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Monday, November 2, 2009

Is the Texas Library Association excluding Latino writers?

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 68 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 award-winning 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) are also not on the TLA list, and that's just a cursory look at 2008.)

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 craftsmen, 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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