I turn back toward the store. The woman with the white dress stands behind the window and points to a sign at the bottom of the windowsill. “No Dogs! No Negroes! No Mexicans! No perros! No Negros! No Mexicanos!”
Title: Evangelina Takes Flight
Author: Diana J. Noble
Middle Grades Historical Fiction ♦ 195 pages ♦ May 31, 2017
Diana J. Noble’s first published novel explores the insidious effects of xenophobia and racism in the early 20th century. Based on the experiences of her grandmother, Ms. Noble has crafted a rich historical narrative through the eyes of a young teenager whose entire way of life is uprooted in the first year of the Mexican Revolution.
[Trigger Warning: Some depictions of abuse; depictions of racist propaganda; xenophobia and racism]
Evangelina de León lives a good life on her family’s ranch in northern Mexico. The fourth child of six total, Evangelina is high-spirited, independent, hard-working, and deeply loyal. But in the beginning of the summer in 1911, the Mexican Revolution is moving further and further north, targeting landowning families for their resources, kidnapping and killing those who do not want to fight, and burning homes and ranches to the ground. Evangelina hears her father, Adan, discussing the rumors that soon, their small ranch may also be targeted by the Villanistas. Her mother, Mariaelena, tries to soothe her 13-year-old daughter by reassuring her that her father will always do what’s best and that it does no good to worry about the future. Besides which, Evangelina’s older sister Elsa is about to have her quinceañera. Evangelina tries to put her worries aside.
All is well for a while. Elsa’s quinceañera is beautiful, but before the party is over, two neighbors arrive. Kidnapped by revolutionaries, they had been presumed dead but were able to escape. They announce that the revolution is coming to northern Mexico imminently and warn the families that the revolutionaries show no mercy to landowners. Evangelina is sick with worry–what will become of her family?
Her parents quickly make a plan. Mariaelena has a sister, Cristina, living in Texas. They will all go there to escape the violence of the revolution. Adan and the oldest son will drive a wagon with their belongings. Mariaelena and the rest of the children will take a train across the border and up to the small Texas town where Cristina and her husband and daughter live. Evangelina is wracked with guilt and sorrow just for having to leave her beloved Rancho Encantado behind, and this is exacerbated when she learns that her elderly abuelo and her youngest brother are not coming with them due to being too ill to travel. Without many options though, she must dry her tears and look to the future.
The trip into Texas goes well. But once they are in town, Evangelina and her family are shocked by the flagrant racism that meets them at every turn. Signs on windows declaring “No Mexicans.” Professionals refusing services to Mexican families. Businessmen running campaigns to legally segregate the community. At first Evangelina is embarrassed, which turns to anger, and eventually depression. While she is glad her family is safe from the violence of revolutionaries, she no longer feels safe in the town that is supposed to be her temporary home.
Her 14th birthday, what should be a joyous time, is tainted by starting at the town school, where speaking in Spanish is punishable by beating and immigrant students are forced to take classes on hygiene, dress codes, and how to work in the service industry. Mexican students aren’t allowed to use the outhouse due to “having different germs” than the white students and must use the bushes and trees behind the school. In addition, Evangelina is repeatedly humiliated as she struggles to learn English, especially as one of her classmates in particular takes it upon herself to taunt the Mexican students.
Not everyone is this desperately unkind, however. The town doctor takes Evangelina under his wing, helping her with her English and providing part-time, paid work. Also, a handsome Lebanese boy, Salim, has become her fast friend as well as a reason her heart skips a few beats during the school day. These two friends cannot heal the quickly growing xenophobia toward Mexican refugees, however, and as issues continue to escalate both in Texas and in Mexico, Evangelina cannot help but wonder–will she ever return home?
Once again, Arte Público Press has definitively shown itself to be a publisher of compelling quality literature that explores a host of socially relevant issues. This book is perfect for young teens who want to make a difference in their communities. Actually, this book is perfect for young people in general, as it contains valuable first-hand insight into a time in our country’s history that is rarely discussed. By basing the book on her maternal grandmother’s actual experiences, this novel rings true.
Honestly, I never learned much about the Mexican Revolution in school. Our curriculum growing up created heroes out of those at the Alamo while vilifying Santa Anna and Mexican pushback to the annexation/stealing of Mexico’s land. The Mexican-American War was covered from the perspective of the victors, of course, but the Mexican revolution and its effect on the Southwestern United States and ongoing civil unrest between Anglos and Latinxs? Not. at. all. As a matter of fact, I had to do extensive research over the last few days just to create a context in my own mind. And the research proves over and over again that this narrative is spot-on with its depiction of the struggles facing Mexican refugees in the early 1900s.
So some background: After the end of the Mexican-American War, with the border between the US and Mexico being redrawn, a mass migration TO Mexico occurred, with Mexican families choosing to live in Mexico rather than the USA. And for a long while, Mexican migration to the States was really rather low.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, this dictator named Portifiro Diaz set up this Spanish-style almost feudal system of land ownership, making it difficult for actual farmers and ranchers to earn their own incomes on the lands they cultivated. Obviously, this led to civil unrest, and in the fall of 1910, the Mexican Revolution broke out, led in part by Pancho Villa. And though his aims were perhaps noble, seeking to return land and profit to those working it, his followers were often brutal. Families began legal migration from Mexico to the USA as refugees, and at first, had a decent reputation as “hard workers,” etc etc.
But as happens time and time again in our nation’s history, all those white, God-fearing Americans began to feel threatened by the influx of brown people, to the point that Texas Rangers and citizen vigilantes began killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of Mexicans, with US government consent. The racial discord between white and Hispanics continued to escalate, in flagrant and subtle ways, eventually leading to the Chicano movement in the 1960s.
Back to the book then. Evangelina and her family see definitive effects of this discord, with Evangelina having very real reasons to be confused, embarrassed, and very much afraid of her new environment. The way she and her family member are treated by the majority of whites in Texas is unsettling, and Noble adequately describes these encounters in a way that highlights the racism but also offers hope through the support of Evangelina’s strong family bonds and creating community with other minority students in school.
Evangelina herself is a dynamic character, perfect for viewing the changes happening in this time. She often questions herself, experiences bouts of crippling self-doubt, and tries earnestly to have a positive outlook in the midst of chaos. She even challenges her own sense of xenophobia, admitting that in Mexico she never would have talked to a Middle Eastern boy, and wonders what has changed in her that now she can’t imagine not having Salim in her life.
This book reminded me why I love well-written middle readers. Though it has elements of budding romance between Evangelina and Salim, this is definitely a sub-sub-SUB plot. Within just a few pages, I was immediately drawn into this world of a girl struggling to come of age and come to terms with her rapidly changing life, ultimately learning to spread her wings like a beautiful monarch butterfly to soar above the oppression.
My only criticism is the handling of internalized racism. Without giving too much away, certain characters are able to “cover” and pass as white. When it is discovered, abject public humiliation ensues. I feel that this missed a valuable opportunity to talk about self-hatred and internalized racism and the need for us to treat others with compassion in a world where “white is right” and people feel they must do what they need to to survive.
Overall, this read is highly engaging, educational, and beautifully done. I would recommend it to, well, anyone, as a relevant parallel to the refugee crisis facing our current world and the current administration taking such an inhumane approach.
You can order Evangelina Takes Flight from Arte Público Press for only $10.95, and let me tell you, it’s so worth the read :). Support small presses!
To learn more about this very-overlooked/deeply buried time period in Texas history, please visit Refusing to Forget, “a multifaceted project that seeks to incite public conversations through efforts such as: museum and online exhibits, historical marker unveilings, lectures, and curricular materials for public school teachers.”
About the Author*
A native of Laredo, TX, Diana J Noble currently lives in Seattle, WA. Born on the north bank of the Rio Grande in South Texas, across from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, she had the good fortune of growing up immersed in both Mexican and American cultures and traditions.
Some of her favorite childhood memories are of making tamales with family at Christmastime, singing traditional Mexican songs at family gatherings with her father on guitar and watching her mother and grandmothers make the most delicious Mexican food, a passion she shares.
Her young adult novel, Evangelina Takes Flight, is based loosely on her paternal grandmother’s life but has stories of other relatives and memories from her own childhood woven into every page. It has earned much acclaim since its May publication, including a Kirkus Review and a Junior Library Guild selection. She is working on her second novel, Call Girl.
*(Taken from author’s website).