‘They’ve Been Here All Along’: A Conversation with Juliet Menéndez on New Book Celebrating Latinas in History

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Just in time for Women’s History Month, Juliet Menéndez’s book Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers focuses on 40 Latinas who have significantly contributed to history, but are often overlooked. Menéndez is both the author and illustrator of the lively artwork attached to each “Latinitas” story.

Menéndez’s project started back in 2014 when she was an art teacher in New York City’s public school system and noticed that a lot of the posters of role models and public figures in the classroom all looked the same. When she set out to find more diverse figures, she also noticed there weren’t many Latinas who American history books remembered. This poster project then blossomed into the Latinitas book and, although she hasn’t worked on it every day since she thought about those posters over six years ago, this book is clearly dear to Menéndez’s heart. She came at it from a teacher’s and Latina’s—specifically a Guatemalan American woman’s—point of view.

If you take a look at the back of Latinitas, there’s a hefty portion taken up by Menéndez’s bibliography. It’s just an inkling of the number of women that are so overlooked in history books. History that still doesn’t shine a light on the work of brown and Black minds as often as it should. And that’s just in general; women from marginalized groups take an even bigger blow.

Even just a cursory look at the core group of women in the front half of Latinitas shows so many names that are unfamiliar to the general public. There’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a writer and philosopher from the 1600s. Or Policarpa Salavarrieta, the Colombian spy who hid as a seamstress in the 1800s. Latinitas aims to inspire little minds and teach the adults reading it new tidbits along the way as well.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity purposes.

What was the process going into this book as both the author and illustrator? 

To be honest, my background is more in art, actually, art and education. So I’ve always loved writing ever since I was little but it wasn’t something that I pursued, per se, as a career. It wasn’t something I studied in college. I took one creative writing class.

When I started this project back in 2014, which I can’t believe it’s been that long… I wanted to create posters for my students that really represented more of their backgrounds. They were from the Dominican Republic, their families at least, and Puerto Rico and Mexico. So I started out creating those posters [and] I felt like a lot of these stories that I was finding—about Latina women—were often relegated to footnotes. That’s when I knew that posters weren’t going to be enough and that these women’s stories needed to be out there. And so I guess the idea for writing it came at that time. But I always kind of imagined maybe if I get this out there, I could get a co-writer or something. I really didn’t feel like I was necessarily the one to do it.

A lot of these stories that I was finding—about Latina women—were often relegated to footnotes.

But when I met with my agent, Adriana Dominguez, she just really encouraged me. And I gave her some writing samples and she was like, ‘I really think you can do this.’ And she worked with me to make that possible. And so I ended up researching and writing this book by myself with obviously some mentors because it was Adriana Dominguez who played a big role and also my editor, Laura Godwin. But yes, that’s how it ended up.

You said you started in 2014; what kept you going for so long and inspired?

I didn’t just work on this project since then, but [in terms of] what kept me going, I think that since I started this project, thinking about my students, and I have my own niece, who’s a little Latina girl, Lucía. I was thinking about them and the kind of books that would really affect them while they were still young. So it made me want to hurry up a bit like I want to get to my niece, I want it to get to my students while they’re still children. And I wanted it to be something that they could look at and see themselves in and really kind of feel like they could do these things, you know?

I think that it’s hard sometimes when you’re a child to look at these professions that people tell you about, even things like astronauts… they sound so exciting. But those steps of how to get there, it’s so hard for a child to know what they might be doing when they’re young that might lead to that. So I think a book like this… I wanted to get it out there so that children could see those early steps. And that’s really what kept me going, thinking about the children when I was working like 14-, 16-hour days.

What types of positive results have you seen from kids having people that look like them in media, or even going back to the poster project idea? 

I guess there are so many people who have talked about why representation is so important, seeing yourself in children’s books, in books in general, and seeing a wide variety of different experiences so that there are not only these stereotypes out there of, especially marginalized cultures… But I think in a book like this, what’s so important for children to get from it is to see why it’s important for them to be at the table, essentially. It’s not just seeing someone that looks like you and shares your background, which is huge. And it’s really important to be seen. And I definitely want to keep going in that direction with the books that are coming out. But I also think seeing them in a historical context, starting as far back as Sor Juana in the 1650s, and seeing how this history unfolds. And I think [with this book], they really got a chance to see that Latinas have been a central part of history this whole time.

Latinas have been a central part of history this whole time. They’re not just on the sidelines just observing.

They’re not on the sidelines just observing it or in some way apart from it. They’re there in the middle of doing all of these different things. And so what I want children to get from that is just that they’re also part of this history and that they’re going to be the ones who write the next chapters and that this is their story. And I really want them to take that ownership of ‘This is me, this is my story, and I want to contribute to it, too.’

I also adored the concept of illustrating them as little girls because it did put them on an equal playing field. Can you explain a little bit more behind why you illustrated them as little girls?

I always love this question because it was something that was important to me from the beginning of this project. Even when they were just posters, I showed the Latinitas as children. And I think that the reason that I wanted to show them as children was… that I wanted children to be able to relate to them, but I think that it was even more than just saying, ‘Oh, they look like me as a child. And so I relate to them.’ It was being able to see the things that they went through. Maybe not feeling like they fit in, not feeling like they belonged, or trying to figure out how to stand up for themselves and others and those stories that they could see themselves in.

I wanted children to take a look at what these Latinas were doing when they were little. I wanted them to realize that it’s not always a direct path. I know for me, it certainly wasn’t. And for many of the women in this collection, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, she was painting from the time she came out the womb and she became a famous painter.’ That is true for a couple of them like Teresa Carreño who was a child prodigy, but for a lot of them, it was a much more kind of conceptual link between what they were doing when they were little.

I wanted children to realize that it’s not always a direct path.

Are there any other Latinitas that stand out to you?

I really do love them all. I really do. I talked a little bit about Gumercinda Páez because I had a personal connection to her and also Rigoberta Menchú Tum. She actually responded to me and she looked over the text and gave me some feedback… Hearing that she liked the illustration and that she just loved the idea for the book, just meant everything to me. I was literally crying. So I have a personal connection with those three: Susana Torre, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and Gumercinda Páez. But honestly, I love them all. So I couldn’t say that.

What’s the most surprising thing that you found out while researching for this project?

Oftentimes people say there aren’t enough Latinas in tech or in or in things like this. And I was shocked to find Latinas going all the way back to Antonia Navarro. And I was just like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ She’s just amazing… 1889, right at the turn of the century, but that shocked me. I think when I was reading this and I was like ‘wow, she was someone who got her degree in engineering back at the end of the 1800s’ and I just I felt like… Even in these types of fields where you would feel like maybe it doesn’t go back as far I mean, I guess I was less surprised in the ‘80s and the ‘90s that there were Latinas in tech and science and things like this. But all the way back to the end of the 1800s, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ They have been there. They have been there all along.