Latino Inclusivity in Popular Young Adult Novels
Putting some thought into the young adult novels read during younger years or in recent times, one may remember some prominent ones such as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Harry Potter Series, The Fault In Our Stars, or A Wrinkle In Time. All of these novels have stood out in their own way. However, how many of these books’ characters can individuals with Latino/Hispanic roots identify themselves with? A small number really, since there is a very small number of Latino/Hispanic characters, if any, in these novels. “Latino” and “Hispanic” are two different takes on being a Spanish-speaker; “Latino” usually means a person with Latin American ancestry, while “Hispanic” relates to people only from Latin America, Spain, or the Caribbean. For this article, “Latino” will be used, to refer to individuals with Latin American heritage, who need novel characters they can easily connect with the most in their multi-cultural world. The following books’ stories will be discussed, so be aware of any spoilers ahead for: All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin, More Than Words by Jill Santopolo, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Look For Me by Lisa Gardner, and If I Stay by Gayle Forman.
There has been a small rise in the number of main characters who have Latino roots in recent novels, specifically, young adult novels. However, more is still needed, especially for the upcoming generations who are multi-cultural. Many novels have misrepresented Latinos through stereotypes. As stated in the New York Times article “For Latino Young Readers, An Image is Missing”, 1 most books youth encounter have main characters who are white. Even an eight-year old child commented: “I see a lot of people that don’t have a lot of color.” Reinforced in the mentioned article, short books such as Dora The Explorer do not count as representation. Short stories do not play out long enough for necessary details. In addition, while Dora The Explorer may introduce brief insights into Latino culture and some Spanish vocabulary, it needs more time and story. There is a strong need for more books with Latino protagonists to make their way into youth’s lives, since “what is available is not finding its way into classrooms”. Schools are the fastest and closest gateway for children to find literature to learn from and connect with.
Lists of suggested books for youth literature have some written by African American authors about black characters, such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but feature very few Latino writers or with a Latino main character. It would be wise to include proper Latino representations, other than the stereotypical character traits they are widely given in literature.
Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted: Appropriate Latino Representation
One of the most recent young adult novels to include a Latina’s point-of-view has been Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted 2. In the story, we meet four main protagonists; Nina Browning, Tom Volpe, Lyla Volpe (Tom’s daughter), and Finch Browning (Nina’s son). Giffin does what not many non-Latina authors do; she immerses us into the point-of-view of Lyla, whom is of Latino heritage (Brazil, specifically). In the novel, Lyla is a high school freshman, who has a crush on a high school senior named Finch. Lyla and Finch could not be more different. Lyla has a humble background; a single father who cares for her in a moderate household. Finch was born into wealth through his father, Kirk Browning, and his mother, Nina, comes from a humble background, as well as a dark past.
One night, Finch abuses his economically high-status on many different levels; personally, emotionally, and physically. He and his friend, Beau, take an inappropriate picture of Lyla and post it on Snapchat. Lyla was sleeping on his bed, having had too many drinks, part of her breast showing, with Uno card games nearby, and the caption read “Looks like she got her green card” (Giffin, 25). It was a very discriminating, racist, and abusive thing to post online without consent of the individual. This is something a lot of young adults may relate to, with the permanent stay of social media in our everyday lives now. Before, the public did not have many young adult novels published with social media as a helping tool for the story’s main plot. Now, Giffin has helped break that barrier on what young teens today may be prey to. Furthermore, she created Lyla with Brazilian heritage coming from Lyla’s mother, Beatriz.
Even though we have a main character, Lyla, with Latino roots, her mother’s story still fits into the Latino and woman stereotypes. Beatriz is over-sexualized and an alcoholic. The first day she met Tom Volpe, she asked him “Do you make love the way you dance?” (Giffin, 37). Once Lyla was born, things changed for the worse. Tom described how he “slowly began to see that Beatriz’s sole version of fun had become partying” (Giffin, 39). She became jobless due to excessive use of alcohol. It was also suggested that she cheated on Tom. Eventually, she abandoned Lyla with her father.
She was given a narcissistic personality, and thought only about herself. As supported in Portrayals of Latino in Young Adult Fiction by Jennifer Cole 3, Latina mothers in Latino literature are usually depicted as mothers with “traits that hurt their relationships with their children”. The public needs more Latino characters with positive character traits, that may be passed down in the minds of young adult readers. As stated by Cole, when stereotypes become consistent in the minds of readers, they become believable. Young adults, whether reading a novel for school or their own enjoyment, should have access to material that inspires them to break away from negative stereotypes. However, there can be some who are able to identify with Lyla’s family situation, since it is true that not every family has both mother and father present. It is a matter of increasing positive light on the Latina mother and woman in literature.
At first, there was doubt whether or not Finch had taken the photo and uploaded it online. Walter, Lyla and Finch’s head of school, had gotten wind of the photo circulation and ordered a meeting with both families. It is a common theme in literature that Caucasian people are usually wealthy. Kirk Browning tried getting Finch off the hook with director Walter by offering a huge amount of money as a “donation” to the school. Kirk only cared for his public image and, unfortunately, reinforced this in his son by almost begging for charges to be laid off because it would ruin Finch’s chances of getting accepted to Princeton University. Kirk even asked whether Lyla was a minority, horribly demonstrating that he could not care less about a woman’s personal well-being. Kirk clearly did not see anything wrong with Finch’s actions.
Then, Kirk Browning and Tom Volpe have a private meeting. In the meeting, Kirk tried reasoning with Tom through money. Kirk tells Tom his son is truly sorry for what he did to Lyla, but readers can see the cruelty of this scene; money cannot buy Lyla’s reputation and respect. Moreover, it should be Finch apologizing in person, not his father for him. Tom, with dignity, proceeds with charges and hopes the school will judge Finch with the severity of his actions. Lyla is being attacked by others, some calling her a “sl*t” and others stating she asked for it by drinking. This is representative of the “blame-the-victim” fallacy. As supported in Psychology Today 4, author David B. Feldman states that the “tendency to blame the victim may originate, paradoxically, in a deep need to believe that the world is a good and just place.” However, the most common form of blaming the victim “undoubtedly originates from ignorance, meanness, or a smug sense of superiority”. It is clear that Tom, having already experienced hardships, did not immediately blame Lyla for the photograph being taken. Kirk, however, as well as other classmates, blamed Lyla, showing a lack of intelligence and common sense at how other factors played a role in Lyla’s situation.
As the story continued, Finch had said it was his “crazy” girlfriend, Polly, whom he had chosen to broke up with to be with Lyla, whom had posted the photo. Finch claimed Polly posted it because she was jealous of Lyla. Finch even had the audacity to tell Lyla of Polly’s current mental health issues. Finch stated,
“I wasn’t the one who took that photo of you. I wasn’t the one who wrote that caption. And I wasn’t the one who sent it to my friends…[Polly] took it because she thought you and I were talking…texting…because of the way we were looking at each other [the day of the party]…let’s just say Polly has a lot of issues…” (Giffin, 169).
Lyla then wonders if the rumors about Polly’s eating disorders and cutting issues were true. One of the best things Emily Giffin deserves praise for is how she wrote a character with a disorder who was not a minority. Eventually, Finch and Lyla begin dating, with Lyla choosing to believe that Finch was innocent (she has had a huge crush on him since she began school) and it had indeed been Polly. The worst was yet to come for Lyla.
[SPOILER AHEAD] As the story moves forward, readers learn that Finch really did post the photo of Lyla on SnapChat. Finch was too good to be true, helping deviate from the typical story where main characters are not flawed. Finch tried framing Polly for the photograph, as well as taking advantage of a time Polly called Lyla a “sl*t”, and chose to paint that word on Lyla’s front porch (the nerve). Lyla received a text message from Polly, stating:
“Dear Lyla, I am so sorry that I called you a sl*t. It was a really ugly thing to say, and I actually don’t think that about you…I did NOT take that picture of you. It was Finch and Beau. And I have proof. I also have something else really big to tell you…I’m desperate and scared…” (Giffin, 304).
Soon after, Polly shows Lyla the truth of what happened the night of the party; a photo shows Lyla on Beau’s bed with the male genital organ close-up on her face, almost touching her lips. Lyla knows who it belongs to, Finch. Polly then confesses how she snuck on Finch’s cell phone and found it, along with other photos of him with other girls, and sex videos Finch had told her he deleted. It is a horrible reality Lyla then faces.
Emily Giffin successfully placed two young women from both a high and low-socio economic status in a horrible situation, instead of just placing Lyla, the minority, under the microscope. This is an excellent example of how no matter where you are from or what your skin color is, you may face a horrible and an unjust experience. Moreover, Giffin portrays Finch, a high-standing student, coming from a rich background with Caucasian heritage, the worst character traits, which in real life is possible. She did not give Lyla, a Latina, these traits. According to Jennifer Cole in “Portrayal of Latinos in Young Adult Fiction”:
“four out of sixteen books [with Latino main characters in a selected classroom], showed characteristics that portrayed a negative reputation. For example, [characters] failed academically, participated in gang activity, experimented with drugs and/or alcohol, and committed thefts”.
Giffin has shown one the fairest youth representations in modern young adult literature.
It is common knowledge that Latinos tend to get the very brutal stories when it comes to publishing. Giffin is one of the few authors who manages to get a sense of what it means when a Latino character is discriminated by others, even when Giffin is not Latina herself. There are not many well-known authors who include Latino characters in their novels the way Giffin did. While it would have broken even more barriers to have had Lyla as a rich Latina, All We Ever Wanted successfully immerses the reader into a diverse world.
More Than Words By Jill Santopolo: More Latino Culture Needed
Another novel that has attempted to integrate Latino culture is Jill Santopolo’s More Than Words 5. In the story, the protagonist, Nina Gregory, comes from “old money” through her father, Joseph Gregory. She has been dating long-time boyfriend named Tim Calder, but has her heart set on her boss, Rafael O’Connor Ruiz. While the novel integrates some Spanish vocabulary, it still has a lot to build for bigger Latino representation.
When Nina is remembering a childhood memory, she mentions how “her dad had named the [family bar] Los Tortolitos, Spanish for the lovebirds, something her parents had been called in the Spanish press…” (Santopolo, 32). Santopolo continues to include Spanish words here and there, such as describing how Nina’s mother had been a Spanish teacher, and “urged [Nina] to answer “en español” (Santopolo, 36). However, the reader does not get any longer sentences in Spanish. Later on, Nina describes how her mother would combine Spanish words, such as “inteligente” (intelligent) and “linda” (beautiful) to nickname her “intelinda”. (Santopolo, 69). Santopolo delivers some Spanish vocabulary to the reader, but it is not enough showcasing of the Spanish language. It would have been nice for her to have added a bit more of Nina’s mother’s cultural customs, and for her to be alive in the story.
Nina was began her story believing her best friend since childhood, Tim, but that changes completely when [SPOILER AHEAD] she finally accepts what she feels for Rafael O’Connor Ruiz. While Rafael may be a Latino character, he is not initially given room to showcase his Cuban roots throughout the story. He even adds a bit of Spanish dialogue to conversations, such as wishing Nina “buena suerte” (good luck) (Santopolo, 295). He is, however, described as someone with dark brown eyes and very handsome, charismatic enough to attract a large audience. In fact, he is running for mayor of New York City. It is common knowledge that there Latinos are usually portrayed as having low-income. As supported in “Portrayal of Latinos in Young Adult Fiction” by Jennifer Cole, there are many stories with Latino characters that had aspirations to get out of their low-status. Sadly, none of characters in the books she mention gain those aspirations successfully.
This is a strong contrast to Rafael, who manages to win the campaign by choosing to show both sides of his family, English and Spanish, to the public. He admits that his whole life he has
“been a chameleon. [He] can be whoever people want [him] to be. Talk about [his] family in Ireland, or [his] family in Cuba. Pepper [his] conversations with Spanish, switch into it completely, or pretend those words aren’t in [his] mind at all. [He] can be the kid who grew up in Queens sharing a bedroom with [his] sister and brother, or the one who got taken out to the fanciest restaurants in New York City when [he] was a summer associate at Sullivan and Cromwell” (Santopolo, 217).
Rafael chose to showcase his real, imperfect self to the people. He decided to share his experience of having an imperfect family (e.g., having a cousin who went to prison). Rafael’s character is a nice breakthrough for Latino readers because he is easy to connect with, demonstrating Latinos can be successful and yet have difficulties in life simultaneously. Rafael was real and broke apart from being another stereotypical character.
There is still room for growth in Santopolo’s and other authors’ books showcasing Latino protagonists.
Other Young Adult Novels: Latino Stereotypes Must Be Diminished
Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 6 has been widely acclaimed for its portrayal of bi-cultural existence. The story goes with Arnold Spirit Jr., who pursues his ambitions to be bigger than thought possible by going to an elite public high school, despite being the only one with Indian heritage, besides the school’s mascot. Even though the young adult novel has faced backlash for its “cultural insensitivity”, Alexie defends by stating; “I don’t write to protect [youth]. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters.” 7 This novel indirectly touches on stereotypes Latinos face in real life, which is vital for everyone to learn from.
Arnold does not have a good start of the school year. He is told by one of his teachers, Mr. P., that teachers are supposed to teach them by killing “the Indian to save the child…[teachers] were supposed to make [Indian students] give up being Indian. [Their] songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything…[They] were trying to kill Indian culture” (Sherman, 35). This, while being part of a fictional book, does reflect the true story of what many youth are conflicted with. It is common knowledge that in the United States, there are Latinos who face backlash for speaking in Spanish, both physically and verbally. According to Suzanne Gamboa in “Young Latinos: Born in the U.S.A., Carving Their Own Identity”, many multi-cultural youth have to juggle with their identity, she says, “like other population waves throughout the country’s history, these young bicultural Americans are coming of age enmeshed in their Latino and American worlds and trying to carve out a place for themselves in both of them and between”. Gamboa presents a case where a young teenage girl testifies how her own father pressures her to be more American, while her mother argues that it is disrespectful not to talk to her relatives in Spanish. 8 It is key to let youth flourish the way they want to flourish, or else they grow up without a sense of purpose, confused on what actions they should take based on their stereotypes, rather than their capabilities, which can be infinite.
Moreover, the thriller mystery novel Look For Me 9 by Lisa Gardner helps add up, unintentionally, to the bad stereotypes too often placed about Latinos. In the novel, the mystery revolves around the protagonist, Roxanna Baez, whom everyone is trying to figure out if she is a victim or dangerous enemy. While trying to uncover the mystery, Detective D.D. Warren and Flora Dane retrace Roxanna’s past. In a meeting with Roxanna’s high school guidance counselor, they are told that:
“[The school has] this group of Hispanic girls. [We’ve] heard whispers they’re a gang. They all have beauty marks on their cheeks and a penchant for ripped-up jeans. According to the rumor mill, Roxy’s sister, Lola, has already joined the middle school group. Now, Roxy’s under pressure from the high school girls…(Gardner, 97).
This coincides with the classic, inappropriate symbol of only the Hispanic community being tied to gangs. It is common knowledge that other cultures have these kind of violent groups within them as well, and it would have been great to see another ethnic group being given the role of having a gang within them, other than Latinos. Hence, new novels need more positive role models that Latinos may follow or look up to.
Gayle Forman’s If I Stay 10 novel is widely acclaimed for the way it is beautifully written in the main character’s point of view, Mia. However, there is a discriminating moment in the novel; Mia and her boyfriend, Adam, are trying to save their relationship by suggesting places they may visit, offering restaurant names such as “Japanese Gardens” and “Beau Thai”. Then, Adam states, “…but we can go out during the week somewhere. Around here. To the Mexican place?”, to which Mia answers, “Sure. The Mexican place” (Forman, 203). While this may not be central to the story’s plot, it would have been wise to give the restaurant a proper name.
There is a small number of positive, memorable Latino characters in young adult novels. With the rise of judgement around the world, it is more important than ever before that we properly represent each ethnicity. The upcoming generations need someone to look up in literature, increasing their ability to see beyond stereotypes.
Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted gave us a diverse world where anyone can have both good and bad character traits, while Santopolo’s More Than Words gave us a Latino who was succeeding, even with troubled family members. Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian provided light into what it is like to grow up and desperately try to break away from what people tell you you are meant to be. It is crucial to remember that it is not only Latino’s who may be involved in unwanted activity, as shown in Look For Me by Lisa Gardner, and that every cultural cuisine deserves a full, proper name, and should not be given any generalities, as read in If I Stay by Gayle Forman. It is vital to speak out that no matter what Latino heritage one carries. There are positive Latino role models within a book’s pages whom one may admire and triumph with as she/he reads along.
- Motoko, Rich. “For Latino Young Readers, An Image Is Missing.” The New York Times. 4 Dec. 2008. Print. ↩
- Giffin, Emily. All We Ever Wanted. New York. Ballantine Books. 2018. Print. ↩
- Cole, Jennifer. Portrayals of Latino in Young Adult Fiction. 2013. Graduate Research Papers. 20. Print. ↩
- Feldman, David. “Why Do People Blame The Victim?”. Psychology Today. 2 Mar. 2018. Print. ↩
- Santopolo, Jill. More Than Words. New York. G.P. Putnam. 2019. Print. ↩
- Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York. Little, Brown, and Company. 2007. Print. ↩
- Sparks, Angela. “Resisting First Nations Stereotypes in banned YA Novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian”. U.S. Studies Online. 2 Dec. 2015. ↩
- Gamboa, Suzanne. Young Latinos: Born in the U.S.A., Carving Their Own Identity”. Generation Latino, NBC News. 14 Sept. 2018. Print. ↩
- Gardner, Lisa. Look For Me. New York. Dutton. 2017. ↩
- Forman, Gayle. If I Stay. New York. Speak. 2009. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.