Award-Winning Author Monica Brown Q & A

Author_Monica_Brown_Q_&_A-TheWiseLatinaClub Crisp storytelling. Compelling characters. Beautiful illustration. Author Monica Brown, Ph.D. captured my imagination. My co-founder Monica Olivera at the education and literacy-focused organization Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) introduced me to Brown's books. I quickly fell head over heels because Brown writes a story that is as well written as it is vibrantly illustrated, one that appeals to an adult. This is important because as a children's literature author, I am not Brown's target audience. Yet the fact that I've been drawn to her writing tells me that she respects her child readers enough to write clearly for them, while engaging older readers. The tricky balance she has struck is a testament to the mastery of her craft which has been recognized with awards and recognitions, including being invited to the Library of Congress' National Book Fair.

Brown has become one of my favorites who I spotlight when L4LL appears in the media such as Univision's top-rated national morning show Despierta América. I love checking out her books from the library and bringing them onto the set to share with a national audience. I was especially excited to be paired up with her for this year's Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) Día Blog Hop celebrating the literacy-focused event El día de los niños, el día de los libros on April 30th.

Enjoy Brown's thoughtful, soulful answers to the questions I posed which aim to explore the theme of immersion in her life and work!

Note: Minor editing for style.

~~~

Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D: You have a Ph.D. and teach literature to college students. Why write children’s books and not, for example, literary criticism or novels for adults?

Monica Brown: I’ve written a great deal of literary criticism, including my scholarly book, Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizens in Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Chicana Narratives, and for over a decade I wrote and taught about Latino/a Literature. Then I decided to create it—Latino/a literature for children. This was inspired first and foremost when I became a mother and look and saw what was out there, or rather, what wasn’t in terms of children’s literature. Our stories were not being told, the beauty and complexity of our mestizaje and “mixed” race families weren’t being told, and there weren’t enough stories focusing on fierce, funny, brave girls, in my opinion. My first professional writing job, just out of college, was as a journalist, then I went to graduate school and became a scholar and literary critic, become a children’s author was the next step in my evolution as a thinker, a writer, and someone who believes down to my bones that words matter, stories matter.

I feel called to write for children, perhaps because it is a hopeful enterprise—their minds are so open and creative and free.  As they learn more of the world through family, school, news, etc. I want to give them stories that will inspire and instill pride, and joy, and fun and adventure.

VH: Why make larger-than-life figures such as soccer legend Pelé, civil rights icons Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, musical great Tito Puente, and Nobel literature laureates Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez the main characters of your children’s picture-books?

MB: I write both non-fiction biographies for children, and books with fictional characters. My biographies allow me to share the lives of my political heroes, like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, my literary inspirations, like Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Marquez, and those who lived extraordinary lives. I also wanted to highlight the rich contributions of people of the Américas to all aspects of our culture here in the United States.

VH: Some of your characters’ names--Marisol McDonald or Lola Levine--reveal a dual view of identity, in this case both Latino and American. Is this the way you see yourself? What does this say about today’s America?

MB: It’s so interesting, because one of the most important, messages, if you will is that people who have multi-ethnic, multiracial backgrounds, are NOT fractions. We are not half this and half that. We are whole and complex and our children should not be subject to comments like “You don’t look . . . .” or “What are you?” I don’t see it as a duality of identity in that I don’t see my identity and that of my children in terms of binary oppositions.  I was raised and baptized Catholic, for example, but am also Jewish by heritage and choice. My mother is South American and my father is North American. In my children’s books, like my Marisol McDonald picture book series and my forthcoming Lola Levine chapter book series, I want my characters to exist in a world that doesn’t oppress with labels and definitions that rely on the colonizer's language. My characters, my children, myself—to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes.”

VH: L4LL celebrated when you, along with illustrator Rafael López, were chosen to present at the Library of Congress’ 2013 National Book Festival. Do you believe that U.S. Latino children’s literature has “arrived” in the world of mainstream publishing and readers?

MB:  We haven’t fully “arrived,” in one sense of the word, not when our numbers are still so small. Are there talented, successful Latino/a writers and illustrators publishing amazing work? Yes! Absolutely. Are we receiving recognition for that work? Yes, and it’s wonderful. I’ve been lucky to work with publishers like Lee and Low and Little Brown & Co who have opened doors and made a difference. But if you look only at numbers, comparing for example, the numbers of children’s books published by Latino/as this year compared to last, they will still be very small, and not representative of the growing population.  On a more positive note, I do think our books are speaking to more mainstream audiences in that our subject matter, like our lives, are infinitely broad.

VH: What support and recognition is needed for our authors and illustrators to succeed and become household names?

MB:  Well, efforts like Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) and websites like yours are doing an amazing job! You are literacy activists and you help put our books in the hands of children, so thank you!!

VH: This year’s Día Blog hop theme is immersion. Can you share with our readers what role immersion has in your life and work?

MB:Well, my life has been immersed in words, in literature. As a professor teaching U.S. Latino/a literature, it’s been an immersion in the history, writing and cultural production of Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, Peruvian-American, Cuban-American and Dominican-American writers, and the teaching of writing, critical thinking and cultural studies to my students.

As a public intellectual, I’ve immersed myself in political words, with political essays like this and this one.

As a creative writer immersed in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the activism and inspiration of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the artistry of Celia Cruz, I have been able to transform and translate those lives into stories for children. And in immersing myself in my past and my children’s present, I believe that I’ve been able to create two amazing characters, Marisol McDonald and Lola Levine, which I hope have and will touch the lives of children and give them courage to be fully themselves.

~~~

Click here for the L4LL 2015 Día blog hop schedule featuring 13 award-winning U.S. Hispanic authors and illustrators on leading Latina blogs. We hope that you will follow along this week and share with your families and friends!

What Gina Rodriguez Got Wrong at the Golden Globes

What_Gina_Rodriguez_Got_Wrong_at_the_Golden_Globes-TheWiseLatinaClub The Twitter surge matched Gina Rodriguez's emotions when she accepted the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her leading role in the CW comedy Jane the Virgen.

Choking back tears, she declared:

"This award is so much than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes."

Unlike everyone on my Twitter feed, I cringed at Rodriguez's statement because she missed an opportunity to educate her viewers on the long string of vibrant heroes, as well as a rich cultural and artistic history that has contributed to the Great Works of literature, film, music, and art. Rodriguez and Latinos not only belong to it. They must claim it.

Click here to watch the video of Rodriguez's acceptance speech.

I remember the resentment I felt when the Yale Spanish department forced me to study medieval and Siglo de Oro or Spanish Renaissance literature as part of my doctoral studies. I deemed it a waste of time for someone who planned to specialize in modern Latin American literature. However, in those classes I learned how fundamentally Hispanic culture innovated the humanities and the way in which art represents and interprets our world which in turn impacts areas that affect us such as economic and social policy as well as diplomacy. The partial list includes but is not limited to:

  • Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana--the first published grammar of a Western European language
  • Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quijote, considered the first modern novel and Don Quijote, the world's first modern literary hero
  • Diego Velázquez who modernized painting by experimenting with light and daring to show his royal subjects in personal settings
  • El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega whose Comentarios reales de los Inca is a foundational text of the literary genre testimonio--a vehicle to present a counter-narrative  disputing the supremacy of the "official story"

As I moved into modern Latin American literature, I learned about more contributions, with a partial list including:

  • Luis de Buñuel's seminal avante-garde surrealist films
  • Frida Kahlo's daring, brutal, and personal art
  • José Martí, whose poems and nationalism continue to inspire revolutionaries and students today
  • Carlos Santana, great guitarist who pioneered Latino rhythms in rock decades before Pitbull

Like politics, the issue with Hollywood is less about history than it is about power. Those who wield it are almost exclusively white and male. The distinction between, on one hand, a history of talent and contributions to art and specific media and on the other hand, a power structure that keeps out Latinos at the highest levels is crucial. With few exceptions such as TV series mega hit creator Shonda Rhimes, the executive level--producers, studio heads, and agents--doesn't include diversity. This fact determines an industry's world vision with a lasting trickle down effect: which shows are green lighted, actors cast, and writers hired.

The absence of diversity is behind the thinking that an actor from a diverse background "can't bring in an audience." Now, we've moved into the realm of economics. This "bottom line" calculation and its assumptions explain why the film "12 Years a Slave" with a black director and actor at its helm is an exception or why it took 50 years to make the film "Selma"--a feature film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its central character.

Hollywood's politics and its effects are real. But I challenge Rodriguez and Latino artists to not just insert themselves into the American narrative and claim what's theirs. It requires changing the frame away from what I call a "cabizbajo, sí patrón" or subservient position to one of pride rooted in an understanding of where she stands in the continuum of a rich, complex, and foundational tradition.

Gina Rodriguez is absolutely right. This award is much more than her which leads me to my favorite quote from Don Quijote in chapter five of part one. Faced with doubt from an incredulous neighbor on his knight roving ways, our hero declares:

"Yo sé quién soy" or I know who I am and from where I come.

I hope Rodriguez, the deserving actors, and the young people who look up to them learn about their history and make it part of their and ultimately, our American story. I hope this knowledge nurtures a point of view that clearly states, "of course I earned this respect because I've put in the work, because I come from a long line of talent, and in the case of politics, because my demographic and spending power might combined with my civic participation makes me a force to be reckoned with."

That's not just arriving. It's owning your success.

 

 

 

#ThxBirthControl. There I Said It.

I remember asking my mom about birth control when I was seventeen. We were in the kitchen and I was helping to set the table--edging out Lil' Sis so that I wouldn't have to clean up after our meal. I was brave and daring. After all, she was chopping our salad ingredients with a ginsu knife likely bought after watching an infomercial. The knife froze. Even a window was open, the room started to feel warm.

No: where do you hear THAT?

No: Virgen Santísima, have you disgraced this familia by going behind the bushes before you're married?

Instead, Mami looked up and said, we'll talk about this when you're eighteen.

I turned eighteen and was off to college. I turned twenty three and I enrolled in a masters program. I moved to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of my professional dream as a correspondent firstly for Al Jazeera English then ABC News.

The conversation never came.

(The only one that approximated the ol' birds and the bees talk came from Papi who warned me that my Colombian boyfriend when I was earning a Ph.D. was after one thing and one thing only--my American citizenship!)

Not_Make_A_Bebe_ThxBirthControl-TheWiseLatinaClub

Let's make one thing clear: Mami is a woman of her world--an immigrant from Colombia, one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in Latin America. She met my father at the pristine age of fifteen. At a debutante ball, my mom was chaperoned by none other than my fierce, watchful abuela who literally controlled Mami's dance card. Una mujer brava, she multi-tasked to protected the family's reputation while hunting for worthy suitors who were husband material for her daughter. Papi persisted--for four years--and my mom married at 19 and had my brother at 20. Fifty-two years and three kids later, they're still married.

This background is important because it explains all the cultural and religious hocus pocus that kept any conversation about birth control as under lock and key as her daughters. My mom has always wanted the best for her daughters and under duress and sacrifice, made sure we had everything to succeed in life. Private School? Check. Year abroad? Check. Her idea that we were born in America and spoke, if not the Queen's, Yale English meant we had a leg up in life she didn't have.

We could do and be anyone we wanted to be.

Except have sex before marriage. As her dreams and modern life's influence on us in the U.S. clashed with her values, the silence around birth control became more severe.

Unfortunately, the silence is not exclusive to my family. 99 percent of adult women report using birth control, according to Bedsider.org--an online birth control support network for women 18-29 operated by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Yet in 2014, many young women don't have their facts straight. I believe this is largely attributed to the veil of secrecy around birth control. The results of this misterio? Chew on this fact: over half (59%) of all pregnancies to unmarried 20-29 year old Latinas are unplanned.

Helping_Nuestras_Mujeres_ThxBirthControl-TheWiseLatinaClub

Raising awareness about and having access to birth control does not mean promoting promiscuity. Rather, it allows women and their partners to be in the driver's seat of when they're going to have a family. This is revolutionary, not just for young women who can opt to stay in school, pursue a career, launch a business, or pay off loans. It can change a family and a community's destiny--from pregnancy being accidental due to lack of information to being intentional with the ensuing benefits that planning affords. Access to birth control leads to stronger and healthier families and communities.

So how did I learn about birth control? Besides what I read in Cosmo, I learned from the nurse at my masters program. I still don't have children. But I have a BA from Cal, a masters from Stanford, and a Ph.D. from Yale. I've traveled extensively for work and pleasure. I became a national television reporter and now own a business that is creating jobs. My success and having a family is not an either/or situation. But I doubt I could have accomplished what and when I did, if I had had kids before I was ready and before having in place the unwavering support of a husband and a boss.

My mother would never say it but I know she doesn't dispute what's next:

#ThxBirthControl.

There. I said it. Now I'm going to tweet and post it on my social media and I invite you to do the same.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. All opinions and stories are my own.

Mi Casa es Su Casa. Actually, You Can HAVE it.

"Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own."- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

"$400!," I shrieked. Yellow, the Golden Retriever, poked his head up from his perennial sleep. It can't be. I was gone for 3 weeks around Christmas. And even though the friend staying at the house in December, turned out to be an irresponsable, the house is an icebox. I'm shivering even though I'm clad in fleece. There's NO way the electrical bill could be this high.

But it was. Turns out the returns in the crawl space were never fastened, likely when the house was flipped in the real estate locura (the one that brought the world financial system to the brink? Yeah, that one.). $400 diagnostic by HVAC repairman. We're up to $800. A contractor says the returns ARE connected. He's charged me $150 to tell me everything is fine. I do what every dignified, independent woman who decided to buy a house on her own does: I burst into tears.

I start mouthing: "!No puede ser!", but the words are trapped in the pit that's formed in my stomach. My personality lines (read: crow's feet) are etched in the bright red canvas of my flushed face. The pads of my index fingers wipe away the smudging mascara. My breath is quivering as much as my bottom lip. I look like I've completed the college walk of shame except fast forward (and here begins the downward spiral): I didn't marry First Love who would have bought the house. I would have been La Perfect Casada, and of course no house tragedia would have ever cursed our happy home because First Love practically came with a Home Depot tool belt attached to his doughy waist which is a big fat lie because he's a Silicon Valley VP who doesn't possess DIY skills, but can pay someone who does. Revisionist history meets delusion.

Then the washing machine stopped. FOREVER.

Dear God, it's me, Vivi. Please stop testing me. I  am a good human being. I recycle.

I've dropped $1200 and counting in 4 days, and not on a bag. That reminds me. I would sell my LV wallet on Ebay to help pay for these repairs, but the pop up video of my parents constantly insisting, "Mijita, you have to save," combined with my Catholic guilt, never allowed me to indulge in this Saks department.

When did I fall in love with adorable, colonial era row houses? Shall I blame my college crush before he came out who lived in one on T ST. NW when he worked at the Alphabet Soup network, years ago, and with whom my graduate student self stayed when I visited the nation's capital? Maybe it was my memory of our family's first home--the small, white Victorian near Golden Gate Park. I wanted character. I wanted history. I wanted charm.

"Dolor de cabeza," Mami said, rolling her eyes which is a default reaction when her kids are about to commit una barbaridad.

"Au contraire mon frere," I countered, (Mami thinks this is what's left from my high school French class and not a Bart Simpsonism). "A house from 1898 is not going to be a head ache,  I continue, "I don't need a man to buy a house, not Papi (and you) since I'm not asking for help with the down payment, and well, there's no husband." Her face is as crinkled as if she has sucked on a lime. I throw her a bone, which is anything that relates to saving money. "Anyway, It's a great investment. My middle class tax break."

Resolved when I got to DC as a foreign correspondent for the start up Al Jazeera English: I would BUY my first home. Heck, Miranda Hobbs in "Sex and the City" did it despite the social stigma (Real Estate Agent, Title Company Lawyer, EVERYBODY: "So, it's just you?" Miranda: "Yep. Just me.") Anyway, my shabby chic(a) furniture was gasping for air in low ceiled, shell white apartments.

Mine. My Home. And in a moment of childish churlishness. I would put the period after Mi Casa. For one moment, I wasn't sharing.

I go back to my Virginia Woolf. No where do I find an inventory of the malfunctions, the broken appliances (first week I moved in), electrical shorts, and the mugging at gun point in front of my house WITH MAMI AND PAPI that turned my Home Sweet Home into my Little House of Horrors.

I wish I could say this was the first time, or the least tragic of my house imbrolios. Oh.

it's January and we're not halfway through winter. I have NO resolution.

Carolina Herrera, My Style Ícono

42.jpg