Monday, June 23, 2014

Step by Step

By guest columnist Désirée Zamorano

Where I ended up in high school, I was a frizzy haired brown girl in a sea of ski sweaters and sleek blonde bobs.  Surely I exaggerate, but that is my emotional memory, contrasted against my elementary and junior high schools where my friends came in all skin colors, and my hair was somehow straight.  In my sophomore year my sense of isolation was so acute that, in between reading what would now be called YA dystopias, I studied hard for the SAT and took the GED to shave a year off of my four year sentence.       
While my high school years have receded into the past along with computers the size of small homes, those experiences impacted my lens, and forced me to be not color-blind but color-aware.  The difference in skin tone, in language, impacts the difference in experience. It was that awareness I brought into the classroom, as a teacher, bringing an array children’s books.  Books like Tar Beach and Abuela.  Books that incorporated the experiences of the demographic I taught as well as books that expanded their vision of the world around them.  I connected with the parents as I found them, mining the gold of experience each child had and brought with them from their home and into the classroom.
This is Equity and Access 101. I have to say, even as an inexperienced teacher, that seemed an obvious pedagogical tool.  Apparently it is not.  When the recent twitter campaign #weneeddiversebooks for children’s books erupted, I was perplexed.  Didn’t the organizers notice that the kids had parents?  That there is a virtual white-out on the big, small, and laptop screen?  Compared to adult media, diversifying kids’ reading should be as easy as playing jacks. There are small presses, like Cinco Puntos and Lee and Low,  dedicated to that very idea.  I have crammed the bookshelves at Occidental’s Literacy Center with engaging, gorgeous books for kids exploring the community at hand, the world at large, as well as social justice.  I’ve had authors, like La Bloga writer Rene Colato Lainez, come and speak to my kids and adults. But just yesterday I heard from a very young writer, saying she had never been exposed to diverse stories as a kid.  Why does this surprise me?  Instead of mentally quibbling with the organizers of the diversity campaign, what I should have been doing is marveling at their efficiency and speed at which that topic trended, and the impact it has had.      

That got me thinking.  As a teenager I was isolated, I didn’t know where the people like me were, and it took me far too many years to find them.  But today—here they are, at the clatter of a keyboard, the readers and writers of La Bloga, or Las Comadres, or Latino Rebels, or el libro traficante.  Or your own personal favorite.

Despite the fact that our lack of representation in the broader media and political posturing in immigration enrages me to the point of inarticulation, I burned out on dystopias long ago. I don’t believe in them.  What I do believe is sometimes we are unaware of just how much power we do have. Chamacos, numberwise we have always had critical mass.  But now that we know how to find each other, paso a paso, we are making the changes we want to see. 

Désirée Zamorano (center in photo above) is the director of Occidental College’s Community Literacy Center. Her novel, The Amado Women (Cinco Puntos Press), will be released on July 1, and is a Las Comadres book selection for August 2014.

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