Hello, my name is Janina R. Williams. I am an author and co-owner of Mushmato, Ltd, a multimedia firm in Chicago. My sister, Tegan Pratt, a brilliant and talented illustrator, is also co-owner. We create books, toys, and cartoons for children centered on the following themes: multiculturalism, city-living and art. I wanted to share a little about why we started Mushmato, Ltd. and wrote our first children’s book, In This World Together.
We grew up in an area in Chicago called Ukrainian Village and went to school in Humboldt Park; a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away and mostly Puerto Rican. Many of the students that attended this grammar school were 100% Puerto Rican. My siblings and I were not. We were genuine Polaricans – half Polish, half Puerto Rican. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal now, but it was back then.
It didn’t help that we didn’t speak Spanish or Polish fluently. To people in these very strong communities, language is very important and if you don’t speak them, it comes off as lazy and like you don’t care enough about where you came from, but that’s not true.
All it means is that neither language was readily available to you. If you were not immersed in a particular language, chances are, you didn’t pick it up. This is what happened to my siblings and I. It had nothing to do with us being lazy or not wanting to connect with our cultures. It didn’t have anything to do with the kinds of people we were or the kinds of people our parents were either. It did however, have everything to do with the environment we grew up in. Now try explaining that to a child. I can tell you from personal experience that all of those things don’t matter because kid world is different from the adult world and it comes with its own set of rules.
When I was in the 7th grade, I was told that I wasn’t Puerto Rican because I didn’t speak Spanish. When I stood up for myself, my classmate asked if I was calling her mother a liar because that’s who she got that idea from. She was the tallest girl in my class and was towering over me. For a moment, I was scared. Would she really hit me? I didn’t know. All I knew was that you didn’t call somebody’s mother a liar because it could get you punched. So I did what any kid my age would do. I backed off and let it be.
I never believed what she said, but I never liked her either because what she said divided us. It made me feel like I would never be good enough for her or any other “real Latina” to be a real Puerto Rican. To them, I would always be an impostor, a fake, different.
Being different is the worst thing you can be in grammar school. Nobody wants to be different. Everybody just wants to fit in and blend and exist because nobody wants to be made fun of! Everybody just wants to be left alone. Most days I was, but other days I wasn’t. So, I just got quieter and quieter and all I wanted to do was disappear. And I was disappearing or at least my self-esteem was and that’s how it all started. That’s when I learned how to bury my true feelings. And that’s where it would lay until this one day when I took my son to the park.
This older kid singled him out and told these other little girls not to play with him because he thought my son looked, “weird.” The only difference between this older kid and my son was that my son was brown. The older kid wouldn’t let it go. He continued to berate my son and my son didn’t fully understand what was happening because well, he was two, but he knew something was up because he kept pointing to the older kid and saying, “him.” And he wanted me to help him, to protect him. I began searching for an answer, but I was so upset. And all I kept thinking was, so, order for my son to be accepted, he has to look like you? Who told you that? Where did you pick up that kind of ideology? And I looked at my son and I knew that he felt ostracized in the same way I felt ostracized. It was so unfair.
I wanted to leave and never come back, but my husband said no, that doing so would teach our son that he wasn’t welcome to play wherever he wanted and that’s not a good thing to teach a child. And you know what? He was right!
And then something miraculous happened. One of the little girls said something that changed everything. She shouted, “Who cares if he looks weird? I don’t care!” And I wanted to applaud that little girl and I was on the inside because even though she didn’t know it, she was standing up for my son, for people of color, for me. I knew then that my son and this world would be okay. This is how our picture book was born.
In This World Together is a book that is long overdue. A book that kids like my siblings and I have been waiting for our whole lives. This world needs this book and more books about being multiracial, self-acceptance, and love and we are on the road to creating more of these books.
In addition, In This World Together, is a gift to our sons and to all children of color. We see you, and we respect you. We want you to know that you are not alone in this world. We want you to be proud of who you are and to celebrate what makes you different. We don’t ever want you to feel like you don’t fit in because you do. You are supposed to be in this world right here, right now and we believe that you will do great things.
Thanks for reading!