Hope and Tears on a Shelf by Michael M. Guevara
Perhaps this will sound a bit maudlin—on the verge of bathos—but it’s none the less true.
Standing in the middle of the library at an elementary school campus, I scanned the myriad choices offered by the Scholastic Book Fair. And there tucked between books about curious fishes and hippos that can’t swim, three little faces, the color of coffee with creamer, piqued my interest.
In that library, I stood reading, tuning out the cluster of fourth graders meandering about me oohing and ahhing over books about Legos and pencils that light up, and as I turned to read page 32 of Separate is Never Equal, tears began to congregate in the corners of my eyes as I read the first sentence: “In the new trial, the Mendez family received support from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Junior Congress, and other organizations.”
Half a century on this earth, and nothing in my formal education had ever addressed the prejudice Mexican Americans faced in this country. The M of my middle is for my mother’s maiden name Mendez, but I had never heard this story. I knew nothing of this court case. Sure, my mother told me stories about the town where she grew up and how they were punished in school if they spoke Spanish. She told me how they were not allowed to use the public swimming pool or go to movies at the theater. Of course it was real.
But I never learned it school. I never saw it on the pages of a book. We read one story in fourth or fifth grade that had a Hispanic boy in it named Miguel, my name in Spanish, but nothing like this, nothing where the plight of one family led to sweeping changes for children everywhere. People named King and Parks did those kinds of things, not anyone named Mendez.
Too many children still do not see themselves in the literature we read in school. Even in South Texas where I live and where we have a high percentage of Mexican-American children, students see limited representations of themselves in the books on the shelves in their classrooms and libraries. And they see few far too few titles penned by writers who share their heritage, their ethnicity.
And it’s not because they aren’t out there but because we are buying enough of them to put in front of kids’ eyes. Certainly no one means to overlook anyone, but we need intentionality in our choices. From the books we honor on our shelves to the titles we breathe life into by reading them aloud in our classes, we must intentionally provide diversity.
When I read page 32 of Separate is Never Equal, the line that brought tears to my eyes was not the most powerful line of the book, but it was the line that gave me hope, a kumbaya sense that we are all in this together. That all those organizations would come together in support of what is right reminds me why we must put these kinds of texts in front of readers because we really are all in this together.
Today I found hope on a shelf in a story where the characters shared my name and looked a little like me, and I hope to find that a little more often.
Michael M. Guevara is the English Language Arts and Reading Coordinator at Southside ISD in San Antonio, TX. He works with K-12 teachers. Between Netflix binging and reading, he spends his time chauffeuring a 15-year old around town and trying to convince his calves and arches he’s a runner.
Thank you for sharing this and reminding us all of the importance of finding books that reflect our students’ reality (as well as books that highlight contributions of marginalized groups). My rural Oregon school is 52% Latino, and we just got a library grant. Our principal said, “Let’s focus on books that reflect our kids–there’s nothing wrong with “diverse” books about the African American experience, but our students need to see themselves in the books.” It’s been great exploring for these titles.
AMEN! All our students need to see themselves in literature. Every culture has something to contribute to our red, white, and blue society.
I couldn’t have agreed more.
And when some of the children see themselves, the others get a chance to practice empathy and to see their fellow-students with new eyes.
We are fortunately that the Children’s Literature Association of Utah found this book. It is one of the nominees for the Beehive Award 2016. My junior high students have connected well with it.