The first time I visited my dad’s side of the family in Mexico, I was exhausted after a long day of flying. While my dad was catching up with relatives, my tia took me into the kitchen. She showed me lots of different foods and I said “okay” to all of them, thinking this was an either/or situation. I was wrong. She put one of every kind in front of me; a feast for twenty people. I was so confused, tired, and embarrassed that I picked up a whole roma tomato and ate it, while she looked at me horrified with a face that said “I didn’t know Americans ate tomatoes like bears!” Growing up half-Mexican meant that a lot of things got lost in translation like this.
September 15th through October 15th is Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month. I like using this month to celebrate my heritage, because if there’s anything I got from the Mexican side of my family, it’s knowing how to throw a good party. And while I think we should support Latinx/Hispanic works all year, I also think setting aside time to be intentional about the things I read and the conversations I have is good. Which brings me to this excellent book, Anika Fajardo’s What If a Fish.
What If a Fish is about Eddie Aguado, a half-Colombian eleven-year-old in the Midwest. He’s at an age where people around him start getting confused. They start asking questions like “If you’re Colombian, why don’t you speak Spanish?” and they’re not sure where he stands in relation to his Latinx/Hispanic identity. Some people start saying racist things to him and some people question whether he even counts as another race or ethnicity. Sometimes those are the same people. This leads Eddie to question his own relation to Colombia, a country he’s never visited, connected to him through a father he barely remembers. As he’s struggling with this, Eddie gets the chance to go to Colombia, where he learns to connect with his culture in his own way.
Anika Fajardo’s protagonist perfectly captures the awkwardness of being a mixed-ethnicity middle-schooler. Eddie goes on a journey to Colombia and finds that connecting with his heritage is complicated, messy and joyful. What If a Fish is a treat for mixed-ethnicity readers like myself, who might share the confusion of being an outsider in every culture, but it’s also an opportunity for all readers to see Colombia in a new light. Eddie’s mixed-ethnicity gives him the perspective of a foreigner, without the limitations of being a tourist. While struggling to pin down what it means to be authentically Colombian, Eddie gives a much more authentic view of the country than curated hotel stays or exported stereotypes of Colombianos. This makes What If a Fish a perfect read for Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month, or any other time of the year.