As an elementary school teacher, I constantly searched for exciting literature to share with my students. My motto: A good book a day keeps the blues away. I was particularly eager to find good multicultural books. Often, I rushed to grab everything — anything — I found.
One day, I was brought up short by a comment from one of my fourth grade students. We were reading “The Rainbow Colored Horse,” a popular legend from Puerto Rico. There are numerous versions of the story, but in this one, a poor young man wins the “hand” of a beautiful and wealthy Spanish “senorita” even though the two have never met. Her father had offered her in marriage, without her consent, to any man who could perform the required feat.
“That’s a stupid way to find a husband,” my fourth grader said. “Just because some guy can ride a horse and throw a ball on your lap doesn’t mean that you are going to like him. You just don’t marry anyone off the street.”
I stopped to think. I realized that, despite good intentions, I was perpetuating stereotypes in the name of multiculturalism.
Over the years, I have come to an important understanding. Many cultures have stories that are replete with biases that can hurt children. Just because a book is “multicultural” doesn’t mean it is free of bias.
In the Latino culture, which I know best, there are any number of biases. In the children’s literature, there is a litany of beautiful Spanish “senoritas” who sit quietly in their balconies or town plazas looking their best and waiting for caballeros to perform noble feats and claim them in marriage. The stories are entirely about men, including fathers, brothers, and total strangers, making decisions for women.
Some will say that these are only children’s songs, games, and popular folklore. Why worry so much? But these tales can have a cumulative effect on children and promote negative attitudes and perceptions.
Growing up biracial in Puerto Rico made me aware at a very young age of the racism in Latino culture. Although family and friends called me triguena (wheat colored), I recall classmates’ and even teachers’ cruel taunts because I stood out. They told me, “Eres una mosca en un vaso de leche” (You are a fly in a glass of milk). When I powdered my face, children laughed and called me Cucarachita Martina. I was reminded, “No eres arroz con leche” (You are not rice with milk). When I dressed in my best, I was taunted, “La puerca de Juan Bobo” (Juan Bobo’s pig).
Arroz Con Leche (Rice With Milk), Cucarachita Martina (Cockroach Martina), and Juan Bobo (Simple John) are part of the rich Puerto Rican oral tradition. They are culturally authentic folklore. I grew up disliking these stories and characters and shied away from using them in my own classroom. They always brought back painful memories of how I was taunted. I continue to be concerned about the use of such folk tales in today’s classrooms by teachers who seem to be unaware of their subtle, damaging messages.
In Arroz Con Leche, children in a circle sing: “Rice and milk wants to wed a little widow from the capital state, who can embroider and knows how to knit, and in the same safe place her needle does keep.” A child inside the circle responds: “I am the little widow, a daughter of the king. I want to get married and cannot find with whom.” The group sings back: “If you are so beautiful and can’t find with whom, here you have plenty, choose at your taste.” Children imitate church bells: “Ti-lin, Ti-lan, . . .” The child inside chooses among the players: “With you, yes. With you, no. With you, my dear, I will marry.” The chosen child steps inside the circle and the game begins again.
Arroz con leche is a sweet hot cereal for children. It is also a popular expression for a light-skinned and often preferred child – as white as rice and milk and just as desirable or sweet. This is not unique to Latino culture; other cultures have references for very “fair” children. We often hear “milk and honey” for blond children and “peaches and cream” for those with rosy cheeks.
The game Arroz Con Leche reflects Latino gender and racial biases favoring boys and light-skinned people. In the game, a man seeks and chooses a wife and sets his expectations: She must be a good cook, seamstress, and tidy housekeeper. The wife sets no expectations for her husband; she just wants to get married, and it doesn’t matter much to whom.
Cucarachita Martina is another popular folk tale. Martina is a beautiful, hard-working cockroach who finds a gold coin while sweeping and immediately spends it on face powder to make herself even more beautiful in order to find a husband. She is dark-skinned. Historically, Spanish women (as do other women around the world) powder their faces to appear lighter. As a child, I often heard Black Latinas mockingly called “cucarachas empolvas” (powdered cockroaches).
Martina cleans house and polishes all day, then sits on her balcony with her powdered face, displaying her worthiness of marriage. Martina marries Perez Mouse because he has the sweetest voice. We never find out what skills Perez possesses besides singing “Chui, chui, chui” and being a charmer. Martina takes care of him until he succumbs to his curiosity and greed and falls into the hot stew she is preparing.
Juan Bobo the ‘Noodlehead’
Juan Bobo (Simple John) depicts a silly “noodlehead.” He is Puerto Rico’s favorite fool and simpleton and has been the mainstay of jokes and laughter for generations.
Juan Bobo does nothing right. His mother is presented as a single woman who overdresses in bright provocative clothing and excessive jewelry, even when going to church. In one of the stories, Juan Bobo dresses the family pig as his mother. Even today, people who dress excessively are labeled “La Puerca de Juan Bobo” (Simple John’s pig).
Supposedly, Juan Bobo embodies the essence of Puerto Rico – the jibaro; the humble, earth-loving, country and mountain folk. The jibaro is the true Puerto Rican and a product of three cultures: Taino Indian, African, and Spaniard. Juan Bobo is frequently portrayed as either a dark Black person or a light-skinned person with broad nose, thick lips, and curly hair.
Juan Bobo purportedly stands for the honest, simple, and uncorrupted life of country folks against the pompous arrogance, excess, and falsehood of those in the city (i.e., the aristocratic Spaniards and those imitating them). But too often Juan Bobo is instead a mockery of the jibaro. Among Puerto Ricans, it is highly insulting to be called either jibaro or Juan Bobo.
Persons of African and Indian ancestry are the majority in most Latino countries. Yet the folklore and literature – adult’s and children’s alike – predominantly present characters of Spanish ancestry. Country folks and Latinos of color tend to disappear or are presented as ignorant and superstitious, as criminals, servants, and buffoons. Those in power are white Latinos.
Arroz Con Leche, Cucarachita Martina, Juan Bobo and other culturally authentic stories have been translated into English and other languages in recent years. They can now take their messages across cultures. As teachers search out multicultural literature, it’s important to remember that the biases and myths that hurt us can sometimes be multicultural!