Most people have that one book that changed their life forever. It isn’t necessarily a Pulitzer Prize-winner or even the most epic narrative of all time. The significance of the title is usually tied to a place, feeling or moment in time. It is a book that helped them see life from a new perspective, expanded a horizon of what they thought was possible or helped them reflect on their lived experiences in a way that was life-altering.
Na’im Akbar’s Know Thyself was that book for me. During my senior year of college, I was writing a dissertation on the tension between Blacks and Latinos with a focus on the island of Hispaniola. As I read about the importance of names in African culture and grappled with my Afro-Indigenous identity, I started to think about the significance of my own designation. This was the moment that would eventually lead me to the process of legally changing my name.
This is the power of a good book.
Like us, our favorite authors have also been shaken to their core by novels, memoirs and poetry books that awakened them, transformed them or inspired their careers in literature. Here, some key Latina authors of our generation share the titles that changed their lives.
Yesika Salgado, author of "Hermosa," "Corazon" and "Tesoro"
At 17 years old, Los Angeles-based Salvadoran-American poet Yesika Salgado felt incredibly alone. While wallowing in her first heartbreak, her U.S. history teacher, a young Chicano named Mr. Celis, handed her My Wicked Wicked Ways, a book of poetry by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros.
“I opened the page and found a mirror, a Latina who suddenly gave words to everything I thought couldn’t be named. I ended up keeping his signed copy all school year. When I returned it, I knew I wanted to write poetry that did to the world what Sandra did for me. I was no longer alone.”
Danyeli Rodriguez Del Orbe, author of "Periódicos de Ayer"
Similarly, Afro-Dominican poet Danyeli Rodriguez Del Orbe found her life-changing book in an educational setting. While conducting research for her undergraduate thesis, a professor recommended that the Bronx, New York-raised writer read The [email protected] Reader: History and Culture in the United States, and it completely revolutionized the way she saw herself and the world.
“I did not have the words or context for the marginalization and exclusion I often felt within non-Black Latinx spaces and non-Latinx Black spaces. With [this collection], I began to understand how my experiences were not anomalous but rather part of a collective and history passionately documented and explored.”
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of "Sabrina & Corina"
When the Denver, Colorado-based Mexican-American author Kali Fajardo-Anstine dropped Sabrina & Corina, a story collection about Indigenous Latinas in the American West, last April, she inspired a generation of budding writers much in the way another book of short stories influenced her.
“I took an introduction to a creative writing class and was floored when I read Woman Hollering Creek. Cisneros’ stories felt familiar yet challenging and this space allowed me to imagine my own short stories. I ended up writing a term paper on her use of the myth of La Llorona, contributing to my foundational interest in folklore in literature. Without [these stories], I don’t believe I ever would have written Sabrina & Corina. I am eternally grateful for this classic collection by a Chicana master.”
Elizabeth Acevedo, author of "The Poet-X," "The Fire on High" & "Clap When You Land"
Like many Latina writers, it was the work of Cisneros that most deeply impacted Harlem, New York-raised and Washington, DC-based Afro-Dominican author Elizabeth Acevedo as well. However, unlike the other authors we spoke with, it was The House on Mango Street that drew Acevedo in, allowing her for the first time to identify with a character as intimately as she did.
“In middle school, my classmates and I read The House on Mango Street, and it was the first (and only) text we’d ever read centering a Latina. I was so moved by the fact that the main character sounded like me, and her community seemed like mine; it was life-altering. Through lyrical prose, unflinching honesty and dry wit, Cisneros created a classic that has inspired generations of Latinx writers.”
Zoraida Córdova, author of the "Brooklyn Bruja" Series
As a South American immigrant, Zoraida Córdova doesn’t have many examples of literature that allowed her to see herself. However, there is one text, she says, that has made the most lasting impression, and it was published just last year.
“As an Ecuadorian immigrant to the States, I have yet to ‘see myself’ in books. But [Nina] Moreno’s debut Don’t Date Rosa Santos comes so close. It gave me the same joy and heartache that made me love the first two seasons of Jane the Virgin. Following a matriarchy of Cuban women, this book is a perfect and lyrical love story set in a coastal Florida town.”
Gabby Rivera, author of "Juliet Takes a Breath," "America Chavez" & "b.b. free"
For Bronx-born Puerto Rican queer writer Gabby Rivera, the book that changed her life didn’t just inspire her career in literature and comics but it also affirmed her identities and started her journey of unlearning the myths society taught her about Puerto Ricans, Latinos, queer people and New Yorkers.
“Palante, a book full of essays and photos from the Young Lords, taught me that Puerto Ricans have always been ready to fight: for justice, safe housing, clean streets, food access, health care and for each other. Palante taught me that Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen, trans activist and mother of the Stonewall Riots (alongside Marsha P. Johnson), was also a Young Lord. She led conversations on queerness, sexuality, gender, women’s rights, anti-machismo, everything. So when they tell us that all this ‘gender LGBTQ shit is new, isn’t of us,’ I know for a fact that’s a lie. This book is the proof.”
Natalia Sylvester, author of "Chasing the Sun," "Everyone Knows You Go Home" & "Running"
Born in Lima, Peru and raised in Florida and Texas, Natalia Sylvester was already writing stories rooted in her culture and family history when, during her sophomore year of college, she read Haitian author Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, and it transformed how she would approach her narratives.
“She saved me from this internalized impulse to see ourselves only through the lens of our oppressors. Danticat showed me the power of intergenerational storytelling, how the ways we see one another’s joy and beauty is what buoys us through the hardest parts of our collective memory and empowers us to tell our narratives truthfully, in a way that honors the light and the darkness without losing sight of either.”
Erika L. Sánchez, author of "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter"
Chicago Chicana Erika L. Sánchez says she wouldn’t be the writer she is today without Gloria Anzaldúa. She was first introduced to the Chicana feminist scholar’s work in high school when her brother gave her an anthology he was reading in a college class, saying the text reminded him of her.
“I was stunned because I had never read anything about a girl like me, a girl who didn’t meet the expectations of a traditional Mexican family. I recently reread Borderlands and was struck by how much of my work is indebted to her. The way she writes about her otherness felt so familiar again, particularly how she made a home out of the unknown. Her defiance and her vision paved the way for so many Chicana writers.”
Vanessa Mártir, author of "Woman's Cry: Llanto de La Mujer" & "A Dim Capacity for Wings"
For Puerto Rican-Honduran scholar and author Vanessa Mártir, it was the work of another Caribbean writer, Dominican-American literary icon Julia Alvarez and her 1991 novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, that changed her life and first made her believe she could be a writer, too.
“For the first time, an author looked like me and talked like me, and I could relate to her characters and their struggles to fit in and navigate racism and xenophobia. I suddenly understood that there must be other Latinx authors writing these stories that made me feel less alone.”
Melissa Rivero, author of "The Affairs of the Falcóns"
Melissa Rivero, a Lima, Peru-born and Brooklyn, New York-based writer, calls Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn the book that changed her life because of how it highlighted the resistance and survival of three very different women during the height of the Shining Path insurgency in her home country.
“Growing up, my family talked about Sendero’s violence in whispers, until a car bomb blew up just blocks from me during a trip to Lima when I was a kid. Claudia’s novel faces Sendero head on – both its idealism and violence — and shows us the resilience and strength necessary to keep going in the face of unimaginable horror and loss.”