Nicholosa Mohr Marilyn Sachs - Essay

Marilyn Sachs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Nilda Ramirez was nearly 10, a white policeman shouted, "God damn you people," at her and her neighbors. At other times in the course of this sad and beautiful book ["Nilda"], Nilda and her family are called "spics," "animals" and much worse. But they are always "you people" to the teachers, social workers, policemen, nurses and other white Americans who control their world.

What does it feel like being poor and belonging to a despised minority? Over the past 10 years many children's books have been written, exploring these very questions. Few come up to "Nilda" in describing the crushing humiliations of poverty and in peeling off the ethnic wrappings so that we can see the human child underneath.

Nilda is nearly 10 when the book begins in July, 1941, and 13 1/2 when it ends in May, 1945. The Second World War is there in the background, important only in its unimportance to a family whose daily struggles to survive are so overwhelming. This is a very personal book. We see life in the Puerto Rican ghetto of New York City through a child's vision—baffled, resigned, angry and frequently joyful. Nilda is no idealized slum child. She punctuates her speech with four-letter words, and like all children, places her own private griefs ahead of larger, adult sorrows. "Mama, I gotta tell you something, Ma!" Nilda cries, eager to tell her weeping, grieving mother whose husband is dying how Sophie played a mean trick on her.

The main story line concerns Mama's efforts to take care of her large family—five children, sick husband, crazy aunt, and pregnant girl friend of one son. But what makes the book remarkable is the richness of detail and the aching sense of a child's feelings….

[This] book goes far beyond being just another tale from the ghetto. Sad, funny, fascinating and honest, it will appeal to adults as well as children. (pp. 27-8)

Marilyn Sachs, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973.