New York, NY - For the past few days. I’ve spent majority of my afternoons and evenings reading and re-reading Wilfred Santiago’s graphic novel, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente. I have the words in my mind and heart but putting them together for my book review has been a struggle.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, this is a testament and respect I have for fellow writer and illustrator Wilfred Santiago. This native son of Ponce, PR has done something very extraordinary and that’s create a graphic novel that will eventually stand the test of time.
If there was ever a novel that every Latino/Latina (baseball fan or not), comic book fan, family or anyone who volunteers/works in nonprofit must own in their library, it’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente . Am I exaggerating? No, being the comic book nerd that I am, I haven’t been this moved from a novel since I read Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. If you’re a fellow comic book fanatic, then you’ll know the reputation Fantagraphics Books internationally holds for its “literate and audacious editorial standards and its exacting production values.”
If you you’ve always wondered who Roberto Clemente was and the role he played in our culture, then Santiago’s graphic novel would the perfect platform to uncover the man and the legacy he left for all of us to follow. After reading this novel, you will understand why there’s more than two hundred parks & baseball fields, forty public schools, and a couple of hospitals in both Puerto Rico and the United States named after Roberto Clemente.
Fabulously illustrated and written, Santiago was able to look beyond the statistics and achievements of Roberto Clemente’s illustrious baseball career and introduce to the audience (both young and old) the man Roberto Clemente really was. He was able to do something very few writers have been able to do and that’s remind us that at one time Puerto Ricans were treated like immigrants.
In the case of Roberto Clemente, Santiago was able to illustrate and clearly show us how Roberto Clemente suffered the same discrimination and ethnic stereotyping that Jackie Robinson did. Along with his efforts to break the color and ethnic barrier, Roberto Clemente also fought to dismantle the language barrier in Major League Baseball. Living in the TMZ/Facebook/Twitter world of today, I appreciated how Santiago made it a point to illustrate to the readers how important family was to Roberto Clemente. I enjoyed looking through the pages as he courted his eventual wife Vera and his efforts of earning her father’s approval.
In addition to Santiago’s ability to being his pages to life, he cleverly utilized his pages in educating readers about the Puerto Rican culture. What’s captivating about 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is that there’s nothing subliminal about the graphic novel. From the Social, Political, Economic, Religious, and Military thought’s of the era that Robert Clemente lived, Santiago addressed it enough to inspire readers to conduct their own their research of not only Roberto Clemente but of the times and conditions of the American and Puerto Rican society. After re-reading 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, I was left asking myself, “Would Roberto Clemente approve?” Now I’m going to level you, I’m about to write some things that may or may not offend you but I want us to think about it.
While I may be a writer who covers soccer, I grew up following Major League Baseball. The greatest baseball player that my grandfather, parents and scores of relatives have ever witnessed playing in his prime was Roberto Clemente. His death was equivalent to John F. Kennedy’s assassination within the Latino and Baseball communities. Recognizing that we’re nearing the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s death, I wonder if Roberto Clemente would approve of the living conditions some of our Latino children have to endure in their communities?
Would Roberto Clemente approve of those who choose to neglect their responsibilities as parents? With the immigration situation over at Arizona, would Roberto Clemente in his prime participate in this year’s MLS All-Star game? And for those you who maybe believes that he would never have been selected as an All-Star, would Roberto Clemente sit quietly while many other Latinos are voicing an injustice against their fellow Latinos?
Let’s shift the scene to Yankee Stadium, would Roberto Clemente approve of the fact that one of the richest sports teams in the planet resides in the poorest community in the United States of America? If you’re living in Puerto Rico, would Roberto Clemente approve of the politics and education struggles the Island is currently facing?
While Roberto Clemente was a fantastic baseball player, it was his humanity in this graphic novel that shone brightly. And I thank Wilfred Santiago for creating his masterpiece and Fantagraphics for publishing it. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Forty schools, two hospitals and scores of parks and ball fields, from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh carry Roberto Clemente’s name. How many do you think will be named after A-Rod once he retires? So please do yourself a favor and read this graphic novel.You won’t regret it.
To learn more about Wilfred Santiago: www.wilfredsantiago.com
To learn more about Fantagraphics Books: www.fantagraphicsbooks.com
Cesar Diaz is a freelance writer for several online soccer publications. If there’s a soccer topic you believe needs to be written about, please feel free to contact him. Easily approachable, you may contact him at CDiazNYC@gmail.com and @CesarDiazNYC.