By Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán & William García
Latino children’s literature in the United States refers to literature written by Latino and Latina authors, whether in English or Spanish and regardless of the topics they address (Ada, 2003). Giving the great intragroup differences in social class, immigration patterns, and language practices among Latinos, we would expect Latino literature to reflect such diversity, but there is still a long way to go to meet that goal. This month the Blog will focus on Latino literature that contributes to and illustrates the diversity of Latino communities as reflected in children’s and young adult literature. Each week I’ll invite students from Teachers College to share their thoughts about this literature. We will start the first two weeks by focusing on literature that highlights the experiences of Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbean communities. Afterwards, we will focus on Latino literature that addresses in some way indigenous communities. This first week, graduate student William García will share his thoughts about Eric Velasquez and the potential of his work to support Racial Literacy in classrooms.
“The number of Afro-Latino children’s book writers is scarce and stories surrounding Afro-Latino experiences are also uncommon. On March 1st 2016, the towering presence of Eric Velasquez changed the social landscape of Teachers College at Columbia University. Velasquez, an Afro-Puerto Rican author and illustrator of children’s literature, highlights the need to further discuss Afro-Latino narratives. On the one hand, books revolving around black children often refer to African American or African narratives that leave out the experiences of black children who come from Latin America. On the other hand, Latino picture books tend not to use black characters or emphasize the African heritage in Latin America. Surprisingly, not only is Velasquez himself Afro-Puerto Rican but he also writes about Afro-Latino and African American narratives. I had the pleasure to speak to him after his fantastic presentation at Teachers College. He was humble, charismatic, constantly smiling and was authentically listening to others. Being around him emitted a sense of good-heartedness. I told him that I wish there were more Afro-Latino artists out there and he nodded in agreement. Velasquez signed the picture book Grandma’s Gift that I had brought with me, which said: ‘Remember to always share the gift!’
In Grandma’s Gift, Velasquez, narrates a story inspired by his experiences as a child with his grandmother. An Afro-Puerto Rican boy called Eric, like the author, is celebrating the Christmas holiday with his grandma by making pasteles, a Puerto Rican savory dish made of green banana, green plantain, and various root vegetables:
‘All the vendors knew that Grandma would buy only the best ingredients for her famous pasteles,’ said Eric.
Because the pasteles dish has many African influences, Velasquez hints at the intergenerational transmission of Afro-Caribbean traditions getting passed from his grandmother to him, the grandson. Another scene in the book, which underscores the importance of Black racial pride takes place when Grandma decides to take Eric to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the first time, Eric discovers that he can become an artist if he really wants to:
‘I quickly ran up and read the caption next to it. Grandma, it says Juan de Pareja was a slave and an assistant to the great painter Diego Velázquez. He later set Pareja free, and de Pareja became a great artists himself.’
What I find interesting about Velasquez’ writing style is the way in which he introduces topics involving issues of race, black culture and racism in child-friendly ways. Velasquez creates racial literacy for Latino students who may not be aware of racial hierarchies and the process racialization. According to Ladson Billings cultural relevant pedagogy is characterized as teaching that empowers students intellectually, emotionally, socially and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes. This teaching helps black students develop different ways of being black and Latino in a way that helps the students understand themselves and strive for academic excellence. Afro-Latino students must be taught how to identify and overcome micro-aggressions that are experienced daily and literature can play an important role in this process. Howard Stevenson also proposes that the goals of Racial literacy are the strategic deconstruction of racial information and knowledge, the building of healthy, cross-and-same racial relationships, the flexible reconstruction of racial identity, the willful, choosing of racial styles and self-expression, and the assertive countering of racial stereotypes.
Talks of race and racialization remain a taboo discussion topic in some Latino communities and remain, for the most part, silenced also in children’s literature. This type of silence harms society and prevents meaningful dialogues among members of communities in and outside schools. In this sense, Velasquez’ work is paving the way for new possibilities regarding black and Latino children’s literature. Black students in the United States are commonly referred to as simply African American without taking into account Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino students. I believe that Latino literature through Velasquez’ work is becoming more culturally responsive. We need as educators to get involved with Afro-Latino students, our history and the way we occupy space in the Americas in order to address this gap in education. Using Velasquez’ work in classrooms is a great resource for pushing the boundaries against narratives that simplify Latino and black identities.”
Other books by Velásquez that would support racial literacy include Grandma’s Records and My Friend Maya Loves to Dance. We would like to hear from those of you who have used literature in the classroom addressing the experiences of Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Latino children. Have you found powerful books with potential to support Racial literacy in classrooms?
Ada, F. (2003). A magical encounter: Latino children’s literature in the classroom (2nd. ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Ladson Billings, G., & Tate, W. (1995). Toward a criticial race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97, 47-68.
Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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