By Angela Valenzuela and Clarissa Riojas of University of Texas at Austin
Despite flash flood warnings, an unusual spate of rain and high winds in a drought-devastated Central Texas, about 45 dedicated community activists, librarians, historians, archivists, scholars, and local leaders gathered in Austin on September 20, 2013, to address the significance of these figures. The consensus was a mixture of concern, outrage, and a commitment to take action.
The timely publication of a Young Adult novel, Noldo and His Magical Scooter at the Battle of the Alamo and a visit by its author, Armando Rendón, sparked the event. Rendón is founder and editor of “Somos en Escrito Magazine”.
The entire experience was otherworldly in that Rendón’s visit coincided in space and time with a conversation that has been building in the Austin community regarding the systemic unavailability of books that are not only written by, but that also have content that is relevant to the history and experiences of Chicana/os and Latina/os. Merging these agendas found expression in this historic gathering of local leaders that further sought direction from one of our own, Oralia Garza de Cortés, who is a leading voice for children’s literature and library and literacy services for Latino children and families at local, state, and national levels.
This was truly a shared community effort that involved the following co-sponsors: the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (also referred to as “the MACC”), Austin Parks and Recreation, Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book, Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies; Benson Latin American Collection, the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Texas Center for Education Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, the National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project, Modesta and José Treviño, and El Corazón De Tejas, the Central Texas Chapter of REFORMA, an affiliate of the American Library Association. REFORMA is a national association to promote library and information services for Latinos and the Spanish speaking.
Serving as moderator, Dr. Angela Valenzuela from the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Center for Education Policy, opened the event with general commentary on how the dearth of children’s books with content that is important to Latino/as intersects so powerfully with other advocacy areas that are also germane to the needs and experiences of our communities, including literacy, our literary heritage, intellectual traditions, archives, cultural preservation, and the arts. She urged the audience to consider ways that they can become advocates.
Through his presentation, Rendón brilliantly and magically transported his eager audience to Noldo’s barrio in San Antonio, Texas’s West Side. The novel, set in the 1950’s, finds Noldo playing outdoors and witnessing sudden cloudbursts, lightning, and thunder that drenches the rutted street that is his playscape (caliche barrio). What follows next is Noldo’s own time travel story that transports him to 1836 to the Misión San Antonio de Valero, known today as “El Alamo,” where he befriends a young person his own age on the eve of this historic battle.
After reading several passages from his novel, Rendón shared with us his own evolution as an editor-turned-children’s book writer. He mentioned how he came to realize through his research, looking through library catalogues, and talking to people around the country just how dire the situation is with regard to Latina/o children’s books. “There isn’t much available for young adults—certainly Chicanos and Latinos. And certainly not adventure stories, something that kids might read and see themselves in there, their story. And I think that’s what you’re talking about, that when young people read a book, they’re reading about themselves. When they pick up Noldo, I hope that young people will realize that this is their story and not just mine.”
He mused about Noldo’s time travel and how his plans are to take him to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 where Noldo provides a personal, eye-witness account of the battle at Juárez from the safety of El Paso.
Oralia Garza de Cortés’ stirring presentation addressed a range of issues associated with the systemic lack of access to Latina/o children's literature and how best to advocate. She noted that “Publishers must bear the brunt of this responsibility, although they’re not the sole culprits. The publishing industry is like a giant ship in that it has many moving parts. There are literary agents, editors, reviewers, selectors, librarians, book sellers, and book buyers,” she asserted. “Everyone plays a critical role in promoting, reviewing, and purchasing these books that have been vetted by a combined team of professional librarians to select the best of the best. Without the published books, there can be no selection,” she said.
Oralia shared the shocking news that at this year’s Pura Belpré Award—one of three major awards given to Latino/a children’s book authors—the selection committee did not select books for special honors. “It was stunning to be in a room of 5,000 librarians and it’s like the Academy Awards when you’re in this room,” she said. “When they read the statement that said ‘no honor books for writers,’ there were gasps in the room.”
She explained how this rare occurrence was the result of not having enough books to select from and how this speaks volumes about the lack of literature from which to select, as well as one committee’s insistence on quality. She further situated this crisis in the context of a 50 million and growing school-age, Latino population, noting that the limited number of published books—less than 200—is a travesty. “Que verguenza!” she exclaimed.
What followed was a lively conversation on how to begin to change this with the multiple and varied strategies that can serve as guideposts for what many of us in Austin believe is an idea whose time has come.
Archivist, scholar, and activist Martha Cotera launched the conversation with the following observation: “I think one of the issues is that as a community, we fail to serve on city boards and commissions. And I think that the local REFORMA chapter should definitely ensure that there’s always a member on the library commission. I did my time. I’m a founder of REFORMA National and I did eight years on the Austin Public Library Commission. . In those eight years,we did extensive evaluations and surveys on service to Hispanics. There is much service one can do. So if you are not serving on a board or commission, you cannot blame anybody for bad service.”
Local labor leader and library activist, Teresa Perez-Wiseley, agreed that advocacy in small and large ways is a must. She shared that it should not be a difficult proposition getting these books into our children’s schools, but it is. Teresa suggested to the audience that to override the bureaucratic hurdles it is often best to simply purchase and donate Latina/o children’s books to our local school libraries.
An audience member raised an issue mentioned by Garza de Cortés that many of the children’s books for Latina/os that she came across actually had damaging content. She asked whether there is any organization that sends out a list that says, “Do not buy this because this is not a culturally sensitive book?” None appears to exist.
Another person situated this conversation in the context of the Austin Independent School District’s dual language programs saying, “All of our teachers are complaining that they still cannot find enough Spanish literature for our children.” She asked for direction not on just how to get more books in their hands, but ones with appropriate, “correctly translated” content. She underscored how a demand exists. “We just need to know how to get the books. Just as Teresa said, they’re looking at South America. They’re trying to get the books to the kids, but it’s hard.”
Some discussion centered on how to become a Latina/o children’s book writer. Both Rendón and Garza de Cortés referred to the important, if complex, negotiation of two language systems that capture well the discourses, identities, and histories of our communities but also work politically to elevate us in the eyes of publishers beyond our more typical designation as “regional minorities” for a “regional market.” This is an antiquated mentality that needs to get challenged.
Other issues that surfaced included a lack of Latina/o librarians or other committed individuals responsible for insuring that our library collections are sufficient, that is, the pipeline for careers in librarianship is fragile and should be strengthened.
Aside from Cotera’s and Perez-Wiseley’s commentaries on assuming leadership positions locally and advocating singlehandedly, respectively, both Texas historian Dr. Emilio Zamora and Martha Cotera suggested workshops or a Saturday school for our community that could be held at the MACC. It could be a site for professional development workshops, as well as organized events around different kinds of writing like history or poetry that brings writers and community to spaces like these to address larger issues related to writing and publishing.
The evening ended with a reception and book-signing event with multiple copies of Noldo finding their way into eager hands. The reception was rife with hope and expectation that we would reconvene soon to begin contemplating artist workshops, a Saturday school for Latina/o children, and a targeted strategy involving the City of Austin and Austin Public Libraries in order to begin to meet the demand that exists.
We conclude with Rendón’s apt commentary on the task that lies before us: “Writing for children is a political act. More people realize that in our community. Look at the powerful people in this room. It’s amazing. I feel like a kid, you know, imagining how we can get this movement growing into something even bigger.”
We feel like kids, too, Armando. You and Noldo are helping us to grasp our need to travel to the past in hopes for a brighter future. Gracias!
Clarissa Riojas, graduatingthis year from UT Austin with a B.A. in English Literature, Mexican American Studies, and a certification in Latino Education, Language, and Literacy under the Bridging Disciplines Program, is an intern with Dr. Valenzuela in the Texas Center for Education Policy.