I had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning children's literature author René Colato Laínez for the education and literacy organization I co-founded as part of our 2015 Latino Children’s Summer Reading Program. What strikes me about Colato Laínez is how unapologetic he is about the need to write about the topic of immigration for children, specifically immigrant kids themselves. The sign of a good book is its universality. Politics and power aside, this is why centuries later, we still read Miguel de Cervantes, Shakespeare and contemporary authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and William Faulkner.
Still, almost every journalist, artist, politician, and author I've interviewed squirm when I ask the question about their work and representing their ethnic or racial group. They rightfully strive for the horizon that universality offers. They want to be a great actor and not be limited to being only a great African American or Hispanic actor.
Not René. In my pre-interview, I lobbed some questions about immigration.
His answer: Bring it.
So I did.
René is unapologetic about his books touching on the theme of immigration and featuring immigrant kids. He writes:
"My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children's literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the States."
It's personal. In the interview, he talks about his journey to the U.S. as a child crossing illegally, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. He also speaks about his long path to becoming a resident. But another critical motivator are his students, many who are immigrant. René is not only an author. He is a teacher and like so many of his peers, he is approached by children who are going through a hard time. In his students' case, the family is dealing with the fear of deportation or a member of the family who has already been deported. These children may be struggling in school because they're still learning English. In our interview, René reveals his frustration at having a toolbox limited to his advice. He didn't have a book he could recommend that could help his immigrant students because they didn't exist. So he decided to write those stories himself.
Of course I had to ask him about Election 2016 and Donald Trump's inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants when he announced his presidential bid:
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people."
Again, René focused on the kids and the damage these words and scapegoating has on children who constantly hear themselves, their families, and communities described solely in criminal terms. By writing books about immigrant children and representing them through the complexity of their humanity, René offers a powerful counter narrative to the one in the political and media arena.
This debate should happen and before a presidential election, this is truly the time for candidates and parties to clearly articulate their policies on key issues to voters. But when race baiting and dog whistle politics meant to incite fear and hate takes center stage, we should celebrate that an author like René, by example and through his work, continues educating students and helping teachers, parents, and librarians approach tough topics. What's more, he sends them a personal message of reassurance that, kid, it's gonna be O.K.
Click below to watch this Lunchtime Author Google Hangout on Air that forms part of the 2015 L4LL Latino Children's Summer Reading Program.