Looking Back: Musings on Diversity and Identity in Hispanic and Latin American Children’s Literature

by We Need Diverse Books

By Alma Flor Ada

When My Name is María Isabel was published in 1993 I was delighted to see that many school and some school districts saw the benefit that all teachers would read this brief chapter book, because they recognized that the significance that students’ names, whichever their origin, be respected. Through the years I have seen enthusiastic teachers doing wonderful projects with the book and I have received numerous letters from students sharing with me how themselves, or some in their family, had suffered by having had their names changed or disregarded. I had imagined that this practice would disappear. Because I leave a part of me in every book, of course, my hope is that they will continue to be read, but I had hoped My Name is María Isabel would be read as something that happened in the past, not currently. Unfortunately this is not the case. José Miguel, one of the characters in Yes! We Are Latinos, insists that he is not Joe, nor Mike, defending the name he was given after his grandfather because the issue. The need to respect diversity continues to be a major issue in our society.

In Yes! We Are Latinos, Isabel Campoy and I, combined free verse presentations of significant moments in the lives of young Latinos and Latinas to introduce the thirteen topics about the Latino history and contributions shared in this book, hoping to bring new awareness to Latino identity.

The issue of identity is complex. We could all recognize multiple identities. With regards to my ethnicity: I am camagüeyana, very much aware of the five-hundred year old city of my birth, Camagüey, birth place of two magnificent poets, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, in the 19th century, and Nicolás Guillén, the Cuban National Poet of the 20th. I am cubana, with deep roots and continuous awareness of the numerous and significant contributions in art, music, ballet, literature, science, education and natural beauty of this island I so much love. I am caribeña, Latin American and Hispanic in my relations with the wide Spanish-speaking world, and Latina in the struggle to bring about recognition to the Latino presence in the United States where I have lived the largest part of my long life.

These multiple identities are in no way, in conflict, but rather like a set of Russian wooden dolls, are nested in each other. They all bring their own richness and make me who I am. But above all of them I am a woman, an activist, a human being devoting my life to foster knowledge and reflection, to celebrate diversity, to struggle for social justice as the only road to everlasting peace.

tesorosAs I write for children and youth it is natural that the values that are important to me would become the theme of my books, whether presented through realistic characters or not. I have recognized how many of these values are part of my legacy, the education received directed from my family, or gleaned by observation of life around me, even when very young. My childhood memories Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba, published also as Tesoros de mi isla: Una infancia cubana is an effort to show how it all began.

The value of diversity as opposed to discrimination and prejudice may be expressed as well through geometrical figures as in Friends, where the figures who have been taught to not mix with others who are different discover the joy of sharing with each other, and El reino de la geometría, where King Square VII banished from the kingdom all figures that are not perfect squares, as in a middle grade novel like Dancing Home, co-authored with my son Gabriel Zubizarreta, who is a story of immigration and identity.

Diversity may also be simply celebrated in books for very young readers, A Surprise for Mother Rabbit or Strange Visitors, and is crucial in the four titles of the Hidden Forest series, [Dear Peter Rabbit, Yours truly, Goldilocks, With Love, Little Red Hen, and Extra! Extra!] with extraordinary illustrations by Leslie Tryon. In these books, written in letter format or as a newspaper, characters from traditional stories develop surprising friendships and support each other.

The value of friendship among those who may apparently not be alike, is the theme of Friend Frog, depicting the difficulties of Field Mouse, who can’t croak, or jump, and does not particularly care for swimming in gaining the friendship of outstanding Frog that can do all those things. It is also central to The Unicorn of the West.

saturdays-y-domingosThe joy and strength to be derived from family is present throughout my work as in another book co-authored with my son Gabriel, Love, Amalia. Sometimes the family depicted may be a bi-cultural family as in I Love Saturdays… y domingos.

Recognizing hard work and the need of justice for workers has inspired not only Gathering the Sun, a bilingual alphabet book in honor of migrant farmworkers, but also the biography of César Chávez in Paths and many other pages.

And these are some of the many themes present in my poetry: Coral y espuma [Coral and Foam], a book of poems about the ocean, includes the poem Sol [Sun], enemigo de la sombra, amigo de la verdad, “enemy of shadow, a friend of truth”. The poems in Arrullos de la sirena [The mermaid’s lullabies] are a tribute to motherhood and the unique feelings of being a grandmother. The anthology of my poetry Todo es canción [All is Song] has poems like Canción de todos los niños del mundo, [Songs to all children] written more than forty years ago, and still a message necessary today. It affirms: Yo no hablo tu idioma / tú no hablas el mío/ pero tú te ríes/ cuando yo me río… … vivimos muy lejos / no estamos cercanos / pero yo te digo / que somos hermanos [I don’t speak your language/you do not speak mine/but you laugh/ when I laugh… we live very far away/ we are not nearby/ but I can assure you/ we are all brothers and sisters].

My books, poetry and plays, realistic and fantasy narrative, biographies, folklore and non-fiction, published along many years, with different publishers, and multiple illustrators, are indeed very eclectic. I do not have a specific time or place to write. A single mother, of four precious children, I have been an educator during most of my life, and writing, while very important to me, had to take place after all other responsibilities had been addressed. I have written as ideas, feelings, emotions, filled my mind and soul, many times making initial drafts that later would linger for years on a file drawer, until another moment would bring them to life. I write as I live, as I breathe.

When I was asked recently how I would like to be remembered when I am no longer here the natural answer for me was: “I would feel honored to be remembered as a teacher, as someone who has devoted her life to become a true teacher, and yes, as a teacher who writes.”

Alma Flor Ada is the author of numerous award winning children’s books, and has dedicated her life to promote Transformative Education in the pursue of social justice and peace. Born in Cuba, she has studied in Spain, Peru and the United States of America. A strong advocate of Bilingual Education since 1970, she has spoken nationally and internationally on issues of language rights.

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