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Tactics of Hope in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Jesus Montaño, Regan Postma-Montaño
Published by University of New Mexico Press in 2022

Rudine Sims-Bishop first suggested that children’s literature might function as a mirror or a window (1990).  The idea is that sometimes children can see themselves and their culture reflected in a character in a book, and, in doing so, feel their identity confirmed as in a mirror.  At other times, children can look into a book like looking out a window, and, so doing, can see into cultures and worlds that they may not be familiar with.  In the world of Young Adult literature studies, this is a very important metaphor and has been referenced and expanded upon to include sliding glass, doors, funhouse mirrors, and more. 

Jesus Montano and Regan Postma Montano’s book, Tactics of Hope in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature describes children’s books that certainly serve as both windows and doors for its readers, but the main argument of the book hearkens back to a much earlier set of metaphors.  M.H. Abrams (1971), in describing the theory of literature that the romantic poets developed, described how literature can serve as a mirror or a lamp.  Abram’s metaphor argues that literature can be a mirror reflecting not necessarily the reader, but the world in which the reader lives, reflecting that world as accurately as possible.  Abrams argued that the romantic poets, however, saw a place for literature as a lamp, illuminating the world with imagination and vision.  Montano and Montano’s book highlights young adult literature that shows us both the world the way it is, with all of its inequity, injustice, and scarcity, and also shows that Latinx people are more than the stereotypes society puts upon them – but their book also demonstrates how young adult literature can shine a light toward what the world could and should be like.  Another way to say this is that Latinx young adult literature is a place where readers can find truth and hope. 

The authors suggest that “Children and youth in Latinx and children’s and young adult literature propose in their imaginings revolutionary ways to recover from racial and colonial violence” (p. 4).  The structure that guides the book is the idea of conocimiento which is originally the Spanish word for knowledge, but which the authors define and expand to include multiple ways of knowing, specifically, “Self-reflection, imagination, intuition, sensory experiences, rational thought, outward-directed action, and social-justice concerns” (p.4).  While the elements in that definition are almost as wide-ranging as young adult literature itself, they constitute a “non-linear journey from inner works to public acts” (p.4). The structure comes when the authors break down this concept into stages drawn from the work of Gloria Anzaldua.  Those stages are: 

  1. An arrrebeto or a susto which refers to the fracturing of the self.
  2. Nepantla is an interstitial liminal space where one is torn between different perspectives.  
  3. The coatlique state is where the cost of knowing leads to a call to action, a crossing over into the knowledge of conocimiento, and then putting the pieces which were fractured into a coherent self through personal and collective stories.
  4. These stories then make possible new imaginings that lead to new realities that contest older knowledge.
  5. Finally, that leads to a shift of reality in which the vision created is acted out and established through activism and change. 

This takes the idea of mirrors and lamps several steps further.  In the chapters that follow, the authors demonstrate this structure with a variety of Latinx young adult novels (and some picture books as well).  Using the idea of conocimiento, they show how each novel gives us counter-stories that disrupt the seemingly black and white separation between cultures and instead create a mestizada – a new creative cultural mix.  Conocimiento develops hope by fostering resistance and transforming society. I have to assume that the authors, both English professors at Hope College, recognize some parallels between the structure of Conocimiento and the notion that we need to know the depth of the brokenness of the world as well as the hope of God’s Grace and use both to transform the world.

The first chapter provides a simple but compelling initial example.  The chapter considers the picturebook My Papi has a Motorcycle (2019), which invites readers to look into the story of a hardworking Latinx dad caring for his daughter after a hard day at work.  This story of ordinary life and love sets up a counter-narrative against stereotypes that portray only broken families, deadbeat dads, abandoned unloved children, criminals, and single parents.  In fact, that section suggests that one way to think about this book is to imagine movement from cover to cover as a motorcycle ride across Latinx children’s and young adult literature. 

Another consistent theme in the analysis of Latinx children literature in this book is the focus on the southern borderlands because such places are a concentration of exploitation and injustice against Latinx people, both US citizens and migrants who live with one foot in the culture North of the Border, one foot in the culture South of the border, but are also immersed in a separate and rich borderlands culture of its own. 

There isn’t enough space here to enumerate the multitude of ways in which this central argument works out with different contemporary young adult novels including They Call Me Guero (2018), Summer of the Mariposas (2012), Land of the Cranes, and I am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  But it will touch on a couple of the main ideas.  Chapter 2 highlights borderlands culture as a place that is bewildering to adolescents, but also a place that offers “…resistance and transformation for bicultural and translingual border kids” (p.17). Chapter 3 discusses two YA novels to suggest that characters drawing on cultural wealth can bring healing by rewriting stories of losing, recovering, being exiled and coming home – and in so doing, serve as models for readers.  Chapter 4 focuses on how children’s literature bears witness to nationally sanctioned and funded racism that leads to exploitation and deportation of Latinx people in the United States and, by doing that, pushes awareness into public space in a way that undermines racist conceptions of Latinx people.  Chapter 5 describes how two YA novels use autohistorias – a combination of personal memoir and cultural history – to create a fictional form that can renegotiate identity and challenge social stereotypes and norms. 

I was struck again and again as I read this by two notions.  First, the book provides an interpretive link between young adult literature that might seem to Christians to be deeply secular in attitude and cultural grounding, and a reformational vision of restoration of a world broken by sin to a world in which God’s grace welcomes all people into a common place.  Second, these ideas, while deeply rooted in Latinx culture and context, have applications that are much wider and stretch to marginalized, oppressed, stereotyped, and unappreciated cultures throughout the world. Overall, the most important thread which weaves through the whole book is the idea of hope.  Often when Christians think or talk about race, diversity inequity, justice, or inclusion, we are overwhelmed by the depth of the brokenness of the world, by the guilt that the church and its people share over the years for treating our neighbors in this way, and by the vastness of the problem which seems to render any attempt we can make to address the problem utterly hopeless.  What Tactics of Hope in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature offers is a lamp that shines on a path forward into hope.

William Boerman-Cornell

Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of Education at Trinity Christian College.  He is the co-author most recently of Young Adult Literature and Spirituality: How to Unlock Deeper Understanding with Class Discussion.