What makes someone Latino? Before diving into over 10 narrative poems about the various ways Latinos and Latinas in this country celebrate their identities and heritage, authors Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy address this question in Yes! We Are Latinos, released earlier this month from Charlesbridge and illustrated by David Diaz. The fact that Latinos in the U.S. come from very diverse backgrounds and have mixed origins is evident in these first-person poems—but not always evident to some American children, making this a great addition to school and public library collections. Short informational pieces between the poems provide historical context on the rich, complex experiences in each vignette.

I chatted with Ada and Campoy to ask them about this undertaking, a book the Kirkus review calls both interesting and educational.

Tell me about your decision to write a series of narrative poems, as opposed to prose, for this book. 

F. Isabel Campoy: Poetry is the chisel of language. It carves meaning until beauty appears, dancing with the rhythm of form. We chose 13 main characters for this book that had, each of them differently, a world to tell to the reader. Poetry allowed us to mold their histories with the care, measure and proportion that a sculpture requires. These pieces were formed to the likeness of people we know well, experiences we have witnessed, feelings we have shared. The result is an exhibit of beautiful differences within one all encompassing concept, that of Latinhood or “Latinidad.”

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Poetry is also very possessive of meaning. It values simplicity in eloquence. Our 13 friends had lives of deception and triumph to tell, and in order to be true to their realities, we had to say much with a scarcity of words. Juanita, a Mexican of Mixtec origin, represents the over 50 language minorities that live in Mexico today and who bring to the U.S. yet a deeper layer of (mis)understanding about being Mexican. Her reserved, silent, respectful character represents her indigenous culture. And as she walks forward to a new life in New York, a part of her smiles at the recognition of sameness in another girl at school.

Monica in Houston is one of hundreds of thousands from El Salvador, whose parents risked [their] lives for a better future and who allow us to reflect in the reality of immigration.

José Miguel is Cuban and carries his name with the pride that his grandfather granted to their identity. Similar to what Gladys does when speaking of Puerto Rico, Santiago tells us about the Dominican Republic.

It was important for us to capture the power of a common language of origin when a Chinese-Hispanic and Japanese-Hispanic find themselves surrounded by a second language, English, and realize the potential they could have if someday they learned their heritage languages, which at the moment of their stories being told in the book, they don’t speak. We dreamt with the aesthetics of those two languages and wished for the chisel of poetry to cut two faces in one.

We spent a summer in Teotlitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca, where the Zapotec people live, and were absorbed by their sense of community, by the power of us versus me and we versus I. We learned about the many obstacles this culture has to overcome to fit in a foreign country and how important it is for them to remain together as a family. That is the life that Julio let us glimpse from Stockton in California.

Felipe, on the other hand, is African-Hispanic. With him comes the strength of Africa, with faith in the future, and compassion in his heart for those less fortunate. He, we hoped, will become the right kind of leader.

Sultana is Sephardic; Rocío, granddaughter of Spaniards; Andrés is Colombian; and Román is the true Native-Hispanic from New México. Román closes the book saying:

            We have been mixing for centuries.

            Mixing our blood, and our faiths.

            Mixing traditions, music, and dance.

            Mixing our languages, our literatures.

            Mixing us into a greater reality, a larger reality.

            One that is now called Latino.

            Yes! We are Latinos.

I'm curious to know how long you both worked on this book. It includes a wide array of voices. What was your research like? 

Alma Flor Ada: This book has been in process for almost a lifetime, since it is the product of a constant reflection on who Latinos are. How are they perceived by others? How do they perceive themselves? As I observed the children in my very large family and the numerous children with whom we have interacted during school visits, the need for the book became evident. We started it several years ago and let it grow naturally as we found inspiration for yet another vignette.

The research is also the product of many years of teaching graduate courses and directing doctoral dissertations on the various aspects included in the book.

We are Latinos spread

Did you get to choose David Diaz as illustrator for this project?  

Campoy: David is a marvelous artist, a gracious friend and a superb companion in this adventure. At the USBBY conference in Fresno, we talked about the book we had created and delighted to hear our hearts beat the rhythm of ¡Sí se puede! in unison.

He has provided a universal canvas of symbolism and imagery that our characters needed for the portrait of their lives. We will always be thankful for his understanding and mastery.

YES! WE ARE LATINOS. Copyright © 2013 by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. Illustration copyright © 2013 by David Diaz. Illustration used with permission of Charlesbridge, Watertown, MA.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.