"For Young Latino Readers, an Image is Missing" screamed the headline in The New York Times. I read it voraciously, thinking that, finally, the shameful lack of Hispanic authors was not just identified but validated by the nation's publication of record. The structural problems with the publishing industry would be called out, solutions which would ultimately lead to more Latino writers being published.
Instead, my frustration boiled over with every word I read because the article missed the most fundamental reason for this exclusion: the active role of editors —and to a lesser but important degree agents, publicists and the media— in purposefully excluding Latino authors.
Publishing, like the larger media culture, is not representative of the U.S. but of the tastes of Manhattan's Upper West Side
The lack of Hispanic characters, books and the writers who pen them at every level —not just elementary school, which is the subject of this article— is a function of the powerful gatekeepers who approve or ding a proposal. How do I know this? My blog The Wise Latina Club was first imagined as a collection of 25 first-person essays by household name Hispanic women who reveal the private stories that built their character, in effect the foundation upon which their success lies.
This information can't be googled but in coffee table book form, will surely provide much-needed inspiration for the millions of young women "coming up," thirsting for role models in school, career and work/family balance.
"All we need is one bite," my literary agent assured me at the Landmarc restaurant in New York City's Time Warner Center as he handed me the manila folder bursting with the freshly bound proposal: The Wise Latina Club: Hispanic Leaders Secrets of Success. Edited by: Viviana Hurtado.
Not even a nibble.
"Viviana is amazing."
But that wasn't enough.
Sample essays by Broadway legend Chita Rivera, Univision groundbreaking anchorwoman María Elena Salinas and the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress Ileana Ros-Lehtinen —their compelling, never-before-told personal stories are gathering dust on my Mac's hard drive.
I understand that editing 26 authors (my 25 Latina leaders plus me) would be challenging. But that wasn't the real reason.
"Latinos don't read," one editor slipped to my agent in sshhh tones.
And this is what's missing in the Times article: the perceptions, to not say prejudices, of the decision makers and their lack of diversity —not just ethnic or racial, but as crucially geographic and socioeconomic. At any given moment now, publishing, like the larger media culture, is not representative of the U.S. but of the tastes of Manhattan's Upper West Side.
I don't blame this position of privilege any more than I can blame someone for being born poor. It is rarely a question of just flat-out "racism" or socioeconomic station in life. The truth is murkier; it resides in how power is exercised, specifically how a retrograde view is imposed on a changing America.
The impact is profound but not because Latino students today will not do well without seeing themselves in books —in names they recognize, skin tone and background. I am "Exhibit A" of success. With Dora the Explorer years away, I gobbled up the Nancy Drew series and every Judy Blume book I could check out at the library. These heroines and plot lines fed the imagination of a curious and sensitive girl.
But in 2012, how can you justify the dearth of Latino authors or top-level editors given our population growth confirmed by the 2010 U.S. Census report? Because of sheer numbers (despite continuing education lags), more Hispanics are studying, applying for internships and post-graduation programs in writing, like my blogging hermana Lisa Quinones-Fontanez of Autism Wonderland. A secretary by day, MFA student by night and "warrior mom" to her autistic son 24/7, she revealed to a group of top Latina blogueras at a leadership retreat that her writing instructors have point-blank told her she won't get published because editors don't believe there's a market for her work.
Does this assume that Lisa or any Latino author will automatically bust out las maracas, don a sombrero, creating a disconnect for mainstream readers?
How about Latinos? Ah, sí. I forgot. They. Don't. Read.
Junot Díaz and Sandra Cisneros didn't fall into these stereotypes. Instead they have gifted us with strong, vulnerable, appealing characters who happen to be Latino. In return, they have earned critical and commercial success.
As our community booms, publishing is just one industry that needs to ditch its worldview that went out of style in the 1980s.
We are not just new readers. We are new consumers with a voracious appetite, something powerful brands understand. If the mainstream publishing industry won't feed it, we'll look, we are looking in alternate spaces such as the blogosphere, e-publishing and social media for book and author recommendations.
And speaking of book recommendations, here is a working list of Latino authors who have rocked my world with a link to Amazon where you'll find reviews and can purchase in the format of choice —e-book, audio or old-fashion paperback or hard cover.
Drown by Junot Díaz
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
El Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges
El amor en los tiempos del cólera by Gabriel García Márquez
Love Trips: A Collection of Relationship Stumbles by Sujeiry Gonzalez
The Rise of Marco Rubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia
Poder de Mujer: Descubre quién eres para crear el éxito a tu medida by Mariela Dabbah
Muy Bueno (Cookbook): Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor by Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack, Veronica Gonzalez-Smith, and Evangelina Souza
Bilingual Is Better: Two Latina Moms on How the Bilingual Parenting Revolution is Changing the Face of America by by Ana L. Flores and Roxana A. Soto
What Latino author and/or "mainstream" author most influenced you and why?