Maria McGrath's Reviews > Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War

Soldier for Equality by Duncan Tonatiuh
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it was amazing
bookshelves: j-bios

Duncan Tonatiuh’s singular, signature illustration style, based on the art of the Mixtec people, is a perfect accompaniment to his retelling of the story of José de la Luz Sáenz. An exceptional but little known—not even a Wikipedia entry, yet—figure, Sáenz wrote what is, according to historians, the only war diary published by an American World War I soldier of Mexican descent. (I found this nugget of information and many others in the author’s note.) Tonatiuh conveys the sentiments, and sometimes phrases, from the diary in this story, which spends most of its time on Saenz’s time in the service, but bookends it with his early and later life. Because of this intense focus on a historical period you will find this book in the 900s with other books on World War I, rather than with the biographies. There are two timelines in the back matter, one concerning the involvement of the US and Saenz in World War I (1914-1919), and the other tracing the development and accomplishments of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, an organization cofounded by Saenz, and which endures to the present day, providing scholarships and job and literacy training to thousands.
The book opens with young Luz, as Saenz was known to his family, physically fighting a classmate who calls him a racist slur. Tonatiuh then zooms out to give a sense of the small-town Texas setting and the discrimination routinely faced by Mexican Americans. Luz graduates from high school and becomes a teacher and Tonatiuh stresses both his love of learning and teaching and his discontent at the segregated, lower quality schools his students are forced into.
In 1918, Saenz volunteered for the army and was shipped to France. His knowledge of Spanish enabled him to learn French quickly and well enough to translate first news, and later intelligence dispatches, and he was assigned the work of a commissioned officer without the promotion or pay that belonged to that position.
The continuing thread of unequal treatment runs through almost every page of this book, but so does Saenz’s determination to fight it through education and activism. The stylized illustrations of war conditions are evocative without being overly graphic, and I can see younger readers learning important lessons from this book while older elementary and even middle school students can use it, especially the back matter, as a jumping off point for the study of World War I, political action, and even the value of archives and historians.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 17, 2019 – Shelved
November 25, 2019 – Shelved as: j-bios

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