Tired of seeing Latinas as mere historical footnotes, Juliet Menéndez decided to pick up her paintbrush in retaliation. The 34-year-old Guatemalan-American author and illustrator of the critically acclaimed children’s story collection Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers once walked the halls of an upper Manhattan public school where she taught art and didn’t like what she saw.
Portrait after portrait of those considered history’s greats were of men such as Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, yet there wasn’t anyone that looked like her or her students, female or Latinx. The whole thing “brought out the feminist in me,” Menéndez tells me by videoconference from her home in Guatemala, where she divides her time with New York and Paris.
Soon after, she began working on poster illustrations with biographical descriptions of her own that should have been hanging in those hallways, too. Then, by hand, she started painting pioneers like civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, the architect Susana Torre, the writer Isabel Allende, and the astronaut Ellen Ochoa, knowing that her students probably wouldn’t encounter them in their school curriculum and how important it was that they did somehow.
When they were done, she posted her doll-faced earth-and-rose-colored watercolor illustrations, done with pencil first and later some Photoshop, onto her website, and then serendipity did its thing.
Adriana Dominguez, the Full Circle literary agent and former Executive Editor at HarperCollins’ Latino imprint Rayo came across those eye-candy posters and contacted her about doing a book. It was a match made in heaven since Menéndez had used several of Dominguez’s books in the classroom.
Although the Washington-born illustrator daughter of an Irish-American artist mom and Guatemalan architect dad never quite considered herself a writer, with Dominguez’s guidance, she gave penning some original biographies for the book proposal a shot.
Unearthing the Dreamers
Peruse through the table of contents with each woman’s name, talent, and flag of their representative countries, and it becomes evident that practically all of Latin America is present along with those who were U.S.-born like the Chicana author Sandra Cisneros.
Menéndez says she made sure every reader could find someone who reminded them of their own circumstances. Spanning from the 17th century to today, her selection includes astrophysicists, congresswomen, athletes, philosophers, and they’re sure to widen the eyes of any child.
Par for the course, beloved pop cultural icons like Frida Kahlo, Selena, Celia Cruz, and Sonia Sotomayor are included in the book. However, she had to devote ample time researching the lives of the less-known women in the collection, whose biographies were nothing but brief mentions on the internet or in out of print books that were hard to get a hold of.
Thanks to interviews with helpful historians, professors, and family members of her subjects, and their passion for getting these courageous women’s stories out to the world, she was able to begin formulating the tales behind each of their legacies, like that of the Salvadoran engineer Antonia Navarro or the Dominican Solange Pierre, who sued her government to gain fundamental human rights for Dominico-Haitians.
There’s an art to writing children’s books, and it doesn’t come easy to just any writer. Dominguez never doubted Menéndez ‘s potential. “She’s a beautiful artist with a unique perspective—both very American and very Latin American—who’s aware of children’s literature because she’s also a teacher. I knew she had done the work,” Dominguez tells me from her New York office.
As the press coverage has shown, Dominguez’s nose for finding talent was right once again. What wound up accompanying her delightful illustrations are some deceptively simple yet cinematic biographies which led to the book’s auction and a six-figure deal at MacMillan, a Spanish-language edition for August and book two to come.
Instead of placing these powerhouse women on a pedestal in her narrative, Juliet Menéndez chose to portray them as little girls, when they were still dreamers, “taking their first unknowing steps toward the women they would later become,” as she writes in her introduction. This is how she made them all the more accessible to readers from the ages of eight to twelve and beyond.
I’m a fan of the bestselling Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls collection, which I continue to read with my eight-year-old daughter. So you can imagine the smile on this book lover’s face when I heard about Latinitas, a story collection dedicated to just Latina rebels, and that included so many women that I had never heard about.
As a Colombian-American mom raising my daughter in Spain, what I was particularly drawn to were that the stories not only subtlety showed the class system in Latin America but its gay and multiracial faces, too. It also hints at how it’s not always about obeying protocol, the patriarchy, or the naysayers in our lives, but about finding your own alternative.
Take Menéndez’s polished entry for the cigar-smoking Costa Rican-born singer Chavela Vargas for example, a legend in LGBTQ circles: “Ever since Chavela was little, people said she didn’t walk, talk, or sing like a girl.” When it came time for her first big performance in front of an audience, she fell to the ground and cried, “Ya, basta!” She removed the heels and dresses that the other female singers wore and put on a poncho and pants.
Then there’s the Colombian spy Policarpa Salavarietta’s entry, the girl who wanted to fight for liberty from Spain but wasn’t allowed in the army and became a rebel with classified information instead. Eventually sentenced to death by the Spanish Loyalists, she declared before dying: “I may be a woman. But I am brave enough to die a million deaths for my country. Do not forget me.”
Thanks to books like Juliet Menéndez’s Latinitas, Policarpa, and the other dreamers, they are not and will not be forgotten either.