Conocimiento Narratives:Creative Acts and Healing in Latinx Children's and Young Adult Literature
Juan Felipe Herrera's Super Cilantro Girl (2003) focuses on Esmeralda Sinfronteras's imagination as she transforms into a superhero to rescue her mother from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. Through the power of cilantro, Esmeralda turns into a "giant green girl," with hair "longer than a school bus" and eyes that "shine like emeralds on fire" (Herrera 24, 22). Esmeralda's transformation is an embodied process that is paradigmatic of creative acts1 in Latinx children's literature that not only foster self-awareness, but also function as a way to create alternative epistemologies. Through an examination of illustrated texts for children by Juan Felipe Herrera (Super Cilantro Girl) and Luis J. Rodríguez (América Is Her Name) and a middle-grade novel by Nicholasa Mohr (Nilda), I demonstrate how the Latina children and adolescents in these texts use creativity and imagination to challenge and transform the different forms of violence they experience in their lives.2 Throughout this essay, I articulate the various ways the young characters in these narratives use creative acts to negotiate their realities and the larger impact their crafts have on those around them.
Esmeralda Sinfronteras, like the other Latina protagonists whom I consider, is part of a larger genealogy of child protagonists in children's literature who use creative acts to negotiate the trials and tribulations of childhood. The three Latina protagonists in the works I discuss not only need to contend with the gendered expectations of dominant white society but must also navigate the traditional, and often religious, gendered expectations of their Latinx culture. Additionally, the young Latina protagonists must also deal with the implications of their racial and ethnic identities. For Esmeralda, América, and Nilda, creative acts serve as catalysts that allow them to develop their identity while disrupting and challenging various systems of oppression. Their creativity is born out of trauma and oppression and therefore functions as more than self-expression; instead, the young Latinas' creativity forges a path toward healing that impacts them and their communities.
In "En(countering) YA: Young Lords, Shadowshapers, and the Longings and Possibilities of Latinx Young Adult Literature," Marilisa [End Page 9] Jiménez García says scholarship on YA "has prominently defined the medium as Anglo. Few scholars take into account how racial and national associations complicate the notions of adolescence, rebelling, authority, and maturity central to YA" (234–35). As a way to challenge the erasure Jiménez García signals in YA scholarship, I use "conocimiento narratives"3 in this essay as a new lens that centers race and ethnicity as a significant part of Latina protagonists' development as artists. Taking my cue from Gloria Anzaldúa's theorization of conocimiento (knowledge as a healing process), I demonstrate how female characters in these Latinx children's texts use creativity and imagination to develop different epistemologies from the existing ones that presently oppress them. Herrera, Rodríguez, and Mohr have created characters that speak to lived Chicana/Latina experiences by centering issues like immigration and xenophobia, discrimination in US classrooms,4 and assimilation and acculturation. When I refer to conocimiento narratives in Latinx children's and young adult literature, I mean to highlight how knowing is a healing process captured within the stories and exemplified through the characters. Conocimiento is an opportunity to recognize the oppressions that direct the characters' existence and provide a means to challenge and transform them.
For example, Esmeralda's transformation over time into Super Cilantro Girl challenges the way that anti-immigration laws and rhetoric are written on bodies by forcibly breaking down the borders that seek to separate her from her mother. América's poetry gives her access to a language to which she was not privy before. Her initial inability to fully express herself in English and to take advantage of the privileges of being a US citizen is challenged through her political use of poetry. Nilda's drawings allow her to represent her world in a productive way, but they also challenge existing power structures. In every case, the protagonist's creative act permits her to experience and comprehend her world in new and empowering ways. Gloria Anzaldúa's theory of conocimiento and her explication of her creative act of writing help demonstrate how the Latina protagonists practice their art to access their own conocimiento.
Gloria Anzaldúa, in her article "now let us shift … the path of conocimiento … inner work, public acts," explains that conocimiento challenges oppressive epistemologies by recognizing and acting on [End Page 10] different ways of knowing. She further argues that conocimiento can be "reached via creative acts—writing, art-making, dancing, healing, teaching, meditation, and spiritual activism—both mental and somatic (the body, too, is a form as well as a site of creativity)" (542). In other words, creative acts offer both an opportunity to challenge and transform existing epistemologies and the possibility to create new, more liberating ones. Anzaldúa theorizes the concept of conocimiento as a process toward different ways of knowing that encompasses seven stages: el arrebato, the moment of trauma; nepantla,5 the liminal spaces; the Coatlicue state, which often manifests itself as depression; a "call for action"; putting Coyolxauhqui6 together by writing "personal and collective 'stories'" (558); taking that story into the world; and a shift in reality. Anzaldúa explains that conocimiento is never a linear process and an individual may jump from one stage to any other on a given day or in a lifetime. Furthermore, Anzaldúa highlights conocimiento as grounded in the experiential and in the body.
Scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin's explication of healing in her essay "Textual Healing: Claiming Black Women's Bodies, the Erotic and Resistance in Contemporary Novels of Slavery" is useful here in order to better comprehend the ways in which feminists of color theorize healing as a process:
Healing does not pre-suppose notions of a coherent and whole subject. … the healing is never permanent: it requires constant attention and effort. I am using the term healing to suggest the way in which the body, literally and discursively scarred, ripped, and mutilated, has to learn to love itself, to function in the world with other bodies and often in opposition to those persons and things that seek to destroy it.(524)
Like Anzaldúa, Griffin suggests that healing is never finite but a process that centers the "scarred, ripped, and mutilated" body's experiences. She further argues that "healing does not deny the construction of bodies, but instead suggests that they can be constructed differently, for different ends" (Griffin 524). The possibility of "different ends" resonates with Anzaldúa's final stage of conocimiento wherein realities can be changed by alternative epistemologies. Furthermore, Anzaldúa's and Griffin's articulations suggest that a healing process includes a permeability of the private/public binary. In fact, in Anzaldúa's stages, the move from private to public is necessary in order to achieve a "shift in realities" (545). [End Page 11]
Through conocimiento, I theorize the Latina protagonists' creativity as having the power to transform their realities. While the texts I analyze highlight the significance of the protagonists' use of creativity to understand their subjectivity, these acts cannot be understood in isolation from the impact that they have on their environments and in the lives of others. As Anzaldúa and Griffin explain, healing is a process that is also concerned with a collective identity.
Anzaldúa's reflection on the significance of her writing demonstrates how she applies the process of conocimiento:
Why am I compelled to write? … Because the world I create in my writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. … And I write the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience.
Anzaldúa's analysis captures the interconnectedness between private and public writing that gives her the opportunity to use her creativity to transform the oppression in her world by providing an alternative one she can grasp. Her indication of the importance of writing about what remains silent or unspoken and disregarding "the outraged gasp" suggests a determined shift from private writing, or writing for the self, to public writing. Furthermore, as Anzaldúa explains in her foundational text, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Chicanas/Latinas have been marginalized, silenced, and erased by the dominant culture and by their own communities. She writes, "hablar pa' 'trás, repelar. Hocicona, repelona, chismosa, having a big mouth, questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada. In my culture they are all words that are derogatory if applied to women—I've never heard them applied to men" (76). Anzaldúa argues that Chicanas are taught to remain silent and speaking up is often reprimanded. But it is precisely because they write against all odds that their work is revolutionary. It is through the making of creative spaces that Chicanas and Latinas gain agency and a voice through which to challenge and transform their realities.
Super Cilantro Girl: The Body as a Site of Creativity
Juan Felipe Herrera's Super Cilantro Girl presents a healing process that is exemplary of conocimiento narratives. Esmeralda's active imagination is the creative tool through which she challenges anti-immigration laws, xenophobic attitudes, and creates an alternative epistemology that [End Page 12] liberates her and her mother.7 In The Courage to Imagine: The Child Hero in Children's Literature, Roni Natov argues, "The imagination and creative expression can help children process impulses and strong feelings; it serves as a rehearsal for difficult emotions, offers a place to try them out and also to store them. It provides a way of making sense of what may feel overwhelming" (4). In this way, Esmeralda's transformation into Super Cilantro Girl, while only in a dream, remains an example of creative acts as having the potential to create new realities, because it is through her imagination that Esmeralda is able to make sense of the trauma endured when ICE separates families.
After returning from her garden with a bunch of fresh cilantro, Esmeralda learns that her mother has been detained on her trip to Tijuana and will not return that day. Her abuelita explains, "'Your mamá just called. She's been stopped at the border in Tijuana. They say she needs a green card.' 'Green … card? Green? Like cilantro?' Esmeralda asks. 'She's a citizen, Esme. Everything will be OK,' Abuelita says" (Herrera 5). The color green is significant as it is invoked by Esmeralda's name, the US permanent resident card, and cilantro; however, Esmeralda's relationship to cilantro and her transformation into a "giant green girl" have a different meaning from the green card and ICE. The informal name of the "green card" refers to the actual color of the US permanent resident card used as verification of legal status for individuals who do not have US citizenship. A "green card" is a sign of otherness, an indicator that the card-holder's belonging is liminal. The contested space of the US-Mexico border and Esmeralda's brown body reveals that Esmeralda's mother, with or without a green card, does not belong in the imagined American national community. Mamá is discriminated against because her body is read as Mexican and therefore is assumed to be undocumented. Abuelita attempts to reassure Esmeralda that her mother will be safe because she is a US citizen; however, her faith that her daughter's rights as a citizen will set her free becomes painfully ironic when her daughter is forced to remain in a holding cell overnight. After learning about her mother's situation, Esmeralda begins to transform into Super Cilantro Girl; she reappropriates the significance of the color green by finding its power in cilantro and embodying its strength to free her mother. In this way, green no longer solely represents the marginalization and fear associated with the "green card" and ICE, but instead reasserts change and freedom. [End Page 13]
After her transformation into Super Cilantro Girl, "Esmeralda arrives at the border near Tijuana. She gawks at the great gray walls of wire and steel between the United States and Mexico. She stares at the great gray building that keeps people in who want to move on" (Herrera 22). Honorio Robledo Tapia's illustration represents the gray building as a prison surrounded by a brick wall with barbed wire and bright searchlights. Mamá is in a dark room when Super Cilantro Girl climbs up the building wearing the janitor's gloves, a green construction paper mask, green tights, gold high-top sneakers, and her abuelita's starry shawl as a cape (20). Super Cilantro Girl's body stands out against the darkness of the night and the gray building and is comparable to the size of the building, while her mother's body looks significantly smaller. The image of Mamá, a US citizen, imprisoned in that building is representative of the racial politics inscribed on her body. Mamá is stopped at the border and then imprisoned because her body is read as Mexican first and then associated with being undocumented. In other words, although Mamá is a US citizen, her racialized body is not read as American or as having citizenship. Through Mamá's incarceration, Herrera critiques the unjust anti-immigration laws in the United States that promote racial profiling and the policing of bodies. Such mistreatment suggests that there is an ideal body that belongs to an American imaginary, and bodies like Mamá's, Esmeralda's, and those of the other Latina protagonists are alienated, criminalized, or physically removed. However, Super Cilantro Girl transcends those boundaries when her body becomes the force that sets her mother free. Esmeralda's agency is strengthened through her superhero body because it is not legible in the same discriminatory manner as her mother's. The detention center and the ICE agents are so powerless against Super Cilantro Girl that they actually begin to change. While flying away with her mother, Super Cilantro Girl says:
"We'll make everything so green-green, the border will disappear!" the fifty-foot-tall girl says. "Make it sin fronteras?" Mama asks. "Yes, just like our name. Oops, I mean your name," the green girl replies. … The officers stop the chase. They stumble out of the helicopters and patrol cars in all directions, just to smell the green aromas. "Lovely!" they say. "¡Qué bonito!" they say. They are even learning to speak Spanish!
The potential disappearance of the border and the disorientation of the officers and their use of Spanish are all material effects that Esmeralda's [End Page 14] imaginative bodily transformation engenders. The officers in their green uniforms and with their bright green eyes are overpowered by the green foliage that grows around them. The emphasis on the green aromas and the greenery suggests that gray borders and policing of bodies is unnatural and constructed and can therefore be dismantled. Through the use of her creative act, Esmeralda has imagined a space where her body is not the site of discrimination and racialization but one of liberation. After bringing Mamá home, Super Cilantro Girl falls asleep on the roof. When Esmeralda wakes, she realizes the transformation is only a dream, but Abuelita reveals that her mother has indeed returned. The story closes with their family reunited and a bird with green feathers flying "free and sin fronteras." The bird is a symbol of Esmeralda's "shift in realities" (Anzaldúa, "now let us shift" 545). Natov says, "Change depends on imagining; the imagination, then, can be a place of hope" (3). Despite only imagining her transformation into Super Cilantro Girl in a dream and having had no real influence in her Mamá's release from the detention center, Esmeralda wakes up feeling empowered and free. In a society determined to criminalize and punish bodies like Esmeralda's and her Mamá's, the construction of hope through the imagination is a radical creative act.
Esmeralda's transformation into Super Cilantro Girl demonstrates how her body can be a site of resistance against anti-immigration laws and policies that separate families, and, in doing so, she also transcends borders between public and private spaces. As Chicana art scholar Laura Pérez explains in Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities:
Indeed, the body itself may be thought of as a social garment. From pigment to physical build to comportment, the presentation and reception of the body is, following the thought of Judith Butler, part of the performance that reinscribes or interrupts social roles attributed as normal to racialized and gendered bodies.(51)
In this sense, the body has the possibility to become a site of social transformation. Esmeralda's metamorphosis into Super Cilantro Girl reveals the use of her body as a performance that can interrupt social roles seeking to confine her and Mamá. By turning into a giant green girl, Esmeralda creates a body that is not confined by stereotypes of Mexican and Chicanx bodies that result, for example, in her mother's incarceration in the detention center. Esmeralda's transformation throughout the text further signals her shift from private to public [End Page 15] space and her newfound conocimiento. At the beginning of the dream, Esmeralda attempts to keep her change private by concealing it from Abuelita and her teachers. She wears janitor's gloves and sunglasses to hide her green hands and eyes because she does not really understand what is happening to her body. When she attempts to reveal the secret to Nurse Dedo, though, her own hair pushes Esmeralda out the window (Herrera 16–17). At this moment, it becomes clear to the character that even she cannot control her body. After Esmeralda discovers she no longer fits in Abuelita's house, there is a brief second where she "feels a tender breeze from the south brush her cheek" and knows what she must do with her new body and powers (19). That fleeting breeze allows Esmeralda to recognize her conocimiento and shift her creativity from a private to a public act. It is with this new sense of knowledge that Esmeralda is able to break down the multiple borders she negotiates.
"A Poet Belongs Everywhere": Power and Language
Luis Rodríguez's América Is Her Name (1998) tells the story of América Soliz, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who moves to Pilsen, Illinois—one of Chicago's predominantly Mexican communities—and her struggles to find her voice and an identity that captures the complexity of her positionality. América faces discrimination in the classroom, violence in her community, and patriarchal oppression in her home. América is a representation of how citizenship status impacts the development, maturity, and overall well-being of Latinx children. In "Female Empowerment and Undocumented Border Crossing in Bettina Restrepo's Illegal," Cristina Rhodes writes, "Whereas children are often regarded as being in need of protection, the reality is that undocumented children are responsible for protecting themselves" (21). Unfortunately, América needs to protect herself, and it is through poetry that she gains language and agency to challenge and transform her reality.
In "Poetry Is Not a Luxury," Audre Lorde speaks to the impact that writing poetry, in particular, can have on women of color: "This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt" (36). Poetry gives language to the traumas that cannot yet be spoken, and, for América, poetry is the outlet that allows her to confront her oppression. Lorde further argues, "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It [End Page 16] forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action" (37). Similar to Anzaldúa, Lorde lays out a connection between creative acts and the possibility of transforming existing realities. Poetry gives América an opportunity to express what has been silenced in the US because of her immigration status. These silences are the "arrebatos," which thrust América into a conocimiento process where she searches for alternative ways of knowing and existing.
At the beginning of Rodríguez's text, América is described as having been silenced by the education system in the US. América's inability to speak English marginalizes her, even within her ESL class, and the discrimination in the classroom becomes evident to América when she overhears her teachers talking:
Yesterday as [América] passed Miss Gable and Miss Williams in the hallway, she heard Miss Gable whisper, "She's an illegal." How can that be—how can anyone be illegal! She is Mixteco, an ancient tribe that was here before the Spanish, before the blue-eyed, even before this government that now calls her "illegal." How can a girl called América not belong in America?
Miss Gable's racist and xenophobic comments dehumanize América, and the use of the word "illegal" suggests that América occupies a space that is not available to her. Miss Gable's words attempt to erase América's subjectivity and revoke her claim to any form of citizenship. However, the narrator's rhetorical question calls attention to the tensions and contradictions of an American identity. The question points out the contradiction of someone named América not belonging in the country that shares the same name. It is important to note, however, that the accent on América's name signals a history of difference in the United States and establishes América's claim to both American and Mexican culture.
The tension in the classroom begins to shift when Mr. Aponte, a Puerto Rican poet, visits América's class, though Miss Gable's prejudice becomes even more evident when she "tells him they are a 'difficult' class" (Rodríguez). Mr. Aponte helps América assert her subjectivity by encouraging her to write in Spanish about her homeland in order to express the displacement she feels in Pilsen. By giving América the space to write poetry in Spanish about where she's from, Mr. Aponte has introduced an alternative epistemology that will allow América to exist within poetry. At first, poetry is a private act that gives her access [End Page 17] to a language and agency that she did not have before; the impact of her poetry shifts when she writes poetry at home.
América's home is a site of tension due to the discrimination the adults feel in the public realm and the ways it permeates the privacy of the Soliz home. The private space of the Soliz home demonstrates the many racial, economic, and social violences that Chicanx and Latinx immigrant families face. Rodríguez writes:
When América gets home, she hears her dad yelling. He has been laid off from the factory. The family gathers for supper around a wooden table in the small kitchen. Her mother tells her father angrily: "I was called a 'wetback' at the market today. No matter what we do—we don't belong." Tio Filemón comes in the room, drunk and loud. "Never say you don't belong," he says. "We belong anywhere, everywhere. Once you believe you don't belong, you'll be homeless forever. Maybe we'll go back to Oaxaca, maybe we won't. For now, this is home."
The adults' common struggle is their inability to access cultural and legal citizenship despite their participation in society through employment and daily activities. Ironically, the drunken uncle is the one who challenges the marginalization that the parents face by suggesting that they belong "anywhere, everywhere." That the discrimination the adults experience in public spaces negatively affects their private world is especially obvious when América's father reprimands her for writing. While she's sitting at the kitchen table her father asks:
"What are you doing, mija?" he asks. "I'm writing," she says. "Writing? Is this for school?" "No, papi, it's for me—I'm writing a poem for me." "Don't waste your time. Where are you going to go with writing? Learn to clean house, to take care of your brothers and sisters. Writing for yourself won't pay the bills."
Mr. Soliz attempts to confine América to traditional gender roles that do not recognize writing as labor, profitable, or legitimate "women's work."
The illustrations of the text also demonstrate the gender ideologies enforced at home. In the first image of the Soliz home, América sits at the kitchen table to write while her father stands over her counting money. América is outlined with a yellow glow that resembles the mandorla (aureola) of the saint hanging on the calendar behind her. The mandorla is commonly reserved to represent the piety, holiness, and pureness of Jesus Christ and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The association [End Page 18] between América and the saint in the illustration depicts the gender expectations by which América must abide while living in her father's home. América's illustrated connection to the saint strongly suggests she is virginal and pure and therefore a "good girl." Notably, the glow around América is present in other illustrations throughout the story, particularly when she writes. The repetition of the glow resembling that of the saint demonstrates a tension between the self-empowerment that writing provides for América and the gender binaries that oppress her. However, América is not satisfied with the expectations of either her father or the Virgin, and she seeks to transform the knowledges imposed on her and, in doing so, also changes the significance of the glow.
As an attempt to resist gender expectations, América questions her reality:
"Will this be my life?" she wonders. "Not to write. To clean houses, get married, have children." … They all seem trapped, like flowers in a vase, full of song and color, yet stuck in a gray world where they can't find a way out. "Will this be my life?"
América's use of metaphors to describe her situation is a poetic indicator of how her creativity impacts how she understands her surroundings. América's poetry gives her a language to express the economic and gendered oppressions that plague the gray world that's become her community. The moment of reflection marks the importance of creativity and imagination in América's identity, and her question serves as a catalyst for the contrast between the "flowers in the vase" and a "gray world." The scene pinpoints América's conocimiento process and echoes Esmeralda's struggle with the grayness of the border. The gray world represents the realities both characters attempt to transform with their creativity and imagination. América's poetry allows her to see the different oppressions that surround her family and community and recognize that she does not want to be trapped in that gray world.
América's new awareness and refusal to submit to oppressive ideologies pushes her to create alternative epistemologies that allow her to transform her reality. Despite her father's disapproval, América continues to write and in a greater form of resistance involves her mother and younger siblings in her creativity:
Every day after school, [her mother] Nayeli and América sit around the table and write. Nayeli writes about long-gone days in the rancho, about the tall grasses and burly oxen. About her [End Page 19] many cousins and other family who always visited. América smiles as her mother struggles with the words. They share their stories with each other. Soon América's older brother is taking part, and even the little ones join in.
This scene highlights the women and children of the Soliz family using writing to challenge the patriarchal rule of their home. It is important that América's older brother, the next patriarch of the family, participates in the exercise because in doing so he directly challenges his father's power. For América, the moment she shares with her family is also a form of putting Coyolxauhqui together in order to "repair and heal, as well as rewrite the stories of loss and recovery, exile and homecoming, disinheritance and recuperation, stories that lead out of passivity and into agency" (Anzaldúa, "now let us shift" 563). The act of writing allows América to directly challenge patriarchy and thus transforms her reality.
The book concludes with América coming home and sharing the news that she "got a hundred on [her] writing assignment. [And] even Miss Gable liked it." Her father also shares in her excitement and is more open to having a "poet for a daughter." América's closing words suggest that there has been a transformation in the oppressions that constrict her. "Even Miss Gable," who called her "illegal" at the beginning of the story, sees her differently While América is still undocumented at the end of the story, she finds that her poetry gives her a sense of belonging she did not feel at the beginning. América says: "A real poet. That sounds good to the Mixteca girl, who some people say doesn't belong here. A poet, América knows, belongs everywhere." While her poetry does not provide América legal citizenship, it nonetheless breaks down some of the borders that impact her subjectivity. América is transformed via the act of writing, and authority figures that questioned her before bear witness to this change. Miss Gable's and Mr. Soliz's shift in perspective also suggests a "shift in realities" (Anzaldúa, "now let us shift" 558), wherein América is more empowered and, at least for the time being, the authorities around her respect her new position.
"Box of Things": (Re)presenting Alternative Epistemologies
Nicholasa Mohr's Nilda (1974) follows ten-year-old Nilda Ramírez as she grows up during World War II. As the youngest, and only girl, of five children, Nilda is frequently limited by the gender expectations [End Page 20] her Puerto Rican family upholds. Throughout the novel, she also experiences a variety of struggles, including discrimination at school, economic problems, and the loss of both her parents. Through it all, Nilda uses drawing as a medium to change and transform the world around her. The 2011 edition of the novel, published by Arte Público Press, includes illustrations by the author that were not in the original book, and which are seemingly intended to be examples of Nilda's drawings. Reading the illustrations in conjunction with the written text demonstrates the role that art plays in the novel. Drawing gives Nilda an opportunity to represent herself and her community as having authority in situations where they generally do not. Toward the beginning of the novel, Nilda is sent to her room by her frustrated mother and finds comfort in her art:
As she often did when she was upset, she took her "box of things" out from under the bed. Nilda loved to draw; it was the thing that gave her the most pleasure. … Drawing a line and then another, she had a sense of happiness. Slowly working, she began to divide the space, adding color and making different size forms. Her picture began to take shape and she lost herself in a world of magic achieved with some forms, lines and color.
This passage reveals art as a private, intimate act for Nilda, which is why she keeps her drawings "under the bed." Although Nilda is represented as an outgoing child, her decision to keep her drawings private suggests that her art might hold a part of her that she is not ready to share. Her creative act provides her with the safe space she needs in order to develop her subjectivity. The passage above also demonstrates a process that gives her pleasure from her imagination. Through the use of lines, forms, and color, she constructs a different world for herself—a world that she understands. At the same time, drawing functions as a form of resistance. After completing an art piece, the narrator writes:
She finished her picture feeling that she had completed a voyage all by herself, far away but in a place that she knew quite well. "At last," she said. "All finished." Sticking out her tongue, she thought, I'm not showing this to Mamá. She put her things away under the bed. Glancing in the mirror, she looked at herself with some interest. She was going out now; she wasn't so angry anymore.(Mohr 44) [End Page 21]
That Nilda purposefully does not show her mother her drawings is a signal that creativity gives her independence and an alternative way to challenge existing structures of power. Similarly, Barbara Roche Rico argues in "'Rituals of Survival': A Critical Reassessment of the Fiction of Nicholasa Mohr" that Nilda's art "allows her to assert a kind of imaginative power over those who would categorize her or subject her to their prejudices. … the young woman takes pleasure in what she has created, and no longer looks exclusively to forces outside herself for validation" (171). For Nilda, drawing is the space where she can challenge power structures within and outside of her home. In the example above, sticking out her tongue, asserting her refusal to show her mother her art, and "glancing in the mirror" are all acts of disruption that empower her without needing anyone's approval—even her mother's. These examples further reveal that for Nilda drawing is a process that allows her to understand her own agency, and ultimately her healing, as ongoing.
The explication of Nilda's drawing as a process—take the box of things from under the bed, draw line by line, divide the space, and then add color—suggests that Nilda is a conocimiento narrative. Nilda is continuously thrown into a state of nepantla, the liminal space, by the discriminations and oppressions she bears and witnesses. Drawing gives her an opportunity to make sense of these situations and also challenge them. For the most part, Nilda's drawings capture her experiences and surroundings. The opening illustration, for example, depicts a hot summer day when Jacinto, the neighborhood store owner, opens the fire hydrant for the children of the community. Nilda captures the event with contour drawings, which suggests a fluidity or connection between her city, her community, and her neighbors. Her depiction centers her community members as flat figures being enveloped by the water. New York City buildings are drawn in the background in a variety of depths and sizes. The contrast between the city and the community is significant because it points to an existing power tension between the two entities. Nilda represents her neighbors occupying the most space on the picture plane because it suggests a claim to agency. The illustration captures a moment of relief from the heat before the police arrive to close the fire hydrant and ask people to clear the streets. The exclusion of the police in the picture demonstrates a challenge to authority and a creation of a counternarrative. Nilda's imagination allows her to visualize a space where her neighbors have access to power and control of their own community. The rest of the illustrations in [End Page 22] the novel also use contour drawing and challenge a variety of oppressions in a similar way while attempting to highlight the stories of her community. Contour drawing captures the entirety of an image rather than focusing on the details, and the perspective that this style of art uses suggests that Nilda must be able to see a larger picture if she is to represent an alternative narrative.
In "Subverting Stereotypes: Rejecting Traditional Gender Roles," Roberta Seelinger Trites employs Nilda as an example of a feminist children's novel that encourages young girls to challenge traditional gender roles. She argues that Nilda's "artwork is a means for her to express herself in a community that continually represses her, and her art also provides her with a way to reject the stereotypical role of señorita that terrifies her" (Trites 21). While I agree with Trites that Nilda's art permits her to challenge some of her oppressions, it is also important to further clarify and elaborate on which "community … continually represses" her. Most of the discrimination that is depicted in the novel is due to racial and ethnic differences and oftentimes Nilda experiences the most discrimination from those outside her Puerto Rican community. For example, upon her return to school after her father's funeral, she gives her teacher a note explaining her absence to which Mrs. Fortinash replies in a demeaning and racist way exemplary of the public feeling against (im)migrants:
No wonder you don't get anywhere or do anything worthwhile with these kinds of customs. People pass away every day—you are not the only ones, you know! That does not mean that one stops meeting responsibilities! Your mother will have to come in and explain that custom and what tribe you belong to! … Irresponsible, that's what you people are. Then you expect the rest of us here to make it easy for you. Well, you are not the first ones to be allowed into this country. It's bad enough we have to support strangers with our tax dollar.(Mohr 180)
Mrs. Fortinash's comments resemble Miss Gable's xenophobic attitude toward América; both teachers marginalize and other their students and do not recognize either girl as belonging to an imagined American community. Mrs. Fortinash's anger signals an underlying issue that has taken a backseat in Nilda's private world but is very present in the politics of World War II—that of who can be considered an American. While Nilda lacks the authority to directly oppose Mrs. Fortinash, her silence should be understood as a form of survival and not surrender. [End Page 23] Nilda explains she is at least grateful she was not held back a grade (Mohr 178). This strategy of negotiating different oppressive institutions is something that Lydia, Nilda's mother, is quite familiar with and from whom Nilda has learned.
After a trip to the welfare office, Lydia screams at Nilda: "I had to say what I did, that's all. I have to do what I do. How do you think we're gonna eat? We have no money, Nilda. If I make that woman angry, God knows what she'll put down on the application" (Mohr 62). Lydia and her family are subject to the authority of the woman in the welfare office, who determines if they receive the assistance they need. Lydia must do what she has to in order to maneuver within a system set up against her. In the same way, Nilda must negotiate the racism she encounters at school in order to continue her education. It is precisely these negotiations and contradictions that often push her character into nepantla, and she is forced to contend with the larger implications of her actions.
Understanding the different oppressive forces impacting Nilda's subjectivity further lays out the role her creativity plays in creating alternative ways of knowing. Not only does Nilda use her drawing as a way to reject stereotypical gender roles, as Trites suggests, but it also permits her to imagine a counternarrative to the oppressions around her. On her death bed, Mrs. Ramírez says, "Do you have that feeling, honey? That you have something all yours … you must … like when I see you drawing sometimes, I know you have something all yours. Keep it … hold on, guard it. Never give it to nobody … not to your lover, not to your kids" (Mohr 234). Mrs. Ramírez explains that while she has loved being a mother, she lost herself in the process and it is now too late to do anything about it; however, she provides an alternative for Nilda and encourages her to do something other than what's expected of her. While Nilda does not seem to understand her mother's warnings, they are nonetheless important because they challenge the gender roles depicted throughout the novel. Lydia's advice sends Nilda into a state of nepantla. In "Let us be the healing of the wound," Anzaldúa writes that nepantla "is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition. In nepantla we realize that realities clash, authority figures of the various groups demand contradictory commitments, and we and others have failed living up to idealized goals" (310). In other words, nepantla is an opportunity to question one's reality, including the knowledges imparted by authority figures. Nilda is confused by the messages her mother shares because they are contrary to what she's witnessed her [End Page 24] mother actually do. Lydia's warning, however, suggests a balance that does not encourage the sacrifice of the self in order to be a wife and a mother. In hearing her mother challenge the gender status quo, Nilda gains a sense of permission where drawing becomes an option through which she can preserve her identity but also challenge certain gender expectations that hindered her own mother.
For the majority of the novel, drawing is a private exercise that allows Nilda to connect with her family. Her parents encourage her to draw and her brothers constantly ask her to draw something for them. It is not until her mother passes away and she is forced to live with her aunt that her art becomes a public act. Trites explains that "Nilda shows her artwork to [her cousin] Claudia [and] Nilda's willingness to share her artwork with an admirer indicates that Nilda is coming into her own as an artist and that her salvation from her grief and from gender stereotypes lies in using her artistic talent" (22–23). The novel concludes not only with Nilda showing her drawings to Claudia but with Nilda telling the story of the secret garden she found a few years back while at camp. Earlier in the novel, Nilda describes the secret garden as the place where she experienced the most happiness, and it is important that those are the stories and drawings that she chooses to share with Claudia; they signal a transition from a private to a public creative act. The intimate moment with Claudia is related to the scene where Nilda refuses to show her mother her drawings at the beginning of the novel. In both instances, Nilda has agency. Keeping her art private was a form of resistance against her mother's punishment, and sharing her art—making it public—suggests that she is moving through the different stages of conocimiento. More importantly, her decision to show Claudia her art allows Nilda to transition from the rather painful nepantla stage and into a site of empowerment.
Imagining New Realities: Conocimiento Narratives and Troubling the End
While the endings of Künstlerroman novels often suggest that the protagonists have fully embraced their art and been recognized by their respective communities as artists, providing such an ending for Latinx children's texts is complicated by the larger implications that these types of endings can have on young Latinx audiences. Herrera, Rodríguez, and Mohr present stories that are still not commonly captured in children's literature.8 Their work speaks to lived experiences of Latinx children in the United States, and therefore the resolutions have more [End Page 25] at stake. Phillip Serrato argues that this is the contradiction with which Latinx authors for children must contend. He explains in "Conflicting Inclinations: Luis J. Rodríguez's Picture Books for Children" that Chicano children's literature attempts to capture the lived experiences of Latinx children but often falls short at representing real conclusions to the problems presented. Rodríguez's two children's books, for example, América Is Her Name and It Doesn't Have To Be This Way (1999), both have abrupt endings to the complicated experiences that América and Monchi endure. By the end of the former novel, América declares that a "poet belongs everywhere," and her father and teacher, both of whom opposed her craft at the beginning of the story, are now her advocates. In the latter, Monchi decides that he will not join a gang per his uncle's advice, and Dreamer, the cousin who was shot at the beginning, survives her injuries. The resolution of both of these texts do not deal fully with the facts that América remains undocumented and that it is likely that Monchi will continue to feel peer pressure to join the local gang. Serrato further argues:
Rodríguez's two texts embody Maria Nikolajeva's inspiring idea that "fiction is not a direct reflection of reality but an artistic transformation of it." …
Even with this in mind, … these endings seem acutely ironic because whereas the new realist features of his books nurture resilience, their conclusions seem at odds with the development of resilience. With no fully satisfactory way out of this predicament, it seems that Rodríguez and other similarly ambitious writers for youth are left to continue to wrestle with and work out their conflicting inclinations.(201)
This tension is also clearly seen in Herrera's and Mohr's work. Esmeralda wakes up to realize that she had been dreaming and did not really break her mother out of the detention center, but she does find her mother back home the next morning. Nilda, despite the death of her parents and the loss of her brothers to war or prison, is happy to share her art with her cousin and live with her aunt. Understanding these texts as conocimiento narratives further complicates how to conceptualize the responsibility of realist Latinx children's literature.
Again, conocimiento is a constant process and the stages are never fixed. Instead, "[z]igzagging from ignorance (desconocimiento) to awareness (conocimiento), in a day's time you may go through all seven stages, though you may dwell in one for months. … Together, these [End Page 26] stations constitute a meditation on the rites of passage, the transitions of life from birth to death, and all the daily births and deaths in-between" (Anzaldúa, "now let us shift" 545–46). The fluidity of this kind of healing allows for the happy endings of the texts I analyze to be part of this process. The characters' happiness or the authors' resolutions are indicators that conocimiento has taken place, and the different stages the characters go through are probably the most significant aspect. In other words, the happy resolutions can be understood as a stage of a conocimiento process instead of reading them as fixed endings. Reading these children's texts as conocimiento narratives suggests that the conclusions of the texts are not guarantees of a better future but instead offer Latinx children the possibility to imagine new realities. Natov writes, "As healing may take time, creating a story, drawing, or other art form suggests ways of acknowledging and containing [trauma]" (60). Herrera, Rodríguez, and Mohr present characters that use their creativity and imagination to challenge the oppressions they experience and, while these oppressions have not been completely eliminated, they have transformed their realities enough by the end of the texts to also experience happiness.
sonia alejandra rodríguez is an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY). Her research on Latinx children's literature has been published in Children's Literature in Education and Voices of Resistance: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Chican@ Literature. Her current research project examines intersectionality and mental health in Latinx young adult texts.
The author wishes to thank the following people: Traise Yamamoto, Phillip Serrato, and Erica Edwards for believing in this project since its inception; the author's cohort at the 2017–2018 Faculty Fellowship Publication Program at City University of New York for providing feedback for revision; and, to rest of the contributors of this special forum for their commitment to creating excellent scholarship on Latinx children's and young adult literature.
1. Throughout the essay, I use "creative acts" to suggest a relationship between creativity, imagination, and art, and social activism. I argue that the art the young Latinx protagonists practice has an impact on their lives and their communities. Creativity and action are intertwined. For more on "creative acts," see Anzaldúa, "now let us shift."
2. Other Latinx children's and young adult texts that center on Latina protagonists who use creative acts as a form of resistance include Isabel Quintero's Gabi, Girl in Pieces (2014), Erika L. Sánchez's I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017), and Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X (2018).
3. For more on "conocimiento narratives," see S. Rodríguez, Conocimiento Narratives. For more on "conocimiento narratives" and education, see S. Rodríguez, "School Fights." For more on "conocimiento narratives" and masculinity, see S. Rodríguez, "You Wanna Be a Chump/or a Champ?"
4. In "School Fights: Oppression in the Classroom in Gloria Velásquez's Latina/o Young Adult Novel Juanita Fights the School Board," I argue that Juanita must use the knowledges created and shared within her community and her culture in order to challenge the existing epistemologies within the public school system that criminalize her and people like her. In this way, young Latinas must also tap into alternative sources of knowledge to combat the oppressions they experience in the classroom.
7. Esmeralda's creative act is different from the other examples I provide in this essay. Even though at the end of the story Esmeralda's transformation into "Super Cilantro Girl" is a dream, I read her use of her imagination as a creative act that allows her to process the trauma of having a parent detained and incarcerated. For more on imagination and the child hero, see Natov.
8. See the annual reports on publishing statistics by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education.