Black Girl with a Spanish Name


By Libertad Araceli Thomas

“Do you know what your name means?”

This was a question that made me hate name tags since the second grade. “Libertad? You know it means ‘Freedom’ in Spanish, right?” Of course, I knew what my name meant. I knew what it meant when I was old enough to talk, I knew what it meant before I ever entered school, and I knew what it meant at 18 years old when I took my first job as a barista at a local coffee shop and was again subjected to wearing the name tags I so dreaded as a kid. At home, I was Libertad, but to the world I was a Black girl with a Spanish name.

From first glance, loads of people tell me I don’t “look” Latina. And what’s devastating is that for a while, I believed them. You see, a darker skinned girl with kinky hair like me never made it to my TV screen when “La Familia” parked our butts down to watch Spanish language programs.

Afro-Latinas like me rarely, if ever, showed up in any history lessons. In fact, I hadn’t even known that any Black Latinas made contributions to Latin American societies until I was well out of college and half way into my 20’s. But the thing that hurt the most for a kid who liked to lose herself in books was that a girl like me, Black and Cuban with an unusual name that almost no one can say, was never in any works of fiction.

I tell people all the time being a Black Latina has to be the equivalent to seeing a unicorn in real life. No matter how real you appear to be, standing there in front of them, they have to question your existence and blink a million times at the mere sight of you. I’ve always felt too black to be Latina and too foreign to feel completely African-American. Worst of all, I felt invisible. I can’t help thinking maybe it would have been different if more Afro-Latin@s were in books.

The thing that’s missing here is a little thing called representation. We don’t only need Latin@ characters; we need intersectionality.

In a bright future, I want to pick up a book that goes above and beyond to highlight just how diverse and multifaceted Latino culture can be. I want to read about Latin@s of Asian ancestry like the ones I knew growing up in Miami. Queer Latin@s who are brown, black, mixed, and indigenous. Latin@s who speak Portuguese instead of Spanish, because far too often Brazilians get left out of the conversation, and most of all I’d love to see more Black Latin@s as lead protagonists.

It took me 20+ years to stop feeling like just a Black girl with a Spanish name. Girls after me deserve different. Most of all, they deserve better.

About the Blogger/Aspiring writer:

Libertad ThomasLibertad Araceli Thomas is part one of the Twinjas of Diversity @ Twinja Book Reviews. When she’s not reading stories featuring multicultural lead protagonists, she’s busy improving her no hand aerials and working on getting her Blue Belt in Tang Soo Do and Purple in Shaolin Kempo. She writes under the pen name “GL Tomas.”

During my blog’s Black Speculative Fiction Month I dedicated a Top Ten list of Afro Latinos in Speculative Fiction because I just looove Spec Fic, Please check it out and comment with any additions I could add to the list!



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The Kid Lit World Needs Gary Soto and Others Like Him

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

When Gary Soto’s book, the one attached to the Marisol Luna American Girl doll, was released in 2005, I was in my fourth year of teaching middle school and attending graduate courses. In other words, I was buried in essays–correcting them and writing them–and was clueless that Soto’s book about a 10-year-old Chicago girl had sparked negative national media attention, protests, and harassing phone calls to the author’s home. For more information on the original story, click here.

The 2005 book-and-doll release is old news, but only a few months ago, eight years later, Soto wrote this piece in the Huffington Post, explaining why he has has stopped writing children’s literature.

I’m not going to rehash the Pilsen vs. Des Plaines debate, and I’m not going to say it was right or wrong for Soto’s fictional family to decide they wanted to move because the neighborhood was too dangerous. Those debates were had in 2005.

This post is about Gary Soto, an award-winning, prolific Mexican-American writer, leaving a business that needs him and many others like him. Gary Soto has written picture books, chapter books, poetry, and novels for middle school, high school, and adults. In the often-referenced New York Times article about the lack of Latin@ books in classrooms, Gary Soto is listed as one of the exceptions.

“While there are exceptions, including books by Julia Alvarez, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Alma Flor Ada and Gary Soto, what is available is ‘not finding its way into classrooms,’” said Patricia Enciso, an associate professor at Ohio State University.

Do we need more Latin@ books, written by a variety of authors, in classrooms? Yes. But, Soto and the others are already there, on the shelves, in students’ hands. I’ve read his short stories with my students, and a colleague recently read Buried Onions with her eighth graders based on my recommendation. He is in anthologies and on school book lists. Soto, along with a handful of other Latin@ authors have paved the way, and now he has vowed not to write any more children’s literature.

This comes at a time when 53 million Hispanics live in the U.S., according to the 2012 census. Hispanics are the second largest race or ethnic group (behind non-Hispanic whites), representing about 17 percent of the total population. Meanwhile, a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported the number of children’s books with multicultural content has not increased in 18 years.

Soto’s retirement from the kid lit world saddens me, as a reader, writer, and supporter of Latin@s in kid lit. We have lost a giant in the business, and I worry that what happened to Soto could discourage writers from including Latin@ characters in their manuscripts. Writers have legitimate fears about “getting it right” and not offending readers, especially if they are crossing into territory–gender, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, sexuality–that they do not understand first-hand. Think about it, Soto, a member of the Latin@ community, was at odds with members of the Latin@ community, over a Latina doll and her story. What does this mean for other writers, especially non-Latin@s who want to write Latin@ characters? Should they not bother? Should they use made-up locations to avoid referencing a specific community? Are the subjects of poverty and crime off limits?

I hope writers aren’t scared away from including Latin@ characters, and I hope Gary Soto reconsiders his retirement from kid lit. Also, wherever we each stand on the Pilsen-Mattel issue, I hope we all can at least tip our hat to Soto for his contribution to Latin@ literature.

Too Many Tamales   Chato Goes Cruisin'   Baseball in April and Other Stories   Buried Onions   The Afterlife

Future of Latino/a Lit Is Being Written Now

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Zoraida Córdova

Why Latin@ Kid Lit?

Well, why not?

Growing up in Hollis, Queens, I never thought of myself as a minority. Personally, I think that word is crap. Are we minor things? Less-than things? Not at all, but this is what they (the proverbial they) call it.

I had my friends, some fourth-generation Irish, some Filipino immigrants, some Guyanese, Jamaican, Mexican, Mexican-Haitian, and the list goes on and on. But this is NYC and diversity is not foreign to us.

This same diversity was not reflected in the television I watched or books I read. My favorite shows were Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dawson’s Creek. My favorite books were by Sarah Dessen. I was a freshman in high school and I had encountered zero characters who look like me, as I recently noted over at Diversity in YA.

The House on Mango StreetI’d like to think that Latino Lit has come in waves. First, THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros and HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS by Julia Alvarez, and while those stories are still relevant, they might not pertain to the kids who have already assimilated. I moved to New York when I was six; this Fall I will be celebrating 20 years here. While I most definitely know where I come from, my identity very much belongs to New York.

I want to see myself in the books I read.

Junot Diaz says, “Every single immigrant we have, undocumented or documented, is a future American. That’s just the truth of it.” And he’s 100% right. The future of Latin@ Lit is being written right now. I believe that not every book with a Hispanic or Latin@ character has to be an “issue” book. Not all of us have issues with our heritage. We just are.

Some good examples of this are GOING BOVINE by Libbra Bray,  SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD by Lindsay Leavitt,  and YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina. Each of these novels has Latin@ characters, but the story is not centered on being Latin@.

Going BovineSean Griswold's HeadYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

In GOING BOVINE, Paul Ignacio “Gonzo” Gonzales is a video-game-playing hypochondriac who has an overbearing Mexican mother. He’s dealing with lots of issues, but being Latino doesn’t seem to be one of them. The MC in SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD, Payton Gritas, is half-Colombian. Hers is a story of family and first love. Along the way, her ethnicity is mentioned, but it’s not the center of the narrative. In Medina’s novel, the MC is a Cuban-American–the new girl in school who is bullied by another Latina. Of course, the story includes plenty of background and action that touches upon Latin@ culture, but the central issue is not about racial or ethnic discovery.

We need stories that are as diverse as the Latin@ community, stories about Latin@s like me who are as American as they are Latin@. This is one of the things I want to explore in this blog with wonderful writers and readers like yourself.

Happy reading,