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A New Chapter on Cultural Pride

Today's Latino kids are growing up with something their elders didn't have--books that reflect the way they live.

September 24, 2000|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, have nothing on Pepita, Pablo and Rita. Sure, the brother-sister team and their favorite spaniel have charmed readers for decades as they frolicked on an immaculate street behind their white picket fence. Their adventures sparkle with postwar childhood innocence and celebrated the American Dream.

But could Dick and Jane speak two languages like Pepita, the feisty heroine of "Pepita Talks Twice" who rejects her family's native Spanish only to learn, in the end, the worthiness of a second language? Could they bake Mexican-style bagels like Pablo, the loving son in Natasha Wing's "Jalapeno Bagels" whose father is Jewish and mother is Mexican?

Could they relate to Rita, the spirited girl in "Salsa," who lives in a Puerto Rican barrio in New York City and dreams of playing in a salsa orchestra while bouncing seamlessly from one culture to another, never landing completely on either side of the hyphen?

Umm, no.

In their "all-American" world, Dick and Jane, and scores of literary children like them, never met brown-skinned kids who dream of living in larger homes with fewer people, who choose silence over speaking English with thick accents, or who shake their shoulders to the beat and yell, "Ay bendito!" like Lillian Colon-Vila's Rita.

But today they might.

For the first time, young Latinos of all ages can find books in stores, libraries and their classrooms about children who live in two worlds but no longer feel torn. These bilingual children do not have to look far from their neighborhoods to find the voices of writers who use and understand language in their particular way: English prose that expresses American ideas in the rhythmic cadences of Spanish.

This growing children's market is predicted to boom in the next decade as commercial publishers follow the lead of smaller, nonprofit presses that have produced the works of about a dozen Latino writers for the past decade. But, already, the demand is clear in bilingual education programs across the country, and even in some mainstream reading and literature classes where teachers are increasingly using Latino writers to turn children on to the world of words.

"When I grew up in El Paso, we read about Dick and Jane and their white picket fence, and I always thought to myself, 'What does this have to do with me?' " said Raymund Paredes, associate vice chancellor for academic development at UCLA and a scholar of Latino literature. "I didn't know anybody like them. It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I was exposed to literature about people like me."

That is, literature about the millions of people who live in English and Spanish simultaneously, who have ties to a foreign culture but are thriving--or at least surviving--in the United States. To reach them, publishers say, it is not enough to translate English-language books or to import the literature of Spanish-speaking countries.

"For our children, the world of Dick and Jane and middle-class suburbia is a big leap, as it is also a big leap to ask them to relate to stories about mid-century villages in Mexico," said Nicolas Kanellos, founder of Arte Public Press at the University of Houston.

Gary Soto's Chicano-themed stories, for example, particularly move ninth-grader Nikkie Gonzales because they reflect her own childhood. Soto, winner of the 1999 Hispanic Heritage Award in literature, was the first Mexican-American writer to publish for young adults.

Writers Relate to 'Average People'

"There's something to learn from any book," said 15-year-old Gonzales, who attends Bell Gardens High School. "But someone like Emily Dickinson lived a totally different life than mine. Gary Soto grew up the same way I did. His stories talk about what's going on with us. They started like us--average people."

School districts from California to Texas, and Florida to New York, are not abandoning traditional literature or the classics; they are simply incorporating authors whose works are relevant to the multicultural experiences of their students. The books are not typically required by school districts but are found on the individual reading lists of teachers who say there is plenty of room to teach Shakespeare and Soto, Dickinson and Francisco Alarcon.

Even "in places like North Carolina, they're preparing to deal with the children of migrant workers who are settling down," said Bob Langdon, sales and marketing director for Children's Book Press. "These stories are pulled right out of their communities."

First-graders, for example, can relate to Juan Felipe Herrera's "The Upside Down Boy," the story of Juanito, a Mexican immigrant who is bewildered by his new surroundings and whose tongue "feels like a rock" when he tries to speak English. Teenagers can identify with Esperanza, the central figure of Sandra Cisneros' "The House on Mango Street" who complains that at school "they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth."

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