A Letter from Young Adult Readers to Latinx Writers About Race, Gender, and Other Issues

 

By Marilisa Jiménez García with Lehigh Students: Kristen Mejia, Felicia Galvez, Sarah White, Caroline Raney

This Spring 2017, I taught a course at Lehigh University called “Latinx Youth Culture.” The course centered on studying youth literature and culture from the perspective of how past and contemporary Latinx authors depict, and to an extent recover, history and youth protagonists. We also looked at ways in which many popular and award-winning books for Latinx youth, and those depicting Latinx young people and/or youth movements portrayed issues of race, gender, nationalism, and Latin American revolutions. Our reading list included:

Jose Marti, La Edad de Oro (1899)

Pura Belpré, The Tiger and the Rabbit (1943)

Duncan Tonatiuh, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (2013)

Nicholasa Mohr, Nilda (1973)

Pam Muñoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising (2000)

Sonia Manzano, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2013)

Francisco Jimenez, The Circuit (1997)

Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free (2004)

Margarita Engle, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2013)

Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness (2015)

Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper (2015)

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As a class, we considered how these texts represent the Latinx community, and the history of Latin America and the Caribbean, to young readers, and in some cases, because of the lack of Latinx representation and authors in youth literature, these books may be the only portrayals a young reader may encounter in a book about Latinx people. At the end of the course, I asked students to create suggestions of what they hoped to see in Latinx literature for youth. What follows is a list of suggestions gathered from our collective conversation and survey of Latinx literature for youth, including comments composed by my students for those who are currently writing and those who hope to write for young readers. Students also kept in mind those in publishing and award committees.

Writers and award committees should pay more attention to their own racial and class biases in the Latinx community and internal struggles with anti-blackness. Students noted that many of the protagonists in award-winning and popular books are light-skinned Latinos, while Afro and Indigenous Latinxs characters tend to be marginalized as the supporting characters, in problematic tropes such as the servants and slave characters, and even the bullies. At that point, Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper was the only prominent young adult novel we could survey with a strong Afro-Latinx protagonist. In terms of race and class privilege, students noted that often protagonists migrating to the U.S. from Latin America were of the upper class in terms of escaping dire circumstances, such as dictatorships. Particularly when it came to representing the Latinx past, and historical moments such as abolitionism in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Mexican Revolution, students noted that light-skinned Latinxs tended to model some of the “white savior tropes” familiar in European culture. As Felicia Galvez, a Lehigh sophomore noted:

“I think culture and race are important. It’s an issue that most Latinx youth are experiencing. To ignore that part and to deny it is wrong. Black characters that writers decide to put in books should not be stereotypical. It’s wrong. Latinxs can be racist. It is not just a U.S. thing. Most of these writers being nominated are privileged and are whiter. It needs to be said because there’s a pattern here. Latinxs are a diverse culture. They come in many different colors. It’s said that we only see the whiter side in the media and in literature. Don’t be afraid to criticize other Latinxs. We want to get our books out, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of someone feeling excluded from the picture or seeing themselves as a stereotypical black person. Or ignoring the suffering that they feel and that their ancestors felt. Writers should try harder to incorporate different perspectives in various ways. Having the main character react to people around them does not make me sympathize with the character. Having the side characters, of African descent, only reacting to the main character who is white is not okay. It’s annoying and sad because it promotes the idea that they need a white savior to help them…”

On researching the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré Medal, junior Caroline Raney, noted, “I was surprised to learn that in a literary genre founded with the goal of being inclusive and celebratory of the Latinx experience, there are still perspectives and backgrounds that are not being recognized. I am not of Latin American descent, so this was my first chance to critically read and analyze a lot of books classified as Latinx literature.” Raney took time to study the trends of the Medal since its founding in 1996, pointing out that a Belpré win may also mean a book is ordered more through libraries and schools, and perhaps more likely to be suggested in curriculum. Raney notes that in the event a Belpré Medal winner contained potentially anti-black and elitist view, then the “normalization of racism and privilege throughout the story may have widespread effects since this book may be the only piece of Latinx children’s literature many young Americans will ever read.”

Raney writes, “I think in the future, it is important to publish more children’s novels about more diverse Latinx backgrounds and perspectives as well as have more critical discussions about race in classrooms so that children can be able to recognize how some books can be problematic. As long as prize-winning Latinx children’s literature features predominantly privileged, white, and Spanish protagonists, the authentic stories of mixed, Afro-Latinx, and indigenous Latinx people living in Latin America and the United States today will be marginalized or even invisible. Including more diverse stories would not only help children see themselves in the novels they read, it could effect change by reducing bias and potentially racism in the future.”

Writers and publishers should make sure they research various perspectives during critical moments of Latin American and Caribbean history, such as the Mexican Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, El Grito de Lares, the Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic. Students also noted a relative silence about how and why those revolutions in Latin America happened, yet much more detail was present about political figures and movements in the U.S. Consider who gets to tell the story. Consider also whether, as Latinx writers, we are relying more on our families’ experiences and not going into research practices which enable us to see multiple perspectives in our home countries. Kristen Mejia, an outgoing senior reflects,

“Unfortunately, the books and authors I had read growing up hadn’t written about my experience about being a second-generation Latina and not being able to speak fluently…Writers should avoid story lines that are not validated within history. When writing a story line that utilizes history in some way, writers MUST DO THEIR HOMEWORK. DO NOT make up stories and events UNLESS there is a note after the novel explaining why this was done. Children grow up reading certain stories [and might believe those] stor[ies] [are] the only experience a [Mexican, a Cuban, etc.] could have at the time. [Many authors seem to rely on their own family’s experiences when recounting history] While many authors do this, and authors should do this, we also need to hold ourselves responsible for what image we are presenting to younger audiences. When utilizing history as a backdrop of a story, it is our duty as underrepresented Latinxs within literature, to use this opportunity to educate our youth. We can help them become more knowledge about their history and the history that our people have faced.”

Writers should consider whether they are truly presenting the consequences of historical events, such as slavery, revolution, and civil rights activism for young readers. Students appreciated when we read experiences that didn’t sugarcoat border-crossing and racial, gender, and sexual violence. Sarah White, a graduate student in American Studies, writes, “Writers should take care to avoid over-generalizations, stereotyping, and romantic/simplistic notions of their subjects. I would like to see stories that speak to current, relevant issues that youth today are dealing with, such as bullying, navigating multi-racial or transnational identities, and how to keep their heritage and culture alive in an era of increasing censorship and violence.”

Mejia notes, “Publishers need to avoid stories that paint difficult life events in a positive manner when in reality, they may always be hard and full of struggle. We need to be more real with our youth. Many young people grow up with an image of difficult times ending up being fine. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s reality. Not every immigrant makes it across the border alive. Not everyone gets a rags-to-riches story. Our youth deserve more than just a fairy tale.  They deserve to know what they may be faced with in our society and what they can do to prepare themselves for this struggle.”

 

marilisa_jimenez-garcia1Marilisa 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. Jiménez García 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 working on a book manuscript on the formation of Latino/a literature and media for youth. She has published in venues such as CENTRO Journal, Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth, Latino Studies, and Journal for Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Before joining Lehigh University, Jiménez García held a postdoctoral research appointment as a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (CENTRO) at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). She was also an adjunct assistant professor in the Africana/Puerto Rican/Latino Studies department at Hunter College. She is the recipient of a Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color Fellowship from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and a Best Dissertation Award from the Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA). Jiménez García has also completed service projects in New York City public schools and with the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools. She has forthcoming book chapters on the Pura Belpré Medal and intersectionality in ethnic literature for Routledge and Teachers College Press, respectively. Jiménez García completed her Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of Florida.

Guest Post: Margarita Engle’s Passion for Writing About Hope and Forgotten Heroes

By Margarita Engle

Recently, I was asked what “legacy” I hope to leave by writing. Legacy is an intimidating word, but at least one portion of the answer is fairly simple. I love writing about independent thinkers who have been forgotten by history. These lost heroes might have been celebrated in their own times, or they may have worked in such obscurity that their names are unknown. Many are famous in their countries of origin, but have never been introduced to readers in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, any library search for children’s books about Latinos would have revealed little more than a series of shamefully inaccurate works glorifying brutal conquistadores. During the interim, excellent biographies of César Chávez and Sonia Sotomayor have been added, along with a handful of beautiful picture books about artists, writers, and musicians.

Surrende TreeThe work of reclaiming lost heroes has barely begun. My own approach is not strictly biographical because I love writing verse novels, and I also love writing first person interpretations of historical events. I often mix historical figures with fictional characters. In other words, I feel free to explore, experiment, and imagine. It’s a process that feels like time travel. Diaries, letters, and journals are my most important research materials, because they contain the emotional essence of history, along with the meticulous details of daily life. When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba, I was fortunate to have access to Juan Francisco Manzano’s autobiographical notes, which had been smuggled off the island by British abolitionists. For The Surrender Tree, I could not find anything written by Rosa la Bayamesa or any of Cuba’s other courageous wartime nurses, so I read the diaries of rebel soldiers, as well as interviews with reconcentration camp survivors. The Lightning Dreamer is based on the poetry and prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who wrote a groundbreaking interracial romance novel that was published more than a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not only was Sab far more daring, it was also more influential in Europe and Latin America. So why don’t North Americans know Avellaneda’s name? Does it make sense to learn only about our own little corners of the world?

Hope is at the heart of every topic I choose. I love to write about people I admire. In general, I admire them because they were independent thinkers, far ahead of their times, or because their courage took the form of kindness. I don’t see history as a series of wars, with dates of battles to memorize and names of generals who are automatically assumed to be heroic. My heroes are the ordinary people who made hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless. Tropical Secrets and Silver People are examples of topics so huge—the Holocaust, and construction of the Panama Canal—that I chose to write primarily in the voices of fictional composite characters, rather than individual historical figures. For Hurricane Dancers, the absence of first person indigenous Cuban accounts of the Conquest forced me to rely on a combination of legends, imagination, and the diaries of priests. I read the journals of conquistadores with skepticism, because they were written with a specific agenda—trying to make themselves look heroic, so that they could apply for additional funds from the Spanish Crown.

final Silver People cover-1Lightning Dreamer notable-1

Not all of my books are verse novels, and not all are for young adults. One of my favorite challenges is writing picture books about people who are not considered “famous enough” for biographical works. This limitation has actually helped me present my historical picture book manuscripts simply as inspiring stories, instead of struggling to make the subjects seem more famous than they are. Some are not famous at all, simply because Latinos, other minorities, and women, have generally been omitted from earlier historical writings. Sadly, recent history books tend to copy the earlier ones. The result is an entire segment of classroom curricula and pleasure reading with no representation of forgotten groups.

At present, I have several biographical picture books already in the publishing pipeline, and several that are still searching for publishers. None of them are about easily recognized names, if you live in the U.S. Thankfully, with the help of wonderful editors and fantastic illustrators, I hope that these picture books will inspire young readers. Drum Dream Girl (Harcourt, 2015) is being illustrated by the amazing Rafael López, whose gorgeous art will help illuminate the life of a ten-year-old Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke the island’s taboo against female drummers. The Sky Painter (Two Lions, 2015) will have beautiful, scientifically accurate illustrations by Aliona Bereghici, to show how a boy of Puerto Rican origin became the world’s greatest bird artist, by allowing birds to live, instead of following Audubon’s tradition of killing and posing them.

If children have heard Latin jazz or visited New York’s Natural History Museum, they’ve heard and seen the results of Millo Castro’s courage and Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ kindness, even though they are unlikely to have seen those names in a library or classroom. I firmly believe that it is time to make room for books about the lives of people who should be famous, rather than limiting young readers to books about people who are already famous.

No discussion of biographical writing is complete without the subject of autobiography. Writing a childhood memoir has been the greatest challenge of my life. It is strictly nonfiction—no imagining, only remembering. Certain memories are excruciatingly painful. I love recalling childhood trips to visit my extended family in Cuba, but I dread remembering the October 1962 Missile Crisis that ended those journeys. Enchanted Air, a Cold War Memoir (Atheneum, 2015) combines the two. Positive and negative. Joy and sorrow. Despair and hope. With a powerful cover illustration by one of the world’s greatest artists, Edel Rodríguez, this memoir already feels like my life’s work. It is a book that helps me reclaim the separated half of my family, and along with them, the half of my identity that was almost destroyed by politicians.

Writing about lives is a process of exploration, so even though the memoir feels like my life’s work, I’ve already found other people I hope to depict in verse novels and picture books. I’ve returned to the research stage, reading history, and deciding which parts of history have not yet been honestly portrayed.

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Margarita-HavanaMargarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino/a. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, as well as three Américas Awards and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Margarita’s newest verse novel is Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal, and her newest picture book is Tiny Rabbit’s Big WishShe lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the forest to help train her husband’s wilderness search and rescue dogs. For more information, visit her author site and enjoy interviews by Caroline Starr Rose  and Robyn Hood Black.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA

Or, what does that even mean?

 

By Zoraida Córdova

Brace yourselves. Here’s another blog post on the lack of diversity in YA. When we bring up these topics the common words I see are FEAR, UNCOMFORTABLE, GUILT.  If a white person brings up the subject then, “who are they to talk about it?” If a POC does it, we’ll be seen as a bunch of angry people. So, Catch 22. I get it. Writing these posts is HARD, but they should be written. Recently one of my favorite authors ever, Jenny Han, tweeted about diversity in YA. The thing is, we need to feel uncomfortable, and like Jenny said, “that’s the risk.”

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ecsaHere’s what you need to know about me. I was born in Ecuador. I moved to Queens, NY when I was 6. Being in America for 20 years makes me American. My public school experience is American. Yet, when people look at me and hear me speak, they are perplexed. Why? You got me.  The “Your English is so good!” “What are you?” “My friend is from Ecuador, do you know LUIS PABLO ESTEBAN SANTIAGO?” Spoiler alert: I don’t.

This difference wasn’t apparent to me from the beginning. Between grades 1-4, I was in bilingual classes. (My Little Mermaid Spanish didn’t get me to the top of the class right away.) All of my classmates had either emigrated from a Latin American country or had Latin American parents. Salvadorian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, you name it. Guess what, we spoke English. We listened to the Spice Girls. We cut up our bangs like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. We watched TRL and taped the music videos. We learned the awesome moves to Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle (She’s half Ecuadorian, BTW). At home, sometimes I’d eat Chef Boyardi ravioli, sometimes I’d have rice and steak and beans.

So when I got to 5th grade, I was placed into the “regular” kids class. English only. Suddenly my friends also included Guyanese, Jamaican, African-American. Guess what, we still listened to shitty New photo 4 (1)Millennium pop and idolized Harriet the Spy.

Junior high school and high school were also the same thing. Look at all the shades of brownness! Here are some pictures from my high school yearbook. Spoiler alert: I am still a nerd.

My experience growing up in neighborhoods that are already diverse gives me a different perspective. Could I have used more diverse characters in my current books? Yes. My trilogy centers around a white merman from Brooklyn. His love interest is mixed. His friends are mixed. Merpeople in my world come in all shades. But the answer is still yes. You can always add diverse characters into your books.

photo 3 (1)When people say they’re “afraid” they’re not going to give their “Other” character justice by writing from an experience other than an Anglo-American experience, I call bull. It is scary writing about an experience other than yours. However, unless your character has just moved to Kentucky from a remote town in Panama, then why are you afraid to write the experience of an otherwise straightforward character? Your character can still be named Danilo Cordova and the only research you have to do is “What does a teenage boy like?”

If your character is Nuyorican, then you’d have to do more research. Stereotypes need not apply. Because, here’s a little known secret, not all Latin experiences are the same. No matter where we were born, when we immigrated, where we were raised, we can’t be lumped into the same experience. This is not to say that every YA author should write a novel about how hard it is to grow up being brown, because I did it and my adolescence was pretty “average.”

If you’re writing a fantasy/sci-fi novel and there is not a single non-white person to be found, then my only question is “how come?” Here you have a chance to create a whole new world, where our carefully constructed American ideal of white-only beauty need not apply. When I read YA fantasy novels and the only time race is mentioned is when a new character comes in and has “chocolate” or “earth colored” skin, I just cringe. This mean everyone else I’ve been reading about is white. Not only is that lazy writing, it’s a limited way of thinking about a world that is supposed to be fantastical.

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So how do we fix this? Well, lets talk about it. Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. READ. I  to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. I am, however, excited about Diana Renn’s upcoming YA thriller Latitude ZeroThe book takes place in Boston and in Ecuador. Diana is not Ecuadorian, but she wrote an exciting novel with diverse characters. She reached out and did her research. latitudecover

Here we go back to this FEAR concept. If you throw in a character named Chiquita Bonita in the middle of the scene, and she has hoop earrings and says “Ay, mami,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you describe your Latina girl as “exotic,” “curvaceous,” “spicy,” or “saucy” then you are propagating a stereotype, or making gumbo IDK. If you’re like Britney Spears and equate a Latin male with “the bad boy type,” then you should be afraid because you’re propagating a stereotype. If you as an author can go on Google and research “how to kill someone and get away with it” because “your protagonist needs to know” then you can also try Googling about other American communities that are not your own.

There is a difference between being afraid to write about a culture that is not your own, and consciously creating a two dimensional stereotypical character.

Romeo and Juliet0001

One of my favorite retellings of Romeo & Juliet is the most recent one on Broadway, partially because Orlando Bloom is shirtless but also because Juliet is black. They aren’t divided because of their skin color. This isn’t West Side Story. It’s not that one is brown and from the wrong side of the tracks, and the other one is nice and white, so they can’t be together. This is a story of feuding families that have been feuding so long they can’t even remember why or how it started. It’s that simple.

If you’re worried you’re still propagating a stereotype, then reach out. You’ll make a friend. You’ll learn something new. I am extremely lucky to have had diverse friends. I know that’s not the case for everyone and I know that if you’re not in a big city, chances are the POC in you neighborhood are marginalized. I’m not in Arizona where they’re trying to wipe out Mexican studies. I’m not in a tiny town in Ohio where there is one black kid in the class. I’m in NYC, which isn’t perfect and has a history of putting away their low income minorities to make room for gentrification. But my eyes are extremely open (and I got new glasses today) as to the future we need to create for Young Adult literature. It’s a team effort.

Maybe if we keep making it a point, when we talk about diverse characters in the coming years, it will be more than just a trend; it’ll be the new norm.

 

Edited: 3/31/14

*** Representation of Latin@s in media has been a personal focus for me.  This is not to say that “diversity” to me means only adding Latin@s to literature. The conversation extends to all marginalized people. Like I said, lets talk about it.