Alma Flor Ada's Dancing Home
Book review by Elizabeth Markoff
A Mexican girl adjusts to her new American home
Lupe, a young Mexican girl, dances her way to acceptance in California in Dancing Home, Alma Flor Ada's 2011 book. Lupe is a fifth grade student from Mexico who has come to live with her aunt Consuelo, uncle Francisco and their daughter Margarita. An after-school folklorico dance group provides joy and belonging to her as she adjusts to her new life.
Review - Dancing Home
The challenges start early for Lupe, as she arrives at school on her first day wearing a frilly pink organza dress that her mother made for her just before she left. Even though Lupe loves the dress, it stands out from the typical schoolwear. As a result, the entire class stares when she enters the room.
It so happens that Lupe's arrival is a challenge for both Lupe and Margarita (usually called Margie), is dealt with in a highly sympathetic manner. Both are in the same grade, which presents some problems for Margie at first as both are in the same class briefly. This is because they do not have enough space for Lupe in the bilingual class at their school. As a result, Margie must attempt to translate what the teacher is saying into Spanish for Lupe, and Margie finds it difficult.
(Margie's issues - dealing with having Lupe with her at school and at home - are handled with great sensitivity. We understand how hard it is for her to try to translate English into Spanish for Lupe during the brief time they are both in the same class. It is also easy to appreciate her feeling excluded as her father shares stories and songs with Lupe in Spanish, a bonding which causes Margie to feel left out.)
Although Lupe eventually goes to the bilingual class, Margie struggles with some ethnically oriented taunting which is directed at her after Lupe leaves. This is baffling to her as she had made great efforts to Americanize herself despite being the offspring of Mexicans. She also realizes she should have been much kinder to her cousin, who was overwhelmed with her new circumstances.
Even though the theme of trying to find one's niche is hardly new in juvenile fiction, author Ada surely gives it a distinguishing take in this novel through her emphasis on Mexican culture. We are given the opportunity to find out about Lupe's home life back in Mexico, a life considerably more impoverished compared to her new one in California. The difference is particularly notable during Christmas; she sees many more presents in California, but fewer rituals than in Mexico. (For instance, no La Pastorela, a play about the shepherds.) Nevertheless, Lupe is especially joyful when she receives her larger than usual number of gifts on Christmas morning.
Review - Dancing Home
Perhaps what makes the book most universal is its emphasis on the strength of family ties. Near the very beginning, when Aunt Consuelo visits Lupe in Mexico and invites her to come and live with the family in California, there's quite the impact. Consuelo makes this extremely generous offer despite it being the first time she has actually met Lupe. The warmth between Lupe, her mother and grandmother in Mexico is evident too. We also see it eventually with Lupe and Margie as Margie finally gives her cousin a hug at Christmas. Even Lupe's Uncle Francisco, to whom she is not related by blood, bonds with her through the Spanish stories and songs.
Mostly, we feel the tug of conflicting emotions within Lupe as she tries to adapt to a new setting. She does miss her mother and twin brothers in Mexico (though not so much her alcohol-prone stepfather), as well as their little corner of Mexico itself. Although English is a struggle, she does eventually find herself feeling more secure with her American family.
Dancing Home captures the challenges that a young Mexican girl coming alone to the United States goes through. Youngsters will find it to be a worthwhile read.
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