Thanks to a helpful suggestion from one of our wonderful readers, I was tuned in to this recent article “Speaking ‘Mexican’ and the use of ‘Mock Spanish’ in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)” by Dolores Inés Casillas, an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.
In an extended post on the blog Sounding Out, Dr. Casillas explores not only the dearth of literature by and about people of color, but narrows in on an equally or more problematic issue: the misrepresentation that can take place in those few books which do make it to the mainstream market.
Her article aptly comes in the aftermath of commercialized Cinco de Mayo celebrations around the U.S.. She begins by writing:
Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.” We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.
And then Dr. Casillas proceeds to delve into the troubling examples of where this “Mock Spanish” appears throughout children’s literature – using the awfully telling store of Skippyjon Jones. I highly encourage you to read the full piece: “Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones).”
Then come back and let us know your thoughts. And if you need suggestions for books which counteract the negative stereotyping and damaging linguistic appropriations of “Mock Spanish,” we have a few ideas in mind.
8 thoughts on “Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)”
We have Skippyjon Jones (the first one–I had no idea there were more). My twins received it from a friend for their 4th birthday. I don’t like it. I’ve had a conversation with my kids about why it’s so troubling, but it’s hard to know how much of the conversation my children understood. I wish I had read Dr. Casillas’ article before having that conversation. It would’ve helped me formulate my thoughts a bit better.
Thanks, A.M.B., for sharing, and kudos to you for problematizing the book with your kids. Just discussing it with them will make a big impact, even if they don’t grasp all of the nuances of why it’s offensive. That’s one of the underlying premises of Vamos a Leer: we think it’s critical to carve out the time and space to have these discussions, to invite questions, and to further critical inquiry regarding the books on our shelves and in our libraries.
As an educator, I use SkippyJon books to teach comprehension skills, creativity, figurative language and to draw out the “real” Spanish in each book. My Hispanic children (for which comprise half my student population) take pride in being able to translate and point out what is true Spanish. We bring in the Mexican Hat song and talk about Hispanic culture and traditions that are represented … taking time to discuss how these traditions are still celebrated in many Hispanic homes in our community through personal testimony. I think sometimes we want to criticize literature that brings joy to various readers for no reason other than to try to put blame somewhere. It is obvious the books are well loved. Enjoy the playful imagination that is portrayed…quit trying to make everything racial. Let children be children instead of filling their heads with racial comments. Children are blind to color and differences until the adults around them point it out. Don’t be that adult…
Dear Anonymous: Actually, I (like everyone else here at Vamos a Leer) take pride in being “that adult.” I’m glad to hear that you’re invested in your students and take the time to provide them with thoughtful exercises. At the same time, I question the continued use of a problematic book when there are so many wonderful other choices. The SkippyJon Jones books are among the most egregious examples of cultural and linguistic stereotypes in children’s books, and they reinforce negative messaging both to your Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish speaking students. These books are not enhancing your efforts to reach your students. Far from teaching respect and understanding, they only further a stereotyped and dismissive “othering” of Spanish culture and language within your classroom. I could say more on that point, but I think the article I linked to in the post above does more justice to the topic than I can in this brief comment area. Finally, to your point that “children are blind to color and differences,” there are numerous studies contradicting your assumption. Children are aware of race from a very young age, and their understanding is shaped largely by the cultural norms which they experience throughout their lives, not just the views of the adults who surround them. Here’s an excellent article by Professor Erin Winkler discussing “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race” (https://www.academia.edu/3094721/Children_Are_Not_Colorblind_How_Young_Children_Learn_Race). This means that the books we share are helping to shape their worldview from before they can even read. The bottom line is that there are both harmful and amazing books out there that we could provide to our children. Why should we undermine our own efforts by selecting the former?
I’d love to hear those suggestions of books that counteract the negative stereotyping. Apologies if I missed the link to them. Thanks!
Dear Lauren: Apologies for not seeing your comment sooner! In reference to books that counteract negative stereotypes, we suggest titles that authentically and positive acknowledge the people represented by the book. We’re working on several bibliographies of titles that do just that, and look forward to posting them soon on the blog. Stay tuned (if you haven’t already tuned us out for our belayed reply!). Warm regards, Keira
Ah thank you for your article and for validating my instant allergic reaction to this characters use of the Spanish language. I’m Hispanic and read in Spanish to my daughter. I’m also a teacher and we have hundreds of books at home. My daughter picked up A Skkippyjon Jones book at the book store and insisted that she liked it. The whole premise is disgusting to me, the use of Stereotypical Spanish is unacceptable.
Thanks for weighing in, Nachi. The debate about Skippyjon Jones crops up time and again, so I’m glad that we’ve been able to provide some means by which to counter the books’ unceasing popularity.