My first oral presentation took place in the 4th grade. My teacher presented us with a hat filled with names of famous people throughout history.
The name fate handed me was Christopher Columbus.
I didn't think much of this and honestly I was just so stressed about doing an actual oral presentation in front of my class that it was hard to focus on anything else. I had a terrible lisp and was extremely shy as a child.
When I told my mom about the project we decided to walk the three blocks to the public library, which was our second home.
I grabbed a bunch of books about Christopher Columbus. I had a week to get this done and I wanted it to be perfect.
One night, while working on my project, my dad came home from work and looked down at the books I had on the table.
He said, "What is all this?"
I told him about my oral presentation.
He looked through all the books I had checked out from the library and said, "These books are all lies."
He then said, "I’ve got some books for you. I am going to show you who Christopher Columbus really was."
I learned that Christopher Columbus was a crap explorer, who didn't really discover America. That he tortured Native Americams when they wouldn't tell him where the "gold" he was desperately searching for was. I learned that he raped Native American women. I learned that he was a brutal vicious man and I cried. I hated that this was the name I’d picked out of the hat.
My dad spent the next two days helping me prepare for my presentation. I wanted an A+ so badly and to prove to myself that I could do an amazing presentation. I used all the facts that my dad told me and put them into my presentation.
I was really proud of the work we put into this project and was now feeling excited to speak in front of my class. I was thrilled to tell my class that everything we’d learned about Christopher Columbus was a lie. I imagined my teacher would be blown away by my very mature presentation.
I remember two things from that presentation.
My teacher’s horrfied face and being stopped by her as soon as I mentioned the word rape.
I got through maybe two minutes of my presentation. I was so upset. I remember asking to go to the bathroom so I could cry.
I got a C- on my project.
I was crushed.
When I got home and showed my dad my grade, he was furious.
"Nothing I told you was wrong! You told the truth. We are gonna fix this!"
The next day my dad decided to talk to the teacher after school. I do not know what was said, and when I asked my dad about it recently, he remembered it as something along the lines of,
"You can teach these kids one way, but when it comes to my daughter, I am gonna educate her my way."
My grade was changed to an A.
On the ride home my dad said,
"You need to start looking for the books by authors with names like ours."
These words have followed me my whole life.
The authors I discovered like Pam Muñoz Ryan, Julia Alvarez, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros,Edwidge Danticat, Veronica Chambers and Esmeralda Santiago all shaped my young mind. Finding these authors at the library as a kid was not always easy. For every 8 books I took out, maybe one was written by an Latinx writer and this was not the case for every visit I made.
In the twenty-seven years since that oral presentation, we are still struggling. Not only getting diverse books published but rectifying the history we were taught in so many books.
Why are so many textbooks still written by white men?
Why is the NYT Best Seller list always so white?
Why are authors of color still getting paid far less than their white counterparts?
Why is the marketing of books by people of color so minimal?
I could go on and on. The point is, we still have a problem.
But I still have hope.
With #publishingpaidme discussions on Twitter and the recent anti-racism books making the best seller list, people are talking and the book industry is listening. There is a lot of work ahead but it finally feels we are heading in the right direction.
I want to close out this post with a list of books that have my dad’s stamp of approval. Enjoy and keep reading!