Skippyjon Jones: Transforming a Racist Stereotype into an Industry

author: Judy Schachner
illustrator: Judy Schachner
publisher: Dutton Children’s Books, 2007
kindergarten-grade 3
Mexican American

When I was a child, Isaac Bashevis Singer was my favorite storyteller, and he remains so today. Born in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, Singer always wrote and published in Yiddish—because he thought that when all the Jewish souls came back, they’d probably like something good to read—and later edited his stories into English versions.

Some of my favorite of his children’s stories took place in the fictional stetl he called “Chelm,” in which all of the Chelmites, but especially the elders, were fools. His use of Yiddish—which I understood pretty well because it was the language my maternal grandma, my aunts and my mother spoke when they didn’t want me or my younger sister to understand what they were saying—was rhythmic, with a cadence that was easy to replicate. “Chelm” was pronounced with the gutteral “ch” and, although I never identified with the ridiculous elders—Gronam Ox, Dopey Lekisch, Zeinvel Ninny, Treitel Fool, Sender Donkey, Schmendrick Numskull, and Feivel Thickwit—I enjoyed their foolish solutions to everyday problems. In one story I remember, Chelm had a shortage of milk, so the elders, after much pondering and discussion, decided to call “water,” “milk” and “milk,” “water,” thereby making sure there would always be enough “milk” for everyone.

Singer’s Chelm stories showed children how not to solve problems by demonstrating Chelmite problem solving. The primary audience for his children’s stories was Jewish children, and he never mocked immigrant Jewish cultures or the Yiddish language itself. There were no fake dialects and no invented words or phrases. And even when Singer’s stories had been translated into English, the “Yiddishisms” remained intact.

Because he wrote his stories in his primary language and situated them in his own culture—and because Isaac Bashevis Singer was a brilliant writer, I doubt that this kind of work could be replicated by a linguistic or cultural outsider.

So, what does all of this have to do with Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones books for children? It’s all about land, language, culture and community.

Skippyjon Jones did not appear in a vacuum. His cultural roots stem from other well-known stereotypes of Mexican people, nourished by NAFTA and the immigrant-bashing and modern English-only movements.

In 1953, “Speedy Gonzalez” came along. Speedy was a cartoon mouse who had the ability to run really fast and had an exaggerated Mexican accent. He wore an oversized yellow sombrero, white shirt and pants, and a red bandana, and ran circles around his nemesis, Sylvester the Cat (“the greengo poosygato”), while shouting, “Arriba! Arriba! Andale! Andale! YEE-HAH!”

In 1967, the “Frito Bandito” appeared on the scene. This cartoon mascot for Fritos Corn Chips was dressed as a “Mexican bandit” and sang, to the tune of the traditional Mexican song, “Cielito Lindo”: ¡Ay, ay, ay, ay! Oh, I am dee Frito Bandito. I like Frito's Corn Chips, I love them, I do. I want Frito's corn chips. I'll take them from you.”

In 1997, the Taco Bell Chihuahua was born. He was a real Chihuahua who was sometimes costumed as a Mexican revolutionary, sometimes as a sombrero-wearing “bandito,” and sometimes as just a street-smart Chihuahua. The main catchphrase of the ads was “¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”

Speedy Gonzalez, the Frito Bandito, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua are gone now, but their legacy lives on in Skippyjon Jones, a cat who transforms himself into a Chihuahua and throws around made-up Spanish words that are condescending and mocking to Mexican and Mexican American people and the Spanish language.

In addition to a plethora of Skippyjon Jones books, skippyjonjones.com offers digital prints, iPad applications, sticker stories, sing-along puzzles, stuffed toys, hand puppets, party packs, tote bags, t-shirts, pajamas, costumes, and more. Indeed, Skippyjon Jones has transformed himself into a lucrative industry.

So, let’s get to the books. As an example and because this stuff gives me the dry heaves, I’ll review just one: Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones.

Skippyjon Jones (the Siamese cat) wants to be a paleontologist, so he digs up his neighbor’s dog’s bones, puts on his cape and mask, emerges as “El Skippito Friskito,” and begins to sing:

Oh, my name is Skippito Friskito (clap-clap) / And I hunt for the dinosaur-ito (clap-clap) / With gigantico ears / That’s been buried for years / Under layers of sediment-ito.” (clap-clap)

Deep within his closet, the alleged fun begins, as Skippito meets up with his old friends, “los Chimichangos stinkitos.” They are toasting “los marshmallocitos prehistóricos” that are hard as rocas because they are “fossilitos.”


“Fossilitos, schmossilitos,” declared Poquito Tito, the smallest of the small ones. “We want to see los dinosaurios with our own ojos,” he said, pointing to his eyes. 
“¿Por qué? asked Skippito.
“Because, Bobocito,” said Don Diego, the biggest of the small ones, “We hear they are reelly, reelly beeg, dude!”

Hearing the news, the Chihuahuas go “insane-o” and sing:

Ding-a-ling, ding-a-long, ding-a-lito (clap-clap) / You are such a silly Skippito. (clap-clap) / You know what dogs think: / If it’s good it must stink! / Plus it’s great for the old snifferito! (clap-clap)

Soon, there’s an “earthquake-ito” and the Chimichangos begin to rumba around a “T. Mexito.” Skippito warns them that they “will be crushed like crispitos beneath the dinos’ toes-titos!” So Skippitito lets out a big “Jurassic-o bark,” and the “T. Mexito” thinks the Chihuahua is a “Skipposaurusito,” and the dinosaurs go “extincto.”

I’ll stop the narrative here. Schachner’s expressive acrylic and pen-and-ink illustrations, on a palette of bright, bold colors, would be very appealing, were it not for these godawful stories themselves.

I’m not sure why the reviewers from the major review journals find these books funny, and apparently think that made-up Spanish words are “Spanglish.” FYI, for those who don’t already know: Spanish is a complex language, with the same parts of speech as English, and with similar grammatical rules. Spanglish is a flexible language that jumps the barrier, a blend of Spanish, English, and sometimes Caló, a Chicano-based street language. The gifted Chicano poet, José Antonio Burciaga, often constructed poems in Spanish, English, and Spanglish—and sometimes entirely in Caló.

The bottom line: Adding “ito” to an English word does not make it Spanish. Further, you don’t just make stuff up and call it “Spanglish.” Mocking someone’s language and culture in this way is not “silly,” it’s racist. The Skippyjon Jones books and materials are insulting to Spanish-speaking children who are learning English, English-speaking children who are learning Spanish, and their parents and communities.

But more important, they prepare young children to accept immigrant-bashing, stop-and-frisk searches, the forced breakup of Mexican families, the impoverishment of farmworkers, and the racist campaign against the Mexican American students in Arizona.

Indeed, the Skippyjon Jones “industry” is a model for how racist stereotypes are marketed to young children. If Judy Schachner is capable of any shame, now would be a good time to post a public apology, shut down her business and turn over all of her profits to the courageous young Mexican American students in Arizona who are fighting to liberate themselves from the racist “education” they are receiving at the hands of the Tucson Unified School District.

Estos “Skippyjon Jones” títulos son muy estúpidos y racistas and way not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/6/13)

30 comments:

  1. It is unbelievable that these books are accepted and popular. Thanks for this blog. You may be interested in an excellent article on these books by Carmen Martínez-Roldán, . (2013). The representation of Latinos and the use of Spanish: A critical content analysis of Skippyjon Jones. Journal of Children’s Literature, 39(1), 5-14.

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    1. Thank you, Evelyn. I look forward to reading Carmen's article.

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    2. Just read Carmen's article--it's excellent!

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  2. "But more important, they prepare young children to accept immigrant-bashing, stop-and-frisk searches, the forced breakup of Mexican families, the impoverishment of farmworkers, and the racist campaign against the Mexican American students in Arizona." This is taking it to far. it's a silly playtime book where a mixed up cat decides he's a chihuahua. it's not racist, it's not trying to hate on mexicans. someone who has read skippyjon jones will not be pro racism and love all of the things listed here. i think that the books are fine. the point is that the symbolistic 'kid' is just having fun and using his imagination to be a 'spanish' chihuahua.

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    1. You are an example of the raism we are taking about! Sorry you don't get it, Ms SUMMERS, but perhaps of you were Ms GARCIA you would get it. It's racism VAILED as "a kid just having fun." The fact you don't get it is an EXAMPLE of how racism is accepted and promoted!! If the only thing changed was a disclaimer that read "caution: rasist material" then all the progressive white people would reject it. But because it's implied, suddenly "who cares, it's all good fun" and now we have created another Trump supporter! Wake up!

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    2. I partially agree with Ms. Summers - I am not sure that we can make the leap from what this book does to mock the Mexican culture to the action of stop and frisk. Yes, racism leads to stop and frisk and racial profiling, but this example of racism probably doesn't cause all those things.

      With that said, I disagree that this book was all in good fun or just using imagination. I was REALLY offended by this book. My husband and I speak primarily Spanish at home. I am white and he is from Mexico. I started reading my son the book, but stopped because I was so offended. Like this article says, not a good example for teaching my bilingual child.

      It could have had a good story line, the idea of a cat seeing himself as a chihuahua in the mirror is good. Just should have collaborated with a Mexican author to tactfully incorporate the Mexican culture into the book. Instead the book mocks Mexican culture. It's like wearing a sombrero and a mustache for Halloween and trying to use a Mexican accent.

      Adding "o" to the end of any word does not make something Spanglish. Spanglish is mixing Spanish and English words in he same sentence. Like "el baby" instead of el bebe or the baby.

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  3. OMG...I'm so glad I am finding this type of review. I have long despised these books, and thought I was alone (fwiw, I am an anglo male). I also think that the rest of the family is stereotyped African-American.

    Just yech. At least there are others who see this.

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    1. Yeah, my wife had me read this and half way through, I was disgusted! She demanded I finish it, for some reason, but I shelved it. I just found it again and ripped it up and trashed it.

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    2. I don't think destroying a book is the answer. It recalls for me the burning of books.

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  4. The use of real Spanish words in proper context in these books is often ignored. As a Latina, a mother and lover of children's books, I disagree.

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    1. I always thought that was part of the problem. Having half a dozen actual Spanish words and then two dozen fake Spanish words without bothering to differentiate.

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    2. Yes, ignorance is taught and the people being victimized are often taught to accept it as "usual" treatment.

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  5. Oh, spare me.......I teach second grade in a community of English Language Learners. The children are first generation American citizens, their parents are immigrants, from Mexico, primarily. My children practically roll on the floor with laughter when I read these books aloud. My Spanish speaking children enjoy the books because they can relate to them, and understand the "Spanglish".

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    2. As a teacher I wish you would be more open minded and sensitive to the potential harm you are doing to your students. Instead why not offer them genuine stories they could relate to with real Spanish instead of mocking stereotypes and made up words. Too many tamales is a good one! Also low riders in space which was actually written by a Mexican American artist who wanted to have more characters that he could see him self in as a kid. -An Latina ELL Teacher

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  6. I'm with you on this one. I always read new books before putting them on the shelves in my classroom, and this made me highly uncomfortable, as do the comments of the people disagreeing with you above. Not only is the butchering of the Spanish language disgusting, I am also appalled at each book begins with mother telling Skippyjon Jones that "no self-respecting cat ever [associated with different species]". Self-respecting cats and kids must keep to their own, of course! Silly Skippyjon Jones. There is no place for these messages in children's literature if we wish to create a world of thinkers and doers. Feeding children these messages from the get-go and cleverly disguising them as funny animals is one of the most atrocious things we can do to the up and coming generation.
    --Kindergarten Teacher, Florida

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    1. Thank you! A person that understands!! These people are EXAMPLES of how this programming works! ... They LITERALLY don't get it!

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  7. I love these books!!!!!! SKIPPYJON FOREVER!!! Stop the h8! Don't discrimin8!

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  8. I've generally been uncomfortable with the books but surprisingly most of the Latina staff at my library love them.

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    1. I enjoyed the stories and agree that most, if not all, of the Hispanic/Latino staff liked them as well. Kids play with words. English words are made up in some stories. I also agree that they include stereotypical images. Surprisingly, so do a lot of Mexican restaurants even when owned by Latinos.

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  9. I can see how the masses might not readily see how these are problematic. But if you've read this post and are still willing to champion these books, then you are either a) dense or b)racist.

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  10. Lighten up, people! The books are fun, nothing more, and nothing less. Stop getting your racist-focused panties in a wad.

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    1. Thank you...My sentiments exactly.

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  11. If people choose to not think these are racist, that's fine. I'm not trying to patrol how anybody thinks.

    But if we were to "translate" this book to being about chihuahua who wanted to be a siamese cat, you can be relatively certain that he'd talk like "Ching chong ding dong" - because that's all that "ito" and "name-o" stuff is, the most remote idea that people who speak Spanish sound "that way".

    It makes me kinda sad to see "Little kids don't even notice!" being used to defend this kind of stereotyping.

    But hey, I guess people who don't want their children growing up thinking ethnic groups can be lumped together and summed up with incredibly broad generalizations are just race-baiters and PC lunatics.

    Thankfully there are more children's books than anyone could ever have time to read. Skippyjon Jones got about 60 seconds of my daughter's time before we moved onto something that didn't feel palpably ignorant.

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  12. I brought a SkippyJon book to a multicultural graduate class made up of several immigrant Latina women, several first generation American women of Hispanic descent, one black women and several Anglo women including myself. We read the book and then discussed it. The first generation American women of Hispanic descent found it very funny. The immigrant Latina women found it offensive but were hesitant to tell us why. After we located the stereotypes and disrespect of Hispanic culture we were all in agreement that the book has many problems. I think this is a classic case of the how dominant culture puts pressure on people to conform. I wish American culture would embrace all cultures of the world and this country would be a much richer place to live. Thank you for trying to bring this cultural awareness to more people.

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  13. I was asked to work on something for the publisher of SkippyJon Jones and I told them that I felt the books were stereotypical. They said I didn't have to include the books in the section I was doing, but they would remain in the over all piece. The staffer said SkippyJon Jones is an "important" franchise for the company and they needed to include it. It comes down to money. If the book doesn't sell, it will go the way of Little Black Sambo and the Five Chinese Brothers, books people loved back-in-the-day but are stereotypical and racist. Don't buy it and share your critique with people. Change is slow, but it seems to come eventually.

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  14. I'm not sure what the "way" of Little Black Sambo and Five Chinese Brothers is. Both books are still in print and if Amazon reviews are any indication, they continue to do well.

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  15. I laughed at the first book but felt something nagging at me. It took awhile but I realzed later how easily I had accepted the stereotyping. Now I can't read them to the children I nanny.

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