Illustrations by Eric Freeberg
Jolly Fish Press, 9781631635359
Publication Date: September 1, 2021
148 pages, Middle Grade Novel
I AM AMERICA Series
Description from Indiebound:
“It’s 1951, and workers at the Empire Zinc mine in Alba, New Mexico, have been striking for months. Among them is Ana Maria Garcia’s father, who says they may need to sell her vihuela to pay rent. But her vihuela was a gift from her recently deceased mother, and her dream is to be a corridista, a singer of Mexican ballads. As Ana Maria is drawn to the picket line, she is inspired to write a corrido about her mother and the other women of the mining community. An upcoming talent show may be Ana Maria’s chance to earn money for rent and save her vihuela–if she can give voice to the song of her heart. It’s the storytellers that preserve a nation’s history. But what happens when some stories are silenced? The I Am America series features fictional stories based on important historical events about people whose voices have been excluded, lost, or forgotten over time.”
I was eager to read this recent release because I am a fan of author/historian Judy Dodge Cummings. Her research, reflections, and writing are reliably thorough and engaging. In this case I was particularly intrigued because of the emphasis in this series on exploring and sharing lesser-known stories from American history, stories lost, in large part, due to systemic underreporting and ignoring heroic, historic events from any non-dominant culture in America.
In the details of this case from the early 1950s, the injustice is particularly egregious because the mining corporation employed both Anglo and Mexican-American workers. Their segregated housing locations and conditions meant that Anglo and Latin men might be working in identical conditions, side-by-side, but were paid unequally. Mexican-American workers were only rented land to build their homes on “the other side of the tracks”. It was that side of town, on land owned and controlled by the same mining company, that indoor plumbing or gas lines for cooking were not provided, as they were in Anglo housing.
Those and other conditions, including the size and amenities of the homes in direct proportion to pay inequities, meant that Ana Maria Garcia and her father lived in hardship, especially after Ana Maria’s mother died. That tragedy, too, was related to the poverty in which they lived. Surrounded by Papa’s angry grief, financial stress, and expectations for his daughter to take over Mama’s household duties magnified Ana Maria’s frustration and sadness. All this is made worse when Papa scoffs at her love of making music and her dreams of becoming an accomplished corridista (balladeer and player of traditional stringed instrument).
I loved much about this story, including the many ways in which a culture unknown to me was made to feel familiar and respected. Cummings provided skillful revelations along the way, gradually allowing Ana Maria to better understand her papa’s struggle with loss, to regain her song-writing and storytelling voice, and to recognize the strength of women and girls in her community, despite culturally assigned restrictions and expectations. even secondary character were written with depth and allowed growth long th course of the story.
I was fully engaged with the many aspects of character development, political forces, and threats to physical, emotional, and social safety that unfolded through Ana Maria’s point of view. The tension never eases, although there are pauses as she incorporated events from the strike to extend the story and lyrics in her ballad. This provided readers a brief reprieve in which to deepen their connections and prepare for ongoing assaults on all aspects of life to Ana maria’s community at home and on the picket line.
The resolution was satisfying without being predictable, including the epilogue in which the characters are woven into the true story of a documentary film about the strike. Back matter allows readers to access websites and outer sources to learn more about events, culture, music, and language.
This slim and accessible middle grade novel will be welcomed by readers with Latinx heritage but also by Anglo and other readers. All will be drawn to the relationships, power struggles, and intense inner emotions of moving through loss and loneliness to acceptance and identity. As a coming of age story this is a welcome addition to home, classroom, and library shelves. It’s a book that should be widely shared.