Blog

Latina Heritage

“What Are You?” A Mixed Kid Answers

“What are you?” my friend’s nephew was asked. He is Peruvian and African American.

I’ve been asked this, too. A lot. In fact, mixed kids report being asked this quite a bit. Their skin is brown, but their eyes are blue. Or their hair isn’t what people expect, given their bone structure. I sound white, but look vaguely indigenous. I have been assumed to be Chinese, Navaho, Mexican, and European. I’m actually Guatemalan-American, descended from basically Brits and Mayans.

PICT0170
Me at five or so

Born in Iowa, my Guatemalan side stood out there. I was the only brown kid in my class, maybe in my school. The town was small enough that my Guatemalan dad was a bit of a celebrity. I never heard a cruel word about my parents’ marriage, nor my permanent tan. When I got to Texas, I was seen differently. Latinxes thought I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t. But more than once, a light kid insulted immigrants from south of Texas, not realizing that I was the child of one. I was first asked “What are you?” at church, another time in a job interview, and many times since.

Admittedly, the question is dehumanizing. Along with “Where are you from?” since mostly, we mash-ups in the US would say “Here!” But, you know what, I don’t mind it the way I used to. I think most askers are trying to open a new folder in their brains and aren’t sure what to call it. Undoubtedly, other askers are trying to fit the mixed person into a box that carries assumptions and stereotypes, but the people I’ve run into are mainly curious. They’re often intrigued when they find out my background and think it’s cool. If we lived in Brazil, we could visit three states that actually designate a holiday, June 27, as the day to celebrate “mestizos,” or mixed folks.

cartaz_festa_do_mestico_autazes_peq

It’s not as easy for every mixed person out there, though. Many speak of taunting coming from both sides — name-calling, ostracizing, and the implication that they aren’t “black enough” or “Korean enough” or whatever-enough to be part of the community. Barack Obama was criticized for marking Black on the 2010 census because he his half white and half black. His choice shows that he knows he is perceived as black, and therefore, is living the experience of a black man, despite his mother’s being white.

barack-obama-and-parents

Mixed people don’t always admit their mixed-ness, and for good reason. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for two people to marry regardless of race, it could be damaging to reveal a mixed bloodline. In overtly racist areas, the stigma of having a black ancestor could threaten livelihoods and even lives. Also, the US census only starting offering the choice to check multiple race boxes in 2000. Statistics show an increase in mixed kids in this century partly because it’s now possible to report it.original

On the other hand, mixed marriages and mixed kids are more noticeable now than ever. The famous royals, Harry and Meghan, aren’t alone. We probably are experiencing an increase in the real number of multi-racial people in the USA.  The UK shows rises as well.

The up-side is that we mixed kids tend to grow up appreciative of cultural variety and are fluent in more than one way of being. We live the truth that our parents’ human-ness is the same, regardless of race. Some of us are bi-lingual, and some grew up in two faith traditions. It’s natural to look at us as symbols of harmony among all peoples.

Symbols, maybe, but we aren’t the solution to ending racism forever. If only. For that, we need to work on many fronts for years to come, including emphasizing how artificial all divisions really are.

But let’s celebrate our multi-ness and the bravery of our parents. Let’s teach people to say, “What’s your background?” if they’re curious and not intending to insult. Let’s enjoy the creativity and flexibility of mind that mixed folks add to this world.

And when it comes to answering the question, “What are you?”, as my friend and I said that day about her nephew, in unison, “Tell them you’re a human being.”

Sign up here to get infrequent updates from Rebecca!

Book Reviews

EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE UNIVERSE by Tracy Holczer — book review!

Thoughtful, logical Lucy finds herself thrust into her emotionally raucous Italian family when her dad ships out for Vietnam in 1971. During his absence, she and her mom adapt to living with herb packets, chicken claws showing up in odd places, and her Nonnina’s pink kitchen. Well, mostly. Now that Dad is returning, though, everything will go back to the way it was before–the highly organized life of a doctor in traifullsizeoutput_166ning and his family.

But soldiers returning from war are never the same. And the world they come home to isn’t either. As Lucy deals with one emotional slam after another, her creative coping skills such as a Homeostasis Extravaganza make her relatable and also admirable. What she wants is to be brave and reasonable, but it might be time to add expressive to that list. With a new friend, a deepening appreciation for her huggy Italian family, and a vet family to track down, Lucy is learning to trust her heart.

My two cents: Loved it! In a nuanced weaving of history, closely observed characters, and poetic language, Tracy Holczer captures the both the discriminating mind and the open heart of her reader. Recommended!

Click here to keep up with Rebecca and get the latest updates!

Book Reviews

EVANGELINA TAKES FLIGHT by Diana J. Noble — book review!

IMG_0310Kids aged 10-14 will enjoy meeting Evangelina and her family as they flee their village in Mexico during the Revolution in 1911. Gone are the scrumptious fruits of their hacienda and elaborate plans for Evangelina’s quinceañera. Instead, their lives turn to surviving a nighttime escape and a cold welcome in a Texas town. Readers will root for observant, kind Evangelina as she faces racism and condescension in school and throughout town. When her intelligence is noticed by a doctor, she finds a way to shine in the midst of cruelty.

My two cents! With lovely turns of phrase, a well-drawn historical context, and emotional depth, this book is a must-read at this time in US history, when we need to grasp both the horrors that refugees have endured and conquered, and the gifts and talents they bring to their new homes.


Find author Diana J. Noble here: https://dianajnoble.wordpress.com

Click here to keep up with Rebecca and get the latest updates!

Book Reviews

THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS by Tae Keller — book review!

imageLooking for a book with head AND heart? Tae Keller’s THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS laces Natalie’s science notebook to her quest to save her mother from depression. With friends Twig and Dari, Natalie sets out to win an egg dropping contest that will fund her plan to show her mother a miracle in New Mexico — the Cobalt Blue Orchids that grow in toxic waste. Her mother studied the flowers back when she went to work, back when she left her bedroom every day, back when she left her bed. Now that their own orchid has died, it’s up to Natalie to remind her broken mother how beautifully tough orchids can be and how alive. Even as she finds herself breaking rules, breaking in to her mother’s lab, and breaking out of her therapist’s expectations, Natalie’s hope never cracks. Recommended!

Stuff I liked most: 1) Keller’s honest portrayal of complex emotions, such as the moment when Natalie finds out that almost everything she thought about the orchid in the greenhouse was wrong  2) the fact that Natalie is realistically rendered — for example, her mom’s a scientist, but she herself is bad at science!

Find author Tae Keller here: http://www.taekeller.com

Click here to keep up with Rebecca and get the latest updates!

Latina Heritage, Writing Tips

Can we really write outside our identity?

sub-ADCO-popup
2011: José, Ramón, Juan, Steve FROM:https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/business/media/ad-campaign-pokes-fun-at-latino-stereotypes.html

I opened the novel, ready to step into a fictional world. And this time, the main character would be Latina, a mirror of my own brown self. Chapter one captured my interest. Chapters two and three sailed by. But by chapter four, something was pulling me out of the book’s world. The character wasn’t Latina after all. And yet her name was. Her family supposedly was. But nothing they did or said seemed, well, Latino.

A perceptive friend asked, “What would being ‘more Latino’ look like?” I didn’t have an answer. Hadn’t I railed against stereotypes such as the sobrero-wearing Mexican snoozing under a tree? Hadn’t I wished for Latino characters who ate more than beans and rice? This novel had none of that, so why didn’t it feel authentic?

As a writer myself, I can relate to this author’s conundrum. Dump in a bunch of stereotypes and the book feels insensitive, even insulting. Leave out cultural details, and you get a thin portrayal or worse–seemingly Anglo characters “spiced up” with Hispanic names. Authors of all ethnicities run up against the same problem. The more our world is multi-, the more we want to portray that reality on the page, but aren’t sure how to do it.

menvswomen
FROM: pscyhcentral.com

This problem isn’t new. Twenty years ago I sat around a conference table hearing men and women discuss whether one could realistically portray the other. Men pointed to Thomas Hardy’s spot-on female voices. Women pointed to Jane Austen’s blunt-tongued men. Clearly, careful observation could yield convincing characters of the opposite sex.

Careful observation often falls short, though, when it comes to writing authentic characters of color. For a convincing portrayal, one must draw from actual experience–which might hard to come by. And it’s not just ethnicity. Characters who live with illness, with disability, in a different religious context from the author, or with a different sexual orientation provide the same challenge. To complicate matters, we all have overlapping identities–female half-Latina who meditates, for example. (That’s me, or parts of me!) Our differences are daunting.

multiple-identities-620x330
FROM: http://www.theinclusionsolution.me/tag/multiple-identities/

However, our sameness is stunning. As humans, we experience universals such as love and suffering. As much as we DO want “mirrors and windows” for readers–books that reflect readers’ identities and books that open up new worlds for readers–we also delight in books that underscore our connectedness.

One would think that the novel I tried to read was doing just that: emphasizing that a Latina character isn’t any different than an Anglo one. But they are different, aren’t they? Rather than celebrating differences, this book masked them. Using Latino names felt like a commercial decision rather than a cultural one.

5f1e6910-5ccb-0134-1837-060e3e89e053
FROM: https://www.bustle.com/articles/183948-how-diverse-is-childrens-literature-this-infographic-tells-the-disturbing-truth

So what SHOULD writers do to portray people of color sensitively? A panel, part of a conference called WORDFest, held on March 24, 2018 in Hurst, Texas tried to answer that question, and I was on it. These are the notes I brought to the table.

For one, writers of color can and will write their stories. Movements like #ownvoices show that the typical reader and even the publishing industry is ready for more authors of color and other identities. Check out We Need Diverse Books for more on this.

Still, we could all use some tips as we build the diverse worlds our characters inhabit. I caution myself, even as I write this, to remember that there’s no easy recipe.

  1. Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
  2. Make culture matter. Show the character living with the values and realities of his/her culture, and let the plot be complicated by these realities.
  3. Do homework beyond TV shows. If your knowledge of any group comes from movies and TV alone, educate yourself by reading books about and by folks in the group you are researching, and build relationships with those folks organically. It’s okay to say, “I’m a writer,” and ask specific questions, but it’s no one’s job to explain everything to you.
  4. Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
  5. BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
  6. Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
  7. Be aware of your own privilege in whatever form. Read Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.

Discouraged? Don’t be! I told this heartening story at the panel event: I had been visiting Monticello in Virginia with a group of college teachers as part of a program created by the Community College Humanities Association. We’d spent weeks reading deeply about Thomas Jefferson, including a book about the women in his life, especially Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.

The_Hemingses_of_Monticello-_An_American_Family
I read Annette Gordon Reed’s book as part of my fellowship studies. I recommend it!

In our last session, held in the hotel’s breakfast room, I sat rereading a poem. I had written it the night before, and I knew it needed more revision. I would be reading it to my colleagues momentarily, and the thing I was most nervous about was that the poem was written in the voice of Sally Hemings. I had dared to imagine myself as an enslaved mixed-race woman who had borne her first child (Jefferson’s) while still a teenager.

How could I possibly “get it right”? And how could I presume to have any idea what her life was like? Intensive study was one thing, but taking on her voice was another. Fortunately, a man sat down next to me, a man whom I had not seen before. I spoke to him easily, though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. Soon I confided my poetry doubts to him. His response was to laugh merrily and shake his head. “You go right on and write her voice,” he said. “You’ve been a teenager, you’ve been a mom. She’s a human being; you’re a human being. Go right on and write. I give you my permission!”

He was a black man, and I figured that he could, indeed, give me a kind of permission, and I’d feel a little better. But when our session began and he was formally introduced, I nearly fell out of my chair. He was a descendant of Sally Hemings herself. His generosity and encouragement led me to write several more poems in Ms. Hemings’s voice. It’s my hope that I am doing her justice and honoring the trust that her descendant put in me.

wrapped book
The Other Half of Happy features a half-Latina, half-Anglo tween

I’m also writing in my own voice–a bi-cultural twelve-year-old stars in my first novel, The Other Half of Happy, due out in fall 2019 from Chronicle Books. The book also includes a gay character, a black character, and a character with autism. I based these on real people, but I still needed my agent to point out that I had used “chocolate” to describe skin tone, which can be offensive — chocolate is a slave trade product, for one thing! Doh! And yet . . .

By celebrating both our shared humanity and our beautiful variety, we can write sensitively-created characters outside our identities. In fact, to depict the real world, in all its multiplicity, we must.

 

Click here to receive updates on Rebecca and her work!