Hybridity in Literature and Life

In Malathi Michelle Iyengar’s picture book Romina’s Rangoli, Romina, a half-Indian and half-Mexican girl born in the United States, is struggling with a school assignment that requires students to “create something that represents your ancestors, your family, and where you come from. Something that represents your heritage.” She can’t seem to come up with a project that will blend her two cultures – that is, until Mr. Gonzalez, her Mexican neighbor, compares her rangoli patterns, drawn with colorful chalk on the sidewalk, and traditionally used in India to decorate houses, the entrance of temples and courtyards, to the symmetrical patterns of papel picado (cut-paper art), a Mexican folk art tradition.

To the teacher and students’ surprise, since they were expecting to see something hanging on the wall, Romina displays her project on the classroom floor, rangoli-style. She explains: “You, see, in India this design would be made of different colored flower petals, or dyed rice-flour, or colored chalk. But mine is made of cut paper, papel picado. My project is both Indian and Mexican, combined. Just like me!” (read the complete review here).

In her personal view article for PaperTigers, titled Hybridity in Literature and Life, the author writes:

When writing Romina’s Rangoli, I struggled with wanting to make the story simple enough to engage and entertain very small children, while at the same time trying NOT to promote the kind of simplistic thinking that reduces “culture” to food and holidays – i.e., Romina is Indian and Mexican, so that means she makes rangoli designs and papel picado. I have often wondered whether Romina’s craft project isn’t too pat, too simple of an ending. But in a society that still tells us, most of the time, to “Check only one box,” the very fact that we multi-ethnic folks actually exist is news to many children. Hopefully, as children get older, they will begin to explore with intellectual rigor the subtle complexities of what culture means in people’s lives, and how various cultural influences converge in family life.

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