MTYT: Soldier for Equality

By Seemi Aziz, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Janelle B. Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

This third week continues a focus on displacement but as it is found in picturebooks. In particular, this week uses a historical context in emphasizing the sociohistorical nature of this issue.

This story is about José de la Luz Sáenz (Luz) who believed in fighting for what was right. Luz’s life was permanently displaced due to his heritage. Even though he was born in the United States, Luz faced prejudice because of his Mexican heritage. Resolute in helping his people, even in the face of discrimination, he taught English to children and adults… children during the day and adults in the evenings. As World War I broke out, Luz joined the army. He had the ability to learn languages and that ability made him an invaluable member of the Intelligence Office especially during war. Luz discovered that prejudice does not end even if you serve your country during war. Even though he was asked by superiors for his translating abilities he didn’t receive credit for his contributions. After returning to his Texas home, he joined with other Mexican American veterans to create the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which presently is the largest and oldest Latinx civil rights organization and continued to teach English to his people so that language does not become a barrier and they should not be discriminated against. The author uses his typical illustration style and Luz’s diary entries to tell the story of a Mexican American war hero and his fight against prejudice and for equality for his fellow
Latinx.

SEEMI: This was an enlightening biography. Luz’s life was mostly in flux due to his heritage and his efforts were permanently to fit in and be a part of the dominant group as a citizen. Social and financial equality and acceptance was elusive for him. His struggles were mostly with the duality of his identity and existence. He willingly, physically displaced himself, when he signed up for the war effort only to find that prejudice never goes away, and biases perpetually persist. Luz realized that educating Latinos in the language of the dominating culture was a way to be accepted. We see that the will to educate and eradicate illiteracy is still hounding the people belonging to the minority groups here in the US. Being put in a box and prejudged is something that multitudes are fighting against in today’s modern, developed world. This story reflects what is happening in the US today where Blacks and browns are struggling to be accepted as citizens with rights as human beings. It is sad to see that these issues of oscillating identities are still prevalent, and the struggle to be accepted as equals is ongoing. Colonialism and oppression of minorities are ongoing all over the world. The narrative that frames minorities is about being peaceful in their reactions to unbearable oppression (I would like to mention here the book, Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville Alabama (2015) by Hester Bass and E. B. Lewis). One reads and hears about peaceful marches and peaceful demonstrations and as soon as the reaction by minorities turns aggressive one sees the oppression being given credence by dominant groups. I particularly appreciated Tonatiuh’s efforts in highlighting the life of a person readers’ have seldom heard of.

JANELLE: As I read and reread this book, the theme of displacement in the form of bullying and inequity comes to the forefront. I am reminded that displacement is not only in contemporary situations but has a long and scarred history of negative impacts on individuals and cultural groups. The book shared the bullying that José de la Luz Sáenz confronted as a child and later pointed to the displacement of people of color who were contributing in significant ways to the USA, such as contributions to WWI. However, at the time I am writing this, a time when inequities are at the forefront of the news, I am also impressed that the positive attitudes and motivations of Luz resulted in positive transformations in the form of LULAC, League of United Latin American Citizens, an organization that continues to work for equal rights. This book shared Luz’s emphasis on knowledge as a teacher: “Knowledge was a weapon that helped you defend yourself against those who were mean to you and ignored your rights.” I am left thinking of the potential power of such books to provide knowledge of historical situations that can inform young readers today–individuals who hold the future potential of equality for all in their perspectives and decisions. This book fills a gap in history that serves to inform and potentially add to the peaceful transformation of society.

Title: Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War
Author: Duncan Tonatiuh
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1-4197-3682-7
Date Published: September 3, 2019

Throughout June 2020, Seemi and Janelle give their takes on books that feature physical and mental displacement. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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