This is why our broad representation in literature is so crucial. Given these numbers, is it any surprise that, when I first started writing as a kid, I gave my characters names like Heather and Zachary? I had permission to learn. Now that story exists for him, his family, and so many other readers. Some protagonists struggle with poverty, as does Julia Reyes in Erika L. It only goes one way, and the $64,000 question is me. Last fall, I had a meeting with a community partner. Children are highly responsive to seeing characters that look like and represent them. The only people who don’t react this way when I disclose my heritage are people from Mexico. And we don’t need to italicize every word in a language that’s been spoken in the Americas longer than English has. The community begged to differ. Instead, they take stock of my features and ask, “Who in your family is from Guadalajara?”
You see, while Mexicans — and other Latinx people — can fathom my appearance as part of our ethnic group’s diversity, many non-Latinx Americans have trouble conceptualizing this. Latinx identities encompass a vast range of histories and contemporary experiences, including oftentimes marginalized black and indigenous perspectives. Publishing could happen to people who not only looked like me but who also had the varied experiences and identities that have been traditionally locked out of the literary sphere. Because a lot of people have a limited notion of what Latinx identity encompasses in this country, thanks in no small part to centuries of (and current-day) racism and the impact it continues to have on our representation in the media. Will that help me meet your standard of how I’m supposed to look? My profession is in philanthropy, with a focus on postsecondary education, another field that struggles with equity. An administration that better reflects the student body will have a greater awareness of practices that would work best to support specific student populations. This isn’t a condition unique to the Latinx community, either. With the strides we’re experiencing, especially in young adult lit, I’m hopeful our defaults will evolve overall. In order to understand — even to merely glimpse — the sheer variety making up these communities, we need more stories written by authors with these diverse identities. Although author Jeanine Cummins stated that she hoped her novel would inspire her audience to empathy, a story that centers on stereotypes and the sensationalizing of an immigrant experience that is very real and terribly painful for many does more harm than good. There’s a liberation that comes with having our own voices in charge of the storytelling. And people don’t like their biases upended. The work Emerging Voices undertakes is critical — and it’s not only relevant to writers. Not all our stories are centered on pain and trauma. In her essay “Pure Heroines,” Jia Tolentino shows how whiteness operates as an implicit norm, with an Asian character’s ethnicity “noted by [a] white author as diligently as the whiteness of his or her unmarked protagonist was not.” We don’t need to normalize whiteness or exoticize complexion. Let’s explore these assumptions. This movement calls for uplifting the numerous and varied narratives of Latinx stories by Latinx writers. Add to this the author’s lack of cultural awareness, much less cultural connection, and the message is clear: Latinxs have but one, definitive narrative, which can be summed up in a couple hundred pages, and someone already told it better than any of us has or ever will. This tunnel vision fails to acknowledge the larger ecosystems in play — faculty, administrators, executive leadership, and campus climate. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes bunched up when he said, “I took a peek at some of the books and they have Latinos as main characters now. I felt I could write about the experiences of a Latina high schooler dealing with the impact of gentrification on her family without worrying that my work might be alienating or unrelatable to some readers. ¤
Angela M. When I say that two of my grandparents were from Mexico and two were border-crossed-us Mexican Americans, I get TikTok-worthy reactions. Being relegated to a single story distills us down to stereotypes. My colleague was easily a generation older than me and he’s getting to see his daughter grow up with depictions that were always part of his reality but were never on the page. One literary sector that’s made extraordinary headway is young adult fiction. Through EV’s mentor community, which reflected the diversity of my cohort, I was able to glimpse what was attainable. In order to build a critical mass of diverse writers, space must be created for us. For example, there’s a general misbelief that, if we simply enroll more students of color, we will see more graduates of color. I didn’t feel embarrassed for not knowing that, when someone mentioned Bread Loaf, they weren’t talking about their grocery list, or that Tin House wasn’t some new fad in the tiny-house movement. He was Latino, a Long Beach native. We experience joy, competitiveness, and smug triumph alongside loss, anguish, and despair — and those dark emotions can be in response to something as profound as family separation and sacrifice or as petty as showing up that cabrón at school. If the upper tiers of this pipeline aren’t reformed, the system will only continue to marginalize diverse voices and perpetuate a limited representation of these communities. Anthologies such as Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America (2019; edited by Ibi Zoboi) and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (2018; edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman) capture the experiences, worlds, and mythologies of their respective black and Asian-American contributors. This isn’t to say I don’t or won’t ever write about white characters; they simply aren’t my default anymore. One Lyft driver took his eyes off the road and did a three-quarter-torso-twist double take at me in the passenger seat. The gatekeepers of the publishing industry remain predominantly white and cisgender. Our community is diverse and complex. Another woman surveyed me, as if I were a scientific specimen, with an exaggerated sweep of her eyes, before declaring, “You don’t look it.”
Ay, lo siento. Latinx authors in particular accounted for just five percent of published children’s books, despite Latinx people comprising 17 percent of the US population. The same is true in other industries, not the least publishing. For the past decade, YA authors have been depicting the panorama of experiences that young Latinx readers not only know but deserve to have represented. I’ll make sure to bring my aunt’s serape next time. My complexion, while not white, isn’t as rich as my father’s was, and I have light, olive eyes. He smiled at me and added, “Man, what a time to be alive.”
Don’t we know it. Kid-lit protagonists also reflect an array of heritages, from Mexican and Argentinian to Dominican and Puerto Rican. What does that mean? I might have a strong jaw and nose, which one high school teacher described as “clearly indigenous,” but if I so much as mention that I grew up in Glendale, I’ve had at least one man press, “Are you sure you’re not Armenian?”
I’ve done my 23andMe, I’m sure. As Latinx authors, academics, journalists, and community members spoke out in protest against Cummins’s stereotypes, the resulting #DignidadLiteraria movement took off. Why? MAY 11, 2020
EVERY COUPLE OF MONTHS, I get to play the Guess my Ethnicity Game. I was also able to share this space with other writers of color of varying ages and backgrounds. We are people. Take the facepalm fiasco of a novel American Dirt (2020), a project that received a seven-figure advance based on a manuscript that relied on the cliché-riddled plot of a single mother and child fleeing from a cartel run by a Latin lover cut-out. Readers have been introduced to Lilliam Rivera’s Margot Sanchez, in The Education of Margot Sanchez (2017), who speaks Spanglish with her family, and Pablo Cartaya’s Marcus Vega, in Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (2018), who (as the title acknowledges) doesn’t speak Spanish at all. Firstly, we don’t write for a white gaze. I know what they’re seeing. We got to talking about his high school daughter’s reading list. PEN America’s Emerging Voices (EV) Fellowship gave me my first taste of what an in-person writing community could be — supportive and nurturing. Having my work published no longer seemed out of reach because it was something glamorous that only happened in New York City. When we’re not being portrayed as cholos or spicy Latin lovers, we’re relegated to the roles of custodial staff, housekeepers, and gardeners — we are The Help. Sanchez is a program officer for College Success at ECMC Foundation, a national funder dedicated to advancing opportunities in postsecondary education for students. These stereotypes are not only regrettably alive and well in the 21st century, they are widely endorsed. Moreover, data has shown that solutions and resources that prioritize students from marginalized backgrounds ultimately benefit the campus as a whole, as opposed to hoping that strategies that generally work for everyone will spell success for under-represented groups. Sánchez’s I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017), and some are glamorously wealthy, like Camilla del Valle in Panamanian-American author Veronica Chambers’s The Go-Between (2017). According to their 2018 data, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that only about one-third of all children’s books were about people of color while only 21.5 percent were by people of color. They don’t cut the slang or Spanglish anymore either!”
I grinned. If asked delicately, the question usually goes, “Where’s your family from?” With the implicit, or sometimes openly verbalized, addition, “Before Los Angeles.” Another variant is, “What’s your ethnic background?” People who are more upfront with their vulgar curiosity ask, “What are you?” My standard response of “mostly carbon and water” is never a sufficient answer. The industry promises POC authors that our stories sell, and more are in fact being published, but these are not necessarily stories by us. A graphic anthology I recently reviewed, Tales from la Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology (2018; edited by Frederick Luis Aldama), recognized that, in order to provide readers with a basic understanding of any community, a wide range of stories is necessary. Recent YA fiction has given us active, heroic Afro-Latinx characters like Sierra Santiago in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper (2015) and Xiomara Batista in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018), which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. These statistics need to change. She is also the author of Scruffy and the Egg, a children’s picture book series about family homelessness and single-parenthood, and a PEN America 2018 Emerging Voices Fellow.