As I travel to speak at schools across the country, I’m sometimes the first Latinx author students have ever interacted with, even in communities with large Latinx populations.
If that sounds unbelievable in a country where more than 62 million people identify as Hispanic or Latinx, consider that in 2021 only about 9% of children’s books were written by Latinx. Even fewer (7.6%) talked about us.
Additionally, we have just survived two years of school closures that have profoundly disrupted the lives and learning of our children, with disproportionate negative effects on communities of color, according to the Department of Civil Rights Office. Education. Disparities and barriers to learning have widened in many areas, including language acquisition skills and declining college enrollment.
And now we face an alarming increase in book challenges that directly target, in part, the cultural content of children’s books that often expresses the perspectives and experiences of our vast and diverse communities. There were nearly 1,600 individual book challenges in 2021, the most recorded in a single year by the American Library Assn.’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which began tracking data in 2000.
But here’s what I see time and time again. Books and stories – even very culture-specific ones – can help children get to know themselves and others better. Encouraging your children to have a relationship with books might be the most impactful thing a parent of color can do.
So while it’s true that my work focuses on the main Latinx characters and their families, with painstaking detail about the uniqueness of our lives, it’s also true that my characters’ experiences speak to the aspirations of all children. to be loved, to have friends they can trust, and to feel seen and heard as they grow and make their own decisions.
The current climate of weaponizing children’s books for political purposes threatens this simple act of connection. It also poses a greater risk to children’s ability to develop accurate images of themselves as people with rich histories, roots, and accomplishments.
Between 2010 and 2019, newborns contributed to the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States more than any other group, according to Pew Research.
What this means, particularly in California – which has the largest Hispanic population in the country – is that we are looking at a population of school children who identify as bicultural at a time when cultural sensitivity is under attack for being the source of division and not American.
Where does that leave bicultural children? What does this do to their sense of self?
I grew up as a bicultural kid in New York. My parents were refugees from Cuba, a country they would never see again. My mother did what she could to honor my North American identity since I was born here shortly after her arrival. I was given an American name (Margaret Rose), unlimited access to “Romper Room” on TV, and later a set of World Book encyclopedias that she purchased in installments.
But she had the wisdom to nurture my understanding of my Cuban heritage with a passion that is the signature of all who are displaced. She made these connections primarily through oral tradition, as that was most available at the time. Through her many stories on the island—her teaching career, the beauty of the Sagua La Grande River, her father’s rural school—she addressed her own trauma while giving me a sense of my roots.
As she got older, her conversations became more sophisticated, built around themes of political upheaval, broken promises, and the realities of being an immigrant woman with two daughters in New York City. At 13, while I discovered the joys of Celia Cruz at apartment parties, I also knew the works of Jose Martí, a hero of Cuban independence – and who were Fidel and El Che. I knew that I came from people with a history that included struggles and accomplishments and that I was still part of that evolving history here in the United States.
There was a power in this knowledge on both sides of me, and more importantly, a precision. My family’s past was preserved for me as a sacred part of who I was, and ultimately this duality gave me the habit of shading people and events, a habit I believe I bring to writing. of children’s books.
Bicultural children will always need environments that inform both of their realities, not because their families don’t want to let go of the past, but because the past informs their current identities.
Pura Belpré, the famed Afro-Puerto Rican librarian who created bilingual materials in New York’s public libraries during the Harlem Renaissance, railed against the idea that her black and brown bilingual patrons were “culturally disadvantaged.” She has spent her career championing a range of materials and approaches that would proudly connect children to their Puerto Rican roots. “A child will be better prepared to understand the value of another culture if they know the value of their own,” she said.
During the summer, we owe our children time to heal and prepare for the coming year. We also owe them a way to experience books as recreation, connection and affirmation. We owe them stories that celebrate who they are and offer a way to understand the long tendrils of displacement that last generations in families.
If we don’t make this effort, we risk allowing inaccuracies, shame and stereotypes to replace the truth.
Meg Medina is the 2019 Newbery Medalist. Her next book is “Merci Suárez Plays It Cool”.