Author Samantha Mabry on her Debut Novel, a Student’s Shrug, and Straddling Two Cultures

 

By Samantha Mabry

I teach English at a community college in downtown Dallas. Currently, some of my students are reading a book entitled Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. In his book, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in California and El Paso, Texas, writes mostly about his own reporting on the drug trade and corruption in Mexico, but there’s also an interesting, underlying theme he explores regarding identity: what it means to straddle two worlds, to have a foot on each side of the border, but to never feel fully rooted, truly at home in either place. As he puts it, he can sometimes feel too American when he’s in Mexico and too Mexican when he’s in America.

Among my students, discussions have taken place regarding what it means to be a part of two cultures. When I ask if they’re able to relate to Corchado, many nod their heads, and one girl said, “Absolutely.” She then elaborated: “At home, I’m Mexican. At school, I’m American.” Then she shrugged. Like, obviously. She made it seem like it was pretty easy to understand what the different expectations are in different spheres of her life and that it took little effort and not a whole lot of thought to navigate those spheres.

I keep thinking about this student –in particular, that shrug. Like, what’s in that shrug? What does that shrug mean? I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute. I keep thinking about all the comments I could have followed up with: Okay, so you’re Mexican in one place and American in another. Is there an identity that feels more true to you? Are you more Mexican than American? Would you say you are Mexican-American? Would you call yourself Chicana? Latina? Hispanic? Do these words, these markers of identity, matter to you, or am I just really wanting them to matter??

My mother is Mexican-American, though I think she would say she’s just American. Or Hispanic. My dad’s mother was from Puerto Rico, and his dad was white. I’m light olive-skinned with brown hair and brown eyes, but my last name, Mabry, is European. I first heard Spanish at my grandmother’s house but learned it properly in a classroom. I call myself mestiza because that’s what really rings true for me. I think that identity matters, and I think that –particularly for those from mixed backgrounds or with migrations or diaspora in their histories –identity can be fluid. I think that many Latinx people, like Alfredo Corchado, are standing with one foot here and one foot there. Some of them may be standing with an imbalance: one foot rooted in one place more heavily than the other. Some may feel as if they have many limbs, all which are reaching across geography and back into time. Some may feel, however, like they’re not straddling at all. It is not my place, of course, to tell another Latinx person how to be or how to feel.

In my book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, both of the main characters are of mixed backgrounds, racially and culturally. They are a mix of white and non-white. Lucas, the narrator looks white, has a white kid’s name, but there’s something else there, tugging in his blood. Isabel is the product of an English father and native Puerto Rican mother, and sides with her mother when it comes to her identity. I specifically tried to make their histories and their identities complex. They are influenced –haunted and inspired, inspired or haunted –by their past. They are trying to fix centuries-old errors and clear new paths.

So…after all that, we’re back to the shrug. Is it simple, or is it complex? Is it a small gesture that signifies nothing, or something brimming with meaning? Maybe it’s simple: with these people, I am this one thing; with those people, I am this other thing. It’s easy to figure out. Simple, simple. Or maybe it’s complex: a gesture so full that words pale. It’s obvious that I want it to be the latter, but who cares what I want? I wrote a book about complex identities, one that I hoped explored nuance, but of course that’s not the only way to write about identity.  Someone –maybe me, maybe not –needs to write the story about the Mexican-American girl who is Mexican at home and American everywhere else. And maybe she is wildly complicated but not because of that, but because of all the other things that go on in a young woman’s life.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which releases April 12, 2016 with Algonquin Young Readers, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Samanth Mabry author photo

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.

Mixed Up: Author Kim Baker Navigates a Bicultural Narrative

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.

Maciasfamily

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 Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces as a teen.

13170031The 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.

 

BakerBWheadshotKim’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.

Book Review: The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by René Colato Laínez

By Lila Quintero Weaver  the tooth fairy meets el raton perez

DESCRIPTION FROM RANDOM HOUSEThe Tooth Fairy has some competition. Meet El Ratón Pérez, the charming and adventurous mouse who collects children’s teeth in Spain and Latin America.

When both the Tooth Fairy and El Ratón Pérez arrive to claim Miguelito’s tooth, sparks fly under the Mexican-American boy’s pillow. Who will rightfully claim his tooth?
This magical tale introduces a legendary Latino character to a new audience and provides a fresh take on the familiar childhood experience of losing one’s tooth.

MY TWO CENTSWhat happens when beloved cultural traditions clash? Rene Colato Lainez’s flair for bilingual storytelling and Tom Lintern’s eye-popping illustrations combine in a winning picture book that addresses this question. Children will rejoice over the conclusion: there is no need to choose between the two!

The story revolves around double claims on Miguelito’s lost tooth.  Now that he lives in the United States, he’s inside the Tooth Fairy’s jurisdiction. But her Hispanic counterpart, El Ratón Pérez, is not ready to relinquish his duty to Latino children, even when they move across the border. One night in Miguelito’s bedroom, there’s a showdown between the rivals. Never fear—the tussle is well spiced with humor. Still, things get out of hand and Miguelito’s tooth lands on a high shelf, out of reach. It takes cooperation between the fairy and the ratón to retrieve the tooth, and this convinces them that future conflict is not necessary. From now on, Miguelito and other children can enjoy the toothy traditions of both cultures.

Like all picture books, the fun of this story is in repeated readings. Children will enjoy comparing the working methods and backdrops of these tiny tooth warriors. The rich color illustrations reinforce such observations. The Tooth Fairy lives in a castle. El Ratón Pérez makes his home in a cave. She searches the skies for a twinkling star that signals when a tooth is ready for retrieval. The signal he looks for is a moonbeam. Each has his or her tool of the trade; hers is a wand, his is a rope.

This is a wonderful text for children in transition between two cultures. It emphasizes the value of preserving old traditions and the joy of adding new ones.  The same lesson can be applied to other customs across nationalities, such as how birthdays and holidays are celebrated.

Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the book, always paired with the English translation. The publisher has provided a glossary.

TEACHING TIPSWe can do no better than the website dedicated to The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez that the author, a kindergarten teacher, has already put together! It includes a curriculum guide, creator interviews and other helpful features.

Here are a few additional resources.

The Centro Virtual Cervantes published a gallery of 79 illustrations featuring El Ratón Pérez.

Here are some craft ideas related to the Tooth Fairy.

An adorable tooth fairy pillow from MmmCrafts. And here’s another from the always reliable Martha Stewart.

Plus, how about a cute box for the tooth?

If you know where to find craft instructions for high quality El Ratón Pérez projects, please let us know!

AUTHOR: René Colato Laínez is a native of El Salvador who has written many books for young children. He teaches kindergarten in California. Want to learn more about him? Check out his interview on this blog!  

ILLUSTRATORTom Lintern is a storyboard artist, commercial illustrator and occasional illustrator of children’s books. View his impressive portfolio and more on his official site