Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

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Social Justice Books for Young Children, Part 2

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As a full-time-working mother of an infant and a three-year-old who is still laboring over the marriage dissolution/divorce process and now trying to sell my home, I have partially written many essays in my head, but put none down on paper. Therefore, this blog has been silent since December 2016, and has been dedicated mostly to pregnancy and birth for the past 4 years.

But today, the New York Times published a piece that began when its author, Ruth La Ferla, contacted me after finding my “Social Justice Booklist for Babies and Toddlers.” She told that me of the countless social justice-related booklists for children, it was the only one she had found that was dedicated to infants and toddlers (I hadn’t found one either, which is why I wrote it). She then went on to connect to other parents, bookstores, and publishers, and to write the article below:



I’m happy to be a part of the article, happy that through the process of trying to connect her to other parents I found the Facebook group “Books for Littles,” run by a mama named Ashia Ray (who also has a website and children’s book blog with very extensive and thoughtful book curation), happy for ideas to add to my ongoing child book wishlist, and happy — due to the link NYT reporter Ruth La Ferla included in her article that might drive new traffic to my blog — to be prompted to consider writing again. Well, consider isn’t the right word. I consider it often, but usually put dishes or paperwork or sleep or work first in any moment when the children are asleep or not with me. So, perhaps I will write one of the essays I am always composing in my head about racism, whiteness, parenting, political discourse, empathy, values, maternal child health, and more.

For now, here we are, little family, making it by and sometimes getting out into the mountains here in Alaska:


Photo credit: Desiré Shepler


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June 30th, 2017 at 9:00 pm

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On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, brief thoughts on Cuba and the US American Left

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I wrote this yesterday, as the world learned of Fidel Castro’s death, on my phone as a Facebook post. Today, with both kids napping, I finally have a moment to make it into a blog post.


In the upper left, my traveling companions and friends, Sandra and Clare. On the right and bottom, the gregarious and adventurous children we met in La Sierra Maestra.

Fidel Castro’s death comes at a time when the US American left-of-center is asking a lot of the questions about unity vs. diversity of cause that my friends Clare and Sandra and I were asking when we spent 3 weeks in Cuba in the summer of 2005. (This was Clare’s return to Cuba after having studied abroad there 2002 – 2003, the first trip there for me and Sandra).

We wrestled with many questions that trip, as we talked politics and history with our friends and hosts throughout the island (including La Sierra Maestra, where the revolution was fought and where I took the photos above) and as we poured through essays on the Bautista dictatorship and US Imperialism, La Revolución, the literacy brigades (a host family even taught us the song of the brigades — “alfabetizar, alfabetizar, venceremos!”), the healthcare system, public transportation, and more. We were so impressed by the egalitarianism and base level of health: everyone had food, shelter, potable water, healthcare, mental healthcare, education, and jobs. No children died of vaccine-preventable diseases or diahrrea. There was not much crime. Women and men were camaradas. The only people with a whole lot of extra stuff were those with family in the US sending them Playstations and dollars they could use to get “Divisa,” the tourist money. We were very impressed by the government support for artists and the arts, the celebration of cultural diversity, and the revolution’s efforts to increase gender equality.

And yet, from what we could gather, all of these reforms were done because of a “unity” that required repression of diverse viewpoints and a repression of the voices of those who were still not enjoying full equality. Race equity was better there than in the US, but most top government posts were filled by light-skinned Cubans, and the largest houses seemed to be all occupied by lighter-skinned Cubans as well. The government’s support for the rise of women in the professional world was not accompanied by as strong of a push for men to take up an equivalent share of the housework and childcare duties, or significantly reform sexist treatment of women. (Related to this, we experienced sexual harassment in the big cities, but never in the small towns.) Universal healthcare was great, but the standard approach to childbirth left much to be desired, from my perspective as a proponent of the empowering midwifery model of care. With few opportunities for advancement in certain kinds of jobs, the quality of effort and innovation seemed to be compromised. The limits on seafood for Cubans, which in effect meant that most of the time only tourists could eat the amazing lobsters and shrimp that were abundant in their oceans, grated on us (so we bought some lobsters from a fisherman we literally met while in the ocean, and cooked them with our friends in La Habana). In fact, there were a lot of systems that favored tourists at the expense of Cubans, and in one experience we had, used race informally as a marker of who to exclude. And of course, the imprisonment of gays and political dissidents, the government control of press, and the fact that Fidel still hadn’t ceded power was super messed up.

We had rich political conversations with many Cubans of all racial backgrounds and different professions and ages. Their perspectives were often a complicated mixture of admiration for and disappointment with their system and their leadership. Clare and Sandra and I asked ourselves a lot of questions about whether the US American Left would be more successful if we could concentrate on fewer issues and all gather behind a charismatic leader and an economic and egalitarian vision like Cuba had done. We wondered if each person concentrating on separate causes divided us too much to be able to compete with the hyper-organized and controlled Right. But we couldn’t reconcile the Cuban “unity” approach with the intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, pro-LGBTQ, freedom-loving vision we had for our future. We really couldn’t.

I have been thinking about those questions a lot in the last few weeks as I hear Dems saying we lost for lack of focus on a singular economic vision that Blue Collar whites in the middle of America could get behind, that we lost because our voices and causes were too diverse. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I would hope that we could learn from Cuba how to gather behind a bright and beautiful idea, but avoid the repression of voices that Fidel propagated, which left them a more hollow version of that vision.

Ciao, Fidel. A complicated legacy you left.


Billboards are used for public health and social messaging. This one says “Ideas are more powerful than nuclear arms.”


Our friends Beatriz and Denis, who we met at a party in the Verbenal neighborhood of La Habana. I am still in touch with Denis, 11 years later.


Children I met in La Vieja Habana while waiting for food — a cardboard plate of congrí with pork and green beans sold from a residential window.



One of my journal entries from Santiago de Cuba, on the Eastern end of the island



Enjoying lobster and congrí with Denis and his family in La Habana Vieja

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November 27th, 2016 at 1:31 pm

A Social Justice Booklist for Babies and Toddlers

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Our daughter, Ida Luna, is now two and a half, and our son, Rio Esteban, should be joining us on the outside any day now. Ever since I was pregnant with my daughter in 2013 (or really, ever since I was a third grade teacher in 2004), I have been searching out and attempting to curate a collection of children’s books that are visually beautiful, cognitively appropriate and engaging; that help children to become compassionate, respectful, confident, global in their worldview; and that start them on their journey to make the world a more just and peaceful place.

In the case of our personal home book collection for our daughter, now for our children, I have looked for books to empower them both as allies to those who experience forms of oppression that they do not, and that empower them as proud, bilingual, multi-racial Latinxs — as Alasqueño-Colombianos — to be confident about who they are in all of their complexity of culture and race and gender. Some of these books we will read to them later, when they are more cognitively ready, such as the biography of Ida B. Wells, the African American crusading journalist who is the namesake for our daughter, or “Rad American Women A-Z” or empowering stories like “Drum, Chavi, Drum!” These books and many others I have found from fantastic lists other people have compiled for teaching socio-emotional skills or empowering children of color or combatting gender stereotypes or eliminating prejudice against LGBTQ people, etc. These lists are wonderful resources, but they usually tend to be aimed at older children. In some cases, this is because the messages are more overt in how they deal with injustices, which I have found to be a more high-level cognitive skill than infants and toddlers can grasp.

In the last few years, I have had the chance to buy and borrow books, and go through with my daughter to see which ones resonate with and engage her and which ones don’t.  To some degree, I have been able to observe the effects that the books have had on her language, thinking, and behavior. With a few of these books, I have gotten to read them with the babies and toddlers of my friends and observe the effects on them as well. I am sure that I have many blind spots based on my various positions of privilege as a white, able-bodied, middle class, cis-gendered woman married to a man, but as someone committed to social justice, these are some of the books that I have fallen in love with.

Social justice with babies and toddlers? Aren’t they a little young for that?

As I mentioned above, I have found that explicitly addressing concepts of fairness and unfairness is a bit higher-level (probably something to approach by three or three and a half?). Therefore, most of these books for babies and toddlers aim at building the opposite of implicit bias. That is, these books build implicit, deeply-felt respect and, for children who are from marginalized groups represented positively in these books, they build a sense of positive identity (whichhas been found to be protective against a number of health and social problems throughout life).  These books move a child towards being a socially-just person by building, in conscious minds but primarily in their unconscious minds, a sense that people of color, people from non-dominant cultures in the US or Europe, people with disabilities, children who don’t fit gender stereotypes, and people who are LGBTQ, are just normal people because they simply are the characters in the stories.

This may seem like something that just about any children’s book would do, but sadly, the children’s book publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white, and this is reflected in the types of books most often available in classrooms, libraries, and bookstores. In fact, flipping through most children’s books, I can’t help but notice that the children of color, if they appear at all, are vastly outnumbered by the white children, which is quite unlike most public schools in the US and quite unlike the globe. Likewise, many children’s books reflect gender stereotypes that box children in, and only reflect heterosexual, two-parent families and suburban, middle-class lifestyles. As a result, a literary diet of only those kinds of books can help to create implicit bias in children – particularly when paired with the bias to which children are exposed elsewhere in society. Therefore, in order to do the opposite – in order to prevent or intervene in the implicit bias that shows up in children as early as the toddler years— we must expose children to books and other experiences (photos, oral stories, friendships, cultural events, etc.) that create a foundation of implicit love, respect, and understanding.

Here are some of the books I have found that help do that. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and could most certainly benefit from more bilingual books in other languages. Also, the age categories are just approximations for when to introduce these books based on my (imperfect) memory of my experiences. See what your baby or toddler responds to and go with that. Sometimes their interest in a book will be be sustained, sometimes it will come and go. Sometimes, as with a new food, a new book has to be offered a few times before they become interested.


For young infants:

Young infants like contrast, movement, and faces, so these book choices reflect those neurological and developmental preferences. Their brains are wired to connect to people’s faces, and so the faces you show are going to shape who babies consider normal, connection-worthy people. With this in mind, some recommendations:


The Global Baby series of books, produced by the non-profit Global Fund for Children:

These are beautiful and engaging board books with photos of babies, pictured both with and without adult caregivers, from around the world. These were among the first books that Ida paid attention to as an infant, smiling and cooing at the other babies on each page. The text is also endearing and positive, but I found it even more engaging to just talk with Ida about each baby featured and what they were doing, how they were feeling, etc. These books are still interesting to her at two and a half, and they can be used to spark many conversations, including geography lessons with a globe (which is a new interest of Ida’s).

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ABC, Look at Me! (and all of Roberta Intrater’s books):

Complex ranges of baby and toddler emotion are captured in simple photographs set before a black background. The babies and toddlers featured are of most major racial groups in the US. Unlike many children’s books, the children of color in Intrater’s books are not thrown in as tokens in an otherwise overwhelmingly white cast; they are evenly distributed, and all of the children in the book are irrepressibly cute and engaging. This book in particular has been able to grow with Ida and her ever-expanding emotional vocabulary. It is a true joy to read.

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First 100 words/primeras cien palabras by Roger Priddy/Bright Baby Books:

I am drawn to this and all of the Bright Baby/Bebé Listo books because of the crisp photographs laid over bright simple colors, which appeal not only to babies with developing eyesight but also to artists like me. I am particularly fond of this book, as was Ida, because the range of babies and toddlers photographed is diverse, and all are portrayed in the same way: doing normal baby and toddler things. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but believe me, it is far from the norm for children’s books.

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Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns by Richard Van Camp:

I found this book on a list of children’s books by Native American and Alaska Native authors. I’ve been showing it to my toddler, and will soon be able to share it/sing it for my newborn. I am anticipating that when I do, as I will be coursing with postpartum hormones, it will make me cry my eyes out, because the song (and the gorgeous, diverse photos of infants and their adult caregivers) reflects the sacredness and importance of this period of life.

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For Older Infants & Young Toddlers:

Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora:

Actually, absolutely everything by Rachel Isadora. She has a remarkably wide range of illustration media and styles, book subjects, and locations of her books. We own this book for babies as well as two more that are more toddler-appropriate, but I want them all. All of her books center, normalize, and celebrate the beauty of children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and often in other countries. This book, Peekaboo Morning, is an endearing walk through a young toddler’s daily life in her multi-generational home, and is illustrated joyously with delicious, thick pastels. Because of the repetitive use of “Peekaboo!” and because of the simplicity and focus on relationships, Ida could easily identify with the main character, a Black child whose gender is left to the reader to interpret (or not interpret).

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Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse & Barbara Lavallee:

This book tells the universal story of a child seeking comfort and safety in the unconditional love of a parent. It is a theme any child can relate to. And even if it is a little over the head of an infant, the repetition of the “I love you” provides an opportunity for the adult reading it to connect to the child and teach them these most important of words. The book takes place in Northern/Northwestern Alaska, with Iñupiaq words, objects, experiences, garments, foods, and practices providing the context by which the child asks her mother again and again to explain and assure her of her unconditional love. There are many board books that emphasize a parent’s love for their child, and all are heartwarming. But what I love about this one, in addition to its gorgeous style of illustration and its humor, is that it decenters the center – a universal story takes place not in the white suburbia of most children’s books in the US, but in the far North, among a people who are typically excluded from what most US Americans think of “America,” but who have been here for over 10,000 years, loving and raising their children.

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Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me by Lesléa Newman and Carol Thompson

Fun little accounts of a day’s activities, told from the perspective of a toddler about his or her two parents of the same gender identity. Kids can relate to the fun times and loving care received, so it’s a great way to normalize the concept that families with two daddies or two mommies are perfectly normal. Since my daughter has a mom and dad, she naturally universalizes this to all families, so these books have been helpful for explaining different concepts of family structure. She liked them as an infant, and still likes them as a toddler.

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Joshua’s Night Whispers (and the other board books written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell):

I will admit I don’t own this book; I actually have a different Angela Johnson and Rhonda Mitchell book called “Rain Feet,” which is a quietly beautiful and affirming board book about an African American boy enjoying the rain. But this one, in the same series, looks even more moving, as it is about a child needing reassurance at night and his papa providing it for him with love. I love stories that show fathers in nurturing roles because, amazingly, this still only occurs in a small minority of children’s books.

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A for Activist/ A de Activista by Innosanto Nagara (Spanish version also with Martha Gonzales):

We own this book only in Spanish, but I imagine it would be just as engaging in English. This selection is an exception to all the others, in that it does explicitly address just about every social justice issue you can think of – but it does so with rhymes, the alphabet, alliteration, fun pictures, and a cat on each page. So while the social justice stuff probably goes over their heads for a few years, maybe it seeps in slowly, and in the meanwhile it’s a fun book with a great diversity of people portrayed in its images.

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For older toddlers:

This is the age where my daughter’s intellectual growth and the evolution of which books she relates to are most apparent, so her taste in books changes every few weeks. She has a much longer attention span and can sit through much longer stories at two years and six months than she could at two years and three months. So figure out which books resonate with your kid as you go and then try again a few months later if now is not the time.


A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza:

I believe this book is actually intended for infants, but I received it as a baby shower gift for Rio at a time when Ida, at almost two and a half years, is particularly interested in concepts of parental presence and attachment, and really FEELS any story about someone not having a parent or being separated from a parent. So, this book really resonates with her now, but perhaps it would also work with an infant.

It’s a sad, and then ultimately happy story about a funny-looking bird searching for a mother.  Various animals say “no” because they don’t look alike, leading the bird to weep. That is, until a kind Grizzly Bear who looks nothing like him meets his emotional needs and adopts him, and then brings him home to her warm home full of other adopted animals. I suppose one could argue that this happy cross-species adoption story is problematic given that there is not enough effort made in the child welfare system to recruit families of color to foster and adopt children of color, or enough adherence to the Indian Child Welfare Act to make sure Native children stay in Native homes…I don’t know if the author intended any metaphors here. But I guess I choose to look at it for my toddler as a story about how love and family is necessary and can be created from generosity, how caring can occur across difference. I see it as a way to help prepare my toddler to understand that not all of her friends at daycare and school will be able to live with their biological parents, and for her to be able to understand and empathize with their experiences of foster care and/or adoption.

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Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia:

This is a fun, easy-to-follow book about all the qualities and characteristics of skin (its color, of course, but also its ability to self-heal and grow and itch, its variety in terms of birth marks and dimples, etc.). And it just so happens that the main characters are a multi-racial lesbian family with three adorable children who live in a joyous and diverse large city – one in which people of all religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, disability statuses, and ages are represented. Like “Mama, Do you Love Me?”, it is a universal story told with people who are not typically represented in children’s literature – and it is one of a handful of books we have that names and celebrates the beautiful diversity of skin color. Ida loves to recite parts of the page where all the different colors of baby skin are named – “Bouquets of babies sweet to hold: Cocoa brown, cinnamon, and honey gold. Ginger-colored babies, peaches and cream, too – splendid skin for me, splendid skin for you.”

Two other books along this theme are All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.

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Hello World: Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe by Manya Stojic

This is and has been one of Ida’s favorite books for a long time. The book features the word for “hello,” along with a pronunciation guide using English phonetics, in a handful of languages from each continent, along with cheery little paintings of children in various forms of greetings. Given that we are raising Ida bilingually, I think she already has some grasp of the concept of multiple languages from which to understand this book, but I think with some help, any kid could come to appreciate the idea in this book that kids who look different and come from different places say the same nice thing in different ways. I ask Ida to repeat each word after me while we read, which she does enthusiastically. And sometimes she will just greet me, “Jambo!” or “Dada Namona!” or “I ni bara!” or “Bonjour!” because these words have stuck for her. Given the importance of language for identity, political and cultural sovereignty, and for retaining and respecting the diverse worldviews contained within languages, I think that nurturing an early respect for language diversity is a good way to prepare a child to be a thoughtful human being, and this is a fun book for encouraging that.

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What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth:

We have a collection of books for preparing a toddler for life as an older sibling and helping a child understand pregnancy and birth. This book is special and unique, though, in its easy-to-understand, scientifically-accurate description of reproduction in a way that applies to couples of any sex, gender, and gender identity and any form of conception. That is, it talks about some bodies having sperm and some bodies having eggs, and how the egg and sperm need a place to grow called a uterus, and so on, without limiting this conversation to the “a man and a woman love each other very much…” narrative. I know it sounds abstract, but Ida LOVES it, and while we read it we talk about the fact that she has a uterus and eggs, as do I, and how papi doesn’t, but he has sperm. The extra advantage of this book is that while it was written to be LGBTQ-friendly and inclusive, it also may appeal to people who may not think about LGBTQ couples, but want to explain reproduction without talking about sex – and will end up explaining it in a gender-neutral way!

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Mama Midwife by Christy Tyner

While on the subject of preparing a toddler to have a sibling, here’s another. I was disappointed that there was no simple book about “going to the midwife’s office” like there are about going to see the doctor. My friend Mystie Spargo and I intend to write and illustrate one someday. But for now, I did find this fabulous book about a mouse midwife and her daughter, and Ida sure loves this book. It is narrated by a girl mouse named Miso whose mom is a homebirth midwife for all the other animals nearby. In the course of the story, the mama midwife takes Miso with her to a grizzly bear’s birth.  The book realistically portrays the normal, healthy process of pregnancy and non-medicated, natural birth in a way that is empowering and very moving. Given that access to supportive, compassionate, evidence-based birth care is a crucial part of reproductive justice, that alone would be enough for this to be a recommendation. But I also couldn’t help but notice other cool things about this book that make me recommend it, like how Miso has both male and female friends, all of whom become interested in midwifery. Also, Miso wears blue “boyish” outfits sometimes, and pink other times.

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Who’s in a Family? By Robert Skutch and Laura Nienhaus

This book shares examples of families from many different cultural backgrounds, single mom and single dad households, children with two mamas and children with two papas, children being cared for by their grandma, children with divorced parents and step-parents, and more. It also shares how animals of different species have different kinds of family configurations, I suppose to help reinforce the idea that there is not only one “natural” way to have a family – and because kids like animals, of course. It’s not the #1 most captivating book on our shelves, but it is a toddler-appropriate way of explaining concepts like families, and that not all families are just like one’s own.

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I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien:

When I bought this book about immigrant and refugee children starting school in a new, English-speaking country, I thought it would be way over Ida’s head. I was pleasantly surprised when she fell in love with it and asked for us to read it over and over again. Three children – Spanish-speaking Maria from Central or South America, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah, who wears a hijab and is a refugee from a war-torn country in Africa – all speak firsthand about their fears and the difficulties of adjusting to the new school culture. With support and the kindness of classmates, all find their way slowly in this new home of theirs. This clearly teaches children from the destination countries how to empathize with and support their immigrant and refugee classmates, and also affirms for immigrant and refugee children that they are not alone in their experience. The author offers, in the back of the book, the following website to find more books for and about immigrant and refugee children:

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How Raven Stole the Sun by Maria Williams and Felix Vigil

There could be many other books in this category of indigenous legends and creation stories from around the world, but as an Alaskan this Tlingit story is a particular favorite of mine – one I have read and told to children since for the past decade and a half, and one that Ida now enjoys. Like many other books on this list, this story centers the lives, images, and worldviews of Tlingit people, and it does so in a fun, magical, colorful, and engaging way. I have a number of books retelling legends from indigenous peoples in México, Hawai’i, and elsewhere, and they are wonderful books, but for now, they seem to be a little too complex for my 2.5-year-old. I will add them to the list for slightly older kids that I’ll make sometime in the future.

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Hug Machine by Scott Campbell:

This is a very simple story about a little white boy who hugs every person, animal, and object he comes across, and who calls himself the “hug machine” for his ability to make others feel good with his hugs. It is rare to see boys portrayed in affectionate, loving, gentle, caretaking roles in books, so this book very simply and subtly challenges gender roles. Plus, it’s funny and easy to understand for young children.

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The next three books are examples of books that affirm the everyday lives and values and families of Latinxs. I think books like these are incredibly important for: 1.) affirming for Latinx children that their lives and language are valuable (when they are barely visible in television or movies or the majority of children’s literature, and when they are as under attack by politicians as they are right now in the United States) and 2.) helping non-Latinx children relate to and value the lives of their Latinx classmates, friends, and neighbors. This is just as important for Pacific Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern, Alaska Native and American Indian, African, and African American children, but in our family we have more of a collection of Spanish-English books.


¡Qué cosas dice mi abuela! Dichos y refranes sobre los buenos modales by Ana Galán and Pablo Pino

I love this book for its celebration of a way in which wisdom is so often manifested and passed on by women in Latin America – through dichos y refranes (sayings and refrains) that often rhyme and that teach important life lessons. The book is narrated by the children who are being raised by their abuela (grandmother) in what seems like suburban United States or Canada. The children appreciate the life lessons their abuela tries to teach them about being polite, studious, well-groomed, kind, honest, respectful, healthy, generous, and compassionate, and they recount all of the (often rhyming) words she uses to instill these life lessons. For example, “A quien mucho miente le huye la gente” (“Whoever lies a lot makes people run away”) or “Quien comparte su comida no pasa sola la vida” (“Whoever shares food will not spend their life alone.”). What a rare gem of a book that honors the wisdom of women and Latin American idioms, and the intelligence and strength of a grandmother lovingly raising her grandchildren.

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We Are Cousins/Somos Primos by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Christina E. Rodriguez

This is a very simple book with few words on each page, meaning it would likely fit well in the infant section as well. I just find that Ida is more interested in and able to describe family relationships now, so she can now relate the cousins in the book to her two real-life cousins. This book goes through the ordinary life of mestizo Latino kids spending time with their cousins, sharing their abuela and abuelo with one another, and getting together with their tíos and tías. Basic stuff, but toddlers love simple, comprehensible, repetitive stories that they can relate to.

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Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/ Caldo, Caldo, Caldo by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Alex Pardo DeLange

This is a story about a rainy Sunday in which mamá prepares her special caldo (long-boiling bones, grinding garlic in the molcajete, slicing potatoes…) while the children eagerly await it. They then take a trip to the tortillería and slurp up their soup with hot tortillas. I know, it sounds very simple. I think because Ida can understand and relate to it (caldo is a mainstay of the diet of Colombians from altitude like Oscar’s family, and important here in cold Alaska too) and because of its sing-songy use of repetition, she wants to read this book just about every day. This book especially appeals to Oscar because it affirms the everyday lives, health practices, and values of Latinx families like the one he grew up in. Particularly before his family acculturated to the US, he and his siblings ate caldo and eggs for breakfast regularly. To have books that reflect your own family and its practices was not something Oscar had growing up, and I’m grateful that it’s something Ida and Rio can have.

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I know this is in no way an exhaustive list; indeed, I have many more books I’d love to add to it, but I haven’t borrowed or bought them yet: these can be found at Ida Luna’s Amazon list here:


Which books for ages 0 – 3 would you add to this list?


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July 24th, 2016 at 9:35 am

Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue

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I took this photo in 2002 in the market of Juchitan, Oaxaca.

I took this photo in 2002 in the Zócalo of Oaxaca City. I spent a lot of time with these sisters who sold scarves in the streets and didn't attend school.

I was reminded recently of why I should share my undergraduate thesis. Janie, the intern at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, where I work, found online a Master’s Thesis about the very little researched topic of Iñupiaq women’s pregnancy and birthing beliefs and experience. This was very useful for the work we were doing. I felt  grateful that this young student researcher shared his work publicly online. I told Janie about my student research and thesis, and she suggested I share it too. So here it is.

Despite having written this thesis 8 years ago and it containing some errors, and perhaps there being moments of naïeveté in my theory, I decided I should make it available because it is useful. It is original research that has not been published anywhere else, as far as I know. It brings together original research with feminists in Oaxaca and global human rights theory to make an argument about the need for dialogue about justice and gender justice across cultures. It makes an argument that I still stand strongly by and practice in my daily life and work, in ways beyond what I would have imagined when I wrote this as a 21-year-old.

This is my honor’s thesis from my senior year of college at Mount Holyoke College (2004), based on interviews I had conducted in the summer of 2003 in Oaxaca, México and a lot of immersion in history, feminist theory, sociology, political discourse, etc. Unfortunately, I have lost the cover page, which had a wood block print I made of downtown Oaxaca City, and I’ve lost the table of contents.

So, to give you a brief preview:

The introduction explains how I came to this topic and why it matters, and the theories behind it. It introduces why I think we need transcultural feminist dialogue in order to arrive at globally-valid concepts of justice and human rights.

The 1st chapter provides a history of feminism in México and its ties to other social justice movements there.

The 2nd chapter covers what I learned from the feminists at La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, a feminist organization based in Oaxaca City. (Oaxaca City is the capital city of the state in México that has more ethnic diversity, in terms of indigenous groups, than any other state in the country.) This chapter discusses the organization’s work, how each woman became a feminist, how each woman conceives of the concept of justice,  and how that translates into the feminist work she does.

The 3rd chapter uses the themes about feminism, gender justice, and justice that the women from La Casa de la Mujer brought up to make the argument that feminism arises organically out of everywhere. Because feminism arises out of different environments, it is necessarily different across cultures, countries, etc. At the same time, there is an “hilo conductor,” that is, a wire that connects all feminisms everywhere. This hilo conductor is the idea that we should be able to live lives with dignity and free of violence. Because feminism is both universal and grounded in the local, we need democratic, equitable, transcultural feminist dialogue in order to establish what about gender justice–and justice in general–is universal and what isn’t. That way, we can create human rights standards that people all over can buy into and feel a part of.

I sent this thesis to La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos in 2004. When I visited in 2005, they were almost done translating it into Spanish, so I got to assist with some of the translation.  I have not returned to Oaxaca since, but when I do, I hope to find that is has been useful. And I hope that is is useful for you. If you do use it, here is a suggested citation (although when I wrote it, my last name was Norton-Cruz…):

Avellaneda-Cruz, Laura. (2004). Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue. Undergraduate Thesis, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved online at author’s website:

Thesis_Global_Feminism_Oaxaca_2004_L. Avellaneda-Cruz_p

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June 3rd, 2012 at 12:31 pm

An all-the-things-I-want-to-write-about list

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I’ve been meaning to write, needing to think out some ideas thoroughly the way only writing can help me do, needing to share and dialogue. But I don’t know how to make time to write when…

  • buying a house
  • planning a wedding
  • dealing with a torn something in my shoulder and an obdurate and dishonest insurance company
  • planning somewhat regular presentations or speeches
  • until recently studying for my MSW licensure

So I will make a list instead! (Always a more fun and less intimidating undertaking.)

List of things I want to write about (and/or talk to y’all about in person):

Conference poster in Germany with my photo!

1.)  A research conference in Germany about Latin America, identity, and intersectionality, paid me to use one of my photos for their poster and conference materials! Super excited. And I have Flickr to thank.

2.)  How house buying seems to bring out the classist in us. (e.g. When you invest in a home, you want to think about resale value, and resale value depends on your neighbors, so if your neighbors have trashed-out cars in their yards…you get where this is going, right? We find ourselves in a position we never imagined ourselves in, with ideas we had scorned before now here in our palms…It’s an important thing for me to see, to better understand how disparities widen.)

3.)  Did you know that some guy named Satoshi Kanazawa who seemed to have miraculously landed himself a professorship at the University of London (lord knows how, since the man seems to have no concept of scientific rigor or even basic tenets of science) wrote an article that Psychology Today was dumb enough to publish on their Scientific Fundamentalis Blog the other day. The title of the article? “Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women?“ Hm. I thought we had put an end to eugenics being accepted in the scientific world. I…could go on here, at length, but the point was a list, not an essay, so I will direct you to one of many blogs about the “study”:

4.)  I want to talk about this concept that keeps coming up in my work examining health disparities in sexual and domestic violence, and keeps coming up in pop culture: this idea that some people, and most often, some women, are more “rapeable” than others. That is, in various eras of history (and today) social norms are created, often as a consequence of colonialism or slavery, that make people view forced or coerced sex against certain groups of women as more natural or inevitable or even justified. Therefore, victimization rates are higher and prosecution and conviction rates lower when someone rapes a woman from one of these groups.  Some of the things that have brought this up lately:

  • The scene in the (1950’s?) musical “South Pacific” where the Lieutenant, who previously had his eyes on the Southern white woman but had kept his respectful distance, is  presented to the very young Polynesian teenage girl. They immediately have sex on the ground. He claims this is love. And all the other men go over to the island to have sex with the Islander women as well. All this sex with the “Natives” is seen as comical and light and romantic. Meanwhile, the courtship of the Southern white woman by the Frenchman is proceeding in an entirely different manner.
  • When I was in Dillingham for a Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training, I met a wonderful Yup’ik man working as a Behavioral Health Aide Practitioner in one of the surrounding villages. He told us stories about military training officers he met in college who would ask him, “Oh, is it true what they say about Native women, that you can give them a bottle of vodka and they’ll do the whole barracks?” He told us how his son in the Marines heard over and over again that soldiers were lucky to be stationed in Alaska because of what they can do with those Native women…And they seem to act on that encouragement. Both this Behavioral Health Aide Practicioner and Shirley Moses, the director of the Alaska Native Women’s Coalition, spoke to the incredible number of rapes and pregnancies, many of them drug and alcohol-related, caused by men from the barracks in Fairbanks. I imagine this dynamic exists from our military here in Anchorage too.  And not just the military, either. My friend Dena, who is Yup’ik and grew up in Bethel, was always sternly warned by her dad not to hang out with pilots because he had heard so much racist and sexist talk from them about Native women. We need good data on this issue and don’t have it yet.
  • Wonderful forms of media: Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ powerful film “No! The Rape Documentary”; a radio interview with her, Marc Anthony Neal and others in which they talk about the way forced sex with Black women in the South was not considered rape—not only during slave years but well after them–; and Andrea Smith (Native American anti-violence activist and academic)’s book Conquest, in which she speaks of the US colonization of American Indian land and the way Indian women have, like their land and treaties, been seen as inherantly violable, an attitude reflected in the disproportionate rates of victimization of Native women and children).

5.)  How I get frustrated when I hear social scientists or social critics talk about health problems such as obesity, violence, lung cancer, etc. as being caused primarily or overwhelmingly by only one thing or the other.  Even after we get through the nonsense of those folks who claim that all disease—including social disease–is largely genetic, there seem to be divided camps within those who look at environmental factors. There are those who say it’s an individual’s experience of trauma, (for which there IS overwhelming evidence) and those who point to the larger societal messaging about food, body, smoking, gender, etc. and strucutral barriers, such as lack of safe exercise space or fresh veggies in urban centers, etc.–there’s also a lot of evidence for this.  I encounter people so often who concentrate or offer only one side of this, skipping by the other factors with an almost dismissive mention, if anything. My response is that, uh, it all matters. And not only does one causal factor add on to another, but they intersect in really powerful ways that I’d love to see explored more. I’d love to see more research on, for example, how experiences of trauma shapes one’s reactions to racist and sexist messaging in the media and fast food and alcohol advertising.  Can’t we combine these critical analyses and get somewhere deeper?

6.)  Unresponsive and disconnected institutions and people within the institutions that are supposed to help people but don’t buy into the basic tenet of asking and involving the people they are supposed to serve.  (I’m dealing with this from a particular Federal Government body right now at work. They seem to be very out of touch and non-participatory, very top-down.  This is not effective, especially when working with indigenous peoples who have very good reason to mistrust agencies of the Federal Government.)

So if you want to talk about one of these things or argue about one of these things, please, when you run into me, just start. These are conversations I want to have. Or write me (though I can’t promise I’ll be quick in responding, what with moving and the wedding coming up in a month and a half).

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May 30th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Things I Learned in Colombia: a List

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Partly from guilt but primarily from curiosity, I can’t travel without needing to learn about the places I go and learn from them. And since my learning is never as solid when it’s only bumping around in my head without being organized onto paper (or the blogosphere, as it were), I have felt some of that guilt creep in. I spent months this fall in Colombia with Oscar, living with his grandparents and getting to know his country and family, and I have not yet organized my thoughts into writing longer than my photo captions on Flickr. It is time to do so, but in the simplest format I can, in order to make the task less intimidating for myself: So here’s a list!

***But before reading it, I should tell you that I don’t think I or my culture or family or country or state or city are above the things I observed in Colombia. Many of the phenomena I observed there are similar to things that happen back home, and I try to relate them as much as possible. I also don’t think I am an expert, by any means. Some things I learned, but most things provoked questions about what’s left to learn***

Things I learned in Colombia (in no particular order):

1.) How to cook creatively with available ingredients

El Jardiñero

The challenge of not having a refrigerator and the blessing of having a large garden, tended to lovingly by Oscar’s abuelitos, pushed us to be more creative and resourceful than usual about what to cook (or me anyway; I think on the road Oscar acquired the ability to cook with whatever was available, no matter what). Therefore, many meals involved soups made from whatever we had to use before it went bad + whatever there was plenty of in the garden + what we could pick up at the corner store or farmer’s market and, on one occasion, the rabbit that Oscar and I hunted and skinned (it was delicious).

A few highlights:

coconut fish squash soup

  • The coconut fish soup pictured above, made with fresh coconut that Oscar broke apart and dissembled & plenty of hot red chilies (ají, as they call them in Colombia) from the garden
  • Cuminy spicy soup with acelga (a green leafy vegetable similar to bok choy) from the garden that we cooked with beef bone, cubios and chuguas
  • Breakfasts of arepas de choclo (like fluffy sweet corn pancakes) with fresh farmer’s cheese, eggs, fried plantains and mangos

2.) To be careful when calling people on their racism

This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson, but I certainly had an enlightening experience in Colombia of how not to go about it. The consequences weren’t dire, but it certainly gave me an opportunity to reflect on how self-control is key to effective social change.

The backstory is that we had been spending a bit of time with Oscar’s cousin, Juan José and his wife, Dinaluz. They work in advertising/commercial media and were some of the most educated and in some ways, curious and exploratory members of the family. However, we had also noticed that they would make offhand comments about “negros” or “maricas” (the constantly-used, both derogatory and “affectionate” term for gay men in Colombia). One day, after a long and somewhat frustrating day of biking, we spent a few hours in Oscar’s auntie’s house with them and others when I was exhausted and wanted to go home and sleep. His auntie fed us some delicious soup and we were finally preparing to go. Dinaluz, wanting to aplogize for her eating and dashing, said, “Indio comido, indio ido.” It roughly translates to, “Eating like an Indian, leaving like an Indian.” She turned to me after, smiling, and explained to me that this is an expression in Colombia and it means you are being very rude for eating quickly and going away. The fact that Indian/indigenous/Native was being associated with rudeness and lack of manners had not escaped me.

Now, in that split second in my head, I—righteously angry, empathetic, overly-sociological me—am going through my mental Rolodex of incidents of anti-indigenous racism I had seen or heard in Colombia, in México, in the continental US and Alaska and all of the ways in which anti-indigenous racism has been transformed into children’s songs and expressions or the “Cigarillos Piel Rojo” (“Redskin Cigarettes”) or “Land of Lakes Butter” logos and my role as a white ally in changing this and before I know it, I blurt out—sleepy, exhausted, frustrated, impulsive me—“Pero ésto es racisto.”

In that split second in my head, I should have asked myself for a time extension so I could have thought of a better way to get at this point, perhaps through asking questions and helping Dina to get there herself. But I didn’t, and I imagine that this made her put up some defenses. Her first defense was that it wasn’t about feather-on-the-head and [hand moving over mouth making stereotypical “indio” sound] indios; it was just about rude people. When I asked her why the word “indio” was used for rude, and then explained that I grew up hearing similar expressions such as “Indian giving” or “Indian cuts” or the “Ten Little Indians” songs, she conceded that the expression had something to do with indigenous people. But  I had not succeeded in making her enthusiastic about discussing white/mestizo privilege. Nor did it endear me to the new family.

We had a very different experience with Oscar’s auntie and cousins in Palmira, a small city in the state of Valle–maybe in part because I was on better behavior, maybe because they have been exposed to different people and experiences.  After we bought delicious boiled squash-like fruit from an AfroColombian woman on the street, Oscar’s cousin, Hadie, told us about the importance of this fruit to the largely AfroColombian and indigenous populations in the Pacific states who suffer high rates of poverty and even starvation. She spoke about racial disparities in a way that was reflective and critical, and spoke of wanting her niece to have an open mind about Black Colombians. Clearly, in Colombia just as in Alaska, despite the ubiquity of racist ideas or comments (and in Alaska, believe me, racism’s ubiquity shows when people spit out “drunk Native” like a slur, and if you’ve been around long enough it’s hard to avoid hearing this slur), people can come to think critically about it. Hadie did. Colombian human rights organizations do. So my task is to figure out what role can I play as an ally (and in this case, as an outsider First Worlder) to ask the right questions and provide the right information, to help people at least step back and look critically. I don’t know what that involves, exactly, but I know it involves patience, impulse control, and a few more seconds to think.

3.) What it’s like to have grandparents again.

Tía Abuela Rosa


Although it made me miss the elders in my life that I’ve lost, it was so beautiful to spend time with Oscar’s abuelitos (grandparents) and tías abuelas (great aunts). They have so much energy and knowledge and giant, generous, loving hearts.

4.) How much I love the combination of yellow and turquoise, & the complexity of development

yellow & teal

I was drawn to these Aqueducto workers initially because of their turquoise-colored jumpsuits and the beautiful yellow rainboots and hats they wear. I was also fascinated by what they represented about the Bogotá government’s efforts to make the city more efficient and beautiful and to provide jobs. In some ways, the investments made by the government are great for the people (potable water, expanded & modern public transportation, bike lanes everywhere). But in some cases, development investments seem to favor the wealthy and shut out the vast majority of Colombians who work exceedingly long hours and make, on average, only four or so hundred dollars a month. Development of malls, cineplexes, and fancy restaurants may provide jobs, but they also seem to increase consumption without a proportionate increase in salaries for most workers. (Two notable exceptions are the local, pricey franchises Bogota Beer Company and Crepes & Waffles, who employ low-income female heads-of-household and pay them quite well.) Although produce was inexpensive, many things were not, especially imported items. I am suspicious of mainstream capitalist measures of development, such as consumption, when increased consumption may mean more debt. To better understand the Colombia that I observed from my own experiences, I’d love to look at measures of income disparities for Colombia; that seems to be a key issue in Bogotá and even more so between urban and rural areas.

Obrero de Acueducto


5.) How to get by with very little and take very short showers

It’d be nice for us First Worlders to get a refresher on this every once in a while from developing countries, because we sure do consume a lot of resources (myself included). People are ingenious there. For example, Oscar’s abuelitos had incredible rainwater catchment systems.

6.) That there’s a connection in Colombia, as in other places, between sexual & domestic violence, political violence, and poverty

Oscar’s cousin, Gina, who manages a rose production facility, sat across our small kitchen table over a cup of tea and told us about the low-income women who work in her rose factory—their frequent pregnancies by different men, their black eyes, their days of work missed because of abuse at home, their defense of the men in their lives, and the government aid they receive. Trying to look past the filter of her judgment, I could see in these women’s stories certain familiar patterns of internalized oppression, poverty and violence.

An article in La Semana, a weekly magazine published by the major Bogotá newspaper, described an alarming recent study. This study found that the majority of Colombian residents and the majority of public servants (police officers, judges, public health officials, etc.) blame victims of domestic and sexual violence. Large percentages of them believe that men can’t control themselves when angry, that women are at fault for inciting their husbands to anger or sexual provocation, etc.

Billboards over the main highway through Bogotá show a woman whose face blooms with bruises and cuts, the text reading something about how domestic violence is never okay. This is a relatively new campaign, trying to pick up steam and support in a country that has largely ignored the issue, but a country in which brave women and men feminists like those we met at a reproductive rights rally are organizing to create change.

día internacional para la legalización del aborto

It would be hard work, I think, combatting intimate violence in a country that has suffered violence of every type (often in ways that implicate the First World). Colombia is a country that endured colonization by the Spaniards, centuries of slavery, prolonged civil war and political violence, and training in human rights abuses by the US-run School of the Americas. Colombia is the country with the most displaced people in the world, where millions leave their homes because of guerilla and paramilitary violence (violence fueled by the First Word drug consumption). Therefore, I believe that the violence of guns and drugs and kidnapping that pushes people into homelessness and poverty also creates a culture of violence that places people at risk for abuse. Gina’s accounts of women speak not only to engrained psychosocial patterns of abuse, but also to the vulnerability to violence experienced by women and children living in poverty and in war zones, an issue seen throughout the world. In Colombia, the violence of poverty, of housing insecurity and unsafe working conditions, of houses in the poor communities that keep getting crushed in mudslides, and of militarism, is linked in complex ways that feminists are always trying to unravel to the violence of rape and battering.

We know in general that in war zones and prisons as well as in areas with lots of gang activity and police violence, there is more rape. We know that in military families, the rates of domestic violence are five times higher than in non-military families because you can’t train someone that it’s okay to kill people (including those  “collateral damage” civilians) but then assume it’ll be easy for them to be peaceful with their families.  We know that in times of job loss, domestic violence increases, and so we can imagine that the mass displacement and job loss experienced by over 2 million Colombians because of the violence has not contributed to family well-being.

However, it was clear from the article in La Semana and from victim-blaming discourses we heard from people we met and in the media, that it’s not only the poor and displaced, or the military/guerilla/paramilitary who abuse and suffer abuse. As in the US, violence against women and other forms of intimate violence are perpetrated and justified and excused away at all levels of socioeconomic status. This is because it is linked with patriarchal social structures, gender ideologies, militarism, and many other overarching cutural phenomena. This is true in all of the places that have high rates of sexual and domestic violence, such as the US. (By the way, not everywhere has high rates; in fact, there are some traditional societies in which sexual violence is almost unheard of, and most developed countries have  lower rates than the US.)

In Colombia in particular, I couldn’t help but wonder how much everyone’s attitudes and viewpoints were influenced by the years of political violence they’ve suffered, including massacres only a few decades ago (the ones Botero paints so hauntingly).  Oscar and I found that strangers in Bogotá were often standoffish and rude, which, as an Alaskan, upset me. But we wondered if, in addition to just being a big city, the terrifying political violence and corruption Bogotá faced not so many decades ago could have been affecting them. I wonder if it’s affecting them in their intimate relationships. I wonder if there is un-accounted-for trauma and historical grief, aggravated by ongoing violence and poverty, and propped up by machismo, the powerful church, and cultural norms to not talk about it.

I wish I understood all of the mechanisms by which poverty, colonial and political violence, and patriarchy influence sexual and domestic violence and how that works in Colombia, in the rest of the world, and in Alaska especially, but clearly I don’t. These are just observations from Colombia strung together with the research I’ve been pouring through lately for my job studying intimate partner and sexual violence affecting Alaska Native people. What I think I learned from seeing some of the attitudes and conditions surrounding violence in Colombia is that intimate violence is intricately and painfully linked together with larger, more institutional forms of violence.

If you have some insight into this, please please share it with me.

6.) I learned a lot about myself, my wonderful husband-to-be, and about communication as a couple. But that’s another story…

Okip.s. Some books I’ve found recently that explore some of the topics in the last section really well:

Shout Out! Women of Color Respond to Violence, edited by Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige

Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender and Culture, edited by Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt

And I could give you a long bibliography of other readings and films and websites on sexual and domestic violence if you’re interested.

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January 28th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Women of Alaska Series: Introduction

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Last Fall, I decided to undertake a series of photographic portraits and narratives of women in Alaska. I wrote about the idea in the early life of this blog: I am finally beginning.

I am interested in sharing the stories of the women that make Alaska the unique place that it is. I am interested in showing the different forms that women’s strength can take: from fixing snowmachines and putting up firewood and hunting to bringing your family across the ocean as a refugee and resettling in this strange, cold land to fighting with wisdom and compassion for the well-being of your people who have lived here for many thousands of years.

For those who are not from here, such stories can provide a much-needed humanity to Alaska; they can provide a portrait of our state apart from the we-all-live-in-igloos misconceptions or Sarah Palin’s mama grizzlies.  For those from here, we all, I think, deserve to stop and celebrate the women who are our neighbors, coworkers, family members, forbearers, tribal leaders, legislators, and inspirations. In a state with mostly male legislators and the highest rates of sexual violence in the country, a state where the mayor of the largest city can veto equal rights for LBGT folks, we need to celebrate and promote the places where we are forward-thinking in terms of gender: we have some tough-as-nails women up here doing good things.

I am interested in telling the stories, through photographs and interviews, of what strong and compassionate women do and who they are. Most important to me, however, is the question of how they came to be. How does strength and passion develop? How does someone develop a sense of justice? Where did each woman find her inspirations and role models and which lessons and oppressions did she have to reject? This is important to explore because it gives us clues into how we can raise and educate children to be strong, just and compassionate leaders in the world. And in particular, it guides us in this process for raising our daughters.

Very soon I will have the first installment, featuring Tiffany Zulkosky. You can get a sneak peek of the photo on Flickr.

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August 25th, 2010 at 8:32 am

Posted in social justice

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Let’s Get Some Women in the House!

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Please join me and many wonderful co-hosts…

I’ve been working hard on organizing this fundraiser for my mom and Lupe, getting a bunch of co-hosts who are cyclists, athletes, promoters of bike transportation, etc. This event will be a fundraiser, meaning people come and eat tasty appetizers and drink wine, write a check to support the candidates with their campaigns, visit with their friends and colleagues and have fun. But it will also be a forum to discuss parks issues, transportation and bike planning, etc. Both these candidates are advocates for planning that includes bike transport and public transportation, and both, as parks users, support our municipal, state and federal parks. Please come with questions and comments, concerns, friends…and money, even if it’s just a little bit.

You can also sign up to volunteer or donate online.

The candidates’ websites:

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July 19th, 2010 at 12:57 pm

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Recently-Killed Chicken: Reflections on De-centering

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pig skins! pig skins!


Today I had of those moments of de-centering that comes from travel, maybe you know the type, the type that confronts you with how very non-universal are your views. Third World countries are famous for offering such experiences to First Worlders, and First Worlders are famous for trying to avoid or otherwise ignore the value of such moments.  I can see why; sometimes they’re really hard. But today’s was a gleeful decentering, easier to absorb.

I biked down to the busy intersection by the train tracks to get groceries for the next few days and to take a photo of three pig skins that I had seen hanging in front of a carnicería the day before. I locked up my bike on a pole next to the pig skin store while eyeing the chickens at a butcher shop nearby. The yellow meat laid out in the hot, exhaust-filled air by the intersection and the train tracks, and I could not bring myself to buy it. My fiancé, Oscar, and I have been eating almost entirely vegetarian here in Jalisco, México, in part due to the heat in which the meat hangs all day in the markets. But tonight he wanted to make me roasted chicken with achiote, and so I was on the hunt for chicken breast.

After taking my photo, squeezed up against a truck on the other side of the busy street and trying to make myself small as buses went by, I bought my naranjas and chayote and ejote, and asked the man helping me where I could buy chicken “que no está afuera en el calor todo el día” (“that’s not out in the heat all day”). I was thinking, in my imagination filled with grocery stores that have entire sections so refrigerated you can feel your skin stick up, in my imagination filled with chicken breasts wrapped in plastic packaging that fly from Montana to Alaska, that there may be a little store nearby with some sort of refrigeration. The man turned to the woman who seemed to be in charge and asked, “¿Dónde puede comprar pollo recién matado?” (“Where can she buy recently-killed chicken?”) They pointed me to a place just around the corner, where I found the same bright yellow chicken legs, feet and breasts out in the heat being sliced and sold by a woman with an apron. freshly killed chickenRight behind, however, was a young, short-haired woman grabbing a white chicken as it squawked, steadily bringing a blade across its throat and bleeding it, with great calm and equanimity, into a large steel drum. The old, peeling metal was lined with the feathered and bloody remnants of the chickens that came before it–the same ones sitting on the table for me to buy, I suppose. A telenovela played quietly behind on an old television set, and the Virgen de Guadalupe watched over the proceedings from the wall with that same accepting calm.

In the U.S., watching a chicken being slaughtered by a young woman who stands, smiling, right behind the sales counter might be considered an offensive business practice. Here, however, this was not only a convenient use of a small space but also a way of signaling to the buyer that the meat is fresh and safe, a way of assuaging worries over salmonella. freshly killed chickenRefrigeration, the solution I had been pulling on in my mind without fully realizing,  was translated by the imaginations of the fruit and chicken vendors; translated by the brutal functionality required by these hot, loud streets; translated by a place that lacks the infrastructure for keeping meat cold.

It is as though the language, the streets, the infrastructure of our lives shape the little spaces in our brain where our imaginations are continuously born. We are built this way, I think–built to make sense of the world through our experiences, adding bits and pieces to the schemas we create as children, and then creating new schemas when something proves ours inadequate. I suppose we universalize our own thinking and expectations by design; maybe there’s not space enough in our imaginations to fit all of the things we have not seen, the religions and traditions and ways of eating. It seems that the best we can do is to take moments like this for what they offer: humility, the chance to reflect on how big the world is and how little we still know, the inspiration to ask more open-ended questions like, “What measures do people take to have safer food and how can I look for those?” rather than working only from within the schema we bring with us and judging on, say, the storage temperature alone. It is a reminder for me as a researcher of why research must be careful to not just hand out surveys, but first to draw out, in people’s own words and schemas, what they do or what they believe in, so that questions are fit to the contexts of the people, interacting truthfully with their worlds. And of course, it is a reminder that when we step outside of our normal lives, and even as we walk within them, we should always expect to be surprised.

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June 15th, 2010 at 9:26 am

Becoming an Outdoors Woman & the politics of hunting

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Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) Weekend out in Chickaloon:

I spent the glorious weekend of March 12th-14th with 4 other friends and 200-some other women out in Chickaloon, Alaska at a retreat sponsored by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, with support from other corporations and orgs, including the NRA (*chuckle*). As you can see in the picture on the left, I learned to field dress game. My best friend Jessica Laura (picture on top) from Santa Cruz, CA and I learned gun safety, loading, unloading, aiming, etc. She, my roommate and dear friend Tiffany (bottom pic), and I all learned fish filleting skills. Our friends Mel and Kiatcha also did tracking, trapping, snowmachining and other workshops.

It was loads of fun and it was empowering as an Alaskan woman to be equipped with skills that could help me feed my future family. Oscar and I are always talking about the things we want to grow & ways we want to eat as a family once we get a place; this made me think through the logistics of including wild animals into that diet.  It was beautiful to spend a weekend with so many women, many of whom explained that they were learning skills their husbands wouldn’t teach them or that they’d prefer to learn from better teachers. And I soaked in the opportunity to develop and strengthen friendships.

This weekend also exposed me to the politics of hunting in Alaska in a new way. When we first moved to Alaska in 1992, little ten-year-old Californian Laura thought hunting was barbaric. 12 – 15-year-old vegetarian Laura certainly did. But when I started to eat meat again, I figured I should be able to kill it myself, and so I enjoyed fishing and thanking the fish for their lives. I’ve wanted to hunt now for a number of years, a desire especially influenced by knowing more Alaska Native people who tell me about their son learning to duck hunt at age 3 or their experiences growing up and preparing the beaver & moose meat. It has been influenced by reading Velma Wallis’ heartbreakingly honest memoir Raising Ourselves: A Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River, Ernestine Haye’s Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, the book Eagle Blue by journalist Michael D’Orso about the Fort Yukon Boys basketball team, and the interviews in Growing up Native in Alaska. The relationship that these books describe people having to the earth and to the animals is one of such respect and necessity that it begins to seem less like a choice and more like part of the life cycle. On a more superficial level, my desire to hunt was also influenced by trying dall sheep meat for the first time years ago, when my dad made an Afghani rice pilaf with sheep koftas after a patient of my mom’s sent her home with a chunk of meat. It was delicious.

Yet, being out there for BOW and learning the skills to be a better fisher and hunter, I was struck by the incongruence between the way I had come to think of hunting through Alaska Native narratives, and the culture of it among some of the folks there. There were, indeed, people who saw it as a means to eat well and eat sustainably, and who strove to preserve and use as much of the animal as they could. Fish and Game promoted this attitude, for the most part. But, as Kiatcha bore witness to in her trapping class, there is also a culture of people who want to wear fox fur hats and lynx stolls and ermine coats–not in the way described in Eagle Blue where the kids must wear beaver hats to get through the -50 degree weather in Fort Yukon and they eat the beaver meat anyway–but in what I perceive as a colonialist way. It strikes me as very 18th and 19th century European colonialist, Russians-forcing-Aleuts-to-trap-Otters-for-fur and very un-self-conscious to, in this day and age, trap animals  just for their fur and not eat them.

I also got the feeling–although the rules of the weekend were that we could not talk politics–that there were hunters there who do not believe in rural preference and giving priority to subsistence and to Alaska Natives. In fact, the entire absence of mention of subsistence rights and Alaska Native approaches to hunting made me uncomfortable. Hunting and fishing may be part of a sustainable life in Alaska, as Elaine Frankenstein argues in her film “Eating Alaska” (which we watched and which I enjoyed thoroughly), but it seems to me that how we do that should be influenced not only by the Dept. of Fish and Game, but by AFN and/or other Native organizations who know what the needs are of people in the villages. As a white person and as an immigrant to this land, I don’t feel comfortable making those decisions without that kind of input.

So…it was odd to be there. On the one hand, I felt RIGHT filleting fish after fish and cleaning clams and unzipping the reindeer, skinning him, removing his front quarter, opening his abdominal cavity, holding his heart. I felt like I was born to do this. It felt spiritually important, like this is the part that has been missing from the 16 years that I’ve been cooking, like I’m supposed to provide food in this way. And I adored the instructors of the filleting and field dressing classes. I also really liked using the guns. But I was also weirded out by the enthusiasm of the gun class instructors about youth shotgun leagues and by the woman in Kiatcha and Mel’s classes who was gleeful and almost sadistic about killing animals, and by the snowmachine instructor with her giant wedding ring who taught us how to put on our helmets so that our hair wouldn’t get messed up, and by the whole idea of a sport that uses two stroke engines (although I do admit, it was fun).

The experience certainly helped me understand the cultures within Alaska that I don’t know as well, part of the electorate who my mother is trying to win over (she’s running for State House in East Anchorage:, and the varied approaches to eating Alaska. And yeah, it made me want to go to the range and learn to shoot, maybe even invest in a .22 someday. But it also left me with a lot of questions, a desire to push that kind of (primarily white) environment to listen to the perspectives of the original inhabitants of this land on how to harvest from it, and a need to learn a lot more about sustainability before I begin hunting.

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March 28th, 2010 at 9:20 am