I could not evermore claim innocence after reading Mitali’s and Esme’s thoughts and reflections about Ethnic awards. These two women had the courage to start a conversation that others might run from. Furthermore, as they opened the forum, they inspired me to wish for a more perfect world.
I have added my thoughts to both their blogs as a response to their posting. And now I am adding them here, if only to remind myself that this conversation is valid and necessary.
Ethnic book awards: Discriminatory or Necessary?
I have received them, I have enjoyed them, I have them shine light to my work, and I have loved them.
I can only talk from my experience. I can’t claim to represent anybody else but me.
When I think about the questions that Mitali and Esme as well as other people have expressed about this awards, I don’t find myself with any answers but only more questions of my own. I confess I am partial to both sides of the equation. While I vote for inclusiveness rather than discrimination—no matter from what side—there is something I have experienced about the nature of these awards that eludes my reasoning and instead runs with my heart. Let me see if I can explain myself.
What I know from receiving these awards is that they are a celebration. People cheer, committees champion your work, put the word out, make you a party with music and all, invite everybody, give your book a medal to paste on the cover, and tell everybody to look, look, look! at your book
And so, if the function of an ethnic award like the Pura Belpre is to celebrate a writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth, why not then make the celebration broader and invite everybody to love the Latino culture and be eligible to win the award? After all , anyone who dedicates his or her time, talent, and efforts to create a great book about the Latino cultural experience, could only do it out of admiration and love for that culture, whether she or he is Latino or not. Or, is there any other reason to spend one’s precious time cranking a book about Latinos?
I understand that awards like the Pura Belpre and the Coretta Scott King award were born out of the need to encourage the work and shine light upon the otherwise obscured books of people from minorities at a time where authors and illustrators of color were everything but missing from awards like the Caldecott and the Newberry. Is it perhaps that the time has come to change things around? Have we reached the equilibrium we dream of? If not, I hope we will soon. My friend Rose tells me it is just a matter of time before love and lust erase the race lines completely. For now I find it interesting (and fortunate) that the Coretta as well as the Pura Belpre are being announced as part of the ALA crop of awards, because it is from this announcement that they receive their moment in the spotlight as well as their prestige. Were those awards to be announced in a different day or without the support of ALA, we might not be discussing them right now. Their impact upon readers would be different. And perhaps the audience looking for the result of such announcements would be different, even smaller in number.
To me the USA is a country of surprises. Anything unexpected can happen here. For instance, it was a surprise to me that here in the USA existed a book award that celebrated the efforts of people like me--multicolored skin, even Indian looking, heavy accent. I was surprised to know that all what I had believed to be against me in the past, was exactly what made me eligible. I must explain that I come from a beautiful and hardworking country that from colonial times and all the way to my parent’s generations, and more, had lived under the social unwritten code that claims that beauty comes in white skin, light hair and blue eyes, and that intelligence and reason does evade indigenous people, peasants, or anyone with dark skin. For generations we have been taught to give preference to others whiter than us. Breaking that mold has been the life work of many, many of my country people, but still there is much more to accomplish.
And yet, in my new learning, do I want people to lower the bar for me because of my history? Certainly not. I might have had a self-dubious start, but I am not without the capacity to amaze myself and others with what I do. If the ethnic awards were to disappear, or integrate, would I miss the celebration? Yes I would. Would there be other challenges to obtain? Certainly yes, because what I am is not Latina but a force.
But here is the other side. I have expressed in the past that I see the Pura Belpre Award as a regalo, a gift that is given to someone when you least expected it. At first the regalo goes to a book creator; an artist or a writer, and we receive the gift joyfully and gratefully. But after that, the gift is given to everybody. Once the award brings out the voice that there is a book worth of looking at, it is the readers who receive the gift next. In a way, the decision of the Pura Belpre committee to give an award to a person (an "ethnic" person for that matter) and not exactly to his or her book, has interesting consequences. You need to go to the schools to see it. You will understand it when you are propped in front of children—those of all possible colors, including brown, like me; who speak all kinds of languages, including Spanish like me; who perhaps struggle with their English, like I did; who feel like“tontos”, fools, unable to fit in the foreign culture, like once I did too. And then, in that moment when the teacher introduces you, and tells the audience that you have been the winner of this prestigious shiny golden medal stuck on the cover of your book, given here in the mythical United States to a person like YOU in recognition for the quality of your work, you can see it with your own eyes and your heart, that very moment when a child begins to dream that if you did it, he can do it too.