In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), Maria E. Andreu, author of The Secret Side of Empty, shares with us her experiences growing up Hispanic in the United States and explains how we can celebrate diversity in young adult literature without ignoring a book’s larger, universal, themes.
I have a long and complicated relationship with being Hispanic. I have the deepest cred to claim it: Born to Hispanic parents in a Spanish-speaking country, I crossed the Mexican border undocumented at the age of eight. But I’ve also had the ability to go “stealth” all my life thanks to white skin and a carefully crafted “American” accent of the New York-area variety. The main thing people say when they hear me speak Spanish is, “Wow, but you don’t look Spanish.” They always mean it like a compliment, although it isn’t one.
My ability to defy a simple label has caused consternation on both sides of the cultural divide. People want ethnicity and culture to be as clear as the side of a cereal box, with neat percentages and a straightforward list of ingredients. Americans seem to want me to be their brand of Hispanic if I’m going to claim to be Hispanic at all. You know the kind. Even Hispanics are sometimes confused by me.
For many years, Hispanic was just something I was, like a brunette who sometimes went blond but always knew what color her roots grew in. I moved among the “Anglo” world, but my best friends were always Latin American. I ate plenty of takeout but never considered a holiday complete unless there were a batch of homemade empanadas on the table. Like many people of Hispanic ancestry, I was a mix of traditions and of turning away from traditions, finding many of them constraining but feeling the vacuum where the “new” world didn’t quite have a better solution.
And then I published a book. For me, it was the period at the end of a sentence I first began to write at the age of 12. That it was inspired by my own experiences as an undocumented immigrant was almost coincidental. I’ve started and dreamed up countless projects in the decades since I first hoped (but barely imagined) that I might be a writer. This one just happened to be the one that sold first.
But, soon, publishing a “diverse” book began to define me. It wasn’t always unwelcome. Just as my book came out, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign was launched and my book got a lot of love and attention. Schools started putting in on summer reading lists. Libraries started inviting me to come and speak and stocking it enthusiastically. But the “diverse book” label wasn’t always welcome either. It’s not that I didn’t want my book to be considered diverse—it is about undocumented immigration, a topic I believe desperately needs to be talked about with compassion and an eye on the human side of it—but that I didn’t want it to be only considered diverse. At its core, I’d like to think, it’s a book about the need to belong. Like I’ve seen in so many books I love, I worked to bring out the universal in the particular. Labeling my book, or any book, “diverse,” restricts it simply to its particularity.
It is currently Hispanic Heritage month. I note it but also view it with a somewhat jaundiced eye. “Hispanic” whispers itself to me every day, in the stories I tell my mother that sometimes need that word that can only be expressed in Spanish, or in the way I continually see my beloved United States afresh, always at least partly through the eyes of that 8-year-old kid who first got here after sneaking across the border. I could no more not be Hispanic than I could not be a human. I don’t need a month to remember it. And I’m not sure that, for the non-Hispanic, celebrating my “particularity” helps illuminate our universal, common experiences.
Books are bridges. So, sure, let’s celebrate books about the Hispanic experience or by Hispanic authors this month. But, more than that, let’s celebrate that, as people, we’ve learned to tell our stories and find what connects us no matter where we’re from. This month, read a book by a Hispanic author. And look for yourself in it.
Maria E. Andreu is the author of The Secret Side of Empty, a Junior Library Guild Selection and National Indie Excellence Award winning story about an undocumented Latina in the U.S. which Bookish included in its Must-Read YA for Spring 2014 list.