As a proper noun, “Latino” designates a resident of the United States who is of Latin American descent. As an adjective, it renders the noun that it modifies somehow pertinent to or associated with such individuals. While the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the label back to the 1940s, it did not gain widespread currency until the 1980s. As Suzanne Oboler (1995) observes, “Latino” emerged as a counter to “Hispanic,” an umbrella term resented by many who fell into its fold as “an artifact created and imposed by state administrative agencies.” Among other things, “Hispanic” implicitly cleaned up the genealogy of the individuals it subsumed by privileging Spanish descent and disarticulating Latin American origins. The insistence on “Latino” over “Hispanic” that proliferated in the 1980s thus emanated from a desire for self-signification as well as a desire to recuperate a connection to Latin America. Moreover, as Felix Padilla (1985) explains in one of the first (and best) discussions of the emergence, function, and efficacy of “Latino” as a politicized identity category, the moniker has enabled the mobilization of diverse ethnic, cultural, and national groups into an imagined community predicated not just on linguistic and hemispheric affiliations, but also on shared experiences in the United States with racism, poverty, and other social challenges.
As “Latino” came into use in the 1980s, it quickly became supplanted by “Latino/a” and “Latina/o,” both of which offered to correct the gendered implications of “Latino.” In Spanish, an –o ending, which serves as the default form for adjectives and adjectival nouns, renders a term masculine, while an –a ending renders it feminine. Since default references to “Latino literature” or “Latinos in Hollywood” discursively overlook and exclude women while alleging to accommodate them, the utilization of “Latino/a” or “Latina/o,” which are more explicitly inclusive, has become more commonplace. In an effort to circumvent the politics (and messiness) of “Latino” versus “Latino/a” versus “Latina/o,” “Latin@” has recently come into use in some sectors, though this concoction can certainly be parsed and problematized, too.
While the terminology has been a hotly contested matter with an array of cultural, political, and personal stakes (Gimenez 1993; Hayes-Bautista and Chapa 1987; Oboler 1995; Chabram-Dernersesian 2003), it is not surprising that it has been handled in different—if not inconsistent—ways in children’s literature. As might be expected, one encounters in criticism and reviews published in the 1970s and 1980s recurring references to “Hispanics” and “Hispanic Americans” as well as some mention of “Spanish Americans” (Madsen and Wickersham 1980; Adams 1981). Although this earlier research’s use of “Hispanic” evokes the aforementioned issues, and references to “Spanish Americans” perpetuate the inaccurate and fundamentally racist reduction of ethnic identity to language, it is nonetheless sensitive to the portrayals of Latinos/as in children’s books as well as to their relative invisibility in the literature available at the time. Notably, one also finds in this earlier period—most prominently in the groundbreaking Interracial Books for Children Bulletin—an emergent swerve away from generic labels through specific attention to representations of Chicanos and Puerto Ricans (Council on Interracial Books for Children 1972; Council on Interracial Books for Children 1975; Freundlich 1980).
In more recent years, terminology has remained an unresolved issue: the titles of conference papers, research articles, reference books, and dissertations continue to waver in their negotiation of “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Latino/a.” For many researchers and critics, “Hispanic” continues to serve as a conveniently generic and familiar descriptor (Gillespie et al. 1994; Nilsson 2005). Arlene Barry (1998) explains, “[B]ecause U.S. government institutions, such as the Bureau of the Census, use Hispanic, I thought it might be more widely recognized and would help to avoid confusion.” Yet another contentious dimension of “Hispanic” becomes apparent when Barry adds that she prefers the label because “it places more of an emphasis on integration.” Generally, however, researchers today prefer “Latino/a” and “Latina/o” due to greater awareness of the assorted problems with “Hispanic” and the gendered implications of “Latino” (Day 1997; Medina and Enciso 2002; Chappell and Faltis 2007). Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that it is becoming increasingly more common for researchers to abandon generic labels altogether and, in the vein of the aforementioned Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, to particularize their discussions according to the specific ethnic and cultural ties of the authors under discussion and/or the experiences being depicted.
As occurs with the descriptor “African American,” the application of “Latino/a” to children’s literature raises a series of questions. In the simplest sense, “Latino/a children’s literature” refers to literature for children by Latino/a authors that often portrays and speaks to Latino experiences. Works such as How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay (2001) by Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez and Friends from the Other Side (1993) by Chicana legend Gloria Anzaldúa thus easily fit into the category. The parameters of the category must become more flexible, however, when one considers works by authors of mixed backgrounds, including Pam Muñoz Ryan and Matt de la Peña. There is also the matter of books such as We Are Chicano (1973) by Rose Blue and A Day’s Work (1994) by Eve Bunting, which depict Latino/a characters and experiences but are written by non-Latino/a authors. To be sure, cases can be made both for and against the inclusion of these texts in the category. Among others, Alma Flor Ada (2003) acknowledges the trickiness of this issue. Ultimately, Ada makes an overture toward literary merit, but she quickly qualifies it when she cautions, “The merit of a book is determined not by the heritage of the author or illustrator, but by their intention, knowledge, sensitivity, responsibility, and artistry…. Yet there is an inner look to a culture that is not easily acquired and requires long contact with people of the culture and its environment. The deep experiences of a people can seldom be told authentically from the outside.” At the very least, the hesitancy in Ada’s comment—which should not be taken as the definitive statement on the matter—throws into relief some of the challenges and stakes involved in conceiving of Latino/a children’s literature.
Publishers and booksellers have certainly added to the lack of consensus about which terms are preferred, accurate, and politically correct by organizing their own categories of literature for children variously around “Hispanic,” “Hispanic American,” “Latino,” “Latino/a,” and even “Latin American.” In different venues, one finds Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra (2006) by Jorge Argueta (a Pipil Nahua Indian from El Salvador who now lives in San Francisco) classified as “Latino,” “Latino & Hispanic,” or, by virtue of its bilingual content, simply (and very unhelpfully) “bilingual.” Although in some cases more specific descriptors such as “Mexican American,” “Chicano/a,” and “Dominican American” have been utilized, largely the institution and promulgation of the more general categories has been a result of publishers and booksellers commodifying multiculturalism and making shopping for multicultural fare as convenient (i.e., as uncomplicated and obvious) as possible.
Unfortunately, inasmuch as categories such as “Hispanic children’s literature” and “Latino/a children’s literature” readily signify diversity for consumers seeking to broaden children’s reading experiences, these categories actually “hide more than they reveal” (Gimenez 1993). On one hand, they obfuscate the specific cultural content and context of a text (assuming it has specific cultural content and context in the first place); on the other, they perpetuate indifference toward the diverse ethnic identities and cultural formations that terms such as “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” actually encompass. Within the children’s literature subcategory of “Latino & Hispanic,” Amazon.com lists among the top results Spanish-language translations of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight, Moon (1947, trans. 1995) and Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale (1940, trans. 1995). But to consider Spanish-language editions of classic books “Latino & Hispanic” alongside books that specifically reflect, represent, and speak to Latino/a experiences is a fraught proposition that radically dilutes the category. Elsewhere, the website of Lee and Low Books, a publisher distinguished for its multicultural offerings, describes as “Latino/Hispanic/Mexican Interest” works such as Lulu Delacre’s Arrorró, mi niño: Latino Lullabies and Gentle Games (2004), Pat Mora’s Confetti: Poems for Children (1996), and Alexis O’Neil’s Estela’s Swap (2002). Such a grouping again renders the category of “Latino/Hispanic/Mexican Interest” a broad and slippery one. Besides the fact that the three authors hail from different ethnic backgrounds, their texts fit their shared billing in overly general ways. Delacre’s book promises to be a collection of “Latino lullabies,” but the deployment of “Latino” in this instance completely undoes what the label has come to mean: as a modifier, it suggests that, as in the case of “Latino literature” or “Latino film,” the lullabies are products of individuals or cultural formations based in the United States that have ties to Latin America. In actuality, the lullabies have been culled from throughout Latin America. Given the origins of the songs and games featured in the book, a more proper subtitle would be Lullabies and Gentle Games from Latin America.
Once Delacre’s book is triangulated with Mora’s and O’Neill’s, additional questions arise about the parameters of and criteria for the “Hispanic/Latino/Mexican Interest” designation. That Delacre is a native of Puerto Rico, Mora is Mexican American, and O’Neill is not of Latin American descent invites the usual question as to whether an author’s ethnic background should determine whether her book merits the “Hispanic/Latino” tag (which, to be sure, carries a certain capital within the current marketplace of children’s literature). More worthy of attention and concern are the textual and narrative elements that render the three texts “Hispanic/Latino,” including the incorporation of Spanish (to different degrees), the integration of a few culturally specific references, the deployment of many more culturally indeterminate references, and illustrations that feature distinctively brown bodies. As these kinds of elements come to serve as a shorthand for “Latino/Hispanic/Mexican Interest,” they reflect and reify a broader slippage in the popular American imagination and media in which “Latinos are perceived primarily in terms of assumed patterns of cultural behavior, of stereotypes reinforced by vaguely defined and ahistorical interpretations of the meaning of ‘Hispanic ethnicity’” (Oboler 1995).
Although many books for children play into the homogenizing, essentializing effects of popular labels by reenacting Latino/a ethnocultural indeterminacy (Soto 1995; Rodríguez 1999; De Anda 2004; Herrera 2004; Pinkney 2007), many others defy such complicity by featuring specific ethnocultural contexts. In The Rainbow Tulip (1999), Pat Mora smoothly establishes that the family in the story is of Mexican origin, while René Colato Laínez makes it clear in I Am René, the Boy / Soy René, el Niño (2005) that the narrator has come to the United States from El Salvador. One refreshing example is the Sports volume of the Latino Life nonfiction series published in the mid-1990s by Rourke Publications. In spite of the series’ name and broad chapter titles such as “Latinos in Baseball,” the author of the Sports (1995) installment, Jeffrey Jensen, is careful to identify the ethnic background of each individual that he profiles. As in the books of Mora and Laínez, Jensen’s gestures toward specificity offer to interrupt popular tendencies (including that of his own publisher) to lump Latinos/as into a homogenous ethnocultural bloc.
Since the very convenience of terms such as “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and even “Latino/a” is the root of the problem with them, it behooves scholars, teachers, librarians, and consumers to understand these terms as superficial descriptors and not as signifiers of a homogenous ethnocultural formation. Rubrics such as “Hispanic children’s literature” and “Latino/a children’s literature” encompass too easily a spectrum of unique texts that embody diverse and distinctive mixtures of cultural, historical, political, and artistic specificity, influence, and significance. Attending to the distinguishing characteristics of texts that otherwise tend to get grouped together—either because of convenience or because the texts lend themselves to it—can yield more nuanced understandings that reveal the limits of the terms upon which popular categories turn.