September 21

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Celebrating, Not Hiding by Emma Otheguy

I loved my third-grade classroom. I loved having my own cubby, and I thought it was a good coincidence that the top of my desk was the same color as oak tag, my favorite craft supply. There was a paper whale that wrapped around the walls, and there were class parties complete with brownies, cupcakes, and soda every holiday.

It should be a perfect memory: I’m incredibly lucky to have had this classroom, to have gone to a school with caring teachers and abundant craft supplies. But these memories are always marred by what I know was hidden at the back of that folding table: pushed behind the furthest cupcake platter, behind the two-liter bottles of soda, there was always a sad pat of Philadelphia cream cheese and a round of Goya guayaba paste on a paper plate. I know they were there because that’s where I always hid them.

The guayaba and cream cheese were my mom’s contribution to our classroom parties, because she couldn’t imagine a kid who wouldn’t want sticky, sweet, bright-red guayaba paste with smooth white cheese (and also, because she had neither time nor interest for baking). My mom’s confusion was understandable, because my sister and I ate guayaba by the roundful at home. But there were things my mom never understood about our school: she always thought that (given enough sugar) we could teach the other kids, draw them into our culture and our family. It was hard for me to confess to my mom that some of my classmates shouted “Communist!” whenever I tried to tell them about our Cuban family, and that it was easier to hide the guayaba. My playground-variety struggles always seemed so small compared to the hardship my parents had been through, and coming as I did from a culture and a family known for big smiles and great dancers, my own social ineptitude always seemed ridiculous. So I hid the guayaba, and never told my parents or my teachers.

My school didn’t celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. It was a lovely dream of a school, but it didn’t have a way to bring the guayaba con queso to the forefront, out from behind the two-liter bottles of soda. I hope Hispanic Heritage Month can do that for schools this year, because children who are different, especially children of immigrants and children of color, spend too much of their time learning to blend into white culture, and not enough time sharing their own. By the end of the third grade, I knew what my white classmates had in their lunchboxes, I knew the rules of their bedtimes and their playdates and how to translate those two cultural constructs for my parents. I knew how they talked and how they dressed—but none of my classmates knew what guayaba was. No one created the time or the space for that learning.

Today, a quarter of the child population in the United States is Latinx. We have so much to gain by bringing these children’s stories to the forefront, by celebrating rather than hiding them. Yet we are living in a moment when young Latinx are being told to retreat into the shadows. I know the old excuses, about how white parents won’t be interested or about preparing for the real world: I’ve heard all the coded racism that’s imposed on young Latinx. In response I’d like to offer the radical solidarity of José Martí. He wrote:

Yo vengo de todas partes,

Y hacia todas partes voy:

Arte soy entre las artes,

En los montes, monte soy.

I come from every place,

And I’m on the road to everywhere:

I am art amid the arts,

And in the mountain chain, a link.

Like so many children today, Martí was from every place and on the road to everywhere. His story tells us that the divisions we draw between Latin America and the United States are imagined: José Martí is a Cuban hero, but much of his best-known work was accomplished in the United States. In New York City, he helped organize Cuban independence, and in Tampa he collaborated with factory workers. In the Catskill Mountains, he wrote his most famous work of poetry, Versos sencillos. Hispanic Heritage is not only for some—it is integral to the story of the United States.

Martí’s life highlights the deep roots Latinx have in this country, and the history of overcoming slavery and colonialism that the United States shares with the nations of Latin America. When children read about José Martí protesting injustice through his writing, they learn something that is deeply true about democracy in this country and in every country: democracy rests on the bringing forward of what is true, the refusal to let what is important languish in silence, and the collaboration and cooperation of diverse peoples.

We as book people—authors, librarians, and teachers—are one community, links on a chain that bring books to readers. The extent to which we can share truth and bring knowledge to the forefront is the extent to which democratic values can be protected for the next generation. This Hispanic Heritage month, I hope we will all stand in solidarity with the Latinx children in our country, and invite their stories forward.

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. Her debut picture book, Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad, is a bilingual picture book biography of Cuban poet and national hero José Martí for kids ages 7-12. It was released in July 2017 from Lee & Low Books and has received five starred reviews. Visit Emma online and download a MARTÍ activity guide at http://www.emmaotheguy.com.