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Representations of Latinx/Hispanic Characters in Children’s Picture Books

“All Hispanics are poor.”

As a Hispanic woman and “millennial” born and raised in the U.S., I find this stereotype to be personally offensive. I have experienced and witnessed firsthand the harmful consequences of such beliefs. Yet, in my recent work as a research assistant with the Diverse BookFinder -- during which I took a deep dive into the books in the collection featuring Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters -- it became clear to me that this is just one of many stereotypes that is perpetuated by a lack of diversity in stories featuring Latinx/Hispanic characters. During my study, I found that at least 1 in 4 books about Latinx/Hispanic people depict them as impoverished.

As Marcela Peres argued in an earlier post about the majority of Brazilian characters in children’s books being featured as soccer players, Latinx/Hispanic children deserve to see their culture depicted in wider and more accurate ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of the books I read about Latinx/Hispanic soccer players, in particular, portrayed them in poverty. The characters in these books live in slums, voluntarily (and even happily) exploit themselves in low-paying jobs, steal to get by, using fruit and trash as balls in order to reach their soccer dreams. Although the creators of these books may be attempting to portray the characters as determined and resilient in the face of poverty, taken together this repeated storyline can be harmful to the way Latinx/Hispanic children see themselves, and the way non-Latinx/Hispanic people come to view them.

As a Hispanic woman, while I believe it’s important that the struggles and systemic oppression Latinx/Hispanic communities face be acknowledged at all levels of representation, it needn’t be the main focus nor the preponderance of the stories.

In her 2009 TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the harm in reducing the diverse experiences of an entire racial or cultural group to a singular portrayal. She specifically discusses the danger of representing Mexicans solely as people who commit crimes and steal “government money.” She argues that if the same story is told over and over again -- even if it’s not true -- it becomes the one people remember. Furthermore, because these stories often leave out details that reveal the actual causes of social problems such as poverty, those problems can then be wrongly blamed on the racial or cultural group itself, which is then viewed as “less than” or deficient in some way.

The children’s book industry -- from creators to publishers -- needs to expand the narratives being told about Latinx/Hispanic people beyond soccer and poverty. As a Hispanic woman, while I believe it’s important that the struggles and systemic oppression Latinx/Hispanic communities face be acknowledged at all levels of representation, it needn’t be the main focus nor the preponderance of the stories. There is also plenty of room for creators and publishers to sensitively and accurately address the systemic causes of poverty in Latin American countries (e.g. the wage gap, labor exploitation, racism in education and the workplace, neocolonialism).  

Recently I came across one book that I believe attempts to portray a more accurate representation of Latinx/Hispanic people in poverty:

Undocumented

2018

by Duncan Tonatiuh

Undocumented is the story of immigrant workers who have come to the United States without papers. Every day, these men and women join the work force and contribute positively to society. The story is told via the ancient Mixtec codex--accordion fold--format. Juan grew up in Mexico working in the fields to help provide for his family. Struggling for money, Juan crosses over into the United States and becomes an undocumented worker, living in a poor neighborhood, working hard to survive. Though he is able to get a job as a busboy at a restaurant, he is severely undercompensated--he receives less than half of the minimum wage! Risking his boss reporting him to the authorities for not having proper resident papers, Juan risks everything and stands up for himself and the rest of the community.--Amazon.com

Beautiful Life Cross Group Oppression & Resilience

In Tonatiuh's book, the main character is an immigrant man whose experience exemplifies the societal burdens put on and oppression of Latinx/Hispanic people in the U.S. that leads to poverty. The man is underpaid and told by his boss that he is lucky to have a job at all. He is a hard-working activist fighting for the rights of his co-workers and supporting his family, but is taken advantage of due to his legal status. As a challenge to stereotypical portrayals of Latinx/Hispanic people as poor due to inherent laziness, this book shows that in reality, it is white supremacy and racist norms in America that lead to a lack of job opportunities and cycles of oppression for Latinx/Hispanic people.

Growing up as a Hispanic child, I rarely saw characters from my background in the books I read, which became especially clear as I went to a primarily white school. While this has changed slowly over time (and is why I’m excited to work for a project like the Diverse BookFinder), it’s time to give them more than stereotypical or mere existence in children’s books.

The children’s book industry has the potential to be a platform for Latinx/Hispanic children to see people like themselves and their families portrayed as strong, successful, and achieving their dreams on their own terms and in their own diverse ways. Latinx/Hispanic people deserve for their home countries and ancestral lands to be portrayed as beautiful and full of diversity.


Isabella is a second-year student from New York City majoring in Politics. She loves reading children's books because they remind her of home.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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