Evelyn “Don’t Call Me Rosa” Serrano is a 15 year old in growing up in Spanish Harlem, NYC at a tenuous time in our nation’s history. But, Evelyn can’t see past the importance of her own life. She is disconnected from her Puerto Rican heritage and embarrassed by her traditional parents, especially “my mother, the slave.” When her mother’s Mother, Evelyn’s Abuela, shows up on their doorstep Evelyn is certain her life will only get worse. Covered in bright make-up, with wild hair and dressed like someone half her age, Abuela is a sight but what’s worse is how she talks – “This whole scene sounded like something on one of the telenovela soap operas on Telemundo.”
At the same time that Evelyn’s familial life is in turmoil, something is brewing in her neighborhood, El Barrio. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, have taken space in the church across the street and are challenging the community members to join them as agents of cultural change. With her Abuela on the front lines while her own mother hides at home, Evelyn begins to explore a world much bigger than her own and is inspired by what she discovers.
Situating a coming of age story in a time when the entire country was amidst multiple revolutions leave countless opportunities for discussion and subversion. Manzano taps into that age appropriate couth she honed for years on Sesame Street to produce a novel that is honest enough about the reality of social change but pertinent enough to the experience of the reader, especially those Evelyn’s age. Manzano’s choices also make a strong case for the value of female relationships and the importance of women in leadership. Through her developing relationship with Abuela and a desire sparked by the energy of the Young Lords, Evelyn begins to understand the importance of history and her place in it. As she becomes more aware of herself and the past that has shaped her, her apathy evolves into compassion for her mother and a sense of connection to her community.
There are many ways to categorize what the Young Lords stood for but an essential piece to take away is the power yielded by a group of young people who were motivated to create positive change in support of a marginalized group. Manzano uses their legacy as a metaphor for the revolution that occurs within Evelyn – the discovery of one’s personal identity and how that identity will participate in the world.
Congratulations to Sonia Manzano on her 2013 Belpré Honor Award for Text!