In response to the New York Times article about the lack of Latino authors and books for children, Latina bloggers have launched the "Latinas for Latino Literature" campaign which works to identify the problems in today's publishing world that contribute to this lack of diversity so that we can provide ideas for changing the situation to the benefit of not only Latino readers and writers, but to the benefit of the industry itself as they tap into this growing demographic. Look for forthcoming Google hangouts, Twitter parties, and follow-up posts as this coordinated effort to bring quality books for an emerging group of readers continues.
Way back during the two years my parents spent in Bangkok, Thailand, my Mexican-Guatemalan mother found herself in a peculiar quandary. She had two very small children underfoot and no books to read to them. It’s not that there weren’t beautiful Thai books — because there were — but my mother couldn’t read those and the books she found in Spanish and English were exorbitantly priced. So she took two of her sketchbooks and turned them into illustrated stories with versions of my brother and me as protagonists. We loved them.
Twenty years or so later, I was living on a shoestring, working for a non-profit in Central New York State. One of my coworkers had invited me to his daughter’s fourth or fifth birthday party and since my wallet was near empty (and would be for the next two weeks) I sat down and drew and wrote. I made Katie the protagonist of a story I no longer remember and which probably wasn’t very good. I was more than a little embarrassed when I handed it over at the party. Months later Katie’s mother told me it was one of her daughter’s favorite books.
We like to recognize ourselves in books. This is no news.
Neither is the finding in Motoko Rich’s story in the New York Times that Latino children are underrepresented in the books available to them in classroom and school library. As a Latina writer and mom, I know this is the reality. But let’s not stop in the classroom — Latinos are seriously underrepresented in mainstream fiction, in genre fiction, in literary fiction. Hell, let’s go whole hog, shall we? There are damn few Latinos in mainstream newspapers and broadcasts, movies and television shows, as well.
You see the problem here?
To whomever is stocking those classroom bookshelves (considering submissions at publishing houses, buying properties to be developed for the screen, etc.) we’re invisible and have no dialogue. We were never the protagonists of the stories they read in school, and they haven’t bothered to find out that since then there have been thousands, tens of thousands, written with Latino protagonists by Latino writers.
If and when we are noticed by the book industry, it is to repeat tired old claims that Latinos don’t purchase books and don’t read, so why make the effort? I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I can tell you it’s not my experience either personally or professionally. As the managing editor of Philadelphia’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, Al Día, my experience is that Latinos are far more likely to purchase and read in print than non-Latinos. Moreover, they are loyal repeat readers, picking up issue after issue of our newspaper, week-in and week-out. At Al Día we include book notes and stories about Latino writers —Junot Diaz, David Unger, Reyna Grande, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez, just to name a few — on a weekly basis.
What I love best about our Latino community is its delight in reading both highbrow and low, and how the comic book “Love and Rockets” (or compilations of Mafalda and Rius) is likely to coexist in the same bookstand as the poetry of Pablo Neruda, non-fiction by Cesar Millan and the fantastical YA of Isabel Allende.
The purchasing power of Latinos based on 2010 Census data is $1 trillion. We are the fast growing consumer market. If the book industry isn’t getting a share of our purchases, it needs to examine why that is.
I find reasons in Rich’s piece from the NYT: “Publishers say ... in some cases they insert Latino characters in new titles,” Rich says, then quotes the vice president of Simon & Schuster’s children’s division, who says that in a series of books they commissioned they consciously made one of the characters Latina.
Might I suggest this is just wrongheaded. The idea that just turning an existing character into a Latino/a child is the way to serve our growing demographic is lazy and disingenuous. How about publishing some Latino writers whose Latino characters are organic to the storyline rather than a non-Latino child in disguise? And then, how about aggressively marketing those stories with real Latino kids not only to the mass market, but to the buyers for schools and libraries?
Rich also includes this unattributed statement in the NYT: “Publishers say they want to find more works by Hispanic authors.” Well, this is great if it is true, but it’s also little and late. I ask myself — as a Latina newspaper editor who has focused attention on a good number of fantastic books by Latino authors — what prevented them from doing that before? Why do they never send me press releases or review copies of the books by Latinos already on their lists? The “U.S. Latino writer” is no recent phenomenon. I — and every person in the “Latinas love Latino Literature” response — can name many immensely talented Latino writers (whose work includes fascinating and diverse Latino characters) working in every single marketing niche and genre those top publishers can throw at us.
I’ll tell you who sends the newspaper copies of books to review written by Latinos and with Latino protagonists — small presses and publishers. A number of them were open to publishing the works of people of color, and books that speak to our lives, back when big publishers were still looking no further than down their noses. School teachers interested in seeing their classroom diversity replicated in the selection of books on their bookstand would do themselves a huge favor by looking through the small press lists.
There are a lot of great Latino writers to be introduced to, and a lot of great Latino characters to meet through their work. Here are some titles (across genres and market types) you might not have heard about (and of course you'll know why the first two are first ;)):
Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias (science fiction-fantasy)
Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older (ghost noir short stories)
¡Ban This! The BSP Anthology of Xican@ Literature (fiction, poetry, essays)
Bilingual is Better by Ana Flores (non-fiction)