by C.T. D’Alessandro
Representation matters. Seeing yourself reflected in the stories you consume can change the quality of your life and the way you interact with the world. When you find yourself in a novel or story, it reminds you that you exist and that you and your community are not just a construct operating beneath the surface of legitimacy.
I never realized the importance of representation until I began working in public schools and had to select young adult literature for students to read.
Despite having discovered Latin American Literature, despite having been exposed to the classics of Western Literature, it didn’t come together for me until I examined my feelings about the novel Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I was a tenth grade Reading teacher and had just received a literature circle set of the lovely, sky blue books from a Just Read!Florida grant, among other novels, because at the time, I was focusing on the pedagogy of getting struggling readers to read.
I read that novel and I became breathless with something I’d never experienced before.
Now, my mother and her family had emigrated from Puerto Rico to Jersey City, NJ in the 1960’s where I was eventually born and had only ever set foot on the island of Puerto Rico one time as an adult. I was born and raised in the USA. And yet I understood the alienation of being other, both within the Puerto Rican community because I was US born and outside, in the wider culture because my appearance and last name was enough to brand me not quite American. So the last thing I ever expected was that anyone would write anything that remotely reminded me of myself.
What does this have to do with Esperanza Rising?
My mother passed when I was 14. My grandmother, who was a saint, took on the challenge of raising me and my brother after that tragedy scarred our family. She lived in Florida, where I had only ever visited during the summers and it became my home. My grandfather was a migrant farm worker and followed the crops around the United States while my abuela stayed at home and cared for us, giving us all the stability she could provide. That automatically placed us within yet another marginalized group – migrant farm workers. I remember the smell of sweat and oranges as my grandmother and I soaked my grandfather’s clothes in the sink of the small laundry room at the end of an arduous work day. This became one of the quintessential smells of my adolescence.
It was this part of my identity I discovered in that book, the part that dreams in orange blossoms and understands the depth of loss at a young age. I was 32 years old when I experienced that kind of affinity.
Needless to say, I have never taught a Reading or Language Arts class since in which I have not referenced that novel in some way, either in excerpted form or in its entirety, whole group or in literature circles.
I worked in a community in which 65% of the student population spoke a second language at home. During that time, I saw again and again the importance for those students of seeing themselves in a way I never did when I was growing up. It gave them opportunities to envision life differently from what they had experienced.
The act of representing different communities in literature brings those communities out of the margins and into the mainstream, with all the avenues for growth and self-realization this entails. A child of a migrant worker can see an example of a child like herself who endures any number of tragedies to triumph in a country that can often appear hostile. She is not different or strange but part of a larger cultural narrative. She exists. And her experience is valid.
The purpose of this blog is to join the conversation on diverse representation in literature. I want to point readers in the directions of resources and create connections with them and other writers and readers who share a passion for power of legitimacy.
This is also a blog about the power of literature of every type to mark a person’s life. There is no aspect of my life that has not been touched by a novel, a short story, an essay, or a poem. I can’t promise it will be in order – the way we remember the important moments of our lives is never tidy, nor are the connections linear in any way. But I can promise that they mean something, if only to me.
In the process, I am also writing an original work, hence the research that will be featured under the Research – Current Project tab. I have a posting scheduled for one time per week, at the weekend. If you would like to receive updates, please sign up so you can be notified whenever I make a new post
I’m really excited to take this journey and hope you will join me, too.