What does it mean to be Latino in the U.S.? That was the focus of a lively discussion at the Library of Congress National Book Festival held this month in Washington, D.C., where UC Irvine professor Héctor Tobar told a packed house that the term “Latino” is “an expression of an alliance, we have this commonality, we have this story of a journey in the background.” 

The Los Angeles native was speaking about his new book, “Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of Latino” which starts with what he says is a message to his UC Irvine students who have told him stories of their lives.

National book festival
Hector Tobar reads at the Library of Congress National Book Festival

“You are a deep brown and you are fair-skinned. Your eyes are black and they are green, and you are 19, 20, and 21. I will weave what I know with what you have taught me, and together we will arrive at an understanding of our times and our people,” he wrote. “My students are growing up in xenophobia and hate,” he told the book festival audience.

Tobar’s biographical book speaks of his parents’ migration from Guatemala and his upbringing in East Hollywood, and subsequent visits to the Central American country, and he also criticized the commonality of the word “Latino” that lumps together everyone’s experience and that includes the issue of immigration. 

“The way stories are told, we are perpetually victimized. It’s so one-dimensional. I can write about anything (besides immigration). They (non-Latinos) see us as extra, not part of the society,”Tobar said, adding that he finds a lot of inspiration in his students. “They’re going to find ways to put us front and center where we belong,” a comment that garnered loud applause. “We have an important role in creating a new version of what society should really look like.”

This wasn’t the first time the former Los Angeles Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner was featured at the National Book Festival. In 2015 he told the audience that his book “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” came about because his agent happened to be at the meeting in the Chilean capital of Santiago where the miners met with lawyers to talk about getting their story out and Tobar was the only writer given exclusive access. Tobar’s book was turned into a movie starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche.

Tobar said at the time that being at the festival had been “a great honor,” and this year he joined a record number of Latino authors of all genres, including children’s books and comics.

National book festival
Author David Betancourt attended the Library of Congress National Book Festival

Afro Latino Puerto Rican David Betancourt is a comic book culture reporter with the Washington Post and author of an upcoming book with Marvel, “The Avengers Assembled: The Origin Story of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” The volume, which hits the shelves August 29, takes a deep dive into “the greatest superhero team of all time,” including looking at fan favorites such as Vision and Black Widow. 

Critics have often maligned comic books as not serious, but Betancourt told the festival audience that “I never got in trouble because I had a comic book in my hand. I’m of a generation that will never be sick of it. This stuff (comics and movies based on the comics) are here because it means a lot to a lot of people,” said Betancourt, who added that  he wants to see more Latino and Afro Latino portrayals. 

It is something on the mind of the festival organizers with its theme this year of “Everyone Has a Story to Tell,” including the many Latino authors in attendance. 

“One of our objectives is to expand the library’s outreach to Hispanics and recognize the contributions that the community has made,” María Peña, Hispanic spokesperson for the Library of Congress, told CALÓ NEWS. “We want to reflect what America looks like and where every voice is represented.”

The so-called “American Dream” was a focus of what poet José Olivarez spoke of growing up in suburban Chicago with a steelworker father and a custodian mother. Olivarez wrote what he called “love poems for the homies” which he says is an ode to his friends who were getting married and wouldn’t be “hanging out” as much. 

“I wanted to talk about all those good times we’ve had, and a lot of the poems center on Latinidad, class, love.” His “Promises of Gold External” focuses on what he calls the contradictions of the American dream. A Harvard graduate, Olivarez mentioned how his family was being evicted from his childhood home around the same time he was graduating from the Ivy League college. 

“We’re led to believe that we can triumph over a system that enslaves a lot of our people,” he said. 

“Las Madres” by acclaimed author Esmeralda Santiago is a novel about a group of close-knit women and their daughters and their trials and tribulations and triumphs over the decades.

“To me, all women are mothers. You don’t have to have carried them in the womb; you don’t even have to raise them. You just have to mother them in the way that traditional mothers do, and in the case of Las Madres, there are five women, three are mothers and  the other two are daughters with no children, but they are mothers as well because they take care of other people. I really wanted to expand the definition of motherhood,” Santiago told a packed house of festival goers. 

Santiago added that she wanted to include the deadly 2017 Hurricane María’s impact on the island even in its historical fiction context of the novel, as a way to ensure that it doesn’t get erased. 

“It’s been six years and there are still people in Puerto Rico who have no electricity. Let that sink in. I’ve always written about Puerto Rico. My goal with this particular book was that what happened in Puerto Rico on (that day) never be forgotten, and because I write in English, I knew that it would reach beyond the island because they (islanders) know what happened. They live with it still. I wanted to make sure that those of us off the island where Puerto Rican or not, that we never forget,” Santiago said, adding, “I always thought that coming to the United States from rural Puerto Rico at age 13 to Brooklyn with no English was the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me, but it’s nothing compared to what my aunt and cousins went through that day. It puts things in perspective for me.”

The 22nd-annual festival attracted tens of thousands of attendees and featured a vast collection of children’s books in both English and Spanish, including “Mexikid,” written and illustrated by Pedro Martín, about a Mexican-American boy and his family and their adventurous road trip to bring their abuelito back from Mexico to live with them. Martín is the creator of the “Asteroid Andy” cartoon and was an artist with Hallmark for nearly three decades. 

Some books highlighted at the festival were completely bilingual, such as “Searching for Sancocho/En busca del sancocho” about a young girl with a magic pink bike that flies her to the Dominican Republic in hopes of finding her abuela’s recipe for the iconic stew. One book popular with the crowd of children in attendance was one with a catchy title, “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” by Cuban-American author Meg Medina, about a Latina teen targeted by a bully at her new school. Even though the book was published nearly 10 years ago, it attracted the attention of youngsters not yet old enough to have read it when it first came out. 

“It was a great book. I liked everything, I loved it. I’ll read it many times. I identified with the main character because I’ve been bullied too,” said 11-year-old Valentina of suburban Maryland. “I hadn’t heard about the book before I went (to the book festival). I picked it up and said, ‘buy me this, mother.’ The story is perfection; I love it.”

“I wanted to bring her to see about books she may not have known about. The festival is not just exposure to books but to figure out publishers we may not know about. We found books we had never heard about,” said Valentina’s mother, Jamillah Echeverría. “It really opens your eyes to everything that’s out there. And one of the things I loved about it was that there were so many kids, so many teens, so many young people buzzing about books. It gave me a lot of hope.”

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...