Depicting a Culture That Is Not Yours

A conversation about identity with artist Yuyi Morales

For twenty years, illustrator Yuyi Morales lived as an immigrant in the United States and depicted stories about her native Mexico. From abuelitas to hermanitas, Frida Kahlo to Señor Calvera, the characters in her children’s books practically burst with all the vibrant color of a south-of-the-border fiesta.

Now the situation is reversed: Morales had just moved back to her hometown of Xalapa when she took on the project of illustrating Sherman Alexie’s debut picture book, Thunder Boy Jr. In it an American Indian boy recounts his quest to find a name for himself that signifies his individuality while still honoring his family heritage.

I reached Morales in her new studio on the occasion of Thunder Boy’s May 10 release. Below we discuss how she honored Alexie’s text while weaving in her own perspective as a Mexican-American, combining the stories of diverse “brown people.”

What did you think when you first read Sherman Alexie’s text for Thunder Boy Jr.?

I loved it. I was so relieved to be able to say yes, because before I got the manuscript I was worried. I like Sherman and his work so much, but what if this is not something that I can illustrate, something that’s for me? When I saw it I was very happy that I could say yes.

Is that because you felt a connection to the story?

Yes, I felt a connection at that moment. But it’s also a connection that gets built as I have the time to think and feel and imagine what the story’s going to be like.

One of the things that always helps me to say yes to a story is precisely if it connects to me on an intimate level. And I know that it might seem a little egocentric, but at the time I started Thunder Boy I was also going through a lot of changes that have to do with asking myself who I am now.

I had just moved from the United States back to Mexico and I wanted to live here and work here. I was in that process of arriving and being in a new place with a new identity, because no one here knows what I do.

That search for who I am immediately connected to this search that Thunder Boy has. It’s at a very different level, but it’s still a search for who I am. In the way that he’s looking for his name I was also looking for my identity: who I am here in Mexico now after twenty years in the United States growing and changing and adapting and becoming someone else.

Thunder Boy is about an American Indian boy, but your illustrations are influenced by your Mexican heritage. Do you think having the combination of perspectives will make it more accessible to readers of all backgrounds?

I hope so! I really do. I also know that the more specific that we are, the more that people care for the story. I’ve learned that in order to be universal, in order to have people relate to the stories that we tell, it is always important to be very specific. Because it’s in the details that a character comes alive. And that’s why we care for him or for her.

In this case people might not be Mexican or they might not be Native American or they might not be from Sherman’s culture or my culture, but because we’re giving them a character that has wants, that has dreams, that has fears, that has all these things that are very specific, I think that’s what is going to make people connect with it. More than if it was just completely general and it could be anybody.

Thunder Boy is the color that he is and he has the family that he has and he has dreams of having his own name. All those things are very specific to that character. I hope it’s going to make it even more endearing to the people that connect to him, even if that boy and his family are very different to their families and the identity of the reader.

Speaking of how specific it is, did you do a lot of research for this project? Did you try to depict the Spokane or Coeur d’Alene tribes in the visual details?

No. I researched a lot about Sherman. But at the same time I knew that I couldn’t be that precise because I am not from that culture.

And that’s a little scary. How do you depict a culture that is not yours? And do it properly and respectfully? What I did was more like a combination of the things that I knew about Sherman’s culture and then my own knowledge and my own baggage that I have about being someone brown.

It’s interesting hearing you say “brown.” That’s a word Sherman Alexie uses a lot as a broad way to refer to a lot of different minorities together. Do you, like him, feel a connection between minorities even if you come from really different backgrounds and different ethnicities? Do you feel that you’re all brown together in a way?

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, that’s funny how you put it. Yeah, I think so. Living in the United States we seem to have the same kind of experiences. And also the experience that’s very strong in me is that of being an immigrant.

But being brown, yes, I do feel like people who are treated as a minority, or who are treated differently because of our skin color or where we come from — even though we might not be the same skin color — I feel like we do have the same experiences being part of a country like, in this case, the United States.

I think what brings us together is this experience of a struggle. How do you fit into society? How do you have a place? Colonialism is a thing that defines us but that we also need to defeat in order not to feel like we’re just someone who was given permission to exist.

Do you think about these issues in your art and writing?

I do. It’s interesting because I’m thinking more about that now that I’m in Mexico. In the United States I was living it in such a full way. I was always trying to find my path and always trying to feel like I’m valuable and everything. Living in the United States, that was my process.

If you know people who come to the United States from Mexico you will know that most of us come feeling inferior. We come feeling that we don’t have the language, we don’t have the education, we look like this — which is not the most beautiful thing in the world according to how we’re raised. So then you go to the United States, which is the land of the intelligent people, the beautiful people, the powerful people, the people who have the money. A lot of us come like that.

You bring that attitude with you rather than develop it when you arrive?

Yes, and that’s the first thing that we have to fight against. Your own personal attitude that tells you that you’re inferior. And that you can never be at the same level as the people in the United States. So finding a path with that mentality is the first struggle that we have to overcome. And that’s why I feel that my journey of living twenty years in the United States and becoming a United States citizen is the journey of my identity.

And then I come back to Mexico and I realize that all those things I had to struggle against while living in the United States and that I overcame, they’re still here.

The people in Mexico still experience that sense of inferiority.

Yes. Definitely. That’s why I think more about it even now that I’m here than when I was in the United States. There I was working to overcome it in a personal way, but now I see that it’s embedded in the whole culture here in Mexico. Now I have to be part of a change that is not only about believing in yourself, it’s about changing the whole culture, the whole education, everything.

Do you think that’s going to affect your work going forward?

[Laughs] I think so. I think so.

Already, it seems to me that the books you’ve created are very powerful in that respect. They give positive representation and voice to brown people, whether or not you were thinking about that explicitly as you worked. Sherman Alexie also says that just being happy is a type of rebellion against oppression, against the attitude that you’re supposed to be inferior. And your artwork is so joyful.

Thank you. What am I doing with my work? If I can come up with an answer I will say I’m celebrating. Every one of my books, if I look back and I inspect what I have done, my conclusion always tends to be: I was celebrating. And in different books I’m celebrating different things.

My first book Just A Minute was a celebration of the things that I missed. At the time [after moving to California], I was very homesick and still missing my family and the culture and everything, so what do I do? Well, I create a birthday party like those that I always wanted to have now that I was on my own. Like the ones I had here in Mexico which I didn’t have anymore.

With Thunder Boy, it’s a celebration too. It’s a celebration of children doing extraordinary things every single day. And it celebrates searching for identity and finding your way.