Olivia Waite is a romance author, practicing feminist, and wide-ranging dilettante.
[Reblogger's note: this is an excellent and very thorough analysis of the problems with "feel-good diversity cheerleading" from privileged authors who haven't done the research. Also evidence for why we need the voices of writers of color, not merely depictions of characters of color.]
Bridge shows what can happen when an author is unaware of their own privilege and internalized racism. On the surface it seems like a well intentioned short story about the importance of education, but there’s a foundation of racism and classism under all those good intentions. It’s a great example how xenophobia is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it even shows up in supposedly diverse books.
Jose is an eighteen-year-old undocumented Latino boy struggling to keep his family afloat while trying to get his high school diploma. A year prior to the start of the story, Jose’s father suffered a traumatic brain injury (caused by an on-the-job accident and went untreated by negligent emergency room staff, but I’ll get to that later), which left even more of a burden on Jose’s shoulders. Not only does he need to work to help his family financially, but because Jose is the only member of his family who speaks English he must act as a bridge between them and the rest of the American/English speaking world.
Ignore the problematic aspects of this book, it does do a good job of what it sets out to do. That being depicting Jose’s story with compassion, while pushing the importance of education and perseverance. It highlights how alternative schools can give kids like Jose a second chance at an education, but it also pushes forth the idea that the responsibility for achieving his goals by making smart choices lies squarely on a Jose’s shoulders.
From a technical aspect the writing is all tell and no show, so much so that the beginning of the story reads more like a social studies textbook than an literary narrative. As the story progresses we see more of Jose’s daily life and the narrative begins to take on more of a voice, but that voice sound right. It didn’t to belong to Jose himself, but rather someone outside the situation telling Jose’s story. Whether that was intentional or not it gave me a distinct feeling of being separate from Jose and his life. Like we are looking in, or rather down on him. That made the other issues I had with the story stand out even more.
The story goes to great lengths, despite it being a short story, to emphasize the enormous pressure Jose is under. We not only follow him through his daily routine of shuttling his father to therapy, going work and school. Jose himself is constantly listing all the things he has to do, bemoaning his lack of sleep and despairing at not seeing an end to any of it. Despite all this stress Jose’s deep sense of responsibility to his family and to not disappoint the other authority figures in his life is very clear.
What isn’t clear is where this sense of responsibility comes from. Sure, Jose loves his father. However, the story also shows how he has become a burden because his lack of language skills, education and his disability. (We’ll unpack the ablism in a later on.) His mother and aunt aren’t developed characters, so they too appear as burdens. So we aren’t given any reason for his sense of dedication other than that’s how Jose thinks. The problem with this is that there is a real reason for why a latino boy would feel responsible for the welfare of his family, and it is deeply tied to his (Mexican) culture. Sadly, the story never even mentions Mexican culture, much less portrays how it impacts both Jose's home life and view of the world.
In fact, there’s a distinct lack of any real details of Jose’s family history and true representation of Mexican culture, much less a portrayal of what first generation Mexican immigrants differ from multi-generational Latino Americans. The few mentions we get are throw away.
“Jose’s father could recall vivid details of his childhood in Taxco, an old mining town between Mexico City and Acapulco.” This is like saying his dad comes from Billings, Montana. An old mining town between Chicago and Seattle. The facts are true, but they do nothing to describe the cultural of that town or its significance to Jose’s parents or his upbringing. This lazy approach to research and representation is pretty indicative of the rest of the story.
Another example of the author’s profound ignorance and insulting lack of representation is how Catholicism is, or rather isn’t, treated in the story. In fact, it isn’t ever mentioned by name. The only time religion is mentioned is in a joke about how many statues of the Virgin Mary are in the overcrowded apartment Jose lives in with his family, and the lamenting of his mother praying all the time. People who are completely ignorant of Catholicism at least know about the Virgin Mary and the rosary. That’s the sum total of the representation in this book for a religion that is a huge part of Mexican culture.
The lack of cultural context for both in Jose’s sense of responsibility and his family’s living situation, or any nuance Latino representation allows for Jose and his family to be viewed through the default racist lens most of American media views Latinos. Reducing characteristics of a strong, interconnected family with deep religious beliefs to denote ignorance and poverty. Those offensive stereotypes are front and center in the story.
Take Jose’s mother and aunt for example. While Jose has a strong relationship with his father his mother is a bundle of stereotypes and reactions in the shape of a woman. We are told that she works two jobs, and most of the time we see her either praying and worrying over Jose’s father. She has no voice in the story partially because she doesn’t speak English, but also because the bits of Spanish she does speak is only in conversations related to her husband or son. A mother should have more of an impact on her son than this, and more presence in this story.
Then there is Jose’s aunt. Cue my heavy sigh. She too is a Latina stereotype, but a far more misogynistic one. The hypersexualized, unwed mother who goes out to party and leaves her fatherless children in the care of her overburdened family, Jose and his mother. Can you say slut shaming in Spanish? I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem if either these women had been given more character development or depth, but not only are they stereotypes they are the only women of color in the story.
Though Jose’s father gets more scenes and moments of emotional connection with his son, the ablism in how his disability is viewed by Jose takes away from any ground he gains. Jose’s father experiences memory loss, confusion, and physical disabilities, which makes him dependent on his family for help with remembering where he is and even to move around due to the right side of his body being partially paralyzed. Things are further complicated by that fact that he doesn’t speak English and often depends on Jose to translate and guide him through situations that require understanding American cultural norms. The story frames these situations in a way that reduces him to an embarrassing burden. This compounded with the racism in how Jose’s family is portrayed not only frames them as holding him back from succeeding, but makes them something he wants to escape from. While that is a common feeling all adolescence, especially those who grow up in poverty can identify with, in this story it takes a racist dimension. Everything he wants to escape is embodied in his Latino heritage and culture, while his dreams, and even the girl he wants to date, are white.
At the end of the story Jose doesn’t even get any real reward, other than a pretty white girlfriend (who is pretty much just a sexual object thrown in at the end as a reward for his determination, hello gross sexism). So the resolution of the story is based in Jose’s confidence that he made the right choice to stay in a school program that cost him a job that could have help his family financial, including providing more medical care for his father, because it will give him a diploma…eventually. IF he keeps working hard.
Under all the good intentioned diversity in this book at it’s heart this is an assimilation story, i.e. media depicting POC, specifically immigrants and indigenous people, being rewarded for becoming civilized or assimilating into Western white culture. This is an extension of the Model Minority myth that racism doesn’t really exist because some people of color have found prosperity and success. This myth enables privileged people to ignore the real road blocks, i.e. racism, classicism, etc, faced by people of color.
Often these stories vilify any other POC in the story, reducing them to gross racist stereotypes and even framing them as holding back the protagonist from succeeding. The message in these stories is very clear, anything that isn’t white or western is bad and backward. So in order to have happiness a person of color must give up their cultural identity, family and sense self in exchange for a bright white dream.
I’m not saying Bridge is this overtly racist, but is inadvertently feeding into this myth of assimilation. Everything about success in Jose’s life is framed as American, English speaking and white. His girlfriend with her pretty blond hair. His education which is delivered only in the English language, by white Americans. Meanwhile his family is portrayed as uneducated, racist stereotypes who are dragging him down, and threatening his chance at happiness.
Much of this could be avoided by more diversity in the book, even the presence of other Spanish speakers and/or Latinos in successful and/or mentor positions in Jose’s life. While there is a brief mention of Jose’s successful, educated uncle and his family, they only appear once. They do not help Jose’s family, and Jose doesn’t view them with anything but envy and resentment. So, in this story the faces of success are always white, and that does not reflect reality in America at all.
What’s even more frustrating is how the book does show the very real racism and xenophobia faced by Jose and his family. His father’s injury was worsened by a misinterpretation of a Spanish word by English speakers, but more specifically because of the medical staff and law enforcement’s prejudiced views of undocumented immigrants. Jose is fired from a job, despite his exemplarily performance up until he had to miss a fews days to care for his injured father. He is regularly lectured by teachers at his alternative school for being late, absent and falling asleep in class, even though some of these teachers are well aware of his home situation and full-time job.
These are the real road blocks and burdens in Jose’s life. Living in a country that refuses to be inclusive of those who do not speak English. Exploitative businesses that depend that on undocumented workers while treating them like they’re disposable. As well as an educational system that treats knowledge as a privilege not a basic human right. Including teachers’ racist distorted view of a Latino boy, who works full-time while going to school and supporting an injured father, as lazy and unmotivated.
This is how Jose sees himself, as lacking. He even holds himself responsible for the misinterpretation of a Spanish word by the medical staff that caused his father to be arrested instead of treated from his injuries. What’s worse is no one in the narrative ever tells him that it isn’t his fault or responsibility. No one tells him that he is an amazing young man for all that he does for his family and himself. He is always left wanting to be more, to be better.
There’s nothing wrong with Jose viewing a high school diploma and college acceptance letter as the key to a better life. What is problematic is how at no time does the story put it into perspective, to show Jose or the reader for that matter, that he has value no matter his educational status. That a diploma, like the ability to speak English is just a tool or skill that gives him access to a better life, but it doesn’t in and of itself make him better or more valuable as a person. It also never even mentions other, equally valid, avenues available to gain a high school diploma that might work better with Jose’s home life and job, like night school or simply getting his GED. If anything this story encourages a teenage boy to value a piece of paper over the health of his father and prosperity of his family.
Even as the book shows us the hardships created by the world around Jose, it doesn’t ever go the next step to point out the systemic racism. Or hold any of the privilege characters in the story responsible for their action. Instead it holds Jose solely responsible for overcoming them. Replicating racism is not the same as critiquing it, and certainly isn’t a true representation of the actual cause and contributors to it. If anything this book only reenforces the systemic racism and xenophobia that holds back boys like Jose in real like.
This book doesn’t truly represent the struggles of a person of color. In fact, it’s reads like a manual to teach kids of color to internalize racism and shows white students that only POC who look, act and conform to white, western behavior and measures of success are worthy of respect and dignity. While those who don’t are the “wrong” kind of POC and they’re the cause of their own oppression.
This is a very dangerous lie to teach kids of any ethnicity. Because American media already reenforces this message daily. Very rarely are we ever told that the stereotypes of Latinos in media aren’t real. So when a supposedly diverse and authentic story about a Latino boy reenforces those very stereotypes it will only cement them in the minds of readers who do not know any better.
When one writes about POC, and specifically about immigrants in America they cannot and should not ignore the ever present prejudice embedded in American culture, as well as their own internalized racism. Many Latino Americans ARE successful and educated, but more importantly they can achieve all this while still speaking Spanish. Education and success are not only available to those who pursue high school diplomas via conventional high school or alternative schools, but also through other more flexible educational programs like night school. I speak from first hand experiences when I say that there is nothing wrong with a General Education Degree and it will not hold a student back from gaining entrance to college. Those who value these conventional high school diplomas over those gained through night school or GED program are supporting a false classist ideal of the “right kind” of education. They are also ignoring how economic privilege is a big factor in educational success, often much more than a students scholastic performance.
There is no one true road to education and prosperity, nor should there be. People of color should not have to earn respect and dignity, much less an education and prosperity, from privileged people in power who only reward it to those who look, talk and think like them. That’s oppression dressed up as freedom.
Diverse representation doesn’t just refer to ethnicity, but also diversity in economics, class and point of views. Authors need to check their own privilege before assuming they have the authority to tell people of color how they should or shouldn’t live their lives.
In the end, while I can recognize and appreciate that the intentions behind this story, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.