Colorín Colorado…: How do you know when Latino children’s books are culturally authentic?

| April 5, 2012

Back while I was teaching, a book titled Skippyjon Jones circulated our classroom.  One of my fifth graders, in realizing that so many students wanted to read the book, asked me to read it to the class as a read aloud.  Wanting to support my students’ literary choices, I opened the book excited that my kids were taking the initiative.  As I read however, my excitement dwindled.  Perhaps it was my previous knowledge of ethnic studies or the fact that I am Mexican American, but something about this book just felt wrong.

This cat turned wanna-be-chihuahua reminded me of the Taco Bell commercials so many people found offensive years ago.  (Don’t even mention the strange use of Spanish in the current commercial….  Live Mas?  ….Who says that?).  It felt strange to see stereotypical objects like beans, slow speaking dogs with accents, pinatas, and siestas used as a center piece for Skippyjon’s journey.  Upon completing the book, one of my kids declared, “Mrs. G. That book’s hella racist!” Indeed, I thought to myself as others in the class called back stating that they disagreed.  Unsure of how to approach the conversation, I let my kids voice their opinions, providing my own tempered opinion and together we tried to make sense of what we had just heard.

Knowing how to find culturally appropriate literature, especially for a class like mine which was mostly Latino is no easy task.  Not only do most libraries have few books with culturally respectful Latino themes, but many educators don’t even know that they exist.  What’s more, some educators trust that textbook publishers, especially our English Language Arts textbooks, have carefully chosen multicultural literature.  Think again.  In reality we are left to judge cultural authenticity for ourselves.

Jaime Campbell Naidoo’s book Celebrating cuentos promoting Latino children’s literature and literacy in classrooms and libraries (which we have electronically at TC) and in hard copy Z718.2.U6 C46 2011 in the second floor loft, provides a great checklist for evaluating a Latino children’s book.  Skippyjon does not make the cut.

Some of the major takeaways from this list are:

1) Are the characters developed?  Have feelings? Are complex?

2) Are Latinos portrayed in helpless ways? Does someone other than a Latino come to their rescue?

3) Does the book contain cultural stereotypes?

4) Is the Spanish language used accurately? “Arriba, arriba” and “ay ya yay” is not what we’re talking about here.

5) Are Latinos portrayed as diverse in physical appearance and personality?

6) Are the relationships based off of love and respect?

This list is only the beginning.

It is my hope that the “Colorin Colorado” posts I add to our library blog will provide lists of Latino authors and their books to interested readers.  Many books listed are held here at TC.  If you run into a book that we don’t have, please feel free to place a request and we’ll purchase the book for the library.  The link to request books can be found on the left hand side of the library home page under “Library Services.”

A note about what “Colorin Colorado” means: When I was younger my mother, upon completing a book would always say the following traditional saying found in Latino culture, “Colorin Colorado, este cuento se ha hacabado”/ “Colorin Colorado, this story has ended” (It sounds better in Spanish, trust me).  After doing a search for what “Colorin Colorado” means, I wasn’t able to find an explanation, but if you figure it out, please let me know :)