Look at this graphic:
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.