Xiomara, Yahaira, Camino and Emoni: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Teen Girl Characters

Clap When You Land and With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo just does not miss!

There are a lot of YA novels about teen girls, but hers center them. It’s not that her main characters are perfectly active agents in control of their lives—just the opposite. Things happen to them that are outside their control. Probably more so because they are young Afro-Latinas. But we find out their reactions, plans and dreams and the way Acevedo writes these girls, they are in such good hands and I close the book feeling like, “They will be fine.” They are cared for, they know who they are, and they have mujeres in their lives who have their backs.

Her two books following The Poet X (2018) pulled so many emotions out of me. With the Fire on High (2019) made me want to be Emoni’s friend. She’s a teen mom who is passionate about cooking in her senior year of high school. I love the way Emoni talked about virginity. Tyrone, her baby daddy, was the first (and only) person she had sex with, yet everyone thinks she is a ho because she got pregnant.

There are so many details that gave the reader a sense of Emoni’s reality as a teen mom: doing her daughter’s hair before she goes to school; being able to sign permission slips for her daughter, but not for herself; and getting her phone confiscated because of school policy when she really needs it in case her daughter’s daycare needs her. These hassles show that she is a high school student at the same time that she is a mom, and she has so many responsibilities that she keeps to herself, which makes people think she is stuck-up.

But that’s ok because she has Abuela, Ms. Fuentes, Angelica and Malachi. I love how they support her even when she isn’t sure where she stands. I especially love Malachi, the transfer student who became her love interest. I love that he doesn’t judge or like her less for being a mom, and he doesn’t rush her into having sex, even though Emoni was fully prepared for that to be the case. [spoiler] When they were about to have sex on their culinary arts field trip to Spain, I LOVE how Malachi was a virgin and Emoni obviously was not! And they talked about it like adults, and it didn’t stop them from being attracted to and friends with each other.

On the other hand, masculinity was all the way toxic in Clap When You Land (2020). Camino and Yahaira never knew each other existed until their father died in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic, where he had another family. The book is about the messy and painful aftermath of his death and the girls grieved. I had so many questions while reading this book and it really took me on a trip.

Like Camino and Yahaira, I had so many questions:

If you have two wives, do you love one let alone both of them? Yahaira’s mami told her that, he might have loved his wives, but his love for his children were not in question.

How do you grieve for someone who has lied to you your whole life? There isn’t an answer.

Just how much can a woman survive? I think Zoila, Yahaira’s mom and later, Camino’s stepmom, really stood out to be in her strength. At first, I thought having your husband not only cheat on you, but to start and raise a whole other family in your home country, for 16 years, would be like dying a slow death.

But Zoila surprised. Her character arc was amazing. She went from being a general’s only child, to a wife whose husband betrayed her in the worst way, to a widow, to the stepmom of the child of her husband and her friend.

I love how she had strengths that didn’t jump out until the times it mattered: She protected her stepdaughter, fiercely, even though just stepping foot on the island where her husband started a second family was excruciating for her. I also love how Camino and Yahaira slowly figured out who their mom is. Camino thought she was “una chica plastica” and Yahaira thought she was a “showpiece of a woman,” but she turned out to be a true matriarch.

The idea of a man fractured, and a family fractured, has been on my mind after reading The Bluest Eye. The pain, grief and utter sadness is also palpable here. Some reviews said the language in this book felt bruised, raw and wounded and they are absolutely right. My chest literally hurt thinking about what Zoila, Tia, and even Camino’s mom, and the girls must have gone through.

But I think I was wrong to be angry at Yano for being a womanizer. The book isn’t about him. It’s about the women healing (Tia and Camino), defending (Zoila) and making moves (Yahaira) in the absence of him.

And that is just so beautiful.

“Chance” by Uri Shulevitz

“Chance: Escape from the Holocaust” by Uri Shulevitz

One thing that has been on my mind for the past 4 years is the rise of fascism in the U.S. You cannot ignore it and it isn’t hyperbolic to wonder how close America came to becoming Nazi Germany. I noticed this book by “chance” at the library and immediately picked it up. I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust and how every day people resisted, or managed to escape, it.

Uri Shulevitz is a Caldecott Award-winning illustrator and picture book author. He is now 85-years-old and this memoir recounts his days in Poland, Turkestan, and France when he was a child escaping the Holocaust with his parents. Impressionist drawings and some photographs accompany the text. I would say this is not a strictly children’s book because there is a lot of cruelty, the kind that hits you when you look back as an adult.

One of the biggest connections I drew from Shulevitz to the U.S. today is when he mentioend how lucky he was to go through this ordeal with his parents. The U.S. separates children from their parents at the border. Both are escaping from home countries that have become inhabitable for them. Uri’s parents left him at several points during their journey from Poland to Turkestan because of illness, work opportunity, or being captured. Nonetheless, they managed to return.

That his family stayed intact and that he survived to become an artist is the theme of “Chance.” If he had not been named Uri, his father would have gotten USSR passports. If they had Soviet passports, they would have remained in Belarus. If they had stayed in Belarus, they would have been taken by the invading Nazis and died.

It goes to show that our survival had little to do with our own decisions. Rather, it was blind chance deciding our fate.

p. 249, Chance by Uri Shulevitz

It is the same with DREAMers and immigrants from Central America coming to the United States. Their survival has to do with the mercy of ICE, of Senators, of the President — people who have no idea who they are and what is at stake. Uri said that even after the Nazis had been defeated and his family moved to Paris, he was called a “dirty foreigner” by other children, and only seen as a Parisian outside of Paris. That resonates with how Americans see each other and the many divisions and cultural wars that you fight, even when you are technically “safe.”

My biggest takeaway from “Chance” is that safety is a gift and we are always one disaster, one chance away from fascism taking over. We can be vigilant and put in every effort, but safety is not guaranteed.

Consent: What does it look & sound like and why does it matter?

I read a few pieces over the past week that stuck the word consent in my mind:

Buying Myself Back” by Emily Ratajkowski

The model describes her images being sold without her consent. Does releasing one naked picture of yourself give permission to everyone else to sell any / every picture of you?

The Big Questions Book of Sex and Consent” by Donna Freitas

Based on discussions with college students, this book presents big questions about consent and why it isn’t just about avoiding rape allegations or having sex freely. It asks readers why consent is at the very heart of your relational ethics.

Blood Moon” by Lucy Cuthew

The situations here are super relevant: sexting, revenge porn, slut-shaming, social media, and all the horrible “risks” that come with having sex today, especially for young people.

Each of them pose different questions about consent, and all of them show that it is so much more layered than “yes” or “no.” Saying “yes” one time doesn’t mean you agree to have sex with that partner every time; even married couples are allowed to say no to sex, RIGHT?

Freitas also cuts to the fact that consensual sex isn’t always good sex, and unattached sex can be great sex. That complicates the messaging, doesn’t it? But as fun as hookups can be, they are also damaging in some ways or leave people desiring for more. She also points out that consent is NOT about free sex = good, frigid = bad. That’s a reductive way of looking at it that doesn’t leave anyone feeling more liberated.

The three pieces together also made me think about sex work vs. intimacy. Some people believe that since Ratajkowski did pose nude and her job is catering to the male gaze, that she has no right to claim privacy. In other words, she deserves her pictures being taken and sold by anyone. It also remind me of a Twitter thread I saw about an OnlyFans creator whose pictures were taken by her boyfriend — in the replies, many male commenters said they felt bad about her boyfriend. The OP explained the two of them were winning together.

Does being in a relationship mean only your partner gets access to pictures of you? What if your partner IS the one who shared pictures that were only meant for them? I don’t believe the ownership of images is a model problem — it is ultimately a question of trust and the power we hold when we are in an intimate relationship. And if we are being 100% honest with ourselves (and not concerned with being woke), does giving everyone access to look at our partner even feel GOOD?

Personally, I believe that society is not as liberated as sex-positivity makes it out to be. And having free sex is not empowering, at least from my perspective as a woman. My honest, true opinion is that women deserve to enjoy sex, BUT sex positivity still benefits men more than it benefits women. Feminism that pleases the patriarchy, that centers traditional feminity, is not that empowering or inclusive, though I understand it as a backlash against butch feminism.

I’m going to be pondering these big questions for a long time. My wish is that women would make space for each other for the full range of femininity, ways of being a woman, that there are, instead of settling for the binaries that patriarchy imposes on us. Men don’t have the limits of being either a slut or frigid; they get to be any kind of sexual being. (They even get praised for being HIMBOS.) So let’s give ourselves the same space to have sex or not have sex, and to chip away at the binaries. Your body is yours alone and it is a great privilege to be able to keep it to yourself or share it with another; an even greater privilege to be able to change your mind about it. And it is a privilege that many are trying to take away from us. Honor consent.

Living with Fear and Caution

Fear is such a physical feeling for me — heart palpitations, sweating palms and bottoms of feet, and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I sit in my room where I am the only person, I feel totally scared. It is unsettling to be the only one and it feels like coming face-to-face with my phobias:

What if I hear a crash out of nowhere?

What if I see a snake slithering out from under the cabinets?

What if there is a ghost staring back from inside the mirror in my bathroom?

What if there are insects breeding in the hidden corners of my apartment?

What if a bomb goes off outside? What if there are bad guys just outside my window?

What if the big earthquake happens and no one can help me?

What if there is a locust or a bee/wasp gets inside?

What if spiders or gnats are hiding in my plants?

Typing them out makes me feel a tiny bit better. Naming my fears is the first step to overcoming them. But in the age of pandemic/rising fascism/climate change, isn’t it a little reasonable to be fearful? I do wish I had someone watching over me.

Weather Reminiscing

The hazy weather oddly reminds me a lot of school. When I was teaching, the transition from the excitement in August to a kind of serious feeling in September is so palpable. It gets windier, kids start bundling up, and I start to feel alarmed.

My first year of teaching at IHCS in Perris, I got in huge trouble around this time of the year. It was when students really started to misbehave, and one student accused me of pinching him. It was then that my life became hellish. My second year at Marguerita in Alhambra, the teachers I was assisting started getting terriorial and things got super chaotic with commuting and substituting around the school.

My third and last year of contract eaching is probably most bittersweet to me. I remember that September so clearly as the time when things started to change: when I was leaving right after the last bell because I was so exhausted, watching the kids at recess (and seeing them on the playground is somehow so memorable to me), and the sense of dread I felt at every staff meeting. I remember asking Shay for help and meeting Irene. Stopping by the pho place in Fullerton on my way back because I was exhausted and feeling like I could not keep going..

The weather also reminds me of living in Menifee by myself, and coming home and being too exhausted to do anything, including cooking and cleaning my apartment. I had felt so overwhelmed at school every single day; at the same time, the feeling that I was embarking on something new and living on my own was so special too — I will never forget the feeling of shopping at Ralph’s for myself, and walking to the mailbox get get my own mail, and simply feeling so indepedent even though miserable at work.

Last year, I started working at MEI-CHA around this time. I feel to be honest, strange about it. Any job I have from now on will feel like a piece of cake compared to what I experienced. This time of the year is strange and alarming to me and brings out the weirdest feelings.

A Prayer

I pray that I survive tough days

That my anxiety doesn’t get the best of me

That I don’t jump at sounds in my room

That I have the wherewithal to stand bugs

That I deal with pests swiftly and don’t let them rattle me

That I feel safe out inside as well as out in the world

That I let go of any guilt about the past and present

That I let myself feel deserving of taking up place

That I can speak openly about my wants and needs

That I am strong enough to survive in a very tough world

My New Normal

This term has been thrown around a bunch of times since the pandemic properly changed daily life in the U.S., but what I wante to talk about here is my new normal as in not living with my parents and not working a job that stresses me out daily.

When I was living with my parents, every day felt very stifling. I felt that I was constantly being watched/monitored, and every action I took brought about a comment. I’m so used to being judged by my parents that even now, when I buy something like a $60 shelf, I can hear my mom saying to me that it is too much, that I am being wasteful. I can see my dad messaging my mom that I am not capable of living on my own, that I will messs up, keep a dirty house, and just fail in some way.

It has been a work in progress trying to silence those voices. Giving myself permission to buy a $60 shelf and putting it in my apartment shouldn’t be the big deal that it is in my mind — I literally have to tell myself that It’s okay. There’s no harm done in buying a shelf, and it’s not bad to fill my space with things I need and like.

Another part of my new normal that has me feeling a little guilty is the fact that I don’t work a stressful job anymore. Especially right now when teachers have so much to deal with in distance learning. I think my norm had been going to work, get abused/disrespected at work, come back home to hear nagging and comments from my parents — I absorbed all of that as normal, even when it was hard on my body and warped my mental state.

So now that those stressors are removed, and I have so much freedom and peace in general, it feels so different and I am not used to it. I often wonder if I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and whether I’m doing good or bad because I’m used to getting validation from employers.

My affirmations to myself:

I’m learning to set my new normal to where I am the boss — if I feel good about it, it really is okay. Even if so-and-so might criticize me for it if they were here. I am doing good and I deserve good things. I don’t have to suffer all the time to earn a space to live on this planet. I can be on this planet to enjoy myself and have a good time, as long as I am not harming others or myself.

Why I Love Plants

I’m new in my plant journey, and two posts back I explained how I moved out. Living alone can indeed be a lonely experience sometimes, and like many others, I picked up the plant hobby. It really is gratifying in a way that meets the needs of so many people today.

1. Loneliness: Plants are literally alive. They add life to any room and just knowing there is a living, breathing thing in here with me, even if it doesn’t speak, makes me feel a little less alone.

2. Care: Plants have different needs: light, humidity, water. You need to constantly monitor them and see how they are doing, and look out for signs of problems like wilting, leaves curling, or my least favorite, PESTS!!!! It honestly reminds me a little bit of children / students.

3. Unique: Every kid has differnet needs and quirks, not to mention different sizes and appearances! Having plants in your charge and keeping them alive is very satisfying.

4. Learning curve: Also like teaching children, there is a huge learning curve to taking care of plants. There are so many problems that I spot for the first time and have to look up what happened. Thankfully, all the places I’ve bought plants from offer plant care support. I’m learning something brand new every day and it’s cool to apply it right away to a concrete object. (Not even object, a living thing!)

5. Acceptance: Even if I take the best care of them, plants are still going to be imperfect, with holes in leaves, yellowing, dead stems, and bugs. That doesn’t mean I did something wrong, it’s just LIFE. It’s life in the biological sense and the figurative sense. You can’t control for every factor, and there are random things that happen, including things I don’t like. My plants will have bad days, weeks or even months. There are times when they won’t respond to me even when I water them. But I have to learn to accept ebb and flow and imperfections of life.

5. Fun: It is fun to collect the different species and pair them! There really is so much variety in plants: color, leaf patterns, texture, sprawling vs. standing, wrinkles, wines, shape… it sounds cheesy but they teach me to embrace differences in humans too, like our skin color, shape, size and texture.

In conclusion, I love plants and finding nooks and crannies for them in m tiny, 360 sq. ft home! I will also write another tribute to why I love living in the home I do now. ❤️