It took me 26 years, but I finally found myself in a children’s storybook.
I have always loved literature. My parents read to me a lot as a child, and stories were shared often and enthusiastically throughout my family. I loved literature so much that I ended up majoring in Literature/Writing during my undergraduate time at the University of California, San Diego. After that, I became a high school English teacher. I’m entranced by stories. They taught me how to work hard, how to persevere, how to deal with sadness or anger, and how to love. Stories, more than any other thing in my life, taught me how to be human.
It is no secret that there are racial tensions in the United States. The hateful speech attached to Donald Trump’s campaign, the recent KKK rally in Anaheim, all the episodes of police brutality, all the uncoverings of racial inequity in our justice system, and the offensive representation and treatment of the Asian people during this year’s Oscars are only some of the examples of ways that issues of race are bubbling to the surface.
By and large, there is a perception in the United States of Asians as the “model minority”. There is danger in this stereotype, and it is perpetuated by a tendency in many Asian cultures to stay quiet, stay out of trouble and just work hard and mind our own business. There is this big, lofty idea in the United States that hard work will get us whatever we want, and it is something I always thought I believed. In America, we are told, everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be successful. We are not told that many of us don’t have bootstraps. We are not told that many of us don’t even have boots. We work hard, pulling and pulling and pulling. But this can only get us so far when there are invisible structures of racism that make it so that there is an invisible ceiling many Asian Americans hit when pursuing their different life goals.
While Asians dominate the technology field in the Bay Area, there are very few Asians in leadership positions in the field. Based on government statistics that are publicly available, Asian Americans have the lowest chance of rising to management when compared with blacks, Hispanics and women in spite of often having the highest educational attainment. I won’t even get started with how Asians fare in the film/industry/theatre world.
There is a quote by the incredible novelist Junot Díaz that I would like to share:
You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?" And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.
I remember wishing I was white when I was little. Hell, I remember wishing I was white when I was in college. These are terrible truths that I have never had the courage to say out loud, but I know that if I look into my journals far back enough, I’ll be able to find you proof. When I was a kid, I fell in love with Snow White, Ariel, Cinderella. I played with Polly Pocket and Sky Dancers. I grew older and I fell in love with Christina Aguilera’s music, and I wanted to dance like Britney Spears. One Christmas, I got a My Size Barbie, and I was so excited because I could wear her costume. I have a very vivid memory of my mother putting it on me, and racing to the bathroom to see myself in the mirror. I don’t look anything like her, I thought to myself. And while I still loved playing with Barbie, a subconscious idea was cemented into me: I could never be her. I remember thinking about who I could dress up as on Halloween that year. An actress even then, I wanted to find a character who I could really become. I looked through my storybooks and I looked on television. I couldn’t find anyone, so that year, I wore the My Size Barbie costume because there was no other character I could find.
There are horrible messages that we are sending to our children by failing to provide them with representation in the movies they watch and the literature they read. I argue that by failing to represent Asians in our fictional worlds of film, television, story and theatre, we are committing even more tragic of a crime: We are saying that even in worlds of imagination, Asians do not exist.
I’m 26 years old now and many of my friends have small children of their own. I’m also a former English teacher, so stories and storybooks have always been of interest to me. A month ago, I embarked on a project to find Filipino culture in children’s storybooks. You should have seen the faces of employees at these bookstores when I asked for Filipino Children’s Storybooks. I was very specific in the beginning of my project, in search of, in particular, children’s storybooks based on Filipino myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales. While representation is important to me, it was not enough to me to have a Filipino character in a book. I wanted to find a book that helped pass on part of the culture that I grew up in, one that is rich with a history of imaginative (and admittedly often scary) stories. “That’s too specific,” one employee told me. “We don’t have those,” I heard from another. At a different bookstore, “We have a collection that has Japanese stories” and “We have a picture book of Greek gods” and at another bookstore, “Have you tried looking up if you can get them delivered from the Philippines?”
I took to the internet, searching for as many storybooks as I could find. I ordered every single one I could find. I’ve been excited to open every package I’ve received, finding value in every book that I can get in my hands. Last night, though, I received Dorina Lazo Gilmore’s Cora Cooks Pancit, and for the first time in my life, I saw beautiful illustrations and thought, “She looks like me.”
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who point out Shelby Woo and Mulan as examples of strong Asian women who arguably look like me. And it’s very true, I loved both of these characters very, very much in my childhood. My father is quite the storyteller himself, and he did his best to tell me stories from the Philippines, and for this I am ever grateful. But last night, in Cora Cooks Pancit, I saw myself--not simply a Filipino character, not simply an American character. I saw a Filipino-American character and tears welled up in my eyes. It was a mirror that told me I exist. Not only this, it was a storybook that told me other people know I exist.
I am currently working on completing my Masters in Art, Education and Community Practice at New York University, and I have begun a thesis project that I hope lives far beyond my time here in New York City. I want to work with underrepresented communities and artists of color to collect and share the stories that are missing from our bookstores and libraries. I am currently working with artist Jet Antonio to write and illustrate a version of Si Malakas at si Maganda, the Philippine creation story. It is a story I never encountered before beginning this work.
I will be in the San Diego area and I would love input in this storybook from children, adolescents and adults of all ages of all races. After all, I learned to pursue wisdom after being exposed to Greek goddess Athena. I learned to be kind from Cinderella. Sandra Cisneros The House on Mango Street was pivotal in making me believe I could be a writer. Stories from different cultures are of value for all of us. I can go on about this part, but reading stories from different cultures helps us to build our empathy. Even if you’re not Filipino, bring your children and come listen to, discuss, and participate in the writing of new stories and old stories. All are invited.
FILIPINO AMERICANS & THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE US
Stories, Storytelling, Art & Culture
March 13th, 2016 1-5pm My Parents’ House!
1926 Meeks Bay Drive Chula Vista, CA 91913
619 781 8501
Please RSVP Here! https://www.facebook.com/events/106...
FILIPINO AMERICANS & THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE US
Stories, Storytelling, Art & Culture
March 18th, 2016 5-8pm Charity Wings Art & Crafts Center
200 East Barham Dr. #127 San Marcos, CA 92078
760 591 3010
Please RSVP Here! https://www.facebook.com/events/166...
There will be a draft of Si Malakas at si Maganda presented and you’ll be able to provide feedback before we send this book to publishing. You will be given credit for your help in creating this final book! There will be storybooks being read for children, a place where you can share your own stories, and ways to let us know what other stories you feel are missing from the shelves. I want to dedicate a lot of my life to getting those books on the shelves.
Whoopi Goldberg said in an interview once, “Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” I want to be in the work of showing children they can be anything they want to be. I want to break the glass ceiling in some small way, even if it is just through getting more representation for people of color on the bookshelves in the children’s section of the store.
With Love, Carol Cabrera
PS. If you are able to come to either event and you’re able to volunteer to read children’s storybooks, help with set up, help collect stories and help facilitate, PLEASE LET ME KNOW! My phone number is 6192532368. Call or text anytime!