On Friday, Feburary 10th, a multifaceted, interdisciplinary group of writers, scholars and literary professionals converged on UC Santa Cruz for the Latino Literary Cultures Project’s colloquium “What Latinos Are Reading.” The LLCP is a research group housed at UCSC whose focus is upon literary production by and about Latin Americans in the United States. The cluster is affiliated with the larger Chicano/Latino Research Center, the Institute for Humanities Research, the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States and the UC Humanities Research Institute and these affiliations seem to give the cluster its ability to zero in on specific areas of investigation that produce rich cultural insights. In the instance of this event, the conversation ranged from the specific answers to the title question from a journalist and young-adult fiction writer as well as numerous marketing and educational statistics from a major international market publisher. The extremely different points of view of each of the panelists provided a real opportunity for conversations about what, how and why certain members of the Latino population read.
The event began with each panelist responding in some way to the question “What Latinos are Reading,” but, as respondent and moderator Juan Poblete surmised, the conversation really began to delve into questions about what was at stake and the reasons why one would study the reading practices of a Latino population. This seemed to organically generate questions around access, identity, literacy, and language. Each panelist’s unique experience and expertise traversed these questions in different and compelling ways. The real strength of the event lay in the breadth of experience and point of view that was brought to the table by only three panelists.
The first panelist, Gustavo Arellano, is a journalist with the independent publication the OC Weekly and is well known for his syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!. Arellano spoke candidly about his own experience as a young reader and defended the notion that Latino readers should read whatever they want, “as long as it is good!” Arellano characterized his own project as a journalist as a confrontation of normative academic writing with satire and the idea that complex political ideas can and should be delivered to as many people as possible, in a language they can easily comprehend. Arellano’s uneasiness around the jargon of academia seemed well-suited for a conference with questions about a group of readers for whom access to such words could be limited. It opened up space in the room for more conversations around what is read, how it is read, and what kinds of boundaries are set up around different kinds of literary objects. Arellano’s reading later on cemented his commitment to asking questions of how these kinds of boundaries are created and crossed. He read from a fresh galley copy of his soon to be released history of Mexican food in the United States, a work that begins with burritos in space but ends up questioning what cultural attributes are allowed to cross borders and which ones are not.
The second panelist was Malín Alegría, a young-adult novelist whose work seeks to reflect young Latinas. Alegría’s motivation in creating these works, and the passion that sends her to small communities around the country, lies in her desire to provide these young women with relatable literary figures. Seeing adolescence as a crucial time for identity formation and reading as an important activity towards such formations, Alegría provides experiences and points of view not covered by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Sweet Valley Twins. Alegría’s reading revealed an energized prose, richly detailing a young woman’s existence in a Texas border town. The issues explored within the segment read aloud might have been universal embarrassments experienced by any adolescent girl. But the way they were experienced, the details that allow readers to engross themselves in a text and feel their way through the pages, were deeply rooted in place and the circumstance of a first generation American. Alegría’s work works in a similar way as Arellano’s, thinking through questions of language, histories of identity and access. Both writers provide reading opportunities for readers who find themselves in gaps, or hybrid spaces of language, history, and identity.
The last speaker on the panel was Theresa Hamman, a manager at Scholastic with many years of experience in bilingual and global publishing for children and young adults. Hamman provided statistical answers to questions of access, language and literacy in a Pan-American context. Hamman’s commitment to improving access to books in both English and Spanish to readers in Latin America, as well as her interest in publishing work like Alegría’s in the United States made an impression on the conference participants at large. Conference organizer Kirsten Silva-Gruesz commented after Hamman’s informative talk that she was surprised at how much work a for-profit publisher was putting into understanding the needs of Latin American and Latino readers. Hamman’s talk emphasized the work that her own company did, the Kids and Family Reading Report being the most impressive. Hamman’s own interest in giving booksellers and parents training on how to read to and with their children and her knowledge of reading proficiency gaps spoke to the energy she put into her job as well as her own understanding of issues of language and accessibility in the publishing world.
This event allowed participants to engage in a conversation about the myriad issues that surround the question “What Latinos Are Reading” in a real concrete manner by practitioners outside of academia. Students and Professors saw many of the issues they confront theoretically played out in front of them, in the prose of a cultural history, the voice of a fictional young Latina and the statistical data reflecting reading habits and challenges of Latino populations.
For more information:
Latino Literary Cultures Project: http://culturas.ucsc.edu/
Malín Alegría: http://www.malinalegria.com/Casa.html
Gustavo Arellano: http://www.askamexican.net/
Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report: http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/kffr