“Books that tell stories about a child’s own unique history becomes a liberating force for children’s creativity while validating them in the larger society.” -Javier J. Silva, Director of Communication, Latino Institute, Chicago, IL
Jo Ann Hernández is an award-winning author of White Bread Competition (Piñata Books, 1997) and The Throwaway Piece (Arte Publico Press). At her blog, BronzeWord Latino Authors, she promotes and supports Latino/a authors and writers in achieving their publishing goals.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I’ve had a different experience. In my childhood, I led a sheltered life in Catholic school for twelve years, and the last four were spent in an all-girls Catholic academy. The students were mostly Latina. The white girls were usually smarter than everyone else. We assumed that was just the way things were. I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the world. I didn’t get a handle on all that until I attended Burlington College as an undergraduate and a single mother in my 30s. There a professor handed me a one-page list of books written by Latinos/as. I was stunned. I didn’t know we could write! I met my first educated Latino when I was thirty-three. Of course, this was in Vermont in the 1980s; my two sons and I were the only people of color in the entire state!
I had always written but never thought there was a place for my voice in the world. I wrote my first novel when I was seventeen (a biracial romance); I handed it to my favorite nun (all the nuns were white), and I asked her to tell me if she liked the book. The next morning when I ran up to her for her answer, she sent me to the priest for confession.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
I published in magazines and journals all the short stories in my first book, and won awards under a white [Anglo] pen name. At one university press as the book was going to print, I asked the editor if I could put my own name in the journal. He said yes. I told him my name. He emailed me the next day and told me that the printer couldn’t fit all the stories that he had collected, and mine had to be deleted from the journal. I have queried agents and magazine under both names.
The biggest question I’ve been asked – even by people of color – is why do I write about white people? Even my publisher eliminated all my references in my book to my character being white. My answer is two-fold: 1. White people are who we watch. 2. My stories are about people: in pain, loving, being, yearning, achieving. Period.
I feel that my manuscripts are not accepted because it is hard for the powers that be to accept a person of color writing about them. Also, I didn’t grow up in a gang, or as a migrant worker, so I have no background to write those kinds of stories. That is also unacceptable to many publishers. They think only those kind of stories [about Latinos/as] make money.
They tell you to write what you know yet when I do, I am penalized. My parents believed a good education was important. I write what I know.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
I think Manning Marable, an African American scholar, said it best:
"There are many ways that we see stereotypes degrade people, but perhaps the most insidious way is the manner in which stereotypes deny people their own history… Nothing generated by people of color is accepted as historically original, dynamic or creative. This even applies to the way in which people of color are miseducated about their own history… The most insidious element of stereotypes is how people who are oppressed themselves begin to lose touch with their own traditions of history, community, love, celebration, struggle and change…”
What the word needs now is Love. Yeah, with large doses of Respect.