted children to see how each woman’s achievements led to opportunities for the women who followed them, so the chronological order seemed to work best.
Then, I created a list of professions and was very deliberate about showcasing stories from different fields and made an effort to see how far back in history I could go and find women in these professions. I was hoping (and my research backed this up) that I could find Latinas at the forefront of political and social change, mathematical and scientific discoveries, and the arts to show children that Latinas have always been a big part of the story and have never just been on the sidelines observing it.
All of that was very deliberate and calculated. At the same time, there was an organic element to the process: the ethnic diversity you see is simply a reflection of the diversity that exists throughout the United States and Latin America.
BB: How did you conduct your research? I know you’ve mentioned women like Mercedes Doretti but was there anyone else you didn’t originally know and found along the way?
JM: I approached the research a bit like a scavenger hunt which included going to libraries, tracking down books online that were often out of print and difficult to find, figuring out how to ship anything I found, tracking down people who I thought might have access to materials, watching old film reels and documentaries, reading academic articles, and reviewing online sources like newspapers from web archives.
I knew from the beginning that this collection would never and could never be comprehensive, so I let myself be guided by my own curiosity and interests always keeping my students in mind and thinking about stories they would enjoy. If I read a little snippet about a certain woman that captured my attention, I would try to find as much as possible and see if there was enough to piece together a story that would include aspects of her childhood.
From there, if I had a moment (often while tearing up) where I found myself thinking “Wow! Not only is she incredibly talented, she is a beautiful person, too!” I knew she had to be in the book.
And, yes, there were many women I found along the way. For example, I found Gumercinda Páez and, at first, I only knew that she had written radionovelas and had later become a congresswoman. Then I found out that she became the vice president of congress and was one of the main authors who drafted the new constitution of Panama in 1941! She sounded amazing, but I was having a really hard time finding out about her. I found a picture online of a current congresswoman in Panama, Balbina Herrera, holding up a book about Gumercinda and reached out to her to see if I could find out more. I also found a woman, Dania Batista, who had written her dissertation on Gumercinda and reached out to her, too. Miraculously, they both got back to me and filled in beautiful pieces of Gumercinda’s story.
BB: Were there any women you wanted to include but couldn’t for some reason?
JM: There are so many other Latinas I would love to illustrate and write about! Many of them are in the “More Latinitas” section. For example, I would have loved to have done a profile for Sara Gómez. My sister is a documentary filmmaker and I am definitely a film nerd, so her story particularly fascinates me. Unfortunately, it was very difficult finding information about her early life. It was important to me to make each Latina I included relatable to children and show the link between their childhood interests and what they later decided to be, so I had to make some hard choices.
BB: Makes sense. Finally, what are you working on next?
JM: I have some fun projects in the works that I am excited about. I am currently working on illustrating two books: one by April Pulley Sayre and Jeffrey P. Sayre and one by Margarita Engle. I am also working on my first picture book that I am both writing and illustrating.
Incredible thanks to Ms. Juliet Menéndez for taking so much time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Caroline Sun at Sun Literary Arts for connecting us. LATINITAS will be on shelves everywhere February 23rd.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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