Growing up Puerto Rican meant family photos included relatives of just about every shade. This was my normal, as it was for the other Caribbean families in my neighborhood, which was why I was completely thrown off the moment I realized my everyday was not-so ordinary in the U.S.’ black-white conceptions of race.
Understanding identity, diversity and acceptance as a child, when you’re being told you are too dark to be Latinx, too light-skinned to understand Spanish or too different from your sibling to be related, is hard – making the need for literature that breaks this down in simple and accessible language essential. Enter “Niñas Bellas.” The new children’s book from Black dominicana Dania V. Peguero is a short story about four young classmates who look completely different from each other but realize that they are all Latina. Through the story, Peguero, an Atlanta-based mother and social worker, cleverly, and through narrative, teaches young people to be accepting of others, ask questions, love themselves and each other, and understand that diversity is a beautiful thing.
We spoke with Peguero all about the new bilingual children’s book and why it’s absolutely crucial for parents to engage in scary, uncomfortable conversations about race, differences and acceptance with their little ones.
As a Black Dominican mother, why was it important for you to write this book?
Wow. This is so emotional for me. A lot of it has to do with my daughter, who has a Black Dominican mother and an African-American father. It’s important for me to do stuff that is going to empower her and other kids. My daughter, from the way I raised her, has a lot of self-confidence. I feel like that comes natural when you’re surrounded by people who love you and treat you with respect and kindness. But the breakdown of self-esteem comes from negative interactions with other people, and that is something that is out of my control. But, as a mom, one thing I can control is how I treat my daughter and how I teach her to be respectful of other people and understand that not everyone will look like us, not just in the sense of color, but other differences as well. It was an important book to write because, as a parent, I always want to teach my daughter to treat others how she wants to be treated. As a social worker, it was also important because I deal with this a lot in the school setting, and it was hard for me to find tools in diversity and acceptance. I’ve been using my book to talk about these topics, and it has been very helpful.
In the story, the four girls, all of different shades and hair textures, learn they are each Latina after they have to read a short essay about themselves to their class. How would you encourage little ones to get to know each other and their cultures?
I would encourage them to simply ask questions. It’s OK to ask questions; it’s how we ask them that can get us in trouble. If you’re curious, you still want to be respectful and not cross any boundaries. For instance, if you’re curious about someone’s hair, ask them about it, but don’t touch it or invade their space in any way. And use appropriate language.
Have you ever had a moment with your own daughter where she was surprised to learn that someone who looked different from her also shared her culture and language?
For my daughter, she’s not surprised because she has been exposed to people who look different just within our own family. When she first saw the characters, the four girls, she said I was Margarita, she was Maria, my niece was Gabriella and my sister-in-law was Jennifer. So she was able to identify people in our family who look like these characters. It’s part of her normal, so she’s OK with other people if they speak Spanish. I don’t think she understands when people don’t understand that she does.
You actually dedicated this book to your daughter. What were her thoughts about it?
She loved it, and she’s excited about. She is only four years old, but she’s very smart beyond her years. She has a t-shirt that says “Niñas Bellas” on it and she walks around the house with it and the book. She’s very proud. I went to her class and read to her classmates, and she wants me to come again. She wants me to give her friends signed copies. It’s so empowering because she can identify with the characters, and that’s a special thing to see: an image that reminds her of herself in a book, and know others are embracing it. It makes her feel important and special. She’ll tell you herself that she’s a Black Latina, a negra bella.
(Photo Credit: FlexFocus)
I love that! You’re a social worker specializing in child social and emotional development, working professionally on matters specific to diversity and culture assimilation. What would you say are some of the biggest issues impacting children of color, particularly Latinxs, when it comes to acceptance and diversity?
A lot of it is that so many kids don’t know a lot of their own history. They don’t know about their countries of origin, or that of their families. They can identify with the language and food, but they don’t understand more of the history or meaning. So a lot of times they don’t appreciate one another. It’s sad because I work with a lot of students, with Latinos of different backgrounds, and they will literally, within their own group, use derogatory terms with one another. A lot of it has to do with them not being educated on their own history, where they come from or other Latin American countries, and all the great things that come from these places. There’s a lot of colorism and self-hate.
At the end of the reading, you added some discussion questions for parents and their children. Why is it necessary for parents to have conversations about culture, race, tolerance and diversity with their kids?
I always say you have to teach the obvious. You can’t assume that just because you’re not using derogatory words that you’re not teaching racism or prejudice. We have to look at our behavior and the nonverbal cues we’re sending. For instance, if you’re not living a lifestyle of acceptance, if you’re surrounding yourself with people just like you, your children will realize that. If you really believe in diversity, then why not have a discussion with your child around that so that your values are given to them? When I talk to parents about their kids’ behavior, they often tell me, “I don’t talk like that. They must have gotten that from school.” But after I ask the right questions, they realize that maybe what their child believes is because they’re not doing anything to show them otherwise. If you are not interacting with people of other cultures, then they see it as something to not appreciate, so when they do hear derogatory words, whether learned at home or school, they believe it and think it’s OK.
Something I really appreciated about “Niñas Bellas” is that it’s bilingual, with the story written in both English and Spanish in the same book. Why did you do that?
I thought it was important to have this discussion in the Latino community, and I didn’t want language to be a barrier. I don’t want this to just happen in the U.S., but in Latin America as well. In my country of origin, the Dominican Republic, colorism is very real. I want parents there to have these conversations with their kids, too. I also wanted it to be multi-generational. You can have a youngster reading the book with their grandparents, who can only read in Spanish. And it’s also a good tool for parents who want their children to be bilingual. It’s easy for them to see and translate and read both languages.
Ultimately, what do you want children to take away from “Niñas Bellas?”
I want them to be open and aware that Latinos comes in all shades. We all look different, and regardless of that look, we have to accept our differences and respect each other. We have to learn how to interact with each other, and not just Latinos. When you come across someone different from you, get to know them in a manner that doesn’t cause conflict and doesn’t make someone feel that who they are and what they look like is wrong. I don’t want to be tolerated. I want to be accepted for who I am. That’s the bottom line.