This double review by Veronica Chambers appeared in The New York Times.
From the very first sentence, Margarita Engle’s memoir “Enchanted Air” takes wing. “When my parents met, it was love at first sight,” Engle writes. “They were standing on the terrace of an art school in an elegant palace now known as the Museo Romántico, the Romantic Museum.” Since her Cuban mother and American father did not speak the same language, they “communicated by passing drawings back and forth, like children in the back of a classroom. . . . Sketches, signs and gestures had to substitute for words.”
After this opening the book moves into verse, and a generation coming of age on Snapchat and Instagram will find the power Engle is able to pack into each exquisite phrase to be deeply satisfying:
Old women love fresh air, but they are also
Afraid of aires, a word that can be a whoosh
of refreshing sky breath, or it can mean
The child in this memoir is a bird, lifted each year from her home in California to Cuba, where she spends blissful summers. Then in April 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion occurs and she cannot return to Cuba. She is cut off from her extended family, the melody of her second language, the “crocodile-shaped” country she loves. This pattern of shifts, abrupt, unexpected change, doors to homelands opening and closing, the young Margarita comes to understand, goes back for generations:
When Mami tells her flowery tales of Cuba,
she fills the twining words with relatives.
But when I ask my
about her childhood in a village
near snowy Kiev,
All she reveals is a single
on a frozen pond.
Apparently the length
of a grown-up’s
by the difference
“Enchanted Air” is at its heart a book about travel. Some of it is specific: how we travel between languages, cultures and countries. But because Engle is such a gifted writer, this is a book that generously gives every reader a ticket to ride as she explores what it means to journey toward adulthood, traversing from one side of her family to the other, from the natural world of “tropical jungles, wild green parrots” that “remind me of island skies” to the back of the car on a family road trip when all her family can afford is a long, hot, adventure-seeking drive to Mexico.
Anyone who grew up watching Sonia Manzano as Maria on “Sesame Street” might expect her coming-of-age memoir to be a celebrity production focused on sunny days and sweeping the clouds away. But as the book’s subtitle, “Love and Chaos in the South Bronx,” reveals, Manzano worked hard and endured much before she made her way onto the screen and into our hearts on the classic PBS television show.
Her Nuyorican culture is a through-line here, but Manzano neither overromanticizes nor overworks the language or the details. There are no cloying metaphors about life being sweet like azúcar (sugar); nothing is spicy like salsa. She has from beginning to end a sophisticated, well-integrated view of her world. It simply is, and she assumes that the reader stands on the same side of the mirror as she does. You are drawn in by her language, her honesty, the way she moves the story along. You are dropped into her world from the very beginning and she assumes you get it, or you will quickly catch up to what it means to see life through a young Latina’s lens. When, as a girl, she is challenged by her cousins about why Santa Claus leaves some of their presents at her house, Sonia thinks: “Saves time. . . . If Santa had to wait for us Puerto Ricans to stop partying on Christmas Eve and go to bed, he’d never finish delivering gifts and we would hold up the whole world getting presents.”
Having already written a wonderful fiction debut, “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano,” Manzano brings a novelist’s attention to detail and a gift for writing powerful scenes to “Becoming Maria.” Growing up in a home with a violent, alcoholic father and a mother who put up with a lot to build a life with this man she loves, Sonia struggles to figure out how to follow her own path away from the madness of her home. She finds refuge in a theater arts program for teenagers, which leads, miraculously, to a scholarship at Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious theater program.
While the 1960s are the political backdrop to Engle’s ethereal memoir in verse, Manzano transports us to that decade in a way that is both informing and entertaining. It’s fascinating to watch her play with identity as a high school girl in New York then. She sits around interpreting Beatles’ lyrics with her friends:
“I am the walrus. . . . What do you think it means?”
“Qué se yo? How should I know?”
We get a strong whiff of the 1960s, too, in how Manzano dresses up, and in the process, culturally code-shifts from a “garter-wearing Kitty from ‘Gunsmoke’ ” to a “sari-wearing East Indian girl” to a “solemn intellectual beatnik.” On her first day at Carnegie Mellon, she decides to don a “Native American counterculture look, putting my hair in two long braids, wearing a headband, a sandalwood necklace and a denim shirt.”
The effects of the counterculture are more than cosmetic. The book is recommended for readers 12 and up, but parents should know that in high school Sonia and her friends smoke pot. And when her dear friend gets pregnant, Sonia urges her to consider her options: “Vanessa, it doesn’t have to go that way! You’re just a kid! You can end this pregnancy. It’s the ’60s! We are free now.” (Vanessa decides to keep the baby.) And the counterculture theme continues as Sonia is cast as one of the student-actor-creators of an experimental Off Broadway play called “Godspell.”
Manzano is such a familiar figure in our pop culture that it would be almost easy to miss that she is an ink-slinging storyteller with serious smarts and unquestionable literary gifts. Her words are bright on the page. “Becoming Maria” is a powerful book that will appeal to teenagers and grown-ups alike (it would be a great choice for mother-daughter book clubs).
There is a phrase in Spanish that Manzano uses: Búscate la vida. The literal translation is “Look for your life.” But like so many expressions, it means more. It also means go for it, take some chances, swing for the fences and see what happens. It is the message at the heart of both of these memoirs by Latinas. We must all look for our lives. Memoirs thrill us because they show us someone opening up the vault of personal experience and saying, This is how I did it. This is how I looked for my life, and this is what I found.
Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
By Margarita Engle
192 pp. $17.99. Atheneum Books. (Middle grade; ages 12 and up)
Love and Chaos in the South Bronx
By Sonia Manzano
Illustrated. 262 pp. Scholastic Press. (Middle grade; ages 12 and up)