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Barrio Boy

by Wally Clark on 2020-09-03T11:33:24-07:00 in Diversity | Comments

As a youngster I learned how to read early on thanks to my Dick and Jane elementary school primers. I borrowed books from my local public library and enjoyed Caldecott winners like May I Bring a Friend, Once a Mouse and Where the Wild Things Are. The Snowy Day was interesting, too: the story of a young Black boy grooving in the snow, but where were the books about little Mexican American kids like me?

I grew up in Santa Ana on the edge of the Barrio Golden West. It was one of several historic Hispanic colonias, or barrios (neighborhoods) found around town. Golden West was a short residential street but it was long in Hispanic heritage and culture. Living there allowed me to come to terms with my Latino heritage as I interacted with the Hispanic immigrants and Mexican American families who lived down the block. My mother, a descendant of Mexican citizens (my grandmother was a proud green card holder until the day of her death) had a complicated relationship with her ethnicity. She, in turn, made sure that I was plenty confused about mine as well.

Because of what she had to endure as a Latina girl growing up in '40s era Los Angeles, my mom was determined that I would live the life of an average white, middle class boy. I was a child of the '60s. I celebrated Christmas, Easter, and Halloween just like all my friends and family did. I wore clothes from JC Penney and Sears. I loved going to beaches, parks, swap meets, and Disneyland. I had three national and a half dozen local television channels to choose from. I was turned onto Saturday morning cartoons at an early age, ate white bread, boxed cereal, canned ravioli and TV dinners. All in all, it was a pretty normal, conservative Anglo lifestyle. My mom was a homemaker, my stepdad was the bread winner, and I was the household schoolboy.

But all that normalcy was turned on its head whenever my abuelos, my grandparents, came to visit. When they popped in, they were always outraged that I no longer spoke Spanish at home. They were equally miffed to learn that my Latino heritage was rarely discussed or even mentioned. Come summer, I would take the Santa Fe train up to LA and visit them. There were so many things going on there that were so much more compelling, cooler, and confusing than what I experienced at home. The foods they served up were spicier and more flavorful. The announcers on the radio, the conjunto music they listened to, the telenovela soap operas they watched on TV, the gory pulp crime magazines they read, the Lucha Libre wrestling shows they followed, the vast pool of relatives who all spoke Spanish, were all a reflection of a life I came to appreciate but didn’t live most of the year.

Culturally, then, I was split down the middle. My adopted stepdad’s last name, my father’s light skin, the removal from my extended family’s influence, my Mexican American pals down the block, all left me feeling like an outsider, a “pocho,” caught between two worlds: one white, one brown. That annual slice of Hispanic family life that I enjoyed, as real and as authentic it was to me, was something that I never found portrayed in the picture books or chapter books I read. That life lacked positive reinforcement. I began to wonder, who was I, really? Where did I come from? Why weren’t my people ever represented in books or movies in real life terms?

So at the age of 12 I began my odyssey of ethnic identification in earnest. It was hard to do, as there were so few materials to work with back in those days. The histories I read, largely one sided, the optics colored by the victors, were so much different than the family histories I heard tell from my relatives. My journey was also colored by my times, by '60s militancy, the Brown Power movement, and the rise of Chicano identity and activism. By degrees I came to think of myself as a Mexican American boy, and later on as a Chicano youth, even if no one else in my household did.

I discovered that recognizing who you are and where you come from is important. I feel fortunate, then, through luck, location and circumstance, that I had a wide ranging, Pan-American kind of upbringing. I am happy that I was able to explore my life and discover my own voice, without the pressure of having to be one thing or another.

These times of ethnic and racial recognition, celebration, and sensitivity gladden my heart. Unlike in years past, we now have the tools we need to broaden our sense of belonging and help promote cultural understanding. It has been great to see that the publishing world has recognized this need and is producing books that look at, celebrate, and respect the lives of people of color everywhere, finally giving young people a chance to experience what Hispanic life is like in countries like Mexico, Peru, or Nicaragua, but more, what it’s like to grow up in Latino/a/x America.

I am pleased that Jackson County Library Services has plenty of new and relevant materials in both English and Spanish to read and to share with kids, to help them find out more about who they are and where they and their people come from. Celebrate who you are, and cherish where you and your people come from with books and materials from the Medford Library!

A list of books about the Latino/a/x experience:

An acclaimed Los Angeles Times piece on the Chicano movement:

A fantastic award winning 4 part documentary available on Kanopy:

Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement:

Mexican American News, a great source of information on the Chicano scene:

“Is it Hispanic, Chicano/Chicana, Latino/Latina, or Latinx?”

A great essay by a young woman discovering her ethnic, Mexican American roots:

An interesting take on the new Chicano movement:

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