Jasminne Mendez didn’t speak English when she started kindergarten, and her young, white teacher thought the girl was deaf because in Louisiana, you were either black or white. She had no idea that a black girl could be a Spanish speaker.
In this memoir for teens about growing up Afro Latina in the Deep South, Jasminne writes about feeling torn between her Dominican, Spanish-speaking culture at home and the American, English-speaking one around her. She desperately wanted to fit in, to be seen as American, and she realized early on that language mattered. Learning to read and write English well was the road to acceptance.
Mendez shares typical childhood experiences such as having an imaginary friend, boys and puberty, but she also exposes the anti-black racism within her own family and the conflict created by her family’s conservative traditions. She was not allowed to do things other girls could, like date boys, shave her legs or wear heels. “I wanted us to find some common ground,” she writes about her parents, “but it seemed like we were from two different worlds, and our islands kept drifting farther and farther apart.”
Despite her father’s old-style approach to raising girls, he valued education and insisted his daughters do well in school and maintain their native language. He took his children to hear Maya Angelou speak, and hearing the poet read was a defining moment for the black Dominican girl who struggled to fit in. “I decided that if Maya Angelou could be the author of her own story and rewrite her destiny to become a phenomenal woman, then somehow, so could I.” Teens—and adults too—will appreciate reading about Mendez’s experiences coming of age in the United States as both black and Latina.