MG Latinx Characters & Their (Sometimes) Complicated Relationships with Spanish

 

by Lila Quintero Weaver, with Cris Rhodes, Ph.D.

According to the Pew Research Center, broken Spanish (or no Spanish at all) is a reality lived by a growing number of Latinx, especially youth.

Although many Latinx children and teens tackle Spanish confidently and with smooth results, others are not so lucky. As speakers, they fumble for the right words and grammatical constructions. As listeners, they miss out on idioms, inside jokes, and culturally buried subtexts. Often these scenarios take place within family settings, where older members may speak limited English or no English at all.

How do such language gaps affect a young person’s connection to family and community? What is the impact on their sense of cultural belonging or ethnic identity, and on the pride they feel in claiming Latinidad?

Connection, belonging, knowing who you are and where you come from: These things deeply matter, which is why the Spanish-language journey of Latinx youth deserves authentic representation in children’s literature.

Fortunately, middle-grade fiction is addressing the many shades of Spanish proficiency that exist out there, and the most compelling examples come from Latinx authors, whose personal experiences and finely-tuned observations collectively yield a rich and varied picture of how young people in the Latinx community navigate the language gaps they encounter.

Below is a list of recently published middle-grade novels featuring Latinx characters whose Spanish is less than perfect. 

*Note: Although this post addresses the role of Spanish in Latinx youth literature, it’s critical to acknowledge that many people connected to the Latinx community speak indigenous languages, whether exclusively or in addition to Spanish. Furthermore, Latinx youth of Brazilian origin are likely to face similar issues with Portuguese.

Recommended Reading

Listed Alphabetically by Author

The Epic Fall of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya  

This is the story of how 13-year-old Arturo’s world is set ablaze by love and activism. It happens during a summer in Miami, when a real-estate developer threatens the future of the restaurant run by Arturo’s grandmother, simultaneously affecting the neighborhood’s other businesses and residents. These are the people who become Arturo’s extended “family.” During this momentous summer, he also navigates a heavy crush on Carmen, a girl who brings poetry into his life. With respect to Arturo’s command of Spanish, our reviewer writes: “Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he ‘sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.’” Read the full review by Jessica Agudelo here.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

Marcus Vega’s at-school hustle using his towering height and bulk to protect smaller kids from bullies comes to screeching halt when Marcus punches a bully for calling his little brother, Charlie, a derogatory term related to Charlie’s Down syndrome. Fearing that Marcus needs a break, Marcus’s mother resolves to take Charlie and Marcus to Puerto Rico–the home of their absent father. To Marcus, Puerto Rico is a land of mystery, paralleling the mystery of the father whom he doesn’t know. Marcus’s inability to speak Spanish doesn’t prove so much a barrier on the island, where he’s pleased to learn many of his relatives speak English in addition to Spanish, but he is shocked upon arrival on the island that his mother is fluent, having studied Spanish in college. This revelation spurs Marcus to realize his own Spanish isn’t as bad as he’d first thought, as he reads signs and listens to conversations, pleased that he understands even a little of the language. Even as his father’s continued absence makes Marcus feel disjointed, the trip to Puerto Rico helps him realize a connection to his heritage, his paternal language, and his familia. –Summary by Dr. Cris Rhodes

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

When 7th-grader Paloma Marquez heads to Mexico City to spend a month, it’s not exactly by choice. Tagging along on her mom’s business trip, Paloma arrives knowing little Spanish. Although she packs a Spanish phrase book, she resists the idea that she should learn more. Almost immediately, she’s caught up in a mystery at La Casa Azul, the former home of the famous painter Frida Kahlo, which has been converted to a museum. Also hanging out at the museum are local twins Gael and Lizzie. They become Paloma’s intercambio partners. In exchange for tutoring Paloma in Spanish, the twins refine their grasp of colloquial English, with Paloma’s help. Soon the three kids are swept into the story’s central quest involving a missing peacock ring and some sketchy characters with dangerous schemes. Learn more about this rollicking adventure from our review by Jessica Agudelo.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Adriana Dominguez

Stella is shy. When she and her best friend, Jenny, are assigned different teachers, Stella loses the built-in comfort of a ready ally. Forced to make new friends, Stella hopes to find someone who speaks Spanish. How interesting that she specifies this preference, because Stella’s hold on Spanish isn’t solid. In her review, Jessica Agudelo writes: “At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because ‘here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.’ Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although it is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as ‘code switching’ or speaking ‘Spanglish,’ Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.” Read Jessica’s full review of Stella Díaz here.

Lucky Luna by Diana López

Luna Ramos is an endearing character with a mischievous bent. She’s part of a huge and loving Mexican-American family based in Corpus Christi, Texas. At school, Luna is flunking fifth-grade Spanish. How can this be when her last name is Ramos, she asks herself? But growing up in a home where Spanish isn’t spoken, Luna doesn’t have ready access to the in’s and out’s of Spanish. Teachers and family members keep insisting that the person best suited to tutor her is cousin Claudia, a fluent speaker. Trouble is, Claudia is pushy, meddlesome, prone to tattling, and often a thorn in Luna’s side. Initially, Luna figures she’d be better off getting help from a different cousin. Hm, maybe not! Young readers will get a kick out of the hilarious miscommunications that ensue along the cousin grapevine. Will Luna manage to make peace with Spanish? 

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

Talk about feeling left out! Unlike her older sisters, 11-year-old Leo Logroño doesn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. The oldest two Logroño girls learned at Abuela’s knee, while the middle two have enrolled in Spanish courses at school and are far ahead of Leo. The family owns a bakery, the Amor y Azucar Panadería, famous for its Day of the Dead pastries and for hosting an annual festival celebrating that holiday. In the lead-up to the festival, mysterious events at the bakery put Leo on high alert. Just what are her mom and sisters up to, she asks herself?  Leo’s eavesdropping could’ve yielded better results, if only she’d learned more Spanish. For further insights, check out Cecilia Cackley’s review of the novel here. I also recommend this interview with the author, which includes personal reflections on the role of Spanish.

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

María Luisa, better known as Malú, is an aficionado of punk rock, thanks to her dad’s influence. When Malú moves with her mom from north Florida to Chicago, her exposure to Spanish intensifies. But although her mom is a scholar of Mexican culture, Malú does not feel competent or comfortable in speaking Spanish. At school, she’s surprised to be admitted into the class section designated for fluent speakers. One of the students in that class sneers at Malú’s Spanish and labels her a “coconut,” a derogatory term that implies Malú is brown only on the outside. Malú’s emotional journey finds expression in punk music and zines, and both lead her to embrace Spanish more fully. See our full review by Lettycia Terrones.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Echoing my own immigrant experience in small-town Alabama, this novel takes place in 1970 and features 12-year-old Lu Olivera. Lu’s challenges include becoming a better runner. She also faces unfolding conflicts related to school desegregation, as well as a gubernatorial election that turns racist and nasty. Lu’s state of Spanish is rusty, but passable. She manages to interpret Spanish conversations for English-only speakers, and even helps a Cuban neighbor conduct a banking errand, although not without trepidation over unfamiliar terms. On the school bus, a bully delights in teasing Lu about her South American origins, calling her native language “spinach.” Here’s what teen reviewer Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama wrote on our blog about My Year in the Middle.

Readers, this list is far from comprehensive! I hope to add more titles as I learn about them, and I welcome your feedback.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR TEACHERS

Here are some points to ponder regarding Latinx characters and their encounters with Spanish:  

  • Within a single story, characters’ experiences may reflect multiple levels of Spanish-language literacy, comprehension, and verbal fluency.
  • Some characters are raised in homes where no Spanish is spoken or where only one parental figure is fluent enough to speak it. This includes families in which one partner is Latinx, while the other is not.
  • Although around 70% of Latinx parents encourage their kids to speak Spanish at home, there are also those who discourage it, perhaps fearing their children will not master English. Such parents are often anxious to shelter their children from racism, while some calculate that limiting Spanish will ease their way in an English-dominant world.
  • Parents, grandparents, teachers, and neighbors vary widely in how supportive, coercive, or judgmental they are regarding a character’s level of Spanish.
  • In some settings, such as schools and communities, Spanish is prevalent; in others, it’s less common or even rare.
  • Characters express a broad range of positive-to-negative feelings about using Spanish or improving the Spanish skills they possess.
  • The immigration histories of characters’ families vary widely.
  • Some characters also struggle with defining their ethnic identity, and sometimes this is tied to their Spanish-language skills.
  • Further complicating the language struggle, narratives sometimes engage with representations of colorism, internal oppression, white supremacy, and racist bullying.
  • Spanish words, sentences, and expressions often appear in these stories. Translations are rarely provided within the text–a rapidly fading practice we are happy to see go. Even so, English-only readers will be able to intuit meanings through context.

Relevant articles to explore:

Consider these findings by the Pew Research Center: “Overall, about 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, making it the country’s second-most spoken language. At the same time, growth in the number of Spanish-speaking Hispanics has slowed, according to the Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. As a result, the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home has declined, while the share that speaks only English at home has increased, especially among children.” [Emphasis mine]

From the Center for Applied Linguistics, this FAQ addresses the subject of heritage speakers and language-learning programs designed specifically to help them.

Reprinted in TIME magazine, Daniel José Older’s “I Rejected Spanish as a Kid. Now I Wish We’d Embrace Our Native Languages” is an essay that originally appeared in the anthology The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America.

Here’s a poignant reflection by Kevin Garcia on the NPR website, entitled “Can You Lose a Language You Never Knew?”

12 Reasons People Are Told They’re Not Latino Enough” is a fascinating exploration of Latinx community metrics by Tanisha Love Ramirez. Reason No. 2 is all about imperfect Spanish.  

Don’t miss these videos:

 

Do You Have to Speak Spanish to Be Latino?

 

“When You’re Latino and You Suck at Spanish.” Humorous–and lightly profane!

 

Book Review: All the Stars Denied by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

Review by Katrina Ortega

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK (from Lee & Low Books): In the heart of the Great Depression, Rancho Las Moras, like everywhere else in Texas, is gripped by the drought of the Dust Bowl, and resentment is building among white farmers against Mexican Americans. All around town, signs go up proclaiming “No Dogs or Mexicans” and “No Mexicans Allowed.”

When Estrella organizes a protest against the treatment of tejanos in their town of Monteseco, Texas, her whole family becomes a target of “repatriation” efforts to send Mexicans “back to Mexico” –whether they were ever Mexican citizens or not. Dumped across the border and separated from half her family, Estrella must figure out a way to survive and care for her mother and baby brother. How can she reunite with her father and grandparents and convince her country of birth that she deserves to return home?

There are no easy answers in the first YA book to tackle this hidden history. In a companion novel to her critically acclaimed Shame the Stars, Guadalupe Garcia McCall tackles the hidden history of the United States and its first mass deportation event that swept up hundreds of thousands of Mexican American citizens during the Great Depression.

 

Image result for no dogs or mexicans

 

MY TWO CENTS: The one thing not lacking in All the Stars Denied is very intense, often life-or-death, drama. Guadalupe Garcia McCall presents readers with historically accurate situations and characters and environments that many readers may connect with deeply. The story is also full of incredibly high stakes, and ultimately can be read as a coming-of-age story.

All the Stars Denied is fast-paced, and readers hit the ground running with Garcia McCall’s high-stakes, dramatic writing. Estrella Del Toro’s family’s story, particularly that of her parents, is spelled out more clearly in Shame the Stars. The story takes place in the Rio Grande valley, an area of Texas where Mexican-American or Tejano (Mexican-Americans born in Texas) identity is often built into every capacity of life. As Estrella illustrates early in the story, language in an area like Monteseco is fluid, with people switching from English to Spanish easily, as their Mexican and American identities interact. Estrella organizes her protest to show the injustices shown to people born on American soil but of (sometimes very distant) Mexican descent. This not only recognizes that, though the people of her town are U.S. citizens, their ethnicity and culture bring their citizenship into question. This also demonstrates the inseparability of ethnicity and culture of many people in Latinx communities in the U.S.

Garcia McCall’s attention to these details is especially critical in today’s political and social climate. She demonstrates how intertwined the lives of many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are, and how similar the cultures continue to be throughout the United States. Through this, Garcia McCall exemplifies the extensive presence, scrutiny, and discrimination that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have had in the United States for many decades.

Garcia McCall also addresses class issues in her book; readers take a close look at the disparities between economic and social classes through Estrella’s experience as a repatriate. The reader gets the impression that the family is quite comfortable in Monteseco and holds both economic and social prestige in their community. During the repatriation process, though, Estrella is thrust into the very real experience of those who do not have the economic means to save themselves from unfair judicial processes. She, along with her mother and younger brother, experience a disarmament of sorts, where anything they might have been able to use to help their cause is denied to them. Throughout their journey, Estrella’s mother tries to soften the blows of their newfound economic hardship, reminding Estrella that much of what they experience is the norm for populations more socially or economically disadvantaged than they are. Estrella learns to appreciate their newfound situation, humbles herself, and works with her mother in any way she can to make sure their family survives another day.

The points made above all contribute to the way in which All the Stars Denied is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story about a young girl who grows exponentially as a person because of the difficult, unjust, and discriminatory situations she experiences. Estrella repeatedly looks to her family for direction through her father’s journals, her mother’s sage advice, and her grandmother’s memory, and she uses her own journal to express her thoughts and emotions. Even still, and regardless of her young age, Estrella takes a leadership role throughout the narrative. The reader can see Estrella’s development by the way that she creates plans and ideas. Though her proposals might be half-baked, Estrella’s consistently trying to help her mother, putting herself in positions to listen and learn from others to the great benefit of her family. While Estrella’s outspokenness might arguably lead to more scrutiny upon her family, her growing courage – and her notorious tenacity – assist her family in so many different ways and helps her to become a person that not only her family can be proud of, but one that she can be proud of herself.

 

Mexican and Mexican-American families wait to board Mexico-bound trains in Los Angeles on March 8, 1932. County officials arranged these mass departures as part of “repatriation campaigns,” fueled by fears that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were taking scarce jobs and government assistance during the Great Depression.
Los Angeles Public Library/Herald Examiner Collection. Posted on NPR’s website 2015.

 

TEACHING TIPS: In All the Stars Denied, as in Shame the Stars, Garcia McCall shows readers why Mexican American studies is an incredibly important part of any school curriculum, but especially in areas of the country where a majority of the population either comes from or is descended from Latinx countries. Both books stand on their own. By reading both novels, the reader learns about a slice of history not often taught, and is able to do so in both a macro- and microscopic way. In All the Stars Denied, readers see the damage that Mexican Repatriation did to entire communities in cities across the country, as well as to individuals and their families. The life-and-death stakes were real, and this book is an excellent way to introduce not only the chaos caused by terrible discrimination in general, but specifically the destruction caused by unjust immigration laws and xenophobia.

The novel can also teach about the economic hardships experienced around the country as a result of the Great Depression. Much of what Estrella’s family faces during their time in limbo is a result of their lack of monetary resources, but also the lack felt by both the U.S. and Mexico.

Though not the only two teaching tips in the book, these points can easily be used to jump into more contemporary conversations, looking at ways in which present day immigration laws and current economic policies create waves of hardship experienced by many already disenfranchised communities. The resources that Garcia McCall includes in the appendices give excellent background information that is accessible and of significant interest to both youth and adult historians interested in learning about this piece of concealed history.

Posted on Lee & Low Books’ websiteJacqueline Stallworth, curriculum consultant and professional developer, created a guide featuring All the Stars Denied for the “Putting Books to Work” panel at the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference. Check out this guide to find out about tips and strategies for how to use All the Stars Denied alongside other great texts in your classroom.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from Lee & Low Books): Guadalupe Garcia McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a young girl, keeping close ties with family on both sides of the border. Trained in Theater Arts and English, she now teaches English/Language Arts at a junior high school. Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals. McCall is an up-and-coming talent whose debut YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. McCall lives with her husband and their three sons in the San Antonio, Texas, area. You can find her online at guadalupegarciamccall.com.

 

 

 

FullSizeRenderABOUT THE REVIEWER: Katrina Ortega (M.L.I.S.) is the Young Adult Librarian at the Hamilton Grange Branch of the New York Public Library. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in New York City for six years. She is a strong advocate of continuing education (in all of its forms) and is very interested in learning new ways that public libraries can provide higher education to all. She is also very interested in working with non-traditional communities in the library, particularly incarcerated and homeless populations. While pursuing her own higher education, she received two Bachelors of Arts degrees (in English and in History), a Masters of Arts in English, and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences. Katrina loves reading most anything, but particularly loves literary fiction, YA novels, and any type of graphic novel or comic. She’s also an Anglophile when it comes to film and TV, and is a sucker for British period pieces. In her free time, if she’s not reading, Katrina loves to walk around New York, looking for good places to eat.

Book Review: La Frontera: El Viaje con Papá / My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illus. by Claudia Navarro

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Based on a true story! Join a young boy and his father on an arduous journey from Mexico to the United States in the 1980s to find a new life. They’ll need all the courage they can muster to safely cross the border — la frontera — and to make a home for themselves in a new land. Inspired by the childhood immigration experience of co-author Alfredo Alva, this story of perseverance is told in both Spanish and English to empower language-learning. Includes 4 pages of endnotes that unpack facts about Alfredo’s story and other stories like his and borders around the world to help parents and educators talk with children about immigration, resilience, empathy and belonging.

MY TWO CENTS: This bilingual picture book tells the story of Alfredo Alva (a co-author) who leaves his family and home in Mexico to make the journey to the United States with his father. Told from the child’s perspective, Alfredo tells the reason why his father makes the difficult decision to make the harrowing journey to the U.S. by stating that he “could no longer provide for our growing family” (n.p.). The language that is used is simple, yet powerful. Alfredo makes the poignant statement in thinking about leaving his Mama and brothers: “I was hungry, yes, but I did not want life to change” (n.p.).

Their journey, like that of so many, is difficult and they pay a coyote to guide them in their journey across the border to the U.S. Alfredo and his father are abandoned by the coyote, and they must make the journey through the dessert on their own and on foot. Alfredo documents how they traveled and the dangers they encountered, “We started walking at dawn every day, and we walked for five days. There was no path, and the brambles ripped my clothes. I had many cuts. When I sat or slept on the ground, I got bitten by fire ants, and I was always watching for scorpions and snakes.” Eventually, they reach their destination. Alfredo begins to attend school, he learns English, and makes friends. Alfredo and his father are able to begin the long process of applying for citizenship through President Reagan’s amnesty program. Alfredo does not see his mother and brothers for four years.

The illustrations in this book are vivid and bring life to the experience that Alfredo is describing. They also depict the sense of sadness that Alfredo feels when he finds out he will be separated from his family, they depict the harshness of the trip, and also capture the closeness and love of family.  This is a timely and very important book that shows the difficult choices that parents must make to provide a better life for their children. It also showcases the love that Alfredo’s father has for him as he carries him through some of the journey and tries to provide comfort in any way to his son. The book also showcases the difficulties that children experience when they leave their families behind, travel through the dangerous terrain, and begin life in a different country. This book provides an excellent space for discussions about the immigration experience, the journey that families make, and the difficulties in adjusting to a new life. One of the best features is that it is told through the perspective of a child and therefore can provide a window into the difficulties into the immigration journey that so many children experience. The educational end notes provide four pages detailing Alfredo’s story, describing borders and cultures, and reasons why people immigrate. The end notes also provide real pictures from Alfredo’s family. This book is a heartfelt and moving depiction of a family’s difficult decision to immigrate and a child’s experience in that journey. It is a must have in classrooms and libraries.

Click on the video below for an introduction to La Frontera by Barefoot Books:

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORSAlfredo Alva was born in La Ceja, Mexico. He came to Kerrville, Texas, with his father when he was eight years old. He is now married with two children and runs a successful masonry business. He wanted to share his story because he sees immigrants facing the same difficulties today that his family faced over thirty years ago.

Deborah Mills studied architecture and worked in the field while living overseas with her husband and five children. She now divides her time between Kerrville, Texas, and Thousand Islands, New York. When she met Alfredo’s family and learned his story, she wanted to write it down and share it. She believes that all children everywhere need to understand this important piece of history.

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Claudia Navarro studied at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas UNAM in Mexico City, and has illustrated for clients around the world. She lives in Mexico City.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Happy Book Birthday to My Year in the Middle!

Happy book birthday to My Year in the Middle! What you are gazing at is my debut children’s book. It’s a middle-grade novel featuring a 12-year-old Latina character named Lu Olivera— a story of friendship, self-discovery, athletic challenges, and the courage to stand up to racism. 

Here is what Shelf Awareness wrote about My Year in the Middle: “Weaver, who previously published a graphic memoir called Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, writes vividly about the spaces in the middle, between black and white. Any reader who has struggled to find a safe and happy place between polarities will appreciate Weaver’s deep understanding of just how difficult–and rewarding–this can be.” (You can read the whole review here.)

And now, for a quick rundown of the story’s major points, follow this picture essay, complete with sticky notes and chalk dust.  

NOTE: Each chapter starts off with a pencil drawing that I created. I hope young readers enjoy the vintage touches these images bring.

 

And did I mention there’s running? One day in PE class, it hits Lu that she can run like the blue blazes! Field Day is around the corner—and with it comes the chance to race against a fierce and accomplished competitor.

Racial and political drama is everywhere—in the headlines, at the breakfast table, in the classroom. Based on historical events that I remember from my own youth, the gubernatorial primary playing out in the story’s background serves as a textbook case for nasty elections. Somehow Lu gets caught in this tangle.

Is there romance? Oh yes!

Also: MUSIC. Lots of timeless rock & roll and delicious soul music, just the way Lu and her friends dig it!

Okay, this is only a blitz tour! If you’d like to learn more about the novel itself and the story behind the story, please visit my website. There, you will find extensive information, including a downloadable discussion guide developed by education specialists at Candlewick Press, as well as links to early reviews—plus some My Year in the Middle extras for young readers!

Please ask your librarian to acquire My Year in the Middle for your community or school library! It’s also available for sale at many independent bookstores and all major national booksellers. It’s listed here in Candlewick’s catalog. 

One more thing: I wrote a from-the-heart guest post for Nerdy Book Club. Please check it out by clicking HERE—and while you’re there, enter their giveaway (time sensitive). Each of four winners will receive a copy of My Year in the Middle, plus one of the original art pieces I created for the book. Here’s an advance peek of what winners will receive.

 

Interview and Resource on Family Separation and Detention

 

Here at Latinxs in Kid Lit we are deeply concerned over the crisis at our southern border and the long-range effects that family separation will have on children. Today we are pleased and honored to share expert insights on this critical issue from three outstanding Latinas— children’s literature scholars Marilisa Jiménez García and Cristina Rhodes, and immigration-law expert Losmin Jiménez. In this article, you will also find resources for advocacy and a list of recommended books for the classroom. 

By Marilisa Jiménez, Losmin Jiménez, and Cristina Rhodes

The separation of families at the U.S. border and news coverage about family separation and detention has reached a pinnacle. However, those working with these communities know this dire situation was long in the making. As members of the children’s literature community, and those who advocate for the stories of young people and their families, we wanted to create a resource providing more information about the facts on family detention and separation.

For this post, we were able to interview a legal expert in the field of immigration law, Losmin Jiménez, the Project Director of Immigrant Justice for the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. Losmin is also Marilisa’s sister and brings with her years of experience advocating for immigrants in detention. We also assembled a list, undergirded by Cristina Rhodes’ research expertise on activism in Latinx children’s literature, for educators to consider when discussing these issues in the K-12 and higher education classroom.

Interview with Losmin Jiménez, Project Director of Immigrant Justice at the Advancement Project

  1. How long have you worked in this area of law? What have you seen change? What has not changed?

I have been practicing law for 10 years. I went to law school to represent children in foster care and started volunteering with Lawyers for Children America in Miami in 2004. During law school, I concentrated on children’s rights and family law. After law school, I worked in civil legal services in domestic violence, disability rights, family law, and conducted outreach to migrant workers in a rural part of Florida. I then started working in the field of immigration and have worked in the field of immigration for 6 years. From 2012-2015, I was appointed to the Legal Needs of Children Committee for the Florida Bar. Also, in 2012, I started volunteering on the American Bar Association (ABA) Right to Counsel Strategy Group, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. Some of that time was spent working on immigration detention issues and representing unaccompanied minors. I have seen more erosions of due process and attacks on the independence of immigration judges. I have not seen detention of immigrants decrease, but only increase, much to my disappointment.

  1. What do you wish people knew about the border crisis?

The reasons why people flee to the United States are very complicated. Many of the individuals seeking protection in the United States are fleeing persecution, gender-based violence, human trafficking, and narco-traffickers. Many individuals seeking protection at the southern border are from the Northern Triangle Countries. The Northern Triangle is a term commonly used to refer to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Northern Triangle countries are some of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of a conflict zone, after years of U.S. funded government interventions in the 1980s. People know they could die on the journey to the U.S. as they travel through the desert with a guide that they do not know, but risk their life and leave their country because staying home is not an option, as staying home could mean sexual assault, death, or torture. If you are fleeing for your life, applying for a visa and waiting years for a visa is not an option.

Also, it is not just people from Central America seeking protection at the southern border, but immigrants from Africa, South Asia, and other regions of the world who are seeking protection. All individuals have a right to seek protection under international law and federal law, including the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. That is the law. Prosecuting individuals for seeking protection in the U.S. is an affront to human rights.

Something else that people new to this area may not know is that immigration detention is not new, it has been happening for decades. Over sixty percent of immigration detention centers are run by private prison corporations that are publicly traded on the stock exchange, thus these corporations have a profit motive. Family detention has existed under previous administrations, and most recently under the Obama administration there was an expansion of family detention with four detention centers, one of which closed after litigation because of the horrible conditions. At the moment, there are three family detention centers: Berks Family Residential Center in Berks County, Pennsylvania (Berks), Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas (Karnes), and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas (Dilley). To give you an idea of the size of these family detention centers, Dilley has 2,400 beds. It costs about $342.00 a day to detain a family. That is the financial cost, but the human costs are infinite.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended at the southern border has been very high for the last several years as the conditions in the Northern Triangle countries continues to worsen. Between 2014 and 2016, 168,203 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Regarding families, between 2014 and 2016, 185,957 family units were apprehended at the southern border by CBP. As of June 1, 2018, 58,113 family units were apprehended at the southern border. Please note that there are approximately 40,000 detention beds in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. ICE detention centers are meant for adults only. Under federal regulations and as a result of the Flores settlement, children are detained in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of U.S. Health and Human Services. However, families can be detained in a family detention center, but should only be detained for short period (20 days) to comply with Flores. The administration recently filed a motion asking a federal court for permission to detain children with their parents in ICE facilities while their criminal and/or immigration case is pending, and this could be years.  

When I heard that the administration wanted to prosecute adults entering without a visa or valid travel document under Operation Streamline, I was outraged, but I also thought it would be a horrific policy that could not be sustained given the numbers of people and families apprehended at the southern border. Just in May 2018, 9,485 family units were apprehended.

Given this information, you may understand that when some groups began making well-intentioned arguments for keeping families together, but not addressing the use of prosecution under Operation Streamline, I was very concerned that what the administration would do would be to expand family detention. The solutions we envision or solutions we want are not the solutions this administration provides. This is why decriminalizing migration is so important and necessary. I would suggest that the demand be to decriminalize migration, suspend all deportations, and end immigration detention. In addition, government policies should address the root causes of migration so people will not have to flee their countries and would be free and safe to thrive in their home country.

  1. What can those concerned with children being separated from their families do to help?

Call your Congressional Representatives, meet with them, and advocate for policies that decriminalize migration, donate to organizations working with impacted populations such as RAICES, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Detention Watch Network, and Grassroots Leadership. There are so many more, these are just suggestions.

  1. What are some myths about the current crisis that you hope are dispelled?

One myth that I see is the myth that people are “breaking the law.” By choosing to prosecute individuals at the southern border under Operation Streamline, the government is criminalizing a multitude of asylum seekers; however, under U.S. law and international law, individuals can seek asylum and should be able to do so. They should also be afforded due process– that is also “the law.”  Another myth is that a “court order” is what is making the government separate the families. The reference to a court order is a reference to the Flores v. Reno settlement (1997) agreement. This settlement involves protections for children apprehended by immigration enforcement and concerns protections and conditions for all children in immigration, including unaccompanied minors and accompanied children. For more information, please look at materials on KIND’s website or WRC’s website about the Flores settlement. The Flores case was first filed in 1985 because of the egregious detention conditions unaccompanied minors endured in immigration detention.

Another myth is that detention is the solution when in fact it is not. Detention is inhumane, exacerbates trauma, and negatively impacts child development. In addition, it is incredibly expensive. There are humane ways to ensure the government processes individuals and families seeking protection. One method could be to move away from a law enforcement model to working with humanitarian personnel or social workers who are trained in dealing with survivors of trauma and are familiar with best practices in child welfare in a home-like setting or by placement with family in the home country. Lastly, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings, so there is no public defender who will be getting appointed to represent indigent clients in immigration court. Immigrants facing prosecution will be appointed a federal public defender in their criminal court case, but immigrants will not be appointed counsel in their immigration case. So you could have a 7-year-old unaccompanied minor who is facing court by himself or herself or a mother with two children facing court alone.

Further resources recommended by Losmin and Marilisa Jiménez:

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Relief for Unaccompanied Minors by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/06/immigration-relief-unaccompanied-minors/

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Court and Due Process–NITA’s Official Position by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/11/immigration-court-due-process-nitas-official-position/

Raices: https://www.raicestexas.org/

Kids In Need of Defense: https://supportkind.org/

Teaching Central America: http://www.teachingcentralamerica.org

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights: https://www.theyoungcenter.org/

Detention Watch Network, https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/

Mijente: https://mijente.net/home/

Grassroots Leadership: http://grassrootsleadership.org/

Reading Recommendations by Cristina Rhodes

The following is not an exhaustive list of children’s books, websites, and academic sources, but each reveals, examines, and meditates on undocumented immigration, deportation, and childhood. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that children are disproportionately affected by geopolitics, and recent events more than solidify that fact. But children’s literature takes up that trauma, molds it and reshapes it into something new, something transformative. Children’s literature offers perspectives not just of hope (though hope is certainly there in those pages), but of the harsh reality of border crossing and children’s resiliency in the face of peril. In times when we’re left wondering what to do, what to think, I believe that turning to the pages of books for young readers allows us to mediate our feelings of hopeless and helplessness and allows our children to understand that they are not alone.

Children’s Books:

Picture Books

  • Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado by Gloria Anzaldúa
  • Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago
  • Super Cilantro Girl by Juan Felipe Herrera
  • Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre by Rene Colato Laínez
  • Waiting for Papa by René Colato Laínez & Anthony Accardo
  • My Diary from Here to There by Amada Irma Pérez
  • Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade

  • Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
  • Us, in Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre
  • The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
  • The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
  • My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
  • The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

 

 

YA

  • La Línea by Ann Jaramillo
  • Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
  • Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

Further Reading:

Websites

Articles

Peer-Reviewed Articles

  • Benuto, Lorraine T., Jena B. Casas Frances R. Gonzalez, and Rory T. Newlands. “Being an undocumented child immigrant.” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 89, 2018, pp. 198-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.04.036
  • de Cortes, Oralia Garza. “Behind the Golden Door: The Latino Immigrant Child in Literature and Films for Children.” Multicultural Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 24–27, 59–62.
  • Gonzales, Roberto G. “On the Rights of Undocumented Children.” Society, vol. 46, no. 5, 2009, pp. 419-22. doi: 10.1007/s12115-009-9240-7

We are deeply grateful to the authors of this article for exemplary work in their respective fields.

Marilisa Jiménez García is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in Latino/a literature and culture.  She is particularly interested in the intersections of race, gender, nationalism, and youth culture in Puerto Rican literature of the diaspora.  Marilisa also specializes in literature for youth and how marginalized communities have used children’s and young adult texts as a platform for artistic expression, collective memory, and community advocacy. She is an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University. Her Twitter handle is @MarilisaJimenez.

 

 

Losmin Jiménez is Project Director and Senior Attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project. She has practiced law in numerous areas affecting children, families and immigrants. Losmin received her law degree with honors from the University of Florida College of Law. Learn more about her work here. Follow her on Twitter via @LosminJimenez.

 

 

 

Cristina Rhodes, a frequent and valued reviewer on this blog, is a Ph.D. candidate in children’s literature at Texas A&M University. Her thesis is entitled “Embodying la Resistencia: Activist Praxis in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” Follow Cristina on Twitter at @_crisRhodes. 

Doodling as Activism: How I Produced My Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer

Earlier this week, we published a review of Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life. Today we are pleased to present a guest post by the author-illustrator.

By Alberto Ledesma

From 1989 to 1996 I attended graduate school at UC Berkeley. During my last four years in the Ethnic Studies doctoral program, I spent almost every day studying the ways that undocumented immigrants had been represented in Mexican American novels and short stories. I read hundreds of pieces, dozens of novels and many, many short stories—the works themselves and the literary criticism that had been written about them—all in an effort to understand what role undocumented immigrant characters and stories played in the larger world imagined by Mexican American authors. I had pursued this project because of my own experience as a previously undocumented student. It’s funny how our own biographies sometimes compel us to seek answers to questions about ourselves, right?

Being undocumented had had such a profound impact on the shaping of my and my family’s cultural identities that I was eager to understand the many ways that that experience had also been represented in the collection of books and stories contained by Chicano literature. But, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in graduate school, there seemed to be few works that placed undocumented characters as the protagonists of their stories. This confused me, because I knew that there were millions of undocumented people living in the same neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. And I knew that several million undocumented immigrants had just gone through the federal amnesty process that my family and I had just gone through. Surely, I thought, some Mexican American authors must have written stories that focused on experiences like mine.

For the most part, my interest in exploring undocumented stories remained undaunted during the mid 1990s. And though the days that I spent working on my dissertation were long, often starting at the crack of dawn and ending only once the library at UC Berkeley closed, I was driven by a strong desire to show that undocumentedness was another kind of Mexican “American” experience and that it deserved to be told within the corpus of books we now called Chicano literature. In the end, however, after I finished my dissertation and published a number of articles connected to it, that scholarly dialogue that I was hoping to initiate about the role of undocumented immigrant experience within Chicano literature did not seem to want to take off. Still, I taught classes focusing on immigrant subjects, attended many literary conferences where I made impassioned presentations about the importance of incorporating undocumentedness as an important interpretive lens within the field of Chicano letters, and while I was heartened by the emergence of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands theory and analytical focus, it seemed that undocumented ways of knowing would remain largely absent from Chicano literary studies. So it was that after attending a major conference in Zacatecas, Mexico, in the late 1990s, and after noticing that once again I seemed to be the lonely voice in the wilderness, that I decided to take a break from my research while I raised my infant daughter.

That break ended up lasting eighteen years as I moved from teaching and research to doing college administrative work. As the years passed I thought that I had left my project behind; however, in 2012, while I was teaching a Summer Bridge class as part of my responsibility of being an administrator at Berkeley’s Student Learning Center, something magical happened—the Undocumented Student Movement emerged and it placed the concern over undocumented immigrants at the heart of Latinx studies. Throughout the country, undocumented students were participating in marches and protests, all in an effort to get the US Congress to pass the Dream Act. Some students had gone to protest President Barack Obama during the Democratic National Convention. Some initiated sit-ins at senator offices. And eventually, as a result of all their efforts, the Obama Administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), a policy that permitted undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children to attend college and work.

The creation of the DACA policy inspired me to return to the questions I had about what being undocumented meant in the United States. But, instead of writing more essays about this issue, I decided to draw cartoons instead. It all happened because of that Summer Bridge class I was teaching when the undocumented student movement exploded across the United States. Though I was excited about doing a lecture about the undocumented student movement, my students had expressed a frustration with the amount of work that I had already assigned them. So, in order to pique their interest, I tapped into and old and neglected talent and drew a quick sketch of “A Day in the Life of an Undocumented Student.” Though my students had complained about all the work that they had had to do, I noticed that many of them began doing research on the movement on their own. So, I sketched other cartoons and shared them via Facebook. All of the sudden, I began getting hundreds of friend requests and they began asking me to draw more cartoons, to share my experience though art. After several years of doing so, of drawing vignettes based on my undocumented life, I had the makings of a book.

You might wonder why I, as a trained literary scholar in this field, decided to do something for which I had no training at all? Interestingly, it was only after I started doing cartoon sketches about my undocumented heritage that that the conversation that I wanted to get started actually occurred. What changed? Why did it my cartoons elicit a reaction that my scholarship did not? I think that the main reason my cartoons hit the nerve that my essays and stories could not do had everything to do with the form. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Here, I was creating visual essays, communicating the same ideas I had been researching, with the cartoons I was crafting. I realized that the young people who responded to my cartoons were also more accustomed to consuming visual text. Snapchat, Facebook, emojis, all of these had developed in them literacy skills for quickly digesting ideas in images.

It did not take me long to understand that my cartoon memoir was also effective because of its flexible narrative form. I did not have to assume a stuffy authorial voice to maintain my credibility. In my cartoons the fourth narrative wall was pliable; I could as easily be an overeducated omniscient narrator as I could be a vulnerable first-person witness to the same story without jarring the viewer. And yet, because my assumption was so strong that the only way my undocumented story could be accepted was if it came from an overly academic point of view, I had not even considered cartoons as a serious tool for inquiry. All those years of academic training that I had received in graduate school had led me to believe that the only option I had for sharing my undocumented experience was through dense textual analysis.

Today, when I attend important lectures and I am really into what the speaker is saying, I don’t take traditional notes. Rather, I take out my sketchbook, my favorite fountain pen, and I start doodling. I judge the quality of a talk by the complexity of the sketches I produce. Indeed, now that I have done a bit more research on it, I have learned that cartooning is an effective form of communication: it allows for better mental digestion of complex ideas; engages multiple intelligences; and, it allows viewers of an image to understand a story from multiple lenses. It is because of this that cartooning has allowed me to communicate the fears I felt when I was undocumented much more effectively than my writing ever could. This is the reason why I created my illustrated memoir, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer.

And yet, there is only so much my little book can do. The xenophobic program that is now aiming to persecute undocumented immigrants is all too real. This program, however, is not just aimed at undocumented immigrants. The attack on undocumented immigrants is just but the most obvious aspect of what seems to be a larger policy that has taken aim at the heart of what used to be an American progressive democracy—the social infrastructure that, as a result of the labor organizing and social activism of the ‘30s to ‘60s, increased access to education, health care, and legal protections for all working class and poor people. My belief is that working class and poor people of all ethnic backgrounds now need each other more than ever and that we cannot let false debates based on false moralisms distract us from our common humanity. To view undocumented immigrant experience in the US as a totally unredeemable experience that needs to be excised without mercy is to buy into a false equivalency that has already stopped us from discerning what is lawful versus what is just.

This is the reason why I have chosen to confront my fears about what it meant for me to be undocumented, because I cannot ask that people show empathy for the undocumented community, unless I first show empathy for the totality my own undocumented experience. And that is why, in spite of my fears, I will continue to illustrate my undocumented American life.