As a child, Latinx author and Bronx labor organizer Karla Mayenbeer Cruz endlessly searched for books and characters she could identify with. Finally, she decided to write a children’s book herself that would be reflective of her roots and communities.
The result, The Adventures of Pepita Morales at City Hall: The Fight to Save El Jardin, is already a hit among children in her community.
At a recent book event at Mary Mitchel Community Center at the Mitchel Houses in Port Morris, a young fan described her fondness for the character and said it had inspired her to write her own stories. “She saw herself in me,” Cruz said.
Cruz was born in Venezuela but her family abruptly moved to Queens when she was a young girl. Growing up, she was often the “butt of insensitive jokes at school” because of her undocumented immigration status and ethnicity. She wanted to turn to books to feel like she belonged, but a dearth of literature for Latinx children caused her to lose interest in reading.
As an author, she wants to tell stories she wished she could find comfort in as a kid.
“I’m tired of living in the shadows, I want to make sure that I have a voice,” Cruz said.
Cruz’s protagonist, Pepita Morales, is a councilwoman who strives to preserve a public park that’s dear to everyone in her community. She faces multiple challenges, but when all the kids and elders get together to fight for what they love, they emerge victorious.
“When I say people, you say power,” says Morales in the book, to enforce the message that the power to fight for what you believe resides in every person. According to Cruz, this is an empowered role model that Latinx kids can look up to.
Morales is inspired by real-life female council members actively working in the Bronx and beyond. Her main inspiration for the character was Carmen de la Rosa, a city council member who has been a longtime advocate for immigrants and the working class.
“I want to teach young girls that women can also be in positions of power,” said Cruz.
When not writing stories, Cruz spends her days working as a labor organizer for a construction union in the South Bronx. She’s been working in the field for a decade now. Her primary concern–- “making sure that workers are heard, and their demands are met.” To do so, she runs strategic campaigns to ensure that workers get equal pay, retirement security, benefits, and aren’t mistreated by companies or agencies that hire them.
Teaching union workers about collective bargaining is a huge part of Cruz’s work as an organizer. She guides them to connect with other workers, discuss common issues, face employers, and make demands to change poor working conditions. She also ensures that workers know the types of protections they receive under the law.
According to Cruz, rapid development is one of the major hurdles construction workers in the Bronx face these days. Workers hired for many projects are non-union and receive low wages for their work, she explained. So Cruz educates them about the benefits of joining a union and empowers them to speak up against injustice.
Cruz’s work in an industry where males mostly dominate also ties into the lesson of women empowerment that she wants to relay through the lens of Pepita Morales’ story. She says it’s important to learn how to “navigate these spaces.”
“At first, when I was younger, I hid a lot of myself and felt anxious if I wore lipstick or tighter clothing,” Cruz said. Now she has refined her skills and tackles problems with conviction, so that her work speaks for itself.
Cruz is now working on the second volume of her book, a mystery where Morales and her animal friends will find out about the disappearance of a sacred object. The book is due out in 2023 but in the meantime, she’s working to produce a coloring and activity book for kids.