New children's book, movie put a song in professor's heart

Drawing of a child singing

A new book and film have a University of Oregon professor singing a happy tune.

Ernesto Javier Martínez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the UO, is a scholar of queer ethnic literature and the author of “When We Love Someone We Sing to Them.” It’s a children’s book about a young Mexican-American boy who is learning from his musician father why serenading is such an important tradition in their family.

“The boy asks his father if there’s a song to sing for a boy who loves another boy, and the story follows their journey of finding a song and having the courage to express affection publicly,” Martinez said.

Ernesto Javier MartínezMartínez, who identifies as a queer Chicano Puerto Rican man, said he grew up singing in a trio with his father and brother, so from a very early age he understood the important role music played for Latinx immigrant families in sharing history, providing comfort and reinforcing community. 

“But very quickly I started to feel a little bit alienated from it because there weren’t songs for boys who loved boys, and at one point I even stopped singing,” Martínez said. He added that he felt a bit of trauma in being a part of a musical tradition that applauded his singing voice but remained uninterested in his queer experiences and desires.    

In the book, when the son asks his father to help him find such a song, the father thinks about his answer and decides to create a new song with his son. The book also inspired Martinez to write a short film called “La Serenata,” which is told differently but also includes that plot line.

Laura Pulido, professor of ethnic studies, said she was impressed with both the book and the film.

“It was a very powerful film,” Pulido said. “I appreciate the fact that the father struggles but works through it and in the end is able to support his son in a beautiful way.”

Martínez said he sees an oversaturation of representations that show Latinx families as more patriarchal or homophobic than others, and he thinks there’s a need to show more healthy representations of Latinx families. He said the book talks about love within the Mexican tradition.

Martínez also incorporated a Mesoamerican tradition by referring to the deity Xochipilli, the “Prince of Flowers,” who represents creativity, songs, dance and writing. He said he thought of the feeling of love as a creative moment, so the father character refers to the feeling of love as “feeling the Xochipilli way.” 

Martínez came up with the idea for the book during a workshop he organized with San Francisco-based artist Maya Gonzalez for the Association for Jotería Arts, Activism, and Scholarship. The association’s mission is to “nurture queer Latinx, Chicanx and ndigenous individuals and communities through practices that recognize the importance of linking art, activism, and scholarship.”

He said queer people of color often have experienced a sense of hurt as young people, particularly in negotiating racism and homophobia in the context of various other intersecting forms of injustice and oppression.   

Book cover“There’s a lot of work there to do for healing ourselves and our communities, so we thought of a storytelling project that would allow this amazing group of people to use storytelling as a form of personal introspection and community engagement,” Martínez said.

With funding from the University of Oregon’s Department of Ethnic Studies and the Center for the Study of Women in Society, Martínez and Gonzalez guided the workshop participants in identifying parts of their younger selves that needed healing and asking themselves what stories they would tell to young people now.

Martínez started writing “When We Love Someone We Sing to Them” in this workshop, and his mentor through the process, Gonzalez, eventually became the illustrator of the book.

Pulido said she was blown away by the artwork.

“The artist does an amazing job of bringing out the themes in the book in ways I wouldn’t have ever imagined, for example how she references parts of Mexican history and culture in the background of the images,” Pulido said.

Martínez had the idea to turn the book into a film when he heard about a Sesame Street workshop in New York City. Though he wasn’t chosen for the workshop, he eventually connected with director Adelina Anthony, who ended up directing “La Serenata.”

Martínez launched the children’s book and film at a community screening in October.

Pulido said she thinks the book and film are wonderful ways for Martinez to teach the public about an important topic.

“He’s taking scholarly ideas from years of work and translating them in a way that’s understandable by the larger public, and in this case for children as well,” Pulido said. “If our goal is to transform society, we need to be doing this type of work.”

“When We Love Someone We Sing to Them” is available on Amazon or www.reflectionpress.com. For more information about the author, visit ernestojaviermartinez.com.

By Emily Hoard, University Communications