Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Guest Columnist: Sergio Troncoso. Is the Texas Library Association excluding Latino writers?

Blogmeister's Note: Michael Sedano's Tuesday column returns next week with a review of Literary El Paso. Today, La Bloga shares Sergio Troncoso's essay from his own blog Chico Lingo. Troncoso raises critical issues that require awareness and conversation.

NOTE: Revised to include link and small edits.

I had a wonderful time at the Texas Book Festival, which was well-organized and full of lively literary parties. On Saturday, I walked through the white tents next to the state capitol, gathering handouts from commercial publishers, lit organizations, and university presses. My panel was not until Sunday, so this was my day to play.

But as I stopped at the Texas Library Association’s (TLA) table and perused a yellow handout entitled “2009 Tayshas Annotated Reading List,” a book list compiled by public and school librarians from the Young Adult Round Table (YART), I noticed precious few Latino authors or subjects. In fact, as I counted and reread the book summaries (later confirmed by studying the books online at booksellers), only three were by or about Latinos. Three out of 69 young adult books recommended by TLA.

This fact was disturbing enough, but then I walked to the panel on the Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Awards, with Benjamin Saenz (He Forgot to Say Goodbye) and Carmen Tafolla (The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans), and previous winner Francisco Jiménez.Saenz’s and Tafolla’s books are aimed at young adults. Both authors are from Texas. Both books are published in the time period covered by the TLA list, 2007-2008. And both books are excluded from the list. (Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree (a Newbury Honor book) and Oscar Hijuelos’s Dark Dude (Starred review from Booklist), also not on the TLA list.)

As I sat listening to the panelists talk about fighting to have Mexican-American literature included in the canon of American literature, as I heard them talk about their struggles to reach young Latinos with stories that reflect their lives, I admired the careful words of Saenz, Tafolla, and Jiménez at the same time that I seethed at the TLA. What was going on here? The juxtaposition between what the TLA was peddling at their table and the Tomás Rivera panel was jarring.

My anger burst out during conversations at the Texas Book Festival, and I asked for explanations. One well-known Texas writer said it was the “morality police” mentality of certain Texas librarians, who enforced their morality more strictly with anything Latino, a sophisticated kind of ethnic discrimination. A Texas librarian said it had to do with the YART panel itself, who was on it, who recommended books, but even she was surprised the TLA list contained only three books by or about Latinos. “That’s pathetic,” she said.

Indeed, it is. Latinos comprise about half the current students enrolled in Texas K-12 schools. When we or the media decry the high Hispanic high school drop-out rates, are we also training school administrators to be bilingual? Welcoming non-English-speaking parents to become involved in the schooling of their children is essential. I know my mother did not feel, nor was she ever treated, like an alien when she went to talk to my teachers or the principal at South Loop School. Why? They spoke Spanish, even the güeritos who were not Latinos. But that was El Paso.What about Houston, east Texas, the Panhandle?

When we complain about low Hispanic high school test scores, are we also providing reading lists that inspire kids throughout their schooling, books that say the stuff of their lives is real literature?The School Library Journal said of Carmen Tafolla’s book: “This collection will be sought after by both teens and teachers looking for strong characters and an eloquent voice in Chicana literature. While regional appeal will certainly drive purchase of this book, libraries looking to diversify and modernize their story collections will also want to consider adding this worthy title.” But apparently not in Texas, if the TLA has any say-so about it.

The issue is not creating an ‘affirmative action’ literary list. That’s a great way to put down Latino literature while pretending to help it. We do have high quality literature, by any standard, by national standards, in the Latino community. We have writers who are craftsman, who are highly educated, who are creating stories that win national awards and sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

So I am not asking to lower standards and make a new TLA list with 45.6 percent Latino writers. That’s ridiculous. But the effort has to be made to look at the new reality in writing and in Latino literature in particular, and to understand that there need not be a sacrifice anymore between diversity and quality. But to do that, we need open minds and their goodwill.

I don't want any librarians (from Texas or anywhere else) mad at me; I truly don't. El Paso public libraries changed my life and opened my mind to writing. I just want the Texas Library Association to think about what it's doing, and to consider a better way.

(Note: The TLA list did have three books about girls at “elite boarding schools,” and two books on Australian teenagers.)

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Viva Liz Vega! said...

Great post and I'm boiling with anger too! I'm going to go take a look at that list.

Unknown said...

As the Coordinator of the Texas Bluebonnet Award, I can say that our committee does not exclude Latino writers. The current list has two bilingual books. However the list that begins in February 2010 will have none. Our selection committee has four Latina members. All Spanish language bilingual books are sent to them to have the first review. This year there were no books for the 3-6 grade age range that they felt met the literary criteria to be a part of the TBA Master List. We encourage publishers to publish more titles in this age range.

Sue said...

It seems to me that when people say things like ...It's not like I'm asking for an affirmative action list... that's really what they want. I too want to see inclusion in these kinds of lists... however... why should a book be included JUST because it's Latino? Does that make the book somehow better? Is there something wrong with Australian books? Is there something wrong with literature about boarding schools?

Is it wrong to help expand Young Adult minds by exposing them to literature that they might not be familiar with? Part of enjoying literature and non-fiction is creating empathy with people and situations the readers are not familiar with. (I gained a lot of insight, for example, by reading about South African struggles in my college years.)

Was the TLA actively EXCLUDING Latino literature? No. This would be wrong and they weren't doing that. It sounds very much like you would like to have the TLA list automatically include about 1/2 Hispanic/Latino authors since you claim about 1/2 of all Texas students are Latino. That would be equally wrong, since it would deny the many viewpoints that the world has to offer.

In this post, more than anything, you come off as a little bit racist and dogmatic. It's disappointing to see an obviously educated person have such a viewpoint.

Bryce said...

As one of Carmen Tafolla's publishers, I find it interesting that the Bluebonnet committee has twice turned down her book That's Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / No es justo: la lucha de Emma Tenayuca para la justicia, illustrated by Terry Ybanez (Wings Press, 2008). The book is in its third printing, and I would estimate that some 8,000 copies have sold in South Texas alone. And I have heard from numerous librarians that the book is quite popular among the younger half of that 3 to 6 grade range. So I guess that some young Texans find some merit in this book by a Texana, illustrated by a Tejana, about a Tejana hero.

Paul Pedroza said...

Great work, Sergio! To Beth: I disagree with just about everything you've said. You echo many of the reasons people like to offer up when their lists turn out to be whiter than one would expect: we're offering a broader range of experience because, see, we have Australian fiction; we only look for what's best, that's the only measure of merit; you're being racist for even suggesting that this list is biased, etc. etc. etc. Truth be told, literary promotion has a bad habit of exclusion. This is an institution that is representing not only Texas schools, but Texas school children. For example, I think it's ridiculous not to include Ben Saenz's new YA novel because 1) the man is a proven successful author in many genres and 2) he has a publication history in YA fiction.

As to your question: is it wrong to expand YA minds by exposing them to new literature? No, not per se. It is wrong, however, to ignore home-grown Latino/a, Chicano/a talent and claim fairness because Australia is represented well. In the pursuit of "cosmopolitan-ness," one shouldn't ignore the voices of minorities in their own home.

Jen said...

As a member of the current Tayshas committee, I think you're assuming too much. The fact that there were 3 books about elite boarding schools or with Australian settings is happenstance.

When I read a book, what jumps to me first is not the characters' or author's ethnicity or cultural background. I'm looking for the story. I seek out stories that I think YAs need to read or will want to read. I don't look for books to meet one area of my demographic--I seek to touch as many kids as I can.

When selecting books, and as we nominated books this last year, I think all of us on the Tayshas committee did just that. We discussed each book's literary merit. Honestly, I can't remember one discussion including anything related to ethnicity or cultural heritage. I found quality in every book we read, even if it wasn't one that I personally enjoyed. Looking back at the notes I made on the 150+ titles that were on our final consideration list, I find very few ethnic or cultural references in my personal notes. Maybe I'm a bit naive, but I truly never see "color" in the world, in my students, or in books.

If there is concern about member make-up of the YART Executive Board or the various reading list committees (2x2, Bluebonnet, Lonestar, Maverick, or Tayshas), maybe part of the (I hesitate to use this word) problem is in who is volunteering. You can't complain about how things are done or what is decided on if you aren't actively pursuing participation in the process. Maybe I speak out of turn, but I regularly hear that there just isn't a plethora of volunteers for the Tayshas committee.

I'd also like to point out that anyone can make recommendations for the Tayshas list (and other TLA lists) via the website. We welcome community suggestions at any time. We've gotten more this consideration year than we have the last 2 years combined.

Jennifer Turney
Angleton High School
Tayshas HS Reading List Committee (2007-2009)

poetryguy said...

I love it when people claim they're colorblind and yet the lists they produce are more whitewashed than Huck Finn's picket fence.

Maybe you should be more aware of these differences. Then you could begin to atone for the mistakes of your people.

I'm sick of white culture. Ya basta!

Serial Reader said...

Mr. Troncoso,

I found your posting on La Bloga today interesting but disconcerting. I am a Latina who has served as a committee member on the Texas Lone Star Committee (which is the middle school book list and little sister to the TAYSHAS committee, the high school list). Both of the TAYSHAS and Lone Star selection committees fall under the Young Adult Round Table, a unit of the Texas Library Association. I am one of the thousands of hardworking librarians who volunteers her time to work on this and other literacy projects for the people of Texas.

I will agree with you that we need more Latino literature in book lists and awards. And, we have a tremendous opportunity right now to do something about it. The process to submit titles to TLA’s reading lists is not secretive or obscure; it's wide open to anyone who wishes to have a title considered for the list. The nomination form is available at: http://www.txla.org/groups/forms/tayshassuggest.html. The book discussions for the Lone Star and TAYSHAS committees are also open to the public. Any librarian who serves young adults through either a public or school library can apply to be on one of these two committees. Serving on the Lone Star Committee has been one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my career as a school librarian.

Having served for three years on Lone Star Committee, I can vouch for the “open-mindedness and good will” of the members of these two selection committees. Many of us on the committees serve majority Latino populations in our schools and schools districts and have a clear understanding of the literary interests and taste of these young adults. While (as one librarian put it), no student has ever come to her to ask for Hispanic-themed books, we strive to give our students quality and diverse reads, which of course includes materials written by Latino authors.

YART actively seeks multicultural literature titles from publishers both small and large. All titles submitted to the selection committees are thoughtfully considered, and its members conscientiously strive to create a list that is inclusive of diverse cultural/ethnic backgrounds, varied teen topics and interests, and genres. The committee, through a vigorous review process, evaluates hundreds of books nominated. We believe exposing teens to topics, not only about their communities but outside of their communities – like Australian teenagers and boarding schools – is not a bad thing. Inherently, it matters not where you come from or where you go to school. We all have many things in common despite socioeconomic and geographic boundaries.

I will add that TLA, as an organization of librarians and library supporters, has been on the leading edge supporting multiculturalism and Latino programming, literature, and services for decades. From creating the pilot program for statewide Dìa de los Niños/Dìa de los libros celebrations to conducting multitudes of programs and workshops on Latino literature, authors, services, and other resources and programming, TLA has worked tirelessly to promote Latino and multicultural literacy.

Maribel Castro,
Texas Library Association President 2010-2011

Alexandra Román said...

Saludos, estoy organizando una Gira Virtual para la novela “El Valle de la Inspiración”, por Alexandra Román de Hernández. Nos gustaría que usted y su blog (bitácora) formaran parte de este evento. Comuníquese con nosotros para enviarle la información, lo puede hacer a través de Ivelisse Sanchez (ivelissesanchez@hotmail.com) o con la autora Alexandra Román de Hernández (aroman9@yahoo.es). Esperamos escuchar pronto de usted.
Gracias, Alexandra Román de Hernández.

Alvaro Huerta said...

I was saw a PBS special about the Civil Rights movement in this country where, during the mid-1900s, Blacks were protesting the lack of Black doctors in the South. In response to these complaints, the White Southerners argued, "We will hire Black doctors when we have qualified applications."

I guess somethings never change.

Alvaro Huerta said...

Correction: The above comment should begin with "I once saw a PBS...."

Anonymous said...

I'm Mexican-American, and I'm so tired of seeing people play the race card so often on non-ssues. It's people like you who make genuine issues of racism appear trite. You ever heard of the boy who cried wolf?

Poetryguy, I tell people all the time that people of color can indeed be racist. Thanks for proving my point.