As a middle-grade educator and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, it came as no surprise when Boricua author Andrea Beatriz Arango decided to pen her debut novel-in-verse Iveliz Explains It All, which just released on Sept. 13. Aimed at middle school readers, the novel follows Iveliz, a young mixed-race Puerto Rican girl as she enters the second semester of seventh grade, fresh from last year’s suspension. She struggles with anxiety, depression, bullying from classmates, and grief from the loss of her father, but promises herself that she’ll try to obey her mother and keep her mental health issues under control–until it becomes too much for her to carry alone. This book is one of the few of its kind, speaking openly about mental health in young people in an approachable, accessible way and addressing the stigma against mental health, especially in the Latinx community.
“There’s not a lot of people writing in verse and there’s even less writing in verse who identify as Latinx,” Andrea tells HipLatina. “It’s been in recent years that I discovered authors who were doing that, like Elizabeth Acevedo. They’re the ones who inspired me in a way. We can tell these stories too, we can write in verse, and we can write in verse for kids.”
Before becoming a teacher, Andrea held a life-long love for poetry, even writing some of her own. Today, she still considers it a powerful tool to make the genre “more accessible and engaging for students in the classroom.” She especially found spoken word poetry as a great way to lift words off the page and make them come to life for young learners, who might not otherwise read poems on their own.
“I had been working with ESL students my whole teaching career and none of my students were ever reading on grade level, even if they had already kind of mastered oral English,” she explains. “For [Iveliz Explains It All], it was important to me to tell a story that was mature and something that 12-year-olds go through, but that someone who wasn’t reading at a 12-year-old level could still access.”
For Andrea, the timing of the book felt fated. Early drafts of the book were written when schools shut down in response to the first wave of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, she had no commute or face-to-face interactions with her students, and felt a greater urgency to write a book centering on themes of wellness and empathy. Given that the mental health of young people was at an all-time low around this time and that she herself has an anxiety disorder, she felt called to write about the real-life issues that they face. Struggling with mental health can be experienced at any age but, as she points out, kids are less likely to know how to explain what they’re going through. And in the Latinx community, they’re less likely to be taken seriously.
“I didn’t get diagnosed [with anxiety] or even know that’s what I had until I was an adult because when I was a kid growing up, nobody talked about mental health that way. And I grew up in Puerto Rico where people talk about mental health even less,” she says. “I definitely didn’t have the vocabulary for what was going on with me, so a lot of the time people equated what I had to just being stressed. Even though those conversations happen more now, there are still a lot of students who don’t have the vocabulary for the things that they’re going through. There’s still a lot of shame around it too, because people don’t tend to talk about it openly.”
In fact, one of the most striking scenes in the entire book is when Iveliz’s grandmother Mimi, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, throws away Iveliz’s anxiety meds in the trash. When Iveliz can’t find them, she experiences a particularly traumatic anxiety attack, which marks the start of her recovery journey but also leaves her with a profound sense of loss. As much as Mimi clearly loves her granddaughter—cooking her meals, holding her—she’s also quick to dismiss Iveliz’s struggles and question her use of medication and therapy. Through these interactions, Andrea makes a profound statement on the complex, nuanced relationship between mental health and immigrant/Latinx families.
“Sometimes people can love us and still hurt us,” she explains. “People can love us and still not understand us or support us the way we need to. I was really trying to show with scenes like that that even someone who loves you so much can just not understand you at all.”
There are many reasons why mental health continues to be difficult for Latinxs of all age groups to address and understand in their day-to-day life. And it’s not that Latinxs don’t struggle with their mental health, either. Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even PTSD can be symptoms of generational trauma, passed down from colonization, immigration, assimilation, and forced or long separation. But therapy is still seen as a sin or an example of your or your parents’ personal failings, and can turn you into a family pariah when you’re suffering invisible symptoms rather than physical ones. With men especially, the culture of machismo can prevent them from being vulnerable and seeking outside help. There are also issues of affordable healthcare, language barriers, and ease of access to therapy for Latinxs in the U.S. in the first place. For kids in the community, these problems only increase tenfold.
She notes that many older readers may find her story extreme, what with everything Iveliz goes through at such a young age. But she argues that it’s not all that extreme compared to real life. “I’m not highlighting this unique example of something super out there,” she says. “This is happening right now to a lot of kids, but they just don’t know who to approach about it. And we’re not doing a good job as adults in approaching them first either.”
As a teacher, Andrea has seen first-hand the shortcomings of the school system and the resources the staff has to address the mental health of their students. Ultimately, she notes, her book is not only to give voice to kids, help them put a name to their experiences, and open up conversations with adults they trust, but also to help parents and schools gain the understanding and empathy they need to participate in those conversations, too. Schools may be back to a certain kind of normal but mental health struggles—not to mention COVID—continue to be ongoing problems.
“We are very understaffed and, under-sourced in terms of mental health supports in schools, even though now more than ever, we’ve all been through this collective traumatic experience and kids really need support,” she says. “But a lot of the time, there’s one guidance counselor for an entire school. I’ve worked in schools that have a great support system. I’ve worked in schools that don’t.” Either way, when kids are especially vulnerable in this day and age, it’s up to adults to offer their support and guidance as best as they can.
With a second book already on the way, also about mental health, Andrea remains optimistic about her writing career so far and its potential to change lives and offer much-needed representation to young Latinx readers. But it wasn’t always that way.
“It’s very weird to think back now, because I was that kid who was blowing out her birthday candles and was like, ‘I wanna be a published author,'” she explains. “There were definitely times in my life when I was writing all the time, writing every day, thinking that this is something I’m always gonna be doing. And then there were times that I was very pessimistic about it. Like, ‘What am I doing? This is never gonna happen for me.’ Obviously, it is a hard industry to break into, and there’s no guarantee that everyone will make it.”
But to writers out there hoping to see their own work in print, she offers simple but sage advice: “Don’t give up. Keep doing it.”