From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul


The greatest thing you have is your self-image, a positive opinion of yourself. You must never let anyone take it from you.

Jaime Escalante

The gym floor gleamed. Tables were set up on each side of the room with books and projects assembled by the children and the staff. There were handmade maps of Puerto Rico and Cuba and glossy maps of Latin America. The children had proudly contributed examples of cultural items that were relevant to their backgrounds. There were colorful shawls, castanets, plates, pictures. And there were maracas: maracas made of wood, maracas honed out of gourds, maraca earrings, maracas made out of paper cups and seeds and even plastic maracas.

Nate is a musician, and I am a storyteller. Nate set up the instruments as I looked over my notes. I tell cuentos folklóricos with an emphasis on multicultural stories, especially stories of the Caribbean, where I was born. I am the Taína Storyteller, descendent of the Taíno Indians of Puerto Rico. To the dismay of my parents, I chose to feature this aspect of my heritage and not just the Spanish great-grandparents on both sides of my family. I wanted to honor this long-ignored part of our greater heritage, and the more I learned, the more joy I felt.

As we were setting up, several teachers and staff stopped by to admire the conga drums and meet the “artists.” We shook hands, smiled and chatted with each visitor. Not one was a person of color. A blonde, tall woman of solid build and thick glasses introduced herself. She told us how pleased she was to have us here. She explained that she worked with these children every day. The school was about 30 percent Latino or from Spanish-speaking homes. Another 20 percent were black or Asian, and the rest were “white non-Hispanic.”

She told us how the children had been looking forward to this day and how creative and artistic they were. She wanted to expand on this, she said, because after all, “we’re not raising rocket scientists here.”

Nate and I were stunned by her comment. He hit the conga drum softly at first and slowly began a drumbeat, a stiff smile on his handsome Dominican/African-American face. I, who was usually fast on my feet and even quicker with my mouth, stammered something akin to, “I am sure that the children enjoy their artistic side, as I enjoy mine in addition to my work as a teacher and scholar.”

The children began to arrive. The first session was for the kindergarten through third-grade classes. The gym filled up with over a hundred kids, their teachers, teacher aides, the “grandmothers” who helped out during class time and parents. I took a deep breath and eyed the children. They were beautiful. I saw brown faces, tan faces, black faces, white faces; most with smiles and lively chatter. A few shy children barely looked up. I tried to make eye contact with them, to smile, to get the audience on my side. I especially tried to search out the more obvious Latino faces.

We were introduced, and the stories began. Stories of brave caciques, lovelorn Taínas and the Taíno gods. Nate drummed a beat; I scraped some musical sounds on my güiro. I asked the children to raise their hands if they spoke English. They all laughed at what seemed like a ridiculous question to them. I then asked who spoke Spanish, and the excitement grew—some of the children were not content to raise their hands so they jumped to their feet to make sure they got my attention.

“Me, too,” I said, “me, too.”

Their excitement soared. I went on with stories of animals that speak Spanish, of a talking donkey, a story about my name and what it meant to me, and of boys named Juan Bobo. They listened, some with mouths open, as if they were being fed. They laughed, clapped and asked for more. We gathered for an interactive story, and in the front row, a red-haired girl named Yolanda and a boy named José competed with other students to be the first ones to hold my hand.

The afternoon session brought in another hundred children, who were older and seemed determined to be low-key. But I would not allow it. Soon, they were laughing and calling out the names of the countries their people were from. I was loud and barely needed the mike. I was vivacious and funny, and I even danced. They drank it up. Nate was musical, funky and electric; his bald head glistened with sweat as he smiled through it all. They loved it, and we loved them.

But it was later, wandering the halls looking for a bathroom, when my heart almost burst. I could not walk five feet without children stepping in my path, telling me proudly that they were “Spanish.” The moment I said, “I knew you were because you’re beautiful,” they raised their arms to hug me. Some almost jumped into my arms.

As we were going down the hall to the cafeteria for a “Latino” luncheon prepared by the kids and their parents, more children came. They mobbed around our table as we ate. They brought us food to try, and they pointed out what they had made. A large fifth-grade girl with curly dark hair came over and asked me to taste her cookies. She firmly took my arm and led me to the table. Putting a cookie in my mouth, she watched carefully as I chewed and swallowed. I told her it was just delicious, as it truly was. She beamed and, with tears in her eyes, whispered “thank you.” Struck by her emotion, I hugged this girl who was taller than me, and she clung to me. Nate brought out his drums, and the boys and girls stood in line to get their turn to play. The joy was intense.

We were surrounded by food of all kinds. Rice and beans, pollo fricassee, guineas verdes, arroz con coco, tacos, burritos, frijoles negros—all of which looked and smelled like heaven. Our hunger was quickly satisfied as we savored the foods of our ancestors, the foods of our living cultures.

But the children were satisfying another hunger that day: the hunger to see themselves in us and to know we are like them.

The hunger to be recognized as real people, with gifts and talents that the world needs.

The hunger to feel that they, too, could speak, dream, dance and eat in Spanish, without fear of being seen as different or less.

The hunger to be proud.

Nilsa Mariano

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