I often write about why individuals are not always able to live their lives openly. However, I have just finished a book that made me think about identity in a different way. I was lucky enough to receive an advance reader copy from NetGalley of Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles and published by Charlesbridge Teen. This was a beautifully constructed story of how one teenager became (and accepted) who she wanted to be.
Beatriz immigrated from Puerto Rico to Newark, New Jersey, with her mother and brother in the 1970s when she was a little girl. As readers, we learn more about the reasons behind this departure in short vignettes interspersed throughout the book. Most of the story takes place during 1984, in the months after Beatriz turns fifteen. On her birthday, Beatriz had been dancing with her family, which she loved to do, when gunshots interrupted the celebration. Beatriz and her brother Junito belong to a gang and they know that the shots are being fired by a rival group. Beatriz follows Junito into an alley where she is beaten up and Junito is shot by members of a Haitian gang. He dies of his injuries.
Junito had been the leader of the Diablos gang and, within a few months, Beatriz resumes her role as the coordinator of drug sales within her school. Gang activity is really the only part of Beatriz’s life that seems to be unchanged after Junito’s death. Her mother is no longer able to speak and Beatriz will not allow herself to dance. That is, until she meets Nasser, a Haitian immigrant who, when not dancing, is involved in all sorts of intellectual activities. Nasser reminds Beatriz of who she once wanted to be and gives her the confidence to believe that these were not impossible dreams.
Tami Charles does a remarkable job of communicating the types of struggles that youth in urban areas experienced during the 1980s and, unfortunately, those struggles continue today. Joining a gang is not the only option for teens, but it often seems that way to those who are being encouraged to do so. Gangs give teens an identity. What young people don’t always see in the moment is that gangs also take individual identities away. They are a source of protection, but only if members do what they are told. They offer belonging, but at a cost.
One truly important reminder that Beatriz offered to me was that educators need to find ways to make school relevant to every child. Schools may not always be able to get every child to perform on grade level or to master every concept, but they can be places that inspire kids and young adults to take a different path. After school clubs, the arts, and building relationships with students are some wonderful places to start.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Identity 2: I know my family history and cultural background and can describe how my own identity is informed and shaped by my membership in multiple identity groups.
Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.
RL.2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL.3- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
RL.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.