Category: diversity

How to write a Latinx character and other questions

Look at this graphic:

diversity_tinakugler

The first time I saw this illustration I cried. I mean, LOOK AT IT! One and a half books representing the Latinx characters in children’s books? The equivalent of three pages representing the Native American people? Look at the similarly dreadful percentages of representation of our African American children, and our Asian and Pacific Islander kids?

This is what one of my favorite authors, Junot Díaz, said about the dangers of a person not seeing themselves reflected on the pages of a book:

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

Every kid deserves to see themselves as the heroes of their favorite fantasies, their thrillers, their fluffy funny books. In all the books. I guess we can all agree on that, right?

The children’s book community has been aware of the tremendous need for more representation of “marginalized” communities in the books ALL of our kids read. These books representing our characters from “minority” groups aren’t only mirrors. They’re also windows through which all of our children can experience someone else’s existence and experiences.

The creation and incredible influence of the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS ORGANIZATION (for which I’m so grateful!) has brought the issue to every day conversation, and has kept the conversation going. Some writers, in their desire to increase representation want to tell stories of characters of a different background from their own. Which is okay. IF, and that’s a huge if, if the representation is accurate and respectful, ie: not perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

And many writers get this, this huge responsibility. They have expressed tremendous concern over getting representation wrong, of offending readers, of harming their readers, of provoking public anger. Because ultimately, we write for children. I write for myself, but in the end, my mind is always on the young people my words will affect because words are powerful; they’re life changing.

The fears many writers feel aren’t unfounded. *I* am afraid of not representing my culture in an appropriate way. I’ve found things in my own writing that’ve left me reeling with shock. These problematic elements have leaked into my writing after years of seeing my culture diminished as a stereotype on most media I’ve consumed all my life. The harm of wrongful representation is immense.

There have been several instances of readers, bloggers, and critics questioning the representation of characters and situations in children’s books (A Fine Dessert, A Cake for George Washington, and When We Was Fierce are clear examples). These complains and concerns are valid. Seeing your cultural/ethnic group, your religions, your language butchered and misrepresented is a terrible thing. Many times as a reader, I put my feelings aside and gave the author a second, third, fourth chance. Not so much anymore. If a book is offensive, I won’t recommend it. I won’t support that author anymore.

A few months ago I started offering sensitivity reads to children’s writers. My main intent was to be a consultant and a sort of guide to writers who write outside of their culture and comfort zone. But these are things to consider:

1- I’m not the voice for the whole Latinx community.
2- I’m not even the voice for the Argentine community in the US.

However, I know that having an extra set of eyes on a manuscript is vital for any writer wanting to be honest and respectful when crafting characters and situations that haven’t been experienced first hand.

I’ve had some writers reach out with questions. I’ve loved helping them.  Here’s a non-inclusive list of things to consider when writing a Latinx character:

  • Culture is more than race/skin color/language.
  • Culture can  be conveyed in several ways including but not limiting to food and language.
  • Members of a minority group sometimes act one way within their community and another in different situations, environments.
  • Skin color affects all aspects of a person’s life. Sometimes privilege such as financial or class privilege will protect a person from some situations, but not from all. For example: I’ve been asked at restaurants to refill drinks, and I didn’t look like a waitress at all, nor was I wearing anything similar to a server.
  • If you’re dark skinned people will assume you’re: poor, illegal, uneducated. Not all people, but these are all scenarios I or people close to me have experienced.
  • If you have an accent people will assume you don’t understand them.
  • If you have an accent people will assume they will not understand you.
  • If you have an accent, people will think your English isn’t proper, or that you can’t write in English.
  • If you have an accent, people might be surprised you have a college education or, gasp!, higher form of education.
  • Religion is an important part of the Latinx community, not matter what denomination, if any, the person belongs to. Some beliefs like La Virgen de Guadalupe, and love (for the most part) for Pope Francis are widespread in our community
  • It’s highly offensive to use our beliefs and deities as the basis of a whitewashed fantasy world. If you’re writing about our aboriginal people’s gods (Aztec, Mayan, etc), be aware these are living religions TODAY. No, using them is not the same as portraying Greek or Roman gods.
  • Countries of Latin America and Spain have different accents, foods, customs, and idiosyncrasies. Regions within each country, communities within each region have different accents, foods, customs, and idiosyncrasies from each other.
  • A lot of Latinx people in our communities were born in the US. They’re second, third, fourth generation Americans.
  • Not all Latinx people speak Spanish.
  • People who immigrated to the States won’t have an accent after a few years. Example: someone who immigrated as a child won’t have a significant, recognizable accent as an adult.
  • Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants when they move to the US. They’re already US citizens.
  • In spite of what the media shows, there are more types of Latinx characters than the gang member, the illegal immigrant, the narco, the bubbly, sexy Latina, etc. These exist too, but please, go beyond the stereotypes!
  • Family is a huge influence in our lives, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. I’d never heard the term “extended family” until I arrived in the States. Community is also vital for our people.
  • Educational achievement is a family affair. We’ve been taught that education can free us, and it’s true.
  • Our countries have a rich heritage of thinkers, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, teachers, writers, musicians, and artists of every kind.
  • Many of us have lived real life dystopian societies (hello Dictadura era).
  • In many of our countries, women have been the president and head of the executive power.
  • Latinx people are a combination of all the ethnic groups on earth. We come in every shade and color, and even within families you can find a dark skinned person whose siblings are red-headed or blond with ultra white skin.

Again, this list isn’t all inclusive. I just wanted to show all the aspects in which culture affects a person. The ways in which it will affect your character. The reader will notice if the only thing the writer did was slap a Spanish sounding name and dark skin on a character. I notice. Kids are smart. Kids know when they’re reading truth and when they’re reading a composite of wikipedia facts.

So my friends, write your stories with the characters that knock on the doors of your mind. But do it responsibly. Read the writers from the group you want to write about and you’re not a part of. Like Jackie Woodson said in a lecture, come to their house and see things from their eyes. Respect your readers, and write the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it’s a lot of hard work.

Another diversity post. Why do we need diversity in books?

Back in 2009 I wrote this blog post about a school visit I did during hispanic Heritage Month. This was seven years ago. SEVEN!!! I was a beginner writer and my kids were super young. I wrote during nap times and at night. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write. My stories were all retellings of my favorite Celtic legends, mashing together Marion Simmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon with my favorite fairy tales. When I went to that dual immersion school and saw so many happy faces ready to see a Hispanic author, I realized I didn’t know of any books that portrayed children who looked and sounded and lived like those little ones–like my own children. I have an agent now (hi, Linda!!!) and I’m doing my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, always with the intent of becoming a better writer. Hopefully I won’t have to way seven more years to see a book of mine on a shelf.

But that school visit was a turning point in my life. Now, in the midst of the whole diversity revolution, everyone talks about the problem of the lack of representation in media, especially children’s books. I’m a huge supporter of the We Need Diverse Books organization. They’ve been a great support to me too. Remember this?  
In an effort to do my part in this revolution for more diversity, I wrote a short essay giving my opinion of why we need diverse books. Why do YOU think we need diversity in books?

Why do we need diverse books?
By Yamile Saied Méndez
            “Literature is the expression of society”, said Charles Nodier, a French author and librarian who, according to Wikipedia, introduced young Romanticists to gothic literature and vampire tales. If books were photos in our social-medialized society, would they really show the nature of our world and society? Would everyone be able to see themselves on the pages of a book?
            One of the first things people do when they see a photo is look for themselves or people they might know. The same is true about books. When children read a book, they look for aspects of their lives and their situations. They read books with curiosity to learn about other people too.  
            The first book that I read by myself was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. I lost my favorite grandfather at the age of five, and I saw my relationship with my Abuelo in that book. As a child, I didn’t have a pet goat, lived in the mountains, or ever slept in a bed of hay. Heck! I’d never seen snow in my life! I didn’t have anything else in common with the “girl from the Alps” but for the sorrow of missing a beloved grandfather. Reading about Heidi’s pain when she was separated from her grandfather helped me deal with my own grieving at having lost mine to death.
            The next books that marked me as a person were the works of Brazilian luminaire Monteiro Lobato. Through his stories about cousins Little Nose and Pedrinho, I learned to love the Brazilian people, their traditions, their history. In spite of the Argentine-Brazilian eternal rivalry in the soccer field, I saw my Brazilian neighbors through the window of books and learned to love them. Eventually, I earned a degree in Latin American studies, with an emphasis in Portuguese language and literature. All because of a series of stories about a grandmother and her grandchildren in a small Brazilian farm.
            In books, my greatest friends and companions throughout my life and especially my childhood were mirrors to myself and windows to the world.
            Books empower.
            They empowered me to pursue my dreams and fight for them. A child who doesn’t see herself in books is lacking the tools to face life, to make sense of the world around her, to know what she could be capable of. A child who doesn’t see a different reality from his lacks the tools to learn how to empathize with those living under different circumstances. He lacks the tools to make sense of aspects of the world he isn’t a part of.
            As a child, seeing aspect of myself in a book I was empowered. When I read about a character of my ethnic or cultural background, I got the message that my story mattered enough for someone to write about it. I learned I wasn’t alone in my sorrow. I learned that I mattered.

            My children are growing up between cultures. Like I did as a child, they yearn to be heard, seen, recognized, empowered by a book. Words give life and voice. And I want my children—and all children–to have a voice, to make sense of life, and to feel empowered. That’s why we need diverse books.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Five years ago this happened. Five years ago! I now realize that there are a lot of books in Spanish for children that are incredible difficult to find in the US. And not only books for children, books, in general. I ordered Cien Años de Soledad right before Gabriel Garcia Marquez died and I’m still waiting for it.

What I realized these last five years too is that there aren’t a lot of books about kids whose lives stray even a little from the norm. Or if there are, these books are “niche, issue books.” My kids read and write English because it’s the language of the country where they were born. I also strive to introduce them to writers and artists that marked me as a child because that cultural legacy belongs to them too, in Spanish, the language of our family.

I write stories about dancers, and soccer players, girls fighting to win the middle school government election, all told from the point of view of characters who live between cultures. That’s a subject close to my heart because I’m the granddaughter of immigrants, and immigrant myself, mother of children who look at me with doubt when a stranger asks where they’re from.

The DIA school in Salt Lake invited me to present at their school because in Utah at the time, there wasn’t a single Hispanic/Latina writer. I might be wrong, but I think it’s still true to this day. I hope this will change soon, not only because of selfish reasons. After all, I am submitting to agents at the moment, trying to find representation for my middle grade novel about a Latina dancer crippled by anxiety, who finds healing in the world of competitive Irish dancing. I know there is a lot of talent in the Latin community, and also the Polynesian, and the African American, and the regular Utah who descends from the Pioneers.

I read once that books are the mirror of society, and so far, our shelves don’t represent the beauty and diversity I see everywhere I go even in homogenous Utah. Our state lauds the Pioneers and their struggles to live in a land where they could worship and live in peace. That desire to live in peace and achieve one’s potential is still very much burning in the hearts of hundreds of people, many of them children, whose skin color, accents, sexual orientation and beliefs vary from our own.

Let’s give everyone a chance to see themselves in the media! Growing up one of my favorite shows

was Heidi, the girl of the Alps. I had no idea where Switzerland was or what it was like to be a shepherdess, but I had just lost my grandfather and I missed him more than I could express. I didn’t express it and developed what I now know was anxiety. I loved that show because I saw myself reflected in it. When Heidi was taken away from her “abuelito” I cried my little heart out. And how I celebrated once they were united! Heidi’s friend, Clara, was in a wheelchair. Poor Clara. But what a forward thinking show! Clara was smart and kind and she was the best influence Heidi could ever want.

I want every child to see themselves in a book, a movie, a musical. Not like the quirky sidekick, but the hero/ine. Because we are all the heroes of our own stories. I invite you to participate in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Why do you think we need them?