Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Danger of a White Story

I was born in 1980 in Lake Forest, Illinois to wonderful parents. My dad is Irish and Welsh and my mom is Guatemalan. Growing up, I spent time with both sides of my family, spoke in English and Spanish, painted with my Gramma and played cards with my Mamita. I loved both sides of my family and they loved me.

But the town I grew up in didn’t reflect me or my family as a whole.

I grew up in a town where the population was 98.6% white. People around me lived in mansions, drove shiny, new cars, and wore expensive clothes but I didn’t. Books were the one place where I felt like enough. I could walk into the library and check out as many books as I wanted and they were the same books the other kids were reading. The library leveled the playing field for me. At the same time, It was years and years before the We Need Diverse Books campaign so I read books by Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Roald Dahl. I didn’t see my Latinx heritage represented in books I read.

I talked about my story and how books saved me on the Wild Cozy Truth podcast with Renee Powers this week. I'm so thankful for all the books I had access to growing up. But even though connecting with books helped me to become who I am today, they still contributed to a fractured identity for me.

This is the danger of a white story.

I hope by now everyone has seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story. If you haven't, please go watch it. I've blogged about it before and how we have to be conscious of how harmful it can be to assume things. Chimamanda points out that it’s too easy to assume things about a large group of people from just one experience or story with one person.

I grew up with a white story all around me. In the community I lived in, in the books I read, in the media I consumed. It’s not shock that I ended up not identifying with my Latina side. It wasn’t until We Need Diverse Books that I started to unravel years and years of being ashamed of being Latina. I spent a month blogging about this very topic. It was a really hard month as I faced things I wasn’t proud of and forced myself to be introspective.

There’s a danger in a white story.

I’m not alone. I’ve heard of students who deny their Latinx identity and attempt to disassociate with their ethnicity. I’ve had a student tell me she wished she had a white girl’s name like mine. I’ve seen my own son raise his hands in excitement that his skin is lighter than his brother’s when we talked about the injustices people might face because of their skin color.

This danger of a white story is why we need to continue to work for diversity in books and other media. We have come along way since the 80’s when I grew up but we still have work to do.

Chad Everett wrote a piece called There Is No Diverse Book where he talks about how we have to examine our use of the word "diverse". He points out that no one book can be diverse. The very definition of diversity implies that there have to be a variety in a range of different things. One book might have a diverse cast of characters. A group of books might represent people from different ethnicities. But the word diverse does not mean non-white.

Chad shares how readers can move along a continuum in terms of what they read. He cites Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishops’ work on the importance of access to books that are Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding glass doors (I mention her work in the podcast but failed to cite her and I apologize for this.). He also points out that while a reader can move along the continuum, it’s important to read widely on those points on the continuum. Reading one book with characters of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc., is not enough. That’s the danger of a single story.

Chad also explains, "The word diverse as it is currently used centers heteronormative whiteness as the default." There are a lot of reasons for why whiteness is the default that I don’t have to outline here. It’s imperative that we - as readers, educators, parents, humans - reflect on what we consider the default as we grow the representation of diversity in books and in the books we share with others.

It’s the danger of a white story.

I know all too well what it feels like to live in a white story, to exist thinking that white is the norm. I still struggle with not feeling like enough. I wonder why I’m not included. I question whether my voice matters. And not only that, I find myself dealing with these thoughts in different spaces. I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere.

We have to stop defaulting to white as the norm. Each reader deserves to see themselves in the books they read and they deserve the opportunity to read widely beyond themselves.

In this video interview with Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop, specifically when she talks about cultural authenticity, she shares ideas for how to look critically at texts we read and share. I urge you to take some time to think about the books you are reading and other media you are consuming and look for diversity in the range of texts you read.

Be aware of the danger of a white story. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Using My Voice: Standing Up and Speaking Out Even When It's Hard

Since April 2014, when the We Need Diverse Books campaign became a thing, I’ve paid attention more and more to representations of diversity of all kinds in books and other media. It might sound strange, but I didn’t realize how much I was missing diversity in what I was reading and watching on tv and in movies until then. All of a sudden, I saw everything in color instead of grayscale.

It wasn’t until I went to a session on "Finding Diverse Lit for Diverse YA Readers" in support of the We Need Diverse Books campaign led by Cindy Minnich and Sarah Anderson at Nerdcamp in July of 2014 that I realized how much I needed WNDB myself. I wrote about the experience here, how I felt physically ill because I wasn’t sure how the conversation was going to go and how overwhelmed I was to be in a room of people who understood.

To be honest, the We Need Diverse Books campaign helped me look more closely at my own identity. I spent March of 2015 blogging everyday and realizing how important it is for me to tell my story. If you’re interested in reading about my exploration of my identity, this post links to all my posts from that month.  

Since then, I’ve used my voice more and more to speak out about the importance of diversity in books and other media and about the importance of having discussions about race and culture. I’m still getting used to this voice of mine, still learning to trusting it and strengthening my message.

I put it to the test recently when I spoke out against something very important to me. I wish I could be more specific but at this point, I’m choosing not to call attention to the issue and instead, share what it felt like to use my voice.

I went through a range of emotions and as I processed the whole situation, I found that Tracy Chapman’s self-titled album (that I loved back in the 90's) helped me understand what I was feeling. In listening to Tracy’s lyrics, I didn’t feel so alone and I found strength to persevere.

Speaking out and asking people to look more closely at themselves and to reflect on their cultural competence was hard. It meant taking a risk. Being vulnerable. Facing the unknown. But I did it anyway. Here’s a glimpse of what I felt.

Talkin' Bout a Revolution

Don't you know
They're talkin' 'bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs

When I found out about the situation that was happening, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized I needed to speak out. It was time for me to say something. The strength to speak out started to grow.

Fast Car

You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way

I had options. I could let it go and not express my opinion. That would be easiest. Running away was an option too. I could just move. That would be hard to do but it sounded great, just leave everything behind and forget the people who couldn’t see my point. But at the same time, I knew it was time to use my voice. Because if I didn't at least try, of course nothing would change.

Across the Lines

Across the lines
Who would dare to go
Under the bridge
Over the tracks
That separates whites from blacks
Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

I made a choice. I decided to stand up. I wasn’t sure if anyone else was speaking up, sharing their voice, their perspective but I was going to and I was ready. I felt too strongly to not say anything, ignoring it wasn't an option, and running away from the problem wasn't going to work either.

This is where it became real though. I wasn’t sure what the consequences of standing up and speaking out would be. I could imagine, and I did imagine, all sorts of scenarios. It was scary. But I was determined to do it anyway.

Behind the Wall

Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won't do no good to call
The police always come late
If they come at all

The reality: No one heard me. No one understood my point. No one saw my perspective. Or if they did, no one came to my side. No one stood by me. I was in it alone.

Baby Can I Hold You

But you can say baby
Baby can I hold you tonight
Maybe if I told you the right words
At the right time you'd be mine

It was hard to keep going when I felt alone and invisible. I hoped for someone to see me so I would feel real again. Anyone. And then there was someone who saw me. Another person was also appalled by the situation. Just when it felt like I didn’t exist, one person saw me. And if one person could see me, it was enough to keep going.

Mountains o' Things

Oh they tell me
There's still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all
Renounce all those material things you gained by
Exploiting other human beings

I thought of all the things I would give up. All the things I thought were important. I wouldn’t worry about anything else if they could just see how seriously problematic this one thing was.

Nothing else mattered.

She's Got Her Ticket

She's got her ticket
I think she gonna use it
I think she going to fly away
No one should try and stop her
Persuade her with their power
She says that her mind is made up
Why not leave why not
Go away
Too much hatred
Corruption and greed
Give your life
And invariably they leave you with

I was willing to give up so much but still, no one was listening, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was done. Spent. Exhausted. Emotionally hollow. I needed a break. I shut down, closed myself off, slept.


Love is hate
War is peace
No is yes
And we're all free

When I woke up, I was mad. None of it made sense. How could people pretend to care about some things when they didn’t about this? Everyone was a hypocrite. Every smile fake. Every promise empty. I lost trust in a lot of people.

For My Lover

And everybody thinks
That I'm the fool
But they don't get
Any love from you
The things we won't do for love
I'd climb a mountain if I had to
And risk my life so I could have you
You, you, you...

I wish I didn't, but I still cared. Was I overreacting? Making a mountain out of a molehill? No one understood. I was weary and not sure who to trust but I was determined to keep going, knowing that I needed to advocate for what I felt was right.

If Not Now...

If not now then when
If now today then
Why make your promises
A love declared for days to come
Is as good as none

Somehow, I felt hope. I had been through so many emotions and even after it all, I believed change had to happen. I tried again. My resolve was deeper than ever and I was steadfast. I could stay the course.

For You

There're no words to say
No words to convey
This feeling inside I have for you
Deep in my heart
Save from the guards
Of intellect and reason
Leaving me at a loss
For words to express my feelings
Deep in my heart
Look at me losing control
Thinking I had a hold
But with feelings this strong
I'm no longer the master
Of my emotions

Just when I thought I had felt every emotion possible...I got to the point where someone else saw me. My heart was buoyed up by their belief. After all this time, someone saw me and my perspective. My emotions were all over the place. It was a sense of gratitude and knowing that it was worth it because I was able to encourage one person to think more carefully about how serious the situation was.

But at the same time I put so much energy into making a difference and I didn’t feel like I had gotten very far. In some ways, I felt like a ghost. As much as I tried to get people to see me and pleaded for them to listen, so many didn’t. Now I’m at the point where I have to decide if I keep trying. Do I keep looking for others who can see me? Or since my voice has been stifled and silenced time and time again, do I give up? Is it worth it to go on?


Standing up and speaking out was not easy. It was scary and isolating.

It’s emotionally draining to want to impact change so badly and not be able to make it happen. I’ve realized that I have to expand my timeline, reassess the steps it's going to take, and figure out how to reinvigorate my belief that change can happen. Even though I want to move mountains, I have to accept that sometimes a teeny shift in the right direction is all I’m going to get.

If this had happened back in 2014 before I had started to unpack my own identity and to look critically at how people are represented in books and the media around me, I’m not sure I would have felt the need to speak up. I hope I would have taken issue with the situation but I can’t say for certain that I would have seen how important it was to bring attention to it as I did.

I’m thankful for experiences that have helped me look more critically at books and media and for people who have helped me find my voice. I hope that by sharing my story others will look more closely at their lives and find their voice to speak out and stand up when they have the chance. I can’t promise it will be easy but I do know it will be worth it.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

JOIN: Celebrating NCTE 2017

Every Saturday, join me as I CELEBRATE This Week 
with Ruth Ayres from Discover. Play. Build.

I'm so grateful for the NCTE annual convention every year because I get to connect with friends who feel like family. It's an opportunity to learn from people who push my thinking and to rejuvenate. I have so many ideas after NCTE that I'm excited to make happen. 

Here's a recap of all the wonderful people I connected with. By the end of the conference, I left knowing that I carry their hearts with me and that's pretty amazing.

 Katie Muhtaris!

 Michelle Hasseltine!

 Jennifer Sniadecki and Jeff Anderson!

 Lynda Mullaly Hunt!

 Gae Polisner!

 Melissa Stewart!

 Roshani Chokshi!

 Jess Keating!

Margaret Simon!

 Kellee Moye!

 Franki Sibberson!

Colby Sharp!


 Shawna Coppola!

Chris Lehman!

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Matt De La Peña!

Stella Villalba

Leah Henderson!

Gregory Taylor!
Chad Everett!

Alyson Beecher!

Of course, even though I took all these pictures....there were still others who I didn't take pictures with who also impacted me like Pernille Ripp, Donalyn Miller, Katherine Hale, Jessica Lifshitz, Kristin McIlhagga, John Scovill, Brian Wyzlic, Katherine Sokolowski, Travis Crowder, Ruth Ayres, to name a few. 

NCTE, thank you! You rock! I can't wait until next year. I'm already counting down the days. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WATCH: Are Latino Men Naturally Machista - The Kat Call

Earlier this year I watched 13th with my husband. It's a remarkable documentary that clearly shows how the 13th amendment abolished slavery but how institutional racism continued and is still pervasive in our country today. It opened my eyes because I never realized how specific decisions have contributed to what black people experience in the United States today. 

Then I discovered this video after following Mitú on Facebook. They have a segment called The Kat Call where a woman named Kat calls people out on what they're thinking or how they're acting. This particular video was called "Are Latino men naturally machista?" and it really made me think about the stereotype that has been created around Latino men. 

I've been thinking more and more about stereotypes, where they come from, and why they continue. Personally, this is why I share my story, to add my perspective to the narrative, and to give others a book to read that hopefully open their eyes a bit. When I read, I get to walk around in someone else's shoes and to me, it's the best way to understand others better. 

Watch and think about any biases you might have or you might have had at one point. What contributes or contributed to your thoughts? How do your biases change or how have your biases changed over time? Does this video add to your thoughts on how Latino men are portrayed in the media? Can you recognize any other stereotypes or biases that this makes you more aware of? How might your own writing break down biases or stereotypes? 

We each have a unique story to tell and in my opinion, the more voices we add to the mix, the better.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

JOIN: Celebrating Playlist Power

Every Saturday, join me as I CELEBRATE This Week 
with Ruth Ayres from Discover. Play. Build.

This weekend I'm celebrating how helpful a playlist can be! I started collecting songs related to an idea I had for a novel early in 2015. I finally wrote the first draft of that novel this summer, over two years later. I still find songs I want to add to playlists I create and I find myself listening to the songs as I'm writing. 

The playlist for the novel I'm currently revising - or rewriting to be honest - really helped me think through what changes I'd like to make as I rewrite. It also helped me remember what I initially thought this book was going to be about. It's mostly still what I thought it would be but I'm learning about first drafts and about all the next drafts as I think about what I thought I was going to write, versus what I did write, and what I plan to make the writing into now. Sometimes things just go where they go...but now that I've written something, I can go back and makes changes to it. 

It's kind of like working towards the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. Every lick gets you closer until you finally get to that chewy goodness in the middle. Every draft gets me closer to what the story is meant to be. 
This week I'm celebrating how helpful my playlist was as I'm starting on this new revision. I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year but I have a few friends who are! If you're reading, keep going! And if you aren't doing NaNo, I still wish you happy writing!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

JOIN: Celebrating Truth In Writing

Every Saturday, join me as I CELEBRATE This Week 
with Ruth Ayres from Discover. Play. Build.

Somehow in the last week or two, I discovered the Chicago Humanities Festival and that two authors I admire, Erika Sánchez and Jason Reynolds, would be speaking on the same day. I convinced a teacher friend to go with me and we had an amazing time. Both of these writers are remarkable and it was an honor to hear from them.

They are more than writers, they are activists. Their words make a difference. 

I took lots of notes but a few stand out to me. Erika said, "You have permission to write what you want to write." I love that! Sometimes I need permission to write my stories. Even when I know I have to write my's still important to know that it's not just okay, it's important. She also talked about stories people think or believe about other people and how we can prove the narrative wrong. 

Jason Reynolds brought me to tears. I heard him speak on a panel at NCTE last year in Atlanta. His words resonated with me and were just as impactful this afternoon. He commented that, "Real recognizes real." And he explained that he rights reality for young adults because they need it. Too many young people don't see themselves in books and stories or have adults who care and see them. He said, "We don't talk about anger in a real way in this country." How right is that? Too many people would rather pretend anger - or any other emotion - doesn't exist. They'd rather sweep it under the rug or pretend it's not happening instead of just talking about it. But kids need people who will be real with them and talk about the good and the bad of life. I'm so glad we have his books and that they can help adults and kids have conversations. 

Finally, Jason talked about writing. He gave some advice to a young woman who stood up and asked about writing. He said, "You know what makes writing special? The difficulty. Easy or hard, all that matters is are you gonna do it or not?" Yes! Writing is hard...but as much as I complain about it, I love it and I'm doing it. 

What are you writing? What are you celebrating? I'd love to hear about it!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

JOIN: Celebrating Our First MDA Walk

Every Saturday, join me as I CELEBRATE This Week 
with Ruth Ayres from Discover. Play. Build.

This weekend I'm celebrating because we participate in our first Muscular Dystrophy Association event! My husband was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy in 2011 and even though his grandmother also has it, it was a shock to him and to us. 

He thought his life was going to significantly change and he wondered what it meant for him but he's lucky to still have a lot of use of his muscles. A few months ago he announced that he wanted to participate in the MDA race this weekend, he told his story, and he started collecting donations. We are lucky to have an amazing support system and he raised over $2000. Not just that, look at all of our friends and family who came out to support and walk with us today! It felt really great. 
This shows the power of telling a story. For a long time, Chad didn't want to tell his story. He didn't want people to know he was dealing with this disease or to think of him differently because of it. But by telling his story, he felt more empowered, he inspired others, and he raised awareness. And in participating in the event today, he connected with others who have Muscular Dystrophy. I'm so proud of him and happy to be on this journey with him!