Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Writing to Preserve Heritage

Kathryn Page Camp

I’m one-half German, one-quarter English, one-eighth French Canadian, and one-eighth who knows what. But few people would guess any of that unless I mentioned it. You can’t identify me by my heritage.
And that’s a shame.
Everyone is the same under the skin. Still, where we come from is an important part of our identity. People have different experiences and history and customs, and that’s what creates a heritage. Because my German ancestors came to the United States in the 1800s and were quickly assimilated, I’ve lost most of it. My Grandma Page was born in England but grew up here, and those less obvious heritage differences blurred, too.
Then there’s language. I took German in college, but picking it up was hard for me by then. I’ll always regret that I didn’t learn it when I was young.
That’s why I admire the Latino writers who are trying to pass their heritage and their language down to the younger generation. Some tell their stories bilingually, with the English and the Spanish side-by-side. Others tell stories in English but sprinkle them with Spanish words and phrases.
If you want to see what I mean, check out these bilingual picture books written primarily for children in the early elementary grades.
  • The Piñata Maker/El piñatero, with text and photos by George Ancona, takes the reader to a Mexican village, introduces a real piñata maker, and shows how he makes a swan and a star.
  • In My Family/En mi familia is written by artist Carmen Lomas Garza. She combines words and illustrations to tell about growing up in Texas in a Latino family.
  • My Very Own Room/Mi propio cuarito is written by Amada Irma Pérez and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. The book tells the story of a girl who figures out how to turn a storage space into a bedroom so she doesn’t have to share with her brothers.
I Love Saturdays y domingos, by Alma Flor Ada, demonstrates the second approach. The story is told by a girl who spends Saturdays with Grandpa and Grandma and Sundays (domingos) with Abuelito y Abuelita. Although both parts of the story are told in English, the description of what happens on los domingos includes some Spanish words that parallel the ones on the Saturday side. Here is an example:
     Grandpa knows I love surprises.
     One Saturday, when I arrive, he has blown up a bunch of balloons for me. The balloons look like a big bouquet of flowers: yellow, red, orange, blue, and green.
     “What fun, Grandpa!” I say, and run with my balloons up and down the yard.
     Un domingo, Abuelito also has a special surprise for me. He has made me a kite. The kite is made of colored paper and looks like a giant butterfly: amarillo, rojo, anaranjado, azul, y verde.
     —¡Qué diveritido, Abuelito!— I say. And I hold on to the string of my kite as it soars high in the air.
In Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/Caldo, caldo, caldo, Diane Gonzales Bertrand combines the two approaches. She tells the story in both English and Spanish but sprinkles some Spanish words among the English. When Mamá needs tortillas to go with the soup, the English tells it this way:
     Mamá bangs her wooden spoon on the table. “Papá!”
     Papá comes in and kisses Mamá before he grabs his hat.
     ¡Vámonos, niños! Let’s go buy the tortillas.”
     Tortillas, tortillas, tortillas.
Bertrand’s book even has a caldo recipe in the back. Like the rest of the book, the recipe is written in both English and Spanish.
I wish I’d had bilingual books in English and German when I was growing up. We should all pass on our heritage while our children are young.
And I celebrate the Latino authors who do just that.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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