The Daily Heller: And Now, the Latina Role Models

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Dare I say in the first sentence that I love this book for its illustration, lettering and design? Need you read more? Yes! For here is a collection of illustrated short biographies featuring 40 influential Latinas and how they became the women we honor today. Author and illustrator Juliet Menéndez explores the "first small steps" that set these Latinitas off on their respective journeys. With beautiful hand-painted illustrations, Menéndez has created a monument to the power of "childhood dreams." Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers (Macmillian) comes at a critical time when the United States grapples with its racial divisions and systemic inequities. Menéndez's hope is "to introduce young readers to a rich history and attempt to reconcile the lack of representation and inclusion in our history books, while combatting the misconception of the Latinx community as a monolith."

The illustration, lettering and design reminds me of early Soviet children's book art with a large hint of 1930s style fused into a distinct voice. I've asked Ms. Menéndez to tell me if my assumptions have merit. But more important, tell us more about this landmark achievement.

The book is wonderfully illustrated and conceived. What was your inspiration for creating this?

First of all, thank you! This project started in 2014 as a set of posters. I was working as an art teacher in Upper Manhattan at the time with students whose families were from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico, and I wanted them to have people to look up to that had similar backgrounds to their own.

With that in mind, I delved into the world of poster art, printmaking and design, looking at the work of Carlos Mérida, Fortunato Depero, Sonia Delaunay and Russian Constructivists. I knew I wanted the posters to be symbolic more than narrative pieces, and looked for examples of simple, bold icons in Czech matchbook design as well.

I also wanted the project to feel like Latin America and like Latinx neighborhoods in the United States. I took inspiration from the painted colorful buildings in Guatemala, street murals, hand-painted menus, storefront signs and the decoration in restaurantitos.

Was there a process in selecting the women that you cover?

Yes. Once I decided to turn this project into a book and conceived of it as a collection, I thought a lot about how to create a balance between showing a wide range of professions, a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and different historical time periods. In addition, it was important to me to put together women who were already household names with those that should be. Creating the list of women to be included was one of the hardest parts, but I knew that this book was never meant to be comprehensive or could be. At the end of the day, what I most wanted was for children to see a wide range of possibilities for themselves and feel like they have a place in this larger history.

Are there women you have since learned about who you regret missing?

There are so many more women that could have been included and should have books of their own. Since I never intended for this book to be comprehensive, I wouldn’t say that I missed anyone exactly, but I will say that there are women who inspire me that I would love to write about one day or see books made about them.

One example is Sara Gómez, who is included in the "More Latinitas" section at the end of the book. As a film nerd whose sister is a documentary filmmaker, I would have loved to include her story. But it was very important to me to show the childhood experiences behind the women we know today and, unfortunately, I didn’t find enough information about that part of her life while writing the book.

As you mentioned, there is a poster style here—your flat color, geometric representation and, of course, the block lettering. Was this approach made for this project, or is this your visual voice for all work?

The poster style is unique to this project, but flat colors, geometric forms and a sensibility to typography have always been a big part of my work. I have a real love of Cubist painters like Fernand Léger, I follow different typography foundries (the font for the illustrations in the book is Mindset from PintassilgoPrints in Brazil), and geometric designs, especially in textile art, have always had a special place in my work. I find Andean textiles incredibly inspiring.

I also took printmaking in college and was doing lithography at the time (grinding those enormous stones myself) and was really inspired by the bold forms I could create. The printmaking aesthetic has made its way into my art ever since.

Will you make these into a collection of posters?

Yes! I am so glad that readers have been asking about this! I am working on and hope to have them available very soon. It will be such a full-circle moment for me when that happens.

Some of your subjects are known, others not as well-known, if at all. What was your research process?

For the women who have been more widely recognized in the United States, I delved into their biographies, documentaries and archived interviews. It was amazing, for example, to see old interviews with Celia Cruz and get to have a peek into her life off stage and hear her describe her experiences in her own words.

For the women who had not been so widely documented, it was a bit like a scavenger hunt, tracking down bits and pieces of information in web archives, old newspapers, women who had written their dissertations on them, and anyone who might be able to help with a piece of their story. It was even like this for some women who have left behind autobiographies or who have had books written about them, because these resources were often difficult to find or out of print. I hope Latinitas might encourage some of those resources to be more widely available.

Who do you anticipate will be your primary audience? And who do you want to reach?

I centered young Latinas
as I wrote this book and I want them, first and foremost, to feel seen and represented. But honestly, this book is for everyone. Adults and children from genders across the spectrum. These childhood stories and life experiences are universal stories about finding your own voice, figuring out who you are, where you belong and how to stand up for yourself and others.

Do you have a follow-up in mind?

I have a lot of ideas swirling around in my head. For the moment though, I’m focusing on my illustration projects with April Pulley Sayre and Margarita Engle.