Shortly after I started reading e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce (WWWF), whose release has been postponed due the incredible and critical work of Edith Campbell, Jennifer Baker, K.T. Horning, and Zetta Elliott, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police. I already had a difficult time getting through the novel in verse simply because the language was difficult to follow. At first I thought it was me. I was with it on page one and then something happened on page two. I couldn’t follow the text anymore. I wasn’t sure what was being said and I had to go back to re-read the text several times. I found myself needing to translate the made up vernacular in my head in order to keep reading. I was rewriting as I was reading. Now, I don’t pretend to be than expert in all things cool and hip. I usually need my 16 year-old-sister to explain current slang terms to me. The youth I work with usually tease me because the slang I do use is “old school.” However, I don’t live under a rock and therefore know that the language in WWWF is not how black youth talk. I kept reading and I kept finding more issues with the story. I didn’t like that Ricky-Ricky, a black youth with an unspecified mental illness, is disposable. His death (which happens right away) is used as a catalyst to start Theodore’s, or “T,” own exploration of his manhood. Eventually, T’s own sexism and misogyny got to be too much for me. Despite almost having been stabbed to death, T still finds time to oversexualize the nurse between getting interrogated by the police and getting scolded by his mother. While the narrative is centered on the gang violence in the community there are various forms of violence all over the place—like, there really doesn’t seem to be a safe space anywhere. Youth are getting beat by their parents, mothers are overworked, fathers are absent, young women are pregnant and/or oversexualized. It was really too much. After learning about the deaths of Sterling and Castile I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading. I needed a minute.
My own research on Latinx children’s and young adult literature focuses on the ways the genre can be used as a tool for healing in the lives of Latinx readers. As a teaching artist, I use Latinx kid lit in K-12 spaces to encourage my students to use their personal experiences as a platform to find their voice and create new worlds. As a college professor, I utilize Latinx Kid Lit to complicate existing understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. Basically, I genuinely believe that Latinx kid lit can improve the lives of Latinx readers because this genre has the potential to challenge existing oppressive knowledges. That is, if society says Latinxs are “others” then Latinx kid lit can demonstrate the opposite. However, the genre’s potential to transform the world around us and dismantle oppressions in our communities can’t be possible if we don’t ask more from the publishing industry and from our Latinx authors. When We Was Fierce is an example of what not to do. In 2016 alone over 100 black lives have been lost at the hands of police. A young adult book that centers black lives written by a Latinx author could have been an extraordinary opportunity to discuss black and brown issues, ally-ship and solidarity, blackness in our communities, and police brutality at large. Instead, there’s a book I couldn’t possibly give to any youth for fear that it would do more harm than good. The story exploits too many stereotypes about black communities and “at-risk” youth that, in my mind, only served to reinforce how deep anti-blackness runs in Latinx communities.
Certainly, there’s a great need for diverse stories in children’s literature but diversity can’t exist for diversity’s sake and Latinx authors definitely can’t ride on the coat tails of “diversity” in order to branch out. Who can write what and whether one can write outside one’s own culture are complicated conversations. What is clear though is that too many white authors benefit from writing about diverse experiences while diverse authors continue to struggle to get published in the first place. It is also widely known that as far as the dominant American narrative goes there are many stories that demean, stereotype, marginalize, or completely erase people of color and native people. Hence, the need for diverse stories. I’m not entirely saying that one cannot write outside their own culture. Matt de la Peña wrote a beautiful story that centered a black boy and his grandmother in The Last Stop on Market Street and went on to win a Newbery. Ashley Hope Perez’s historical fiction novel Out of Darkness, based on the New London school explosion in Texas, has also won multiple awards. Diverse stories outside of our own experiences can be done well if one takes the time to learn and respect the culture. However, when authors attempt to write about another’s culture and fail miserably they need to be called out. Charlton-Trujillo is a self-identified white-Mexican, which as far as I’m concerned means that WWWF is a conversation that needs to be had in Latinx kid lit circles. Honestly, we can’t claim de la Peña’s win for Latinx kid lit and shy away when another one of ours writes a story that ended up being real anti-black, despite her good intention. We can’t celebrate diversity when a Latinx author wins a coveted award for a story that centers a culture outside of his own and not say peep about a novel that unfortunately further marginalizes black youth. I kept reading WWWF and just didn’t get it. Some of T’s struggles definitely resonates with some of the struggles the youth I’ve worked with deal with on a daily basis. Gang violence is insidious and can dominate a lot of aspects of a youth’s life. But at some point, maybe immediately, in WWWF this realness got lost and replaced by an unfortunate consumption and nasty regurgitation of black pain. I couldn’t finish the story. I was too afraid to read about any more black people dying.
What then does WWWF and current conversations on the need for diverse stories mean for the future of Latinx Kid Lit? My hope is that this novel in verse can serve as an opportunity to have this conversation. It is just as important to encourage our Latinx authors in their writing as much as it important that we hold them accountable for the stories they present to us. And maybe I’m asking for too much. I’m not a published Latinx kid lit author (while I certainly have those aspirations) so I’m not too familiar with what happens behind the scenes of the publishing industry. But I am a Latinx kid lit scholar and I’ve researched and read enough books in the genre to know that yes, we need more of them and different types of them, but that it’s also time to have critical conversations about anti-blackness in our communities and about the ways it manifest itself in our kids’ books. There are certainly not enough Latinx kid lit books that center Afro-Latinx experiences. Off the top of my head, I can list more books with white-Latinx or light-skinned Latinx and their tears at not being able to fit in with their Latinx communities than I can name books that positively represent Afro-Latinx youth. It is also important that those of us who review Latinx kid lit be critical and point out books that can potentially do more harm than good. I know I need to be better about doing this. It has been easier to write reviews on books I love than to critique books that make me side-eye too often. Even though the release date of WWWF has been postponed, and maybe a lot of us don’t even have access to the book, it is still imperative to engage in conversations this novel has spurred. Again, WWWF can be an opportunity to create significant dialogues about what diversity means for Latinx kid lit, how anti-blackness in our communities impacts whose stories get told, and how we can hold each other accountable.
Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. She is a contributing writer for Latinx in Kid Lit. She is working on her first middle grade novel. Follow Sonia on Twitter, @mariposachula8.