The Book Club Expanding the Latinx Literary Canon — One Conversation at a Time

5 min
The Yosi Book Club amplifies new voices within the contemporary Latinx Literature scene.  (Yosimar Reyes)

Growing up in East San Jose, Yosimar Reyes discovered new books by watching Oprah's Book Club — that’s how he got introduced to the great Toni Morrison. “I was a nerd and everything that Oprah recommended, I needed to read because Oprah [was] reading it,” said Reyes. Today, Yosimar Reyes has his own book club, the Yosi Book Club, which has cultivated a significant following among Latinx millennials.

With an Instagram bio that reads “undocumented socialite,” the Los Angeles-based poet and writer is fiercely upending the trauma-forward narratives that often essentialize undocumented people. Reyes’ work, while sobering, is humorous, joyful and rebellious — a stark contrast from the way these stories are often told by reporters and authors who write from an outsider's perspective. (Recall the controversy surrounding "American Dirt" that had the endorsement of Oprah’s Book Club).

Reyes’s commitment to amplifying undocumented authors and contemporary Latinx writers who are pushing the boundaries of style and language make the Yosi Book Club’s reading list one not to miss.

From Walter Thompson-Hernandez’s "The Compton Cowboys" to Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s "The Undocumented Americans", the Yosi Book Club reading list unapologetically reflects a wide range of Latinx experiences and identities — including stories of queerness, indigeneity, Blackness, migration and belonging.

“I wanted to expand people's understanding of [the Latinx literary canon] and also how expansive being Latino or Latinx is, like it's not one thing," said Reyes.

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Origin Story 

What began as an informal idea to gather folks at his home for wine and cheese to discuss Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s book, "Sabrina & Corina", quickly blew up. Over 250 people responded to his social media call-out saying they wanted to attend. In need of a bigger venue, he linked up with Boyle Heights independent bookstore, Espacio 1839, to host the inaugural meet up in July of last year.

“I wanted to make sure that I was supporting a local bookstore and a small business because it's very easy for us to just click on Amazon and buy books. But we're not cognizant of the fact that Amazon is the reason why small bookstores are closing,” said Reyes.

That first iteration of the book club, which author Kali Fajardo-Anstine attended, ended up packing the bookstore. The large turnout encouraged Reyes to continue posting book recommendations on social media. The next meetup featured Angie Cruz, author of "Dominicana".

“So many people reached out to me and we're like, ‘Hey, I haven't read a book in years. I haven’t read a full book cover to cover since high school. Thank you for having the book club because it's making me feel like this is something I can access,’” Reyes recalled.

Part of the draw is Yosimar’s infectious and honest personality that invites folks to show up as their authentic selves, regardless if they’ve stayed on top of the reading. “You might not have read the book, but there’s cultural wealth and lived experiences that you can articulate and show up for the book,” said Reyes.

Keeping Community Connected During COVID-19

When the pandemic hit in March, Yosimar had to recalibrate his book club. But having already cultivated a strong social media presence, it was a natural switch for Reyes to take the club virtual.

Since April, he’s been hosting weekly conversations with Latinx authors on Instagram Live. He typically asks guests about their upbringing, their creative process, journey to success and what it's like navigating the white-dominated publishing industry.

“I wanted to demystify the writer. A lot of times we like to think of writers as these oracle beings or these all knowing people. But for me, it was like, I know these people, these people are nerds,” Reyes said. These raw conversations push back on the industry’s elitism and gatekeeping by encouraging more Latinx to see the value of writing their stories.

One advantage to the author conversations going virtual is that more of his followers outside of Los Angeles can now participate. That was the case for Oakland resident Najla Gomez.

“Even though [the pandemic] has been really hard on the spirit, on the mind, body ... being able to join a weekly space with Yosimar and a book club has just been phenomenal,” said Gomez, who has been buying a new book almost weekly since tuning in. “It’s a way that we can remain connected despite the physical distance. I definitely laugh a lot and I almost feel like I'm right there with Yosi and the author he is speaking to.”

One way readers and the writers connect with each other is by posting reactions and questions during the Instagram Live. It’s also common to see people shout out each other’s usernames and show love with emojis of hearts, raised fists and flames whenever Yosimar and his guest speak truth to power.

Let’s Talk About Anti-Blackness

During a recent iteration of the book club that got more than 2,000 views, Reyes used his platform to urge readers to talk to their Spanish speaking family members about the Black Lives Matter movement. He voiced his outrage that Spanish language news outlets had been focusing on the looting during these national protests instead of the issues at stake — the country's racial history and the police violence that has taken the lives of countless Black people.

Moreover, Reyes called on his readers to look inward and reflect on the ways that anti-Blackness shows up in Latinx cultures saying, “I think it’s so easy to blame everything on whiteness. What’s harder is for us to stop and say how we’re perpetuating this whiteness as well.”

Commonly, the struggles and contributions of Afro-Latinx have been erased within Latinidad, including the way Black Latinx immigrants are often left out of the conversation and news coverage of immigration. This erasure goes back to European invasion when Spanish colonizers created a racial hierarchy that put Indigenous and African people at the bottom. As a result, colorism has been embedded in Latinx cultures, which Reyes and his guest, Curly Velsaquez, discussed.

“What are we doing about colonization in our own communities so that we can be better allies to the Black community?” asked Velasquez. “It's also acknowledging that we have Black people in the Latinx community too.”

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Although the conversation pivoted from his usual format of interviewing an author about their book, it resonated with many of his readers.

"As someone who has been extremely frustrated and disappointed with the onslaught of anti-Black sentiment from the non-Black Latinx people in my life, Yosi's talk was a refreshing reminder that the pain folks are inflicting with their words reflects hundreds of years of colonization," said Najla Gomez, a regular of the club.

A big part of the work right now, Yosimar explained, is translating the issues so that our Spanish speaking relatives stay informed. “We tend to directly translate English vernacular into Spanish. But it doesn't work. It needs to have a cultural translation that is rooted in our households,” said Reyes.

While these are ongoing conversations that no doubt extend beyond this virtual book, the points raised are a reflection of the club’s inclusive ethos. The Yosi Book Club is a space that truly honors the ever-evolving expressions of Latinx issues and identity.

To learn about the next Yosi Book Club follow updates on Instagram @yosirey.