Earlier this week the New York Times ran an article citing the Pew Hispanic Center study that says Latino children make up a quarter of students enrolled in public schools around the country. Yet they do not have nearly enough books available with Latino main characters. Education experts believe this is an obstacle for young readers who are trying to understand story elements and characters. Yes, this is a big problem for young Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the population. But it’s nothing new.
Until a couple of decades ago, African-American school children had few books with main characters who were black, and when they did, the characters were stereotypical, just like the Latino stereotypical books full of migrant workers, tortillas and piñatas.
NOT ONLY A CHILDREN’S BOOK ISSUE
The lack of richly drawn, complex ethnic characters is not only affecting books for children; the problem is all across the board in fiction. Before African-American writing went mainstream after The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize, books by African-American writers were mostly about tough times, rebellion and doing time—I’m thinking of books like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, and Nigger by Dick Gregory. In the 1990s, Latino fiction enjoyed something of an awakening.
Books by and about Latinos began to appear and do well, but they had to have magical qualities and soulful writing. They also had to be about assimilating into U.S. culture or making it out of the ghetto—think Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Ernesto Quiñones’ Bodega Dreams, and How the Garcia Sisters Lost their Accent by Julia Alvarez. Just look at how the titles have “Garcia” and “Dreams” in common. Latino fiction won a broader audience only when it was about escaping the “Latino condition.”
Read Related: Improving Latino Children’s Literacy
For any minority, the problem of not being well represented in trade fiction is systemic. The minorities we’re talking about are not represented in the publishing industry either. Literary agencies and the big publishing houses have very, and I mean very few Latino agents and editors working for them. The Association of Writers Representatives does not have a single Latino name in its roster. Literary agents are the gateway to mainstream New York publishing. What this means is that books that might have Latino or other ethnic characters could get rejected if they don’t fit the parameters of most Latino fiction that has already been published. This is because Anglo agents and editors just don’t get it, and are unwilling to risk publishing works that might present something other than an “escape from the barrio” plotline.
SMALL PRESSES SUPPORTING LATINO VOICES
But there are a few small presses, like Arte Publico Press in Houston and Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, which are not just open to Latino writers and books about Latinos, but focus almost exclusively on Latino fiction. Arte Publico even has its own children’s and young adult imprint: Piñata Books. Cinco Puntos publishes a number of children’s and young adult books every year. Both publishing houses have been doing this for decades.
It’s easy to see why the big publishing conglomerates in New York are struggling to stay in business. Latinos have been a rising demographic in this country for the last two decades, and publishers still don’t see the value in publishing books by and of Latinos. Some publishers say they want books about Latino life, but they’re looking for their version of Latino life, which seldom fits with the reality of Latino life in the Americas. Besides, do we really need the same old story about coming to America for a better life or struggling to get out of the ghetto? Latinos are so much more than that. And publishers who ignore them do so at the risk of their own livelihood.