By Jennifer De Leon
During a recent school visit, a young woman came up to me in the signing line and burst into tears. We had never met before, but I felt that in that moment, that we had a connection. I saw that she was crying for herself, for all that she understood and didn’t yet understand about what it is to feel seen in books. In my presentation I had shared the fact that I did not read a book by a Latina author until I was almost nineteen years old, and that doing so profoundly changed me. It made me want to be a writer.
I stood up from the signing table and I asked her if I could give her a hug. She nodded. There were students in line, teachers to the side, but everyone graciously gave us space. She explained that her father is from Puerto Rico, but she doesn’t really know his side of the family. She told me that many people assume she isn’t Latina, because she “looks white.” Through more tears, she shared how it hurts her when her own cousins say, “You don’t even know how to speak Spanish.” I said to her, “I see you.”
In many ways, the concept of books being a “mirror” doesn’t fit her exactly, and neither does a “window.” She is like many young people who are second, third, even fourth-generation American. They are biracial, multiracial. They are longing to unlock parts of their identity, their lineage. But what happens when there is a gap between these two? They need a mirror-window. Stories about and for kids who seek both windows and mirrors, simultaneously.
I have met students like her at schools across the country. Students who want so much to connect with a part of their culture, background, ethnicity, and perhaps don’t have access to said culture, background, or ethnicity for one reason or another. Maybe their parents are separated, or their extended family lives in another country, or maybe they are adopted. Some students are fluent in their “mother tongue,” while others might only know a few phrases. I hear stories of kids who moved to the U.S. when they were too young to remember, and stories from kids who have never traveled “back home” to the motherland.
Take, for instance, this young woman I met in the signing line. As she wiped away tears, she thanked me for being at her school. “We don’t ever hear from speakers like you,” she said. In my talk I had shared how growing up, I didn’t know much about Guatemala, despite both my parents being from there. We visited relatives in Guatemala a couple of times when I was in elementary school, but by high school, my ability to speak French, which I had studied in school, surpassed my Spanish. And I remember that throbbing feeling of shame this young woman described. “You don’t even speak Spanish.” It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I decided to formally study Spanish—at a language school in Guatemala—and learn more about Guatemalan history. No surprise that it had been left out of my textbooks, and remember, I didn’t read a book by a Latina author until I was in college.
Diverse books can do even more than offer windows and mirrors (and sliding glass doors, which allow the reader to enter the story and become immersed in that world). They can create mirror-windows, spaces where young people can dis-cover more about themselves, and learn more about our history, struggles, and triumphs.
The young woman in line that day is a fierce reminder to keep writing, keep sharing diverse stories. I thanked her, smiled, and handed her my book which I had signed: Your story matters.
Borderless by Jennifer De Leon is out now wherever books are sold.
Jennifer De Leon is an author, editor, speaker, and creative writing professor who lives outside of Boston. She is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library, and a 2016–2017 City of Boston Artist-in-Residence. She is also the second recipient of the We Need Diverse Books grant. She is the author of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From and Borderless.