LONG SURNAMES AND PRIDE: ON ALMA AND HOW SHE GOT HER NAME
Michael A. Reyes
Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela thinks her name is too long. When it doesn’t fit on a single sheet of paper, she tapes paper scraps onto the edges to make it fit. Alma then begins to question her place in the world, her name becoming a metonym for Latinx identity and family history.
Juana Martinez-Neal’s author-illustrator debut, Alma and How She Got Her Name — a 2019 Caldecott Honor Book — tells the intimate story of how Alma grows confidence in her namesakes. In the process, Alma recovers a family history of artists, activists, and aspiring world travelers that illuminate her remarkable genealogy. Her interests and talents (and long name) are not hers alone; rather, they carry all that’s extraordinary about her family — and herself.
Not only do Latinx children belong in the world, but they are also part of a thriving, universal fabric.
Alma and How She Got Her Name is a rallying call to young Latinx children to see themselves as part of a history of wondrous talents and people — to realize that they are not alone and that the idea of “fitting in” is a formula for deficit models of thinking. In reality, not only do Latinx children belong in the world, but they are also part of a thriving, universal fabric. Martinez-Neal’s picture book is a pragmatic project that tackles shame and erasure, using Alma as a beacon to encourage pride for Spanish names and Latinx identities. Alma’s characterization speaks to the impacts of names and naming, both of which can serve as acts of resistance and recovery.
Martinez-Neal’s neutral, gray-toned pencil drawings complement the old photo albums that her Daddy references throughout the story. Daddy is an archivist who reaches back into family history to tell stories of each of Alma’s colorful namesakes. Fascinatingly, Alma’s physical positions within the pages change. The left side of the text features Alma and Daddy, and the right features Alma’s ancestors: Sofia, the paternal grandmother who was an enthusiast of poetry and flowers; Esperanza, the great-grandmother who longed to travel the world; José, the grandfather and painter; Pura, the great-aunt and spiritual practitioner; and Candela, the maternal grandmother and activist. Alma’s confidence is made evident in how she begins to leap more and more onto the right side of the text, where she engages with her ancestors and exclaims each name with pride.
Martinez-Neal’s unique ability to illustrate progression throughout the text is awe-inspiring. The form is an “I Am” poem, which, historically, is one of self-affirmation and self-actualization. Martinez-Neal pays homage to a young Dolores Huerta: Alma, like Huerta, holds a “Huelga” sign in the air, further illuminating her newfound confidence and assertiveness in the world. Similar to Alma, Martinez-Neal has spoken about her name and how it serves as her own reminder of her unique identity.
A picture book with a big name and even bigger themes of identity opens up wonders about language and storytelling — those of which may inspire young Latinx children to believe they are indeed special and belong just as they are. To know where you come from, as Martinez-Neal’s note at the end of the text suggests, is the first step in any strategy for developing self-love.
Readers will love the warmth and confidence Alma exudes after discovering and learning to appreciate her family histories as well as the origins of her own existence.
MICHAEL A. REYES
Michael A. Reyes is a poet and children’s book writer. He has received fellowships from VONA, Home School, the UCLA Writers’ Program, Otis College of Art and Design, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, among others. Michael is a graduate student in English at CSULA and reads poetry for The Offing.
Follow Michael on Twitter @mykey_reyes