At the close of Duncan Tonatiuh’s new picture book Soldier for Equality, the author-illustrator writes: “I hope this book … shines luz [‘light’] on a largely unsung hero whose fight for equality is still alive.” He also writes that Latinxs have “proven themselves to be as patriotic as other Americans, but their service and sacrifices have often been ignored.”
The unsung hero he means is the subject of this detailed picture book biography, José de la Luz Sáenz, a Mexican American who not only fought in World War I but who also, post-war, joined with other Mexican American veterans to create the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the largest and oldest civil rights organization for Latinx people. This reverent story brings his passionate work to light.
We meet José, whom Tonatiuh refers to as “Luz” throughout the book, as a boy. (His family and friends called him the same.) In this first spread, a white child calls Luz a “greaser,” and his family lives with daily discrimination and prejudice. “No dogs or Mexicans” and “WHITES ONLY,” say signs all across town. Luz knows he’s “as American as the kids who tormented him,” since he and his siblings were born there, but the white people around him don’t agree.
We then jump to 1905 when Luz graduates from high school, marries, and begins to teach. On the next spread, it’s 1914, and he’s joined the army to fight in the Great War. We follow him during that experience, one not without its own prejudices. (An officer calls him “greaser” in front of his fellow soldiers.) All the while Luz wonders when the discrimination will end and Mexican Americans will be given the respect they deserve.
Before he’s even out in the trenches, Luz is assigned to the intelligence office, given his talents with translation. In what may be the book’s most memorable moment, his diary is quoted: “Now that I am in a hole thirty feet under the ground, I can tell my friends that books literally helped me build a protective trench around me.” Post-war, we read that he organizes a gathering of the Mexican Americans in the 360th Regiment, at which all the men share stories. When Luz arrives home, he’s surprised to find that “Mexican American children were still being sent to separate and inferior schools. Businesses still had signs that said NO MEXICANS ALLOWED.” Luz decides that enough is enough and, with other veterans, forms LULAC in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Appended to this accessible and informative biography is a select timeline of Luz’s involvement in World War I; a select timeline of LULAC; a bibliography; an index; a glossary of the Spanish words incorporated into the text; an author’s note; and more. Tonatiuh weaves into the story direct quotes from Luz’s diary and a speech he gave in 1929. He also photographed some of the letters Luz sent back home during the war, and he includes Luz’s handwriting as what he calls a “texture” in the backgrounds of several spreads. This is never distracting, and it’s a lovely, poignant touch.
Another upcoming picture book paying tribute to unsung minorities at war is At the Mountain’s Base by author Traci Sorell, who wrote last year’s award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (named a Kirkus Best Book of 2018). In this new book, she honors Native women who have served during times of conflict. It is in a closing author’s note that we read specific information about this; the picture book text itself is a spare circular poem that resonates on a more universal level. We read about a maternal figure (a “grandma”), who weaves and worries. Gathering around her is her family, women who appear to be her grown daughters and a granddaughter. They tend to the weaving, and they sing, remembering their beloved family member. She is pictured soaring in a plane during battle, while the family carries her in their thoughts, words, and songs back at their cozy, safe home that is “beneath the hickory tree.”
With regard to setting and plot, the watercolor illustrations from Tongva/Scots-Gaelic illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre do the heavy lifting here. We see a Cherokee family. (Sorell is herself an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.) Alvitre sets many of her illustrations within borders that look like threads, ones that loop at the corners and wind in and out amongst other threads. She plays with perspective, often giving readers aerial perspectives. We even get inside the cockpit with the daughter who is at war; she “forms a prayer, pleading for peace.” Here, Alvitre illustrates a grand woman in the sky, one who very nearly cradles the plane. We see the same woman stand above the mountain that soars over the home where the women weave and sing. We see her on the cover. The book’s final illustration shows the pilot from behind; she is standing in front of the very home where the women hold her up in thought. She has made it home.
The closing note from Sorell explains that Native women have:
“served and continue to serve in wars while receiving strong support from their
families. Women from American Indian and Alaska Native Nations have served
in intertribal conflicts, wars started by European colonizers fighting for territories
claimed in North America, and later within the United States Armed Forces. In the
modern era, these women serve at a higher rate than all other Servicemembers in
Active Duty, Reserves, and National Guard for their percentage of the overall US
Sorell goes on to note an example, a woman named Ola Mildred “Millie” Rexroat, an Oglala Lakota pilot who served in World War II.
This lyrical offering from the new Kokila imprint can be a conversation-starter in classrooms and libraries about the sacrifices made by Native women in the U.S. Armed Forces. (Little did I know myself that Native women serve at such a high rate.) It is a book that can prompt questions and further discussion: Who is the woman in the sky? What is the role of the weaving we see the grandmother do, particularly with regard to her “worrying” and the singing that results? Surely, students who want to learn more about Rexroat herself will be encouraged to read further.
And students who want to learn more about the role of those from marginalized cultures in our country’s military history will find both books to be excellent prompts for further exploration — two very different books that are both appreciative tributes to heroes of this country. From the mountain’s base to Corpus Christi, Texas.
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.
AT THE MOUNTAIN'S BASE. Text copyright © 2019 by Traci Sorell. Illustrations © 2019 by Weshoyot Alvitre. Spread above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Kokila, New York.