Meet Juliet Menéndez, the author and illustrator of Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers, on sale today, February 23rd! In honor of Women’s History Month, Juliet shares the story of a remarkable historical Latina, plus the inspiration behind her book and more!
When describing Latinitas, what’s your elevator pitch?
Juliet Menéndez: Latinitas is a children’s book that shows snippets from the history of Latina feminism both in the United States and across Latin America. It includes Latinas from many different backgrounds and ethnicities and gives an insight into the childhood experiences that set them off on their journeys.
My hope is that readers will see themselves in these stories and be inspired to find their own unique ways of letting their talents shine and contribute to their communities.
What inspired you to write Latinitas?
Juliet: The idea for Latinitas came to me back in 2014 while working up in Inwood and Spanish Harlem as an art teacher. My students, at the time, were mainly Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican, but when I would walk through the halls of their schools, the posters on the walls were of people like Einstein, Picasso, and Benjamin Franklin. There weren’t posters of anyone who looked like my students or came from similar backgrounds.
So, I started researching Latinx history trying to come up with ideas for men and women to include, but I kept noticing that something very important was missing: women! And when I did find them, they were being relegated to footnotes. If there was anything that was going to bring out the feminist in me, it was that. So, I decided to dedicate this project to celebrating Latina women.
The more I found out, the more I realized that posters weren’t going to be enough. I knew these stories needed to be told and that is when Latinitas became a book.
Since March is Women’s History Month, can you share one of your favorite influential figures featured in Latinitas?
Juliet: I really can’t pick a favorite. I really do love them all! But I will share a story that resonates with me as we start off the new year with a new president and our first woman, first Black, and first South Asian Vice President of the United States. It is the story of Gumercinda Páez from Panama.
Gumercinda Páez turned real life into art through her radionovelas and then used the themes she explored–fathers forced to leave their families for work, single mothers making incredible sacrifices, grandmothers working well into their old age, and children working when they should have been in school– as the pillars of her work as a congresswoman and vice president of Panama’s constitutional assembly in 1941.
She was the first Black woman elected to congress and was able to bring attention to the needs and struggles of everyday Panamanians and then translate that into policy. She fought for and won equal pay for women, public daycare for children, paid maternity leave and the recognition of Afro-Latinx rights.
In the U.S. we are still fighting for many of these things and there she was, in 1941, writing them into the new constitution of Panama. I feel like, if she could do that then, we should definitely be able to make these things happen now as well as everything that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (another incredible inspiration included in the book) is bringing to the house floor.
Tell us about a librarian or educator who made an impact on you.
Juliet: I have had the luck of having many inspiring teachers throughout my life, but there is one in particular who stands out.
I had an elderly neighbor growing up whose name was, Ms. Oltman (Ms. O she told us to call her). When I was six, she offered to give me piano lessons for free in exchange for, as she would claim, “good company,” which meant we would have tea and cookies together in her turquoise dining room after each lesson. I couldn’t read music for many years and asked her to play every song for me so I could learn them by ear. I also didn’t understand time in the technical sense and didn’t even have a piano at home. But she stuck with me all the way through to Rachmaninoff. She even got me a piano! One with various missing notes, thrown out by a nursing home which had painted it bright green, but a piano nonetheless. And she did all of this simply because, as she said, “you love piano and I do too. What better gift is there than sharing something you love.”
I never forgot that. And, in many ways, I think she is the one who inspired me to become a teacher.
What is the first step in your creative process?
Juliet: Research. And I am a Pinterest nerd, for sure. For Latinitas, I researched everything from typical clothing from the time period, hairstyles, and cultural symbols from the different countries and communities, to the type of flora and fauna in the region where they grew up. Not all of this research made it into the actual illustrations. I know they look super simple, but, where possible, I really like to include one or two details that tie the Latinitas to their communities and their cultures.
What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators?
Juliet: I would say to not listen to anyone who tries to tell you that “you don’t have what it takes” or to “give it a year” and if it doesn’t work out, “do something more practical.” Only you know what you have to offer the world and, if it means something to you and you are willing to put in the work, then you will have a beautiful gift to give to your community.
Also, for anyone like me who did not find their style, get represented, and miraculously get published in their early 20s (yes, I’m an old millennial) the many sketches/drafts (while working 4-5 jobs) where you look for your own voice and style are worth it. Take your time.
What was your favorite book when you were 10 years old?
Juliet: It probably would have been Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit, gifted to me by my aunt who knew I couldn’t resist a story with a part about getting the chance to fly. To be honest though, I actually didn’t really like to read until a few years later when I read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It was the first time I saw a family that reminded me of my own (complete with a clairvoyant and eccentric abuela) and I was hooked.
Hear Juliet speak about LATINITAS
in our MCPG Book Buzz!
Hear Juliet speak, starting at 8:30.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Juliet Menéndez is a Guatemalan American author and illustrator living between Guatemala City, Paris, and New York. While working as a bilingual teacher in New York City’s public schools, Juliet noted the need for more books that depicted children like the ones in her classrooms. She studied design and illustration in Paris and now spends her days with her watercolors and notebook. Latinitas is her first children’s book.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers by Juliet Menéndez
Discover how 40 influential Latinas became the women we celebrate today! In this collection of short biographies from all over Latin America and across the United States, Juliet Menéndez explores the first small steps that set the Latinitas off on their journeys. With gorgeous, hand-painted illustrations, Menéndez shines a spotlight on the power of childhood dreams.
From Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to singer Selena Quintanilla to NASA’s first virtual reality engineer, Evelyn Miralles, this is a book for aspiring artists, scientists, activists, and more. These women followed their dreams—and just might encourage you to follow yours!
The book features Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Juana Azurduy de Padilla, Policarpa Salavarrieta, Rosa Peña de González, Teresa Carreño, Zelia Nuttall, Antonia Navarro, Matilde Hidalgo, Gabriela Mistral, Juana de Ibarbourou, Pura Belpré, Gumercinda Páez, Frida Kahlo, Julia de Burgos, Chavela Vargas, Alicia Alonso, Victoria Santa Cruz, Claribel Alegría, Celia Cruz, Dolores Huerta, Rita Moreno, Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Mercedes Sosa, Isabel Allende, Susana Torre, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Sonia Sotomayor, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Mercedes Doretti, Sonia Pierre, Justa Canaviri, Evelyn Miralles, Selena Quintanilla, Berta Cáceres, Serena Auñón, Wanda Díaz-Merced, Marta Vieira da Silva, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Laurie Hernandez.
Praise for Latinitas:
★ “Will inspire young children to follow their own dreams . . . This book belongs in any child’s hands.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“This is an engaging and important book that should stimulate young Latinas to become the best they can be—and I am delighted to be in such good company!” —Susana Torre, acclaimed architect featured in Latinitas