Last week the Pura Belpré Medal (named for the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library) was officially awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). This award is given annually to a Latino/a writer and illustrator whose work best reflects the Latino experience in a young adult or children’s literature. One of the books recognized by the ALSC was Xavier Garza’s Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel, a bilingual Lucha Libre thriller. Garza, originally from Rio Grande City, is an artist, teacher and storyteller whose many works brilliantly capture the intersection of mythic and everyday along the border.
Maximilian is a 12-year-old fan of Mexican wrestling. His biggest hero is the Guardian Angel, a Santo analogue who has been wrestling and making movies for four decades. Max’s family is pure Valley: an extended network of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles whose love for one another is balanced by their often explosive personalities. The book centers on the relationship between Max and his uncle Lalo, who indulges the boy’s love of wrestling more than his mother wants. When Max finally gets to see his idol in action, a series of events unfurl that reveal the wrestler to be a member of the family (I won’t mention his identity). This revelation leads several characters to evolve in unexpected ways, and by the end the reader understands how Lucha Libre—an art form that requires wrestlers to bond and work as partners to inspire the crowd—can also bring families and communities together. Also sweetly poignant is the sub-plot about Maximilian’s crush on hazel-eyed Cecilia (whose affection he wins in a great scene). Lalo’s crazed ex-girlfriend “completa el cuadro,” as we say, leaving the reader with a rounded, warts-and-all portrait of a true-to-life family.
Garza’s masterful illustrations and the many well-written action scenes make this a must-read for middle-grade boys. The translation by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Carla González Campos manages perfectly to capture the breathless feel of the original. Reading the book, I was reminded of another seminal title, one that influenced Xavier Garza and many other local writers (including me): Stories That Must Not Die by Juan Sauvageau, a collection of bilingual border tales that has captured the imagination of struggling young readers throughout our state for 35 years. Fans of Garza and Sauvageau should note that NES will be re-releasing many of those stories individually with illustrations by notable Texas artists. Garza is lending his talents to the project, illustrating “The Sobbing Woman” and other popular tales.