“Where are you from?” is a question we’ve all likely asked and been asked. Even knowing that it can be a tricky question to answer (I mean, I tend to answer with where I was born and spent my childhood, but I’ve now lived away from there longer than I lived there…), I still ask people anyway. And the question often has a good intent behind it– we yearn to learn more about the people around us, to learn their histories and how it has made them who they are today. But sometimes, the question is asked for more surface-level reasons, because the recipient looks or sounds different, as if he or she “doesn’t belong.” Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Jaime Kim, provides children with a wonderful context with which to answer this question.
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Where Are You From? opens with classmates asking a young girl, “Where are you from?” Her teachers join in the questioning, and when she finally says, “I’m from here… Same as everyone else,” the response is, “No, where are you really from?” This push, this questioning, this doubt that she could possibly be from the same place as the rest of the class leads the protagonist to doubt herself, to wonder where she is really from. So she asks her Abuelo for help figuring it out, because “he looks like he doesn’t belong.”
And Abuelo’s answer is just beautiful, as colorful and as rich as these full-spread illustrations. He teaches the little girl, and therefore the reader, that we all have long and complex histories that mix together to create where we are from. We all come from various geographical places that can provide a basic answer to the question, but Abuelo goes beyond the geographical answer. He connects this geography to what our ancestors may have experienced or overcome that made them who they are, and therefore is an important piece to the “where are you from” puzzle.
When Abuelo’s answer frustrates the girl (after all, who can blame her — she was naturally looking for an easy answer to a complicated question!), Abuelo’s response will touch your heart. After all, who we are and where we are from ultimately lies in our family. Most obviously in our immediate families, but also in our ancestors. In their dreams and their experiences, in their hopes and in their realities. And in what they passed down, generation to generation, to us today.
So, next time you ask this question, or next time this question is asked of you, what will your answer be? Will you give a one-word geographical answer, or like Abuelo, can you go deeper? Where are YOU really from?