Growing Up a Puerto Rican YA Reader

I’ll never forget that 9th grade class when my English teacher Angela Nieves led me to the little library in her classroom. Excited, I snagged a copy of Sweet Valley High and was immediately transported to the world of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. Yes, I was that girl that got in trouble for sneaking in some reading between exams, and eagerly escaping to different worlds, thanks to Mrs. Nieves. Growing up in Puerto Rico, my favorite bookstore back then was Bell Book and Candle, and once this love of reading was instilled in me, I would eagerly rush over there on Saturdays to pick up books that I’d ordered. The bookstore owners knew me and it made my weekends that much sweeter growing up, dropping by and leaving with a stack of books.

Growing up, I was not exactly the popular girl. I went to a bilingual school with about 54 other students, from kindergarten to 12th grade. I was at times bullied for being what they called a “nerd,” but that time of my life made me so much stronger and I’ve got some amazing memories of my time in school. The way I saw it, if being a “nerd” meant reading books, wearing glasses, and getting to know some unique characters at the same time, so be it. I look back and some of my favorite memories include sunny days at Condado and Luqillo beaches with a dog-eared book. That magical escape of diving into a beloved book is what has made me the educator and journalist that I am today.

Inspired by Elizabeth Wakefield of Sweet Valley High, a newspaper editor, I swiftly began writing for my high school newspaper, and this led to me studying Mass Communications and Journalism in college. I went on to work at a local newspaper as a film critic and feature writer interviewing actors like Benicio del Toro and John Leguizamo; got a scholarship to study bilingual (Spanish language) investigative journalism in Miami where I covered entertainment and travel; and have had a career in journalism at several magazine and newspaper outlets since. You could say those fictional stories and characters of my youth truly shaped me to be who I am today. Young adult books now hold even more importance in my life, as I continue to read and immerse myself in their stories, even while being a cool 38 years old. Still cool enough for young adult books, I might add.

Though Elizabeth Wakefield’s heart and her dreams were close to mine, I did not see myself reflected in her physically, nor in most of the books I read at that time. One movement I’m proud of is seeing more characters like me in books, like the Caribbean girl with hopes and dreams and a lot of love for her family, the Latina with a voice. In Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, the main character is a Caribbean gal with dreams of visiting Cuba and knowing more about her history, one who finds romance even while thinking she was cursed by a family backstory. In Romina Garber’s recently released Lobizona, immigration plays a key role in the story. The character’s voice is fierce and brave, and I was almost in tears as I read about Manu and her bravery in dealing with the realities that come with being an Argentine immigrant (plus a dash of magical realism). In Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera, a Puerto Rican herself, my heart swelled with joy as she spoke of landmarks of my youth, such as Plaza Las Américas and the rainforest of El Yunque. I’m so happy to see bilingual characters, Spanish words in my mostly English young adult books, and so thrilled to see Latina women take center stage in their own stories and earning that well-deserved power to showcase their culture.

When I started at Boca Raton High School in the 2015–2016 school year going from the newsroom to the classroom, I decided I could finally let my hair down and be myself even more; it was my mission to inspire. Now I do so with a Puerto Rican flag hanging in my classroom, a figure of a coquí (Puerto Rico’s symbolic and adorable little frog), a sign that reads maestra (teacher in Spanish), and bilingual books for the taking for my kiddos thanks to donations from places like Books and Books and friends from the Miami Book Fair. As an educator, it’s my turn to pass along that passion for reading, diversity, inclusion and the love of reading. Inspired by that same English teacher that led me to that bookshelf, I have my own little classroom library and share it with my 10th graders of diverse cultural backgrounds. I tell my students that reading is fundamental for their knowledge and growth, and that the adventures they find on the page will lead them to many opportunities in the future, like they did for me.

Romina Garber and I became close friends here in Miami when we bonded over our times working at The Miami Herald. While we were there at different times, we were the only Caribbean and Latina girls in the newsroom, and trust me, that meant a lot to us. I met her at her book signing for the YA novel Zodiac (which she wrote as Romina Russell), and we have since then bonded over the importance of diversity in young adult novels. I’ll never forget when one of my students eagerly devoured Zodiac in two days after her visit to my classroom; almost in tears, she said: “It’s so cool that she’s from Argentina. I’m from Latin America as well and it means so much that she’s done so much in the writing world.” In a week, she devoured the whole series. While some may look down at a young adult novel, I say look up, read, and enjoy these stories, full of bravery and now even more diversity than ever before.

In the end, you could say I was made a reader, by my family, by my teacher (thank you Mrs. Nieves, I see you!) and by my own youthful curiosity. To think that now I see more of myself in the pages of a young adult novel, and others will as well, is a beautiful and magical thing. Me, with my raven black hair (which I’ve given up trying to highlight ever again to be a rubia, by the way), my accent, and my dreams of making it. And to think, it all started with me picking up an American young adult book, and being brave enough to embrace being a bilingual reader. I hope others find solace and themselves in their reads as well, like I did with mine. Just call me the Latina Elizabeth Wakefield, one that went from the newsroom to the classroom. My heart and my soul would not have it any other way.