My sister and I recently finished our collaborative picture book. I’ve got to tell you – it feels amazing! It took a lot of hard work, motivation, and serious revision, but we’re finished. It looks awesome and I like the way it reads.
I am proud of us!
This work is especially important to me because it’s about growing up as a multiracial kid, a subject I know all too well.
I grew up in Chicago in an area called Ukrainian Village and went to a grammar school in Humboldt Park; a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away and mostly Puerto Rican. Many of the students that attended my grammar school were 100% Puerto Rican. My sister and I were not. We were genuine Poliricans – half Polish, half Puerto Rican. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, but it was back then. I didn’t and still don’t speak Spanish or Polish. To people in these very strong communities that is a no-no. It looks lazy and like you don’t care enough about where you came from, but that is incorrect. All that means is that neither language was available to you. If you were not immersed in a particular language, chances are, you did not pick it up. That’s what happened to us. It had nothing to do with us being lazy or not wanting to connect with our cultures. It didn’t have anything to do with the kinds of people we were or the kinds of people our parents were. It did however, have everything to do with the environment we grew up in. Now try explaining that to a child. I can tell you from personal experience that all of those things don’t matter because kid world is different from adult world and it comes with its own rules. Kids can be loving and enthusiastic, but at their worst they can be as cruel and illogical as any adult.
I was told that I wasn’t Puerto Rican because I didn’t speak Spanish in the 7th grade. When I stood up for myself, my classmate asked if I was calling her mother a liar because that’s who she got that idea from. She was the tallest girl in my class and she was towering over me in a threatening way. For a moment, it scared me. Would she really hit me? I didn’t know. All I knew was that you never wanted to call somebody’s mother a liar in grammar school because it could get you punched. So I did what any kid my age would do, I backed off and let it be. I never believed what she said, but I never liked her or her mother again. From that day on, I refused to be her friend.
What she said to me divided us. It made me feel like I was not good enough to be Puerto Rican, that even though I had this blood running through my veins, until I spoke Spanish, I would never be good enough for that girl and all of the other Latina’s that spoke Spanish. To them, I would be just be an imposter, a fake, different.
Being different is the worst thing you can be in grammar school. Nobody wants to be different. Everybody just wants to fit in and blend and exist because nobody wants to be made fun of. Everybody just wants to be left alone. Most days, I was, but some days, I wasn’t. So, I just got quieter and quieter. All I wanted to do was disappear. And I was disappearing or at least my self-esteem was. That’s how it all started. That’s when I learned how to bury my feelings. That’s where it lay until this one day when I took my son to the park.
This older kid singled him out and told these little girls not to play with him because he thought my son looked weird. Weird to kids nowadays seems to be the new racial epithet. And he wouldn’t let it go. He was berating him and my son didn’t know what they were saying because, well he was two, but I did and it brought back all of these horrible memories of being ostracized by ignorance. All because he looked different. It made me angry.
So, in order for my son to be accepted into their world he had to look like them? Who told them that nonsense?! Where did they pick up that ideology?! I wanted to leave and never take my son back to that park, but my husband said no. That we weren’t going to just walk away and hide. That doing so would be teaching our son that he’s not welcome to play where ever he wanted to and that is not a good lesson to teach a child. You know what? He was right!
And then one of the little girls said something that changed everything. She said, “WHO CARES IF HE LOOKS WEIRD. I DON’T CARE!” And I wanted to applaud that little girl and I was, on the inside, because even though she didn’t know it, she was standing up for my son, for people of color, for me. I knew then that my son and this world would be okay. And that is how our picture book was born.
It’s a book that is long over-due, a book that kids like my siblings and I have been waiting for our whole lives. We are currently shopping our PB around and we’re hoping that it gets picked up soon. This world needs this book and more books about being multiracial; about acceptance and love.
Our fingers are crossed.