PPBF – Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

I recently saw a reference to the latest picture book by Duncan Tonatiuh. As we’ve just celebrated Remembrance Sunday, or Veterans Day here in the US, originally celebrated to mark the end of World War I, I thought it was the perfect time to review this Perfect Picture Book:

Title: Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

Written & Illustrated By: Duncan Tonatiuh

Publisher/Date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 6-8 (and older)

Themes/Topics: Latinx, military service, biography, #OwnVoices, World War I

Opening:

“Greaser!”

Luz (looz) ran toward the boy and tackled him to the ground. Luz had had enough. ¡Ya basta! Why did they call him names? Why were those kids mean to him just because his family had come from Mexico?

Brief Synopsis:

The story of de la Luz Sáenz, a Mexican-American teacher who served as a soldier in France in World War I, who returned home to Texas to work for Mexican-American rights, and who co-founded the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn more about LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and its founding;
  • Has anyone ever called you a name or otherwise been mean to you? How did you feel? What did you do?
  • Luz kept a diary during World War I that shared what he experienced and felt. Try keeping a diary or journal to record your thoughts and reflections.

Why I Like this Book:

The latest picture book by award-winning illustrator/author Tonatiuh, Soldier for Equality, provides wonderful insight into the life and times of an American of Mexican descent in the early part of the 20th century. Although the narrative begins during Luz’s childhood, much of the book records his experiences as an adult and especially as a soldier during World War I.

Although I wasn’t surprised to learn that Latinos were discriminated against in Texas and in the military at that time, nor do I think that children reading this will be, I was saddened to read how this discrimination affected Mexican-Americans living in Texas and how these loyal men’s service was treated as less valuable than that of white men.

But Tonatiuh doesn’t leave readers feeling sad or angry. Rather, he shows how Luz channeled his frustrations into a passionate fight for equality by teaching Latinx children and adults to read, by joining with other veterans to fight for Latino veteran rights, and by joining with other like-minded individuals to form the League of United Latin American Citizens in 1929. LULAC, which still exists, is “the oldest and most widely respected Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States”, per the organization’s website.

As Tonatiuh notes in the Author’s Note, Luz is a “largely unsung hero whose fight for equality is still alive”. I think it’s wonderful that Tonatiuh has brought Luz’s story to a new generation of children, especially Latinx children, and I hope that reading this biography will inspire this generation to continue the fight for equal rights, liberty and justice.

Tonatiuh’s distinctive, earth-toned illustrations complement the text well, and, for me, rendered the combat scenes a little less disturbing (note, though, that these could scare a younger child).

Back matter includes the Author’s Note, a select timeline of the US and Luz’s involvement in World War I and of LULAC, a bibliography, an index, and a glossary of Spanish terms.

A Note about Craft:

In the Author’s Note, Tonatiuh reveals that he first learned about Luz from a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin who had translated Luz’s wartime diary. A diary or journal is a wonderful source to learn about historical eras and a person’s reflections about them, especially when it is paired with other sources. That Luz not only kept the diary but that he also was a participant in the fight for equality and justice renders him an especially important figure for children to learn about. Thankfully, Tonatiuh distilled these adult-focused sources into a story for children. And while this isn’t entirely a cradle to grave biography, Tonatiuh begins it with a scene from Luz’s childhood, showing how even a child can stand up for his or her rights. As Tonatiuh quotes Luz’s father saying, “don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed. You should always be proud of who you are, mijo.”

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

3 responses to “PPBF – Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

  1. Thanks for sharing, Patricia. I will check out this story that sounds moving, inspiring, and important! Also, I’m a fan of Tonatiuh’s trademark illustration style!

  2. Yes, Tonatiuh’s got such a distinctive style. I love his work. And this book sounds like a great addition to bios of individuals who pushed back against discrimination and oppression. Thanks for featuring Patricia!

  3. Tonatiuh once again takes a tough subject and turns it into positive action. I didn’t know the history, but it does not surprise me. It is heartbreaking how we’ve discriminated against such loyal Latino soldiers who were willing to fight on behalf of the US. What a great share with kids. Want to check this one out! Love his work!

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