Stepping into the comforting familiarity of my local Barnes and Noble, bombarded by the scent of new books and fresh ink, I found myself facing the familiar wall of new books. Except, this time, I was met with something new: I found myself facing a mirror. Not the typical kind of mirror that leaves you staring into your own eyes, nor the carnival type of mirror that distorts your features, but, instead, a figurative mirror. I found myself facing a wall that reflected not myself, but people who looked like me and life experiences that were similar to my own. For the first time in my life — a life filled with many trips to Barnes and Noble — I was faced with a plethora of books featuring BIPOC as protagonists, antagonists and everything in between. And, in complete honesty, I felt elated.
The past few years have brought about a new call for diversity, and not the kind of diversity that celebrates one token person of color and calls it a day, but genuine diversity that reflects what the world is actually like. This, as expected, prompted backlash. Many people didn’t see the point and raised the questions: “Why push for more? Wasn’t ‘so-and-so’ good enough?”
Personally, my answer is no. One token character of color is not enough. Growing up, I found myself constantly looking for characters that looked like me. I avidly looked for a Mexican Disney princess, a book where the main character had the same family dynamic as me or even a character that I could find somewhat relatable. Although my wishes were occasionally answered by the occasional Latinx protagonist such as Dora or Alex Russo, it lacked in the places I felt I needed it. In my childhood and teenage years, relatable characters were few and far in between. In the beginning, I did not feel the full effects of this lack of representation. It wasn’t until later on in my life that I realized what I was missing.
In eighth grade, I read my first book with a Latinx protagonist, and for the first time, I felt genuinely heard and understood. It was then that I felt the full effects of being represented — of looking at a screen or diving into a book and seeing pieces of yourself woven within it. Looking back, this was the moment I began to understand the importance of representation and how problematic and damaging the status quo of predominantly white casts and tokenized characters was. Prior to eighth grade, I found myself only reading stories with white protagonists, and I would compare myself to them to see the ways I could mold myself to fit their likeness. But with a taste of representation, I finally realized what it meant to be represented in a story, to see your struggles and culture shown in a way that felt personal and comforting and empowering. I no longer felt the need to change myself to match the characters I saw on the screen. This experience led me on a search to watch more movies and read more books about characters whose stories are like mine.
Seeing representations of myself in a story, and eventually on the screen as the movement grew, made me realize how important representation is. It is not just a movement to suit the times or check a corporate diversity box. By holding a mirror up to our own lived experiences, representation allows young people of color all over the world to finally feel heard and seen.
Contact Isabella Carreno at [email protected].