Arianna Celemi, a Class of 2023 student with a Biology major and Journalism minor, is building a community of diverse book lovers with her Instagram, @booksbycvfe, which she launched in early 2020.
“I started @booksbycvfe last year in January,” she says. “I had just finished, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and was blown away by the medical memoir. After reading, I decided I needed a space where I could dedicate my thoughts. Since then, reading books by diverse authors of color have become my hobby. I wanted to immerse myself in works that are not really seen in school curriculums, but should be. Because representation matters. Because learning about different cultures and experiences matters. You gain a deeper understanding of people and the world as a whole.”
As of Fall 2020, 29.5% of the undergraduate students in the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark (SASN) identify as Latinx. It’s a category that encompasses a diverse range of ethnicities, cultures, and races. SASN Students and their families come from countries in South and Central America, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, just to name a few. Those students don’t always get to see themselves in the books they read.
Learning about different cultures and experiences matters. You gain a deeper understanding of people and the world as a whole.
Celemi said she was no exception. “Before joining the bookstagram community, my reading wasn't very diverse at all. I mostly read NYT bestsellers, or material for school that also wasn't very diverse.” She added that once she started seeking out a wider mix of voices, she was finally able to recognize herself in the characters. "I could see my family, my language, and my culture. It also helped me learn so much about other Latinx cultures. This stack [of books] showed me how much representation matters.”
For Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked her to recommend a few of her favorite books by Latinx authors. Below are her choices.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
An extremely moving, compassionate, and well-written essay about the hardships undocumented children face after crossing the border. Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer at a federal immigration court asks detained children the mandatory forty questions. These forty questions determine whether the child can be matched with the proper pro-bono lawyer to fight their case and are also the basis of the structure of the book. Luiselli highlights the flaws of the immigration system and simultaneously advocates for these children. "And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds," says Luiselli.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
An extremely powerful, touching and essential read. Villavicencio takes us on a journey to Staten Island, Ground Zero, Miami, Flint, Cleveland and New Haven as she interviews undocumented people. Villavicencio brings us through all these different places and the reader learns so much about the individual lives of undocumented Americans and the struggles they face.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
In this fiction story written in verse, the reader follows Xiomara, a teenage Dominican girl living in Harlem. Like many teenagers growing up in a strict environment, Xiomara has questions. Questions about life, religion, sex, the future - her future. Xiomara questions everything and I feel like in terms of capturing the real teenage experience, that is really what is all about: questions and trying to find yourself amidst all these expectations and pressure of who you should be from those around you.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
A coming-of age story of a teenage mother, Emoni Santiago, with dreams of pursuing a career as a chef. We follow Emoni in this story and admire her courage and perseverance throughout the entirety of the story. This book has a beautiful representation of the hardships that come with being a teenage mother, the LGBTQIA+ community, and contains recipes of Caribbean inspired dishes.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Acevedo writes a moving story based on the American Airlines flight 587 plane crash in November 2001 going from Queens to the Dominican Republic. Written in verse, the reader follows Yahaira and Camino, two separated sisters later bonded together through the death of their father in the crash. Acevedo fully captures what it feels like to feel loss, pain, and grief, but how it can also come with new beginnings, change, and gain. This novel also has a beautiful representation of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera
The perfect modernized Afro-Latinx retelling of the Greek mythology tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. This contemporary Bronx love story contained so much magical realism in the telling of the mythological tale. Rivera integrates relevant issues, like gentrification, race, mental health and other important themes like friendship, cultural identity, and grief.
Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester
A story about the Bravo family who were forced to flee the dangers of Mexico: gangs, drugs, violence etc. and start over as immigrants in Texas. Sylvester introduces the reader to the heartbreaking and horrifying experience that is immigration with SO much realism. There are secrets, there is love, and a huge emphasis on the importance of family. The Mexican culture is captured so beautifully in this novel revolving mostly around El Día De Los Muertos, the "Day of The Dead".
Chula by Amanda Alcantara
A bilingual collection of poems that screams Dominican culture and cover themes like: gender roles, identity, and adolescence to adulthood. Alcántara was transparent, real, and raw and let the audience into her thoughts and THAT'S what it was meant to be. [content warning: sexual assault/harassment, depression, self-harm]
Pelo Bueno y Otros Poemas by Sussy Santana
A collection of poems written in Spanish that focuses on Latinx beauty standards, specifically hair, while also delving into important themes such as identity, life, family, and the experience of being a Dominican living in the United States. The epitome of true Dominican culture.
Peluda by Melissa Lozanda-Oliva
A humorous and witty collection of poems that focuses on Latinx beauty standards, immigrant experience, class, identity and feminism. This collection of poems is inviting, warm and relatable.
The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext edited by Felicia Chavez, José Olivarez,and Willie Perdomo
A poetry anthology of various Latinx poets from differing nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles. This anthology fully captures the range that comes with Latinidad. This anthology screams Latinx culture.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende is an immensely beloved author of the Latinx community. Throughout this wonderful novel we live vicariously through Victor and Roser as they struggle in exile after the Spanish Civil War and hardships through the Second Civil War. The reader grows old with them as the story advances and you feel as you've gone through these long decades of hardships and love with them.
Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz
Set in the mid-60’s, fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion dreams of coming to America. Ana is forced to marry a man twice her age who promises to take her from the Dominican Republic to New York, an opportunity she creates to eventually get her family to migrate. It is a heart-wrenching, powerful, and emotional story that encapsulates the hardships that come with immigrating to the United States.
Arianna Celemi stresses that reading a broader range of voices and stories should be a yearlong endeavor. “My overall message is, if you haven't already been reading Latinx authors or other BIPOC authors and stories, you're missing out and I feel bad for you. If it takes Latinx Heritage Month to get you to read these amazing stories and experiences, then do better. It's life changing. There is so much history, substance, and powerful information here for you to learn. Doesn't it get boring to read material that lacks culture? Books that lack sazón, if you will. Expand your mind and keep it expanded past this month and #diversifybookstagram. And thank you to all the people on [Instagram] that posted bomb book reviews that got my reading tastes to where they are now. And to all the authors out there that allowed me to feel seen in literature for the first time. I appreciate you.”