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U-M anthropologist earns award for book highlighting Latinx experience

By Nardy Baeza Bickel

In 2017, the first “Border Crosser” robot was built and tested at the Amorphic Ranch in Bisbee, Arizona. © MacMurtrie/ARW , Photo by Bobby N. Adams.


It seemed like finally everything was going well for Ruthie. The 10-year-old, whose family had recently moved from Cuba to New York, had just tested out of the remedial class in school, had gotten the GoGo boots she so desperately wanted and had become the unquestioned hopscotch queen of her neighborhood.

But in an instant, her whole world turned upside down: A car accident left her with a very bad break to her femur and a full body cast. She was bedridden for a whole year.

Ruth Behar is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at U-M.

“This actually happened to me. It’s part of my childhood. It’s one of those times of my life that really changed me,” said University of Michigan anthropologist Ruth Behar, talking about Ruthie Mizrahi, the main character in Lucky Broken Girl, her first fiction and children’s novel published last year.

“It was a terrible time in many ways but also a time of learning and a time of realizing –and this is what the book is about– that sometimes you can move intellectually and spiritually even when you’re lying still.”

Behar has just received the 2018 Pura Belpré Author Award for the book, which honors Latino/a authors and illustrators whose work illuminates the Latino/a experience in young people’s literature.

“Ruth Behar draws from her childhood experience to tell a story that celebrates Latinx experience while affirming the resilience of children facing both universal and specific challenges,”  said Pura Belpré Award Committee Chair Alicia K. Long.

During a recent workshop via Skype, Behar talked to a group of 90 middle schoolers from Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, in Los Angeles, about using personal narrative to write fiction.

“The first reason to write a personal story is self expression. We write things down, we write our own stories down on the page because we want to make them real,” she said as students took notes, 2,242 miles away. “Sometimes, we’re going through an experience and you’re just thinking about it and feeling it but it’s when you write it down that it begins to feel real.”

Personally, she told Camino Nuevo students, being bedridden became a blessing.

“It was a year in which I became very interested in reading books, a year in which I learned a lot. But of course it was a terrible year because I was dependent on my mother and couldn’t go outside,” she said.

For students, having the opportunity to talk to a published author who looks like they do, and with whom they might have shared experiences is invaluable, said Kome Egeregor, a 6th grade teacher at Camino Nuevo, who had been working with the students on using their own experiences to write personal narratives.

“For some, it was easy, but for others it was challenging,” she said. “It was even more powerful for my students because they were able to connect with Ruth’s story and experiences.”

“It felt cool to learn from an author who speaks Spanish and immigrated to the USA  because me and my family can make connections to her and her experiences,” wrote Alexia Serrano, one of the students attending the workshop.

“Lucky Broken Girl” book cover.

“I really liked the Skype lesson because it showed me a ton of new ways to write a book and I met an author that is popular,” added Nathan Villafuerte. “I felt happy because she has been through the same as my brother and she put Spanish words which made me feel like home.”

Behar said she has loved the opportunity to visit or Skype schools and share her experiences with students, and hopes more young writers will be inspired to share their own experiences.

“It’s one of the great things happening in schools now, they invite authors to come out and speak. This never happened when I was growing up, we were so removed and you always read authors that were dead,” she quipped.

“They had so many questions and they were just so happy to interact. It was wonderful.”

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