A Coming of Age Nuyorican History Lesson
Undoubtedly one of America’s most influential Latinas in pop culture, the Emmy-winning New Yorker Sonia Manzano continues to define the TV-watching experience of many kids—especially young Latino and Hispanic children.
For me and many Latinos who grew up watching the humorous, albeit always educational, antics of Burt & Ernie and Cookie Monster, no human face is more associated with the globally broadcast Sesame Street (Plaza Sésamo en Español) than "Maria" embodied by Sonia Manzano.
Manzano joined the production of Sesame Street in 1971, where she eventually began writing scripts for the series. She has won 15 Emmy Awards as part of the Sesame Street writing staff. Many of those kids who grew up with Maria—myself included—will forever regard Sonia Manzano as a cherished storyteller.
This is why her powerful debut YA novel The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic Press) is so important and relevant for young readers of all backgrounds.
A coming-of-age story set in 1969 in New York City's Spanish Harlem ("El Barrio"), The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano reads like nonfiction. Manzano’s story based on her own life growing up during a fiery, unforgettable time in American history is infused with actual news accounts—specifically surrounding the Puerto Rican activist group The Young Lords.
If you or your students aren't familiar with the radical, certainly controversial, group The Young Lords, that’s because there aren't many—if any—young adult books written about the subject.*
Manzano's novel remains the only fictionalized narrative on the subject written with young adults and teens in mind. Her story revolves around 14-year old Evelyn Serrano—who is struggling with the idea of what it means to be Puerto Rican—and the complex family dynamic of three generations of women living together: grandmother, mother, and daughter.
With so much discussion about Common Core standards and the push for nonfiction narrative by curriculum developers, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano seems like a solid choice for educators who want to explore Latino Heritage in a format that is not only relatable but accessible and historically poignant.
Manzano's novel includes an appendix of articles and other materials for further reading including, notes about Iris Morales' seminal documentary, "!Palante, Siempre Palante!" and video links to footage of the 1937 Ponce Massacre.
The activism portrayed in the novel lends itself easily to extended conversations about civil rights and even the recent Occupy Movement. Evelyn's personal struggle with identity stirs up discussion about the impact of cultural heritage—an internal conflict that many young people can relate to.
Incidentally, Manzano's novel takes place in 1969, the same year that Sesame Street first aired on various public broadcasting stations with a mission to harness the power of media to empower and educate. Likewise, the Young Lords activists' mission was to empower their membership to fight against gentrification and educate the American people about the discrimination faced by Puerto Ricans at the time. In more ways than I can enumerate here, Sonia Manzano provides a seamless link between those two worlds, having lived through the influence of the Lords during her formative youth and as a pioneering writer and role model on screen.
When asked by Publishers Weekly's Shannon Maughan how much of her character Evelyn is based on her own life, Sonia responds with aplomb, "There is a lot of me in all the characters I write. There’s even some of me in Big Bird and Ernie and Bert when I write for them!"
Catch Sonia Manzano at the Miami Book Fair on Saturday, November 17, 2012.
- Latino Writers Address Publishing Challenges (Voices of NY)
- Sonia Manzano reminds East Harlem of the Young Lords Party (Uptown Collective)
- Q&A: Sonia Manzano on identity politics, the Bronx, Bloomberg and raising kids (amNY)
- Sesame Street’s Sonia Manzano gets political with new novel (NBCLatino)
*My Google search turned up only three books about The Young Lords — Professor Darrel Enck-Wanzer’s The Young Lords: A Reader (NYU Press), Miguel M. Melendez’s We Took The Streets (RutgersUniversity Press), and Palante: Voices and Photographs of the Young Lords (recently reprinted by Haymarket) — all scholarly nonfiction titles written for adults published by University presses.