In the second grade, I discovered my very life’s purpose, and unexpectedly, I also discovered my own identity. My life’s purpose came to me in the form of second-grade writing workshops, where I would pour out random stories with topics ranging from purple hippos to limousine rides in Costa Rica. I’d always been a storyteller up until that point, using my wild imagination to talk the ears off anyone who’d listen. Writing gave me a better outlet for my stories, and it also saved the ears of the people around me. That same year, I also discovered my own ethnic identity. I didn’t know much about ethnicity at seven years old, but most of the people around me were Mexican, so my second-grade brain quickly deduced that I too was most likely Mexican. When I brought this up with my mom, she quickly told me that my reasoning was wrong. Her family was from Costa Rica, Panama, and Cuba. My dad’s family was from El Salvador, making me from all four of those places. When I told my second-grade friends what I’d discovered, they very innocently asked me “What parts of Mexico are those?”
I’ve struggled with my identity from a young age. Yet, somehow, my identity as a writer was something I never wavered in. Writing and storytelling were all I ever wanted to do, and it’s still what I want to do now (it’s the very thing I’m going to school for). The thing is, when I learned about writing and being Latinx at the same time, I quickly learned how little of my identity was in the things I loved most: stories.
“For almost every story I wrote, my main characters were almost exclusively white. When I was doing it, I never saw it as weird in any way because I was just writing like all my favorite authors.”
The stories I loved so much felt like everything I had ever wanted. They were wonderful books about 12-year-old demi-gods, little kids finding mermaids in their local ponds, girls getting transported into worlds of fairies, runaway princesses in fantastical lands, and I couldn’t get enough of their magic. Those were the books that made me want to be an author. And all those books were incredibly white, with characters described as “fair-skinned” with “light eyes” and “golden tresses” of hair. Even books with little character description typically depicted white protagonists on the covers and mostly all of them were written by white authors.
As a kid aspiring to be just like those authors who wrote the books I loved so much, I started to write like them. For almost every story I wrote, my main characters were almost exclusively white. When I was doing it, I never saw it as weird in any way because I was just writing like all my favorite authors. Their protagonists were the quirky teenage girls with “pale blushing skin,” “light eyes,” “blonde,” “brunette,” and occasionally “red hair.” So why couldn’t mine look that way too?
That question was answered for me in the high school of my sophomore year in English class. This class, taught by Mrs. Carrasco-Cardona, was unlike one I had ever taken before. On the first day of class, she told us that it would be an English class taught through an Ethnic Studies lens. As the year went on, I realized it was unlike any other English class I’d taken before. For the first time, we were being taught English from a non-white perspective. It was through this class I learned nobody can tell your story but you. This changed my writing forever. It seems simple, doesn’t it? But it was something I had never realized until somebody told me. All my favorite authors, the ones whose stories were the most popular, the most advertised and spotlighted, all of them were white. As a result, their stories were told from the perspective of white people and because their books were popular, I thought it was what I had to do to become a published author. I believed I had to follow the “norm.” A norm that was undeniably white.
I don’t remember which story it was when I first changed my main character’s description from “fair-skinned” and “light-eye” to “brown-skinned” and “dark-eyed”, but I remember the feeling. How changing a few little words, just going from what I thought I had to do to what I wanted to do in the way that was most personal to me, felt like magic. Like I was rediscovering my own identity all over again but this time in my own words. It made me realize how much I’d been missing, what I’d been hoping to see my entire life. Suddenly, I was that change for me. It made me realize how much I also wanted to be the change for other little girls who are like me––looking for themselves in their favorite stories.
That realization and that magic didn’t come without shadows of doubt. Even in what feels like more “progressive” times, many of the popular books out there, the ones turned into movies and TV shows, mainly feature white characters at the forefront and are written by white authors. Despite this, I’ve kept my confidence by discovering BIPOC stories that have the same kind of magic as the ones I loved when I was a kid. I found the fantastical worlds built by women of color like Sabaa Tahir, Rin Chupeco, Tracy Deonn, and Hafsah Faizal. I was able to find more and more stories by Latinx authors, old and new. Great writers such as Isabel Allende, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Zoraida Córdova, Sandra Cisneros and so many more that I can’t wait to read. I would love for those stories to be just as popularized and mainstream because as an aspiring author and a woman of color, it’s those stories that give me hope. And who knows, maybe I’ll be another author that gives a little brown girl hope that one day she too can tell her story.