viernes, 30 de septiembre de 2016

What do Human Rights have to do with children’s and young adult literature?: Considerations from Mexico

This entry bridges the previous phase of this blog, related to the "Reading Changes" project in Mexico, and its new phase, which is still "under construction". Coinciding with Banned Books Week, in this entry, Áurea reflects on the relationship between human rights, censorship and children's and young adult literature in Mexico.

Áurea Xaydé Esquivel Flores has a Bachelor's in Latin American Literature from the Universidad Autónoma de México and is a student of the Master's programme in Modern Literature at the Universidad Iberoamericana; her passions are children's and young adult literature, graphic narratives, literary theory and comparative literature. 

       In 2015, the Juridical Investigations Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, through the Opinion and Applied Investigations Department, began a reconnaissance mission on knowledge, notions, attitudes and representations of the Mexican people regarding social topics. For this, they implemented 25 different surveys to 1,200 people over 15 years old throughout the country, thus offering a scaled-down picture of what is happening in a territory of over 112, 336, 538 inhabitants (INEGI n. d.). One of these surveys revolves around concepts such as childhood, adolescence and youth, their life circumstances, development possibilities, violence exposure, etc. Said study reveals valuable results when we try to understand and build hypothesis around children’s and young adult literature, its production, assessment, and distribution as a social and cultural phenomenon.   

          The first hard data we’re interested in (to trace a perspective exercise) is related to the total Mexican Republic population: in 2010, out of 112,336,538 inhabitants, 62,222,356 were between 0 and 29 years old (Fuentes et al. 2015:37); in other words, over half of the Mexican population was young. However, without going into the specifics about what it is to be young in biological, psychological and juridical terms, such a condition comes with a social disadvantage that stems from the contingent nature of the human rights given to this group; that is, the younger an individual, the fewer his or her recognized rights. For example:
·      When asked about what rights children should have, only a 65.9% (out of 1,200 surveyed people) admitted that they should have those stated by law. What about the 34.1% left? 26% said that they only should have those which their parents grant them, 5.3% said that they have no rights since they are minors, and 2.8% gave a different answer, didn’t know or didn’t answer at all[1] (45).
·      When asked about what rights teenagers should have, figures aren’t much better, since 71.2% answered that they should have only those stated by law, whilst 21.6% said only those which their parents grant them, 3.7% said that they have no rights since they’re minors and a 3.5% gave a different answer, didn’t know or didn’t answer at all (46).

The problem, nevertheless, is not restricted to rights, but it also extends to the role they play in society as political subjects. In another survey, 59.2% thought that children should be considered actual citizens, 26.8% that they are not proper citizens, 10.8% that they’re future citizens and 3.2% % gave a different answer, didn’t know or didn’t answer at all (82).

With these data in mind, cultural dynamics around books aimed at children and young adults (conducted exclusively by adults) reveal semiotic dimensions of the exercise of power (Foucault 1999) easily overlooked by us, in many cases, because “we do what we think is best for them”, in which case it’s imperative to acknowledge that the “love for” or the “obligation towards” doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an actual intention of understanding or discussing with an Other horizontally; many times it’s quite the opposite.

Considering children not worthy of human rights for whatever reason (and that they depend on the permission of another “capable” person) is the same as denying them any sort of agency over their own life, present and future, and, like a property, they’re subjected to the will of their tutor (whether he/she is qualified or not, whether he/she cares or not). It is to such extent that many grown-ups fiercely claim that no one should tell them how to raise their offspring, or that under their roof they can do whatever they want (this is something that teachers, librarians and such hear often and even they themselves say). Thus, Fuentes Alcalá and company aim to develop their analysis towards the inherent nature of human rights (52-55): from the very moment these are declared and ratified by the international community, they acquire a universal character; in other words, theoretically, they’re above any national, and local laws, and, of course, above arbitrary criteria within private spaces.

Then, production, assessment, and distribution of children’s and young adult books are practices, which, in their performance, confirm or confront praxis according to law and vice versa, they show those voids in descriptions and regulations of specific practices as written in a law built on abstractions: What kind of books are written in a certain place at a certain time? According to what kind of receiver? From what place of utterance? Who’s making the revisions, the edition, and the distribution? For what purposes? Is there any censorship? Who bans, where from, and what for? What kind of book fall in the hands of what children and young adults? How are children’s and young adult’s responses and reactions taken into account when it comes to validating the qualities of cultural products? In what way could those very responses already be conditioned by a “must be” imposed from an adult-outside? How do social class and ethnicity influence the statement and answer of each one of the questions above? Let’s never forget the political nature of our work.

In this line of thought, working with children’s and young adult literature, from any place and position, should imply a constant exercise of epistemological reflection, not only concerning the concepts of ‘literature’, ‘book’, ‘child’, or ‘youngster’, but the very ‘adulthood’ from which everything else is analyzed and how these latter categories are defined by opposition in a vertical schema of overcoming and improvement.  It doesn’t matter how much we want to be “on the child’s side,” our adult condition makes us players and approvers of a hierarchical system which grants full authority and power over them, a system built throughout various historical developments which work according to the same ground: to appropriate and mold potentialities. Because throughout history and in socioeconomic terms (with the best or the worst intentions) childhood has been valued as a potential power, since its plastic and energy assets allow them to perpetuate, reform, or brake discursive lines in which we, as adults, are already immersed and in which we have a limited time of action. They’re our heirs, whether they like it or not. 

Let’s go back to the beginning: What do human rights have to do with children’s and young adult literature? This isn’t about humans rights as content to be taught (which tend to remain empty propaganda), but the human rights we are willing to acknowledge for children and young adults as singular subjects with voices of their own; it’s about our own disposition to be challenged by them, it’s about checking our privileges and our notions on what those Others are (and what they are not) that give us hope, that terrify us, and threaten the apparent solidity of our speeches.


Foucault, Michel 1999, Estrategias de poder, intr., trad. y ed. de Julia Varela y Fernando Álvarez Uría, Paidós, Barcelona.

Fuentes Alcalá, Mario Luis et al. 2015, Conocimientos, ideas y representaciones acerca de niños, adolescentes y jóvenes. ¿Cambio o continuidad? Encuesta Nacional de Niños, Adolescentes y Jóvenes, UNAM/Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, México.

INEGI n.d., “Población. Volumen y crecimiento” in the ooficial website of the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, available in: [10 september 2016].

[1] In this study, it’s pointed out, with no little alarm, that these results are very similar to those of the National Survey on Discrimination in Mexico, held during 2010 (48-47).