By Amaris Castillo
It’s Saturday morning, and Santiago Alvarez-Rosario has a packed day ahead of him. He and his mami are going to explore their home – The Bronx – together.
While riding the 6 train, Santiago notices a pair of bachata musicians. He bounces in his seat to their performance and tips them one dollar from his birthday money. When they leave the subway, Santiago and his mami visit the Bronx Equestrian Center, followed by a hike where they spot red cardinals and other types of birds.
They also visit Pelham Bay Park.
“Mami, did you know this is the biggest park in ALL of New York City?” Santiago asks his mother.
“Sí, it’s more than three times the size of Central Park,” she replies.
Out on Oct. 24 by Christy Ottaviano Books (Little Brown), The Bronx is My Home is a joyful journey through The Bronx that brims with hometown pride and dashes of history and cultural references. The picture book was written by Alyssa Reynoso-Morris and illustrated by Kim Holt.
In high school, Reynoso-Morris recalled wanting to travel far from The Bronx, where she was born and raised. She admittedly “wanted something different.” Later, she traveled and spent time living in India and Tanzania.
“But no matter where I went, I always came back home to The Bronx,” Reynoso-Morris told the Dominican Writers Association. “And even though when I was in these other countries, I felt very much at home in a lot of ways – it hit different in The Bronx.”
For Reynoso-Morris, writing is a way to immortalize her childhood as someone of both Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. The author is still coming off the heels of releasing her debut picture book, Plátanos Are Love, this past spring. In that book, Reynoso-Morris said she wanted to immortalize the experience of cooking plátanos with her abuela.
She wanted to do something similar with The Bronx is My Home.
“I wanted to really highlight the beauty of growing up in The Bronx, and how all the diverse cultures make it such a wonderful place,” Reynoso-Morris said. “And I also just wanted to counter all the dialogue that’s out there.”
The author noted that, to this day, there are misconceptions about the borough.
“For me, it was also about writing this love letter to The Bronx, the place that I grew up,” she said. “I wanted it to be the first of its kind, where it's like repping The Bronx in such a positive light, and highlighting the people and the culture and the history.”
Before it became Santiago’s story, Reynoso-Morris said she wrote the project as an ABC book. “So it was like ‘A’ is for AOC. ‘B’ is for Bedford Park and bodegas,” she recalled. “‘C’ is for the Cross Bronx and Castle Hill.”
The author said her editor really liked it, but books of that kind were trending at the time and so competition was fierce. It later dawned on Reynoso-Morris that perhaps she could feature, in a different way, both major landmarks and lesser-known places in her hometown. With the research already done, Reynoso-Morris got to work on a new iteration that would eventually become The Bronx is My Home.
In one particularly tender scene, Santiago asks his mother if they can go to his padrino’s food truck. He makes the best empanadas and alcapurrias, he points out. There’s a long line outside the red food truck, and we see his godfather in a teal apron waving at both mother and son.
“¡Bendición, Padrino!” Santiago calls out.
Santiago’s padrino picks him up.
“My padrino is my hero,” Santiago narrates. “He works hard every day to make sure people can eat delicious food that reminds them of home.”
The godfather character in her book was inspired by Reynoso-Morris’ actual padrino. She said that, for one of her Plátanos Are Love events, she showed him an advanced reader copy of The Bronx is My Home. It turned into a “whole crying fest,” according to the author.
“He was like the only father figure that I ever had, so it was important for me to incorporate him in the text,” she said. “It was really cool that Kim let me send pictures of him and stuff.”
The padrino Holt illustrated for the book looks like Reynoso-Morris’ real padrino. Her godfather even had a food truck on Grand Concourse from which he offered Dominican food. She said he later sold it to put his children through college.
“He was the one who bought me my first crib, and he was the one that was there for my mom whenever she had her antojos when she was pregnant,” she said. “He was always there. And so just like The Bronx is always there with me, he is a part of me and my story – and so it just made perfect sense to put him in there.”
The Bronx is My Home is an energetic and informative introduction to some of the borough’s treasures – whether it’s the Bronx Zoo or Arthur Avenue – the center of The Bronx’s Little Italy. And it’s sure to bring nostalgic and warm reminders for those native to the borough.
Reynoso-Morris said her main target audience are people who still live in The Bronx, or grew up there and had to leave for some reason or another.
“I want them to see their home celebrated. And, especially for kids, I want them to know that great people come from The Bronx. And because they come from The Bronx, they are great and they can grow up to do whatever they want to do,” she said. “That’s the core of the message.”
The author said she also hopes the book finds its way to readers with no connection to The Bronx.
“And I just want them, when they read it, to realize the gems they have in their own neighborhood,” she said. “And how they can celebrate their neighborhood and their home.”
Visit our Bookshop to purchase a copy of The Bronx is My Home. A presentation of the book featuring Reynoso-Morris will be held at 4 p.m. on Oct. 28, at Dirección de Cultura en el Exterior (2406 Amsterdam Ave., 4th floor, New York, NY). The event is a collaboration between the Dominican Writers Association and the 2023 Dominicana Libro & Culture Festival.
About the Author:
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris is a queer Afro-Latine/x Dominican and Puerto Rican storyteller. Her ability to weave compelling stories has opened many doors for her as an author, speaker, and resume writer. She is also a mother and community organizer. During the day she works with community members, non-profit organizations, and government officials to make the world a better place. Then she puts her writer’s hat on to craft heartfelt stories about home, family, food, and the fun places she has been. Alyssa was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA with her partner and daughter. She is the author of Plátanos Are Love, The Bronx Is My Home, and Gloriana Presente: A First Day of School Book. She hopes you enjoy her stories.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.