Happiness as a Social Justice Issue

superIn the years that I’ve been researching and writing about Latina/o kid’s literature I’ve gone back and forth about the impact that “happy endings” have on the stories and on children readers. Because I focus specifically on realistic fiction, narratives that capture lived experiences, I found the happy endings to be a bit misleading. Real stories on deportation and family separation, for example, do not always get a happy ending and especially not as immediate as books make it seem. In general, happy endings are an essential component of children’s illustrated texts. That is, picture books for children tend to have happy endings because a book that tells children, for example, that “life sucks” and encourages them to give up would probably not fare well in the industry. Within this genre, happy endings also function as a way to preserve a child’s innocence. There is something both beautiful and problematic about the genre’s desire to protect children from “growing up too fast,” from the “dangers of the real world,” and whatnot. In this way, the happy ending allows children to explore the world through books with the guarantee that they will be safe, that everything will work out, and that they will be protected. However, not all children are seen as inherently innocent and therefore their access to protection and safety is limited and certainly not guaranteed.

Because Latina/o kid’s lit as a genre has done an exceptional job at pointing out the marginality, discrimination, and uncertainty that Latina/o children face in this country I had often found the happy endings in some of these texts disconcerting. The reconciliation between the oppressions experienced by a Latino child protagonist and the happy ending was too simple. I was afraid that those endings would mislead or further discourage real children who were undergoing similar situations as those portrayed in the books but who were not experiencing the happy endings. My concern was also that the happy endings minimized the urgency of the topics being discussed.

I have found that the most beneficial way to understand happiness in Latina/o kid’s books is to read it as part of the story rather than the ending. In other words, happiness is piece of a much larger story and not just the end. This understanding is particularly important when teaching Latina/o kid’s books dealing with social justice issues. It is significant to note that the happy endings do not suggest that the oppressions the characters’ experience have also ended. Furthermore, a characters’ happiness does not suggest that they are not being oppressed. These caveats on happy endings may seem unnecessary and a bit of a downer; however, happy endings in kid’s picture books assume that children access happiness equally when, in fact, this is not the case. Because of this, happy endings in children’s picture books with social justice themes further present an opportunity to discuss happiness as a social justice issue.

As important as it is to contest happy endings it is also important to protect Latino children’s right to happiness. I became more aware of this significance upon giving a presentation on Juan Felipe Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl where I was asked if the story’s ending undermined Esmeralda’s agency. Super Cilantro Girl tells the story of Esmeralda Sinfronteras and her transformation into a giant green superhero set to rescue her mother from an ICE detention center. Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border Esmeralda taps into the power of cilantro and gradually changes into Super Cilantro Girl. Bigger than a bus, taller than a house, and with the power of cilantro and flight Esmeralda breaks her mother out of the detention center and brings her home. Super Cilantro Girl disrupts the anti-immigration policies that seek to separate her family by becoming bigger, stronger, and more heroic than the system. At the end of the story, however, it turns out that Esmeralda was dreaming and did not change into Super Cilantro Girl nor did she rescue her mother. Despite that, though, Esmeralda’s mother returns. In my presentation I claimed that Esmeralda’s transformation exemplified how the body can be a site of healing. What does the ending then suggest about Esmeralda’s healing process and agency if her transformation into a superhero was just a dream? It was then suggested that I’d have a more productive reading of Super Cilantro Girl if I talked about it as magical realism and/or science fiction.

While an argument can be made to read Super Cilantro Girl as magical realism and/or science fiction I choose not to because there is something difficult about reading Esmeralda’s dream of rescuing her mother from ICE as fantastical. Despite having been a dream, there is agency and power in Esmeralda’s ability to see herself as a superhero with the strength to fight ICE and reunite her family. Regardless of ICE’s threat, Esmeralda can imagine herself as powerful and, ultimately, happy. Esmeralda’s happiness upon rescuing her mother is an important part of her healing process. Again, happiness needs to be understood as part of the narrative and not the end point. Super Cilantro Girl demonstrates how happiness and imagination function to promote hope and resilience despite the systemic oppressions that hinder Esmeralda’s life. Challenging happy endings and reading happiness as a social justice issue presents an opportunity to further understand how childhood in the United States is racialized and how Latina/o kid’s lit creates alternative narratives.

*Originally posted on Latin@s in Kids Lit: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/03/16/happiness-as-a-social-justice-issue-in-latin-kid-lit/

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