By Kim Baker
I’m bicultural. My grandparents on my mom’s side eloped and migrated from Mexico to New Mexico where they had babies and my grandpa worked in the coal mines until, lungs destroyed, they moved again to East Los Angeles for better weather. My uncle can tell you about how cramped it was with all the kids in the backseat. Sunshine couldn’t save my grandpa, but most of my family is still around the area. My dad is Anglo and from Texas. His side of the family has been in the states so long, nobody knows for sure from where they originally migrated. So, like lots of people, I’ve got a mixed ethnicity. Culture is a weird thing. It’s shared customs and distinct experiences. I’m ridiculously pale, and I have my husband’s surname so people are often surprised to hear about my Mexican heritage. When people do find out (and I’m pretty open about it), sometimes we play stereotype bingo and they ask questions to see if I meet their preconceived qualifications (Do I have a big family? Yes. Do I like spicy foods? …Yes. Do I listen to mariachi? Please stop.).
I consider myself Latina, and proud. This is me, the grouchy one covering her face in front, with a small portion of my family. My cousin Joey is mortified that I share this picture because he is self-conscious about how much leg he’s showing in those cutoffs.
Now I feel guilty about sharing it, so I will also tell you that later that day I threw up an Orange Julius at the mall and tried to hide it under a t-shirt rack. That’s worse than knobby knees.
When I was a lonely kid, books were my escape. I never really saw myself in books until I was older. There’d be bits in stories here and there (e.g. A kid in the book loved horses, and I was a horse nut. Harriet was overly curious about people? Me, too!). And maybe, in part, because of how I didn’t see myself as a whole in books as a kid, I often feel different and separate from those around me. Feeling abnormal in itself is a pretty shared understanding (We’re ALL weirdos!), but having a bicultural identity certainly magnifies the experience. Granted, I was getting most of my books from a Wyoming library that underestimated its Latino population by at least a few, so there were probably more stories out there than I wasn’t finding.
I grew up in Wyoming, where I could count the other non-Anglo kids at my school on one hand. My mom missed her family, missed the sunshine, missed seeing people like her, so we’d drive to East L.A. in the summertime to visit. My grandma and aunts would make all of the foods we couldn’t get in Wyoming and bring my favorite orejas from the panadería. Some of my cousins would tease me about my pale skin (I look just like my dad.), so I’d sit on the porch and watch my also shy uncle tend his jasmine and geraniums while the rest of the family visited inside. You could hear them laughing all the way down the block. We’d go back to Wyoming and I’d ride horses, trudge through snow, and eat American foods. The taco shells and beans in my hometown grocery store were labeled as “Spanish Foods.” I always felt a bit disconnected and different, no matter where I was. My parents split up and I lived with my mom in New Mexico and California. I was in primarily Latino communities, but still stood apart because of my Anglo features. Kids called me gringa and worse. I read more. My school didn’t have a library, the town didn’t have a bookstore, and the public library’s shelves were pretty spare, but I found what I could. I identified with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders being from the wrong side of the tracks, but found nothing about Mexican-American kids or mixed culture kids. I would have been overjoyed to find Matt de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy or Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces as a teen.
The protagonist in my first book, Pickle, is straight up Mexican American. The main character in my next novel is a mixed Latino like me, and writing has been a little bit more of a personal journey. I’ve taken a little longer with it, because I want to do it right. There’s so much I want to include, and I’m still working on how much serves the story. I know that there are other writers out there who balance between environments and depend on cultural code-switching to find their way. And there are kids that are looking for those stories, that need them. Books are touchstones. Identity, displacement, and belonging are important themes in middle grade and YA fiction that can reach all readers. The crazy thing about the loneliness of feeling different from our peers is that it’s probably one of our most communal traits. So, as a writer, I’ll continue to write about Latino kids and put little pieces of myself and my world in there. I implore you to do the same. And putting your truth into stories isn’t necessarily autobiographical. I think the best stories come from combining what you love with what you wish there was a story about.
Every kid should be able to find mirrors on the bookshelves, and it’s especially crucial for those of us who might struggle to fit into their worlds. Let’s put more stories out there, because you can’t always tell who might need them.
Kim’s debut middle grade novel, Pickle (Macmillan), was a finalist for the 2013 Children’s Choice Awards, Book of the Year (5th and 6th grade), one of Mamiverse’s Top 50 Latino Children’s Books You Should Know, and the recipient of the 2013 SCBWI Crystal Kite West award. She lives with her family in Seattle and can often be found in the woods, despite a chronic fear of bears. Find out more at www.kimbakerbooks.com.