A thought-provoking exhibit of picture-book illustrations by Latino artists, titled “El Barrio & Beyond,” is on display, starting Nov. 8, at R. Michelson Gallery, in Northampton. First seen this past summer at the Featherstone Center for the Arts, in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, the exhibit showcases about a hundred pieces by 10 artists of varied Hispanic origins, from Mexico to Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The two most distinguished illustrators on display are Yuyi Morales and Raul Colón. Morales, whose books include Caldecott Honor winner “Viva Frida,” moved from Mexico to the United States in 1994. She learned English “by reading to her son Kelly who did not know or care if she mispronounced some words, and she could always use the illustrations to show something she did not know.”
Colón’s bright-color images, featured in the gorgeous “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” (2008), about the Puerto Rican baseball legend, are layered on watercolor paper, which Colón washes a number of times before then applying colored pencils and a scratcher to draw through the layers, creating an effect of depth. His work has been published in The New Yorker and other publications; George Lucas is among the many collectors of his art.
Other important artists include Peruvian-born Juana Martinez-Neal, the New York Times best-selling author of 2019′s “Alma and How She Got Her Name,” also a Caldecott winner; East Los Angeles-born and bred Joe Cepeda, who illustrated a couple of children’s books by Toni Morrison such as “Peeny Butter Fudge” (2009); and Eric Velasquez, the Spanish Harlem-native whose 2019 “Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library” is about the legendary Afro-Puerto Rican scholar and collector.
For all its beauty, the curatorial eye in “El Barrio & Beyond” seems unfocused. Richard Michelson, the owner of R. Michelson Gallery and the agent representing all of the artists, assembled the material based on his own clients. This explains a number of lapses. For example, the extraordinary Mike Curato, of Filipino and Irish ancestry, who illustrated “All the Way to Havana” by Margarita Engle, is in the mix, apparently only because of the topic of Engle’s book.
The exhibit’s title is equally puzzling. Historically, the term “El Barrio” belongs, most audibly, to the ‘70s, and is framed by the Nuyorican experience. Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and other prominently Hispanic areas had other terms for the Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Contemporary usage has replaced “El Barrio” with “The Hood,” “The Crib,” and other terms.
Still, what makes the endeavor significant is the difficult questions it provokes. One out of five Americans identify as Hispanic, and yet the nation’s publishing industry appears unaware of its own potential for change. The number of Latino picture-book editors, if it exists at all, must be infinitesimal. And as my work at Yonder, the children’s division of Restless Books, has shown me, books representing a full range of Latino experience are not acquired, or get lost in the publication calendar, without a strong in-house advocate to push for them. Almost all of the books in “El Barrio & Beyond” are illustrated by Latinos, but they are also products of non-Latino editors, who may view a Latino picture book as a “foreign” artifact.
That is the feeling one gets from most of the books on display. There is inevitable stereotyping in the images. Landscapes are often painted in a jewel-toned palette, as in Cepeda’s “Mess in the Kitchen” and David Diaz’s “Cats Together.” The depiction of human figures, as in Yuyi Morales’s “Mama Sings Every Day,” has a dreamlike quality. A magic-realist dimension insinuates itself constantly — an approach that has been called “tropicalization.”
And there is a kind of narrative ghettoization as well. The illustrations in the exhibit belong to stories mostly written in English. I spotted a few that featured Spanish, and even more with Spanglish. I stress this because by definition the language of these books announces, albeit loosely, their target audience. These works, while created by Latino artists, are packaged by a production team that does not necessarily ask itself specific questions: How is their audience constituted? Are they actually reaching Latino children? Are their early readers middle- and upper-middle class? Are they from across the ethnic board?
One telling measure of the limited systemic support for Latino writers and illustrators is the number of “El Barrio & Beyond” artists who have received the Pura Belpré Award more than once. The prize, awarded by the American Library Association and offered every other year at its inception in 1996, is presented to a Latino writer and illustrator “whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”
Colón has two Pura Belpré medals; Yuyi Morales has six, plus four Belpré honors, the most of any illustrator — evidence of their and their colleagues’ talent, certainly, but also of the limited pool of prize candidates. In a country where there are more Latinos than in the entire population of Spain, the palette should be broader.
The significance of “El Barrio & Beyond” is to be found in its encouragement of tough questions. Among my wishes is that bigger museums will curate similar yet more comprehensive exhibits in the future, spreading the artistic impetus while transforming an apathetic industry.
EL BARRIO & BEYOND: A Celebration of Latinx Culture
At R. Michelson Gallery, 132 Main St., Northampton. Through Jan. 15. 413-586-3964, rmichleson.com
Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, has just published a new children’s book, “The Mexican Dreidel.”