Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother

author: Sonia Nazario 
Delacorte Press / Random House, 2013 
grades 7-10 
Honduran
 
Journalist Sonia Nazario based Enrique’s Journey both on a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times for which she won two Pulitzer Prizes, and on an adult book of the same name, published in 2006.  
 
When Nazario first met 16-year-old Enrique as he camped at Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican side of the Rio Grande just across from Laredo, Texas, he had traveled more than 1,600 dangerous miles—by train and bus, and on foot—from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, across the border of El Salvador, through Guatemala, to Nuevo Laredo. He had been caught, arrested and deported 17 times. Most children who begin this long and treacherous journey to the US are nabbed and sent back to Central America.
 
Enrique was five years of age when his mother had left him and his sister with relatives in Honduras. Her hope then was to escape the grinding poverty at home and get to the US, where she could earn enough money to send to her children and to return as soon as she could. But the last time Enrique saw his mother had been 11 years ago. Now, he missed his mother so badly that he was willing to risk his life to see her again.
 
Time and again, he had risked injury or death by jumping on and off of moving train cars; evaded murderous gangs, bandits, and border police; and braved both oxygen-sucking heat by day and bone-freezing cold by night. There was always sickness, hunger and thirst and, along with other secretive migrants, Enrique drank from muddy puddles and begged for food and rinsed his mouth with urine to prevent infection. This is Enrique’s harrowing story, which Nazario adapts for younger readers from her original book, and to which she appends an updated afterword, epilogue and additional notes about her research and writing process and what motivated her decision to get involved.
 
Gangsters who rule the tracks will kill the desperate migrants on a whim and bandits on the trains will take what little they have. Girls cake themselves with dirt and rip their clothes, trying to make themselves “ugly” in order to avoid rape. The young people band together when they can, avoiding snakes and robbers, and sleep wherever they can, including in sewage ditches and in graveyards, behind churches. Sometimes they sniff glue to take away the pain of cold and hunger. They eat whatever they can find or beg, and drink wherever they can find water:
 
Once, riding on top of a moving train, (Enrique) grew so hungry that he jumped forward to the first car, leapt off onto the ground, and raced to pick a pineapple. He was able to reboard one of the train’s last cars. Another time, he had gone two days without water. His throat felt as if it was swelling shut. There were no houses in sight. He found a small water trough for cattle. It was frothy with cow spit. Under the froth was green algae. Beneath the algae was stagnant yellow water. He brought handfuls to his parched lips. He was so thirsty that it tasted wonderful.
 
The migrants also encounter acts of generosity from people who can least afford them. In Veracruz, they meet families who live in humble houses on the edge of the railroad tracks, families of whom, as Nazario writes, “30 percent of children five years and younger eat so little that their growth is stunted,” who risk their own lives running alongside the trains, thrusting up bundles of food and clothing, plastic jugs of water—and prayers. In Nuevo Laredo, they meet Padre Leo, who brings in a doctor and a haircutter and, despite the danger of being charged with human smuggling, gives up his small apartment so that girls and women can have a safe place to rest. And, no matter what it takes, he and his volunteers make sure that the desperate migrants have a meal.
 
The thousands of migrants, Nazario writes, hop as many as 30 trains to get through Mexico, and many stop to work subsistence jobs along the way. For some, the trips take about four months; for others, about a year. Most of them are caught and try again.
 
On March 24, 2000, a field hand in Las Anonas encounters a bleeding and battered boy, naked except for his underwear, “stumbling first one way, then another.” He had been beaten and robbed.
 
His right shin is gashed. His upper lip is split. The left side of his face is swollen. His eyes are red, filled with blood. He is crying. He dabs at open wounds on his face with a filthy sweater he has found along the tracks.
 
Enrique whispers, “Give me water. Please.” In town:
 
[T]he mayor’s mother cleans Enrique’s wounds with water, salt, and herbs. She brings Enrique a bowl of hot broth, filled with bits of meat and potatoes. He spoons it into his mouth, careful not to touch his broken teeth. He cannot chew.
 
Figuring that it would cost three times more to bury him than to save him, the mayor of nearby San Pedro Tapanatepec makes sure he gets medical care.
 
Enrique represents millions of people who have come through, and his story does not have the ending that middle readers might hope for.
 
As a journalist, Nazario has professional boundaries: her reporting is pretty much limited to a presentation of the facts. She can’t tell the reader what she thinks of the gangsters or the rapists or the human smugglers (“coyotes”) who often leave their impoverished migrant or refugee “clients”—including children—to fend for themselves. On the other hand, while it may be more difficult for teen readers to understand the interiority of the main characters—their feelings and reactions to the horrible conditions they face—the value of well-written journalism is that it allows a greater, more rounded perspective than does fiction.
 
If Enrique’s Journey had been an “as-told-to” or based entirely on Enrique’s story, readers wouldn’t have the journalistic perspective that allows a comparison of migration today with migration 20 years ago. Nazario takes the story beyond the lives of Enrique and his mom, and in doing so, she creates a distance between the reader and Enrique. This is a trade-off, but one that shows the value of nonfiction in general and journalism in particular. While it lacks the intimacy of a first-person narrative, Enrique’s Journey provides a hair-raising, but not sensationalized, story of what really happens and is still happening. Indeed, Enrique’s story is intense; it places young adult readers into a picture that’s generally seen only in headlines or sanitized stories. It also serves as a model for young readers considering a career in journalism. Enrique’s Journey:  The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother (which is also available in Spanish as La travesía de Enrique: La arriesgada odisea de un niño en busca de su madre, not reviewed here) is highly recommended.
 
(Note: In a 2006 interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Nazario said that she recognizes that the influx of “such a powerful stream [of undocumented immigrants] will only change if it is addressed at its source, if the economies of these countries that are sending large numbers of people to the United States improve.” While she eloquently writes about some of the devastating results of this forced mass migration on individual migrants and their families, I would like to have seen an acknowledgement of their source: the US neoliberal / corporate “free trade” policies such as NAFTA that so deplete resources throughout Latin America as to impoverish millions of people, who are then forced to flee, as a colleague said, “into the mouth of the shark.” I strongly encourage educators to supplement Enrique’s Journey with well-written historic and contemporary materials about the economic and sociopolitical realities of the mass migrations of desperate people—including unaccompanied children—to el Norte.)
 
—Beverly Slapin

Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho

author (English): Harriet Rohmer
author (Spanish): Rosalma Zubizaretta  
illustrator: Mira Reisberg
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1989
kindergarten-grade 3 
(Nicaraguan)

I have an old, dirty tan shirt with two gray-and-white dolphins painted on it from the San Diego Zoo. I’ve had it for a long time, won’t part with it even though it’s too stained and too small for me to wear. I think Uncle Nacho in Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho feels the same way about his hat, which is old and filled with holes.

When his niece gives him a new hat, Uncle Nacho tries to find a use for his old one or a decent person to give it to; but, somehow, that hat keeps coming back. Finally, when he stops worrying, a simple solution occurs.

Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho comes from an old Nicaraguan folktale as performed by the Puppet Workshop of Nicaraguan National Television. Harriet Rohmer, who adapted the story, says that it is about old habits and change in the new Nicaragua. This story teaches that old habits are hard to get rid of and new habits are hard to learn.

I like the brightly colored, outlined illustrations, and I like the fact that the book is bilingual. Children who speak Spanish or English can enjoy the story in their own language. Perhaps they can learn each other’s language, too.

I think this book is especially good for people who never seem to be able to get rid of things or break old habits. Uncle Nacho’s Hat / El sombrero del Tío Nacho is highly recommended.

—Carlos Albizu Ramos-Slapin
(published 12/25/16)

Editor’s note: My son, Carlos, wrote this review in 1989, when he was 11 and in the sixth grade. It was originally published in the New York Times Book Review. We both still like this book a lot.

—Beverly Slapin

Bike Like Sergio’s

author: Maribeth Boelts  
illustrator: Noah Z. Jones 
Candlewick Press, 2016 
kindergarten-grade 3

“Every kid has a bike but me,” says our sorrowful young narrator, who longingly watches his friends having the fun he is denied. Ruben especially dreams of having a bike just like that of his oblivious friend, Sergio, who rides his new one while Ruben breathlessly runs alongside. But since he’s poor, he says, “I know that wishes won’t make money appear.” At the grocery store, while Sergio purchases a pack of football cards, Ruben buys only the loaf of bread his mom wants.

When he sees that the woman in a blue coat ahead of him in line has dropped what he thinks is “just” a $1 bill, he pockets it, and when he gets home, Ruben discovers that it’s really a $100 bill. He dreams of finally being able to purchase a bike, but there’s a decision he must make. This moral and ethical dilemma takes up most of the story. When Ruben thinks that he may have lost the $100 bill, he retraces his steps “from school to bike shop to home.” It’s raining, and “rain and tears feel the same.” This defining moment before he recovers the money lends him a measure of empathy, and finally, young Ruben decides to return the money to the woman who had dropped it. But still, he doubts his choice: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.” Ruben is poor, then rich, then poor again.

This narrative, for all young readers to digest, implies that Ruben and other children in his low-income community are instinctively drawn to thievery in order to gain material objects.

Jones’ digitally assembled watercolor-and-pencil illustrations, with ethnically ambiguous characters, complement the ethnically ambiguous story. All we know is that most of the characters are some kind of brown-tinted, and someone in Ruben’s family may be some kind of white, as hinted by the tiny framed picture on Ruben’s family’s wall of a group of white people.

What’s centered here, in text and illustration, is poverty. The “bike like Sergio’s” symbolizes all that Ruben doesn’t have. Rather, what he has is a scuffed-up apartment with lock and chain on the door, a sink full of unwashed dishes, items thrown around, drawers left open, and a mother who’s apparently too busy with four children to teach any of them how to put away their stuff. The neighborhood is scuffed-up as well, but Ruben’s beautiful (and ethnically mixed) classroom is well furnished and spotless. And the math class is working on—let’s hammer the point home in case nobody gets it—problems involving money. Even though Ruben’s dad has a job that requires him to wear a suit and tie, mom crosses items off her grocery list because this week, apparently, they can afford only a loaf of bread and a quart of orange juice until Saturday. And Ruben dreams of—having a bike just like those of his friends.

The story is a first-person narrative. So why does the title center the name of a material object (“a bike”) belonging to a minor character (“Sergio”), while disappearing the name of the narrator? Can this have something to do with the agency—or lack of it—of a child of color?

The major reviewers had only positive things to say about this story:

From Booklist: “…[A] friendly urban setting with just the right amount of detail to allow the important interpersonal dynamics to be front and center.”

From Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Sure to elicit discussion among kids, this is a morality play that strikes at the heart.”

From Horn Book:“[I]t leaves plenty of room for talking about what is most important in life from an authentically childlike perspective.”

From Kirkus: “Embedded in this heartwarming story of doing the right thing is a deft examination of the pressures of income inequality on children.”

From Publisher’s Weekly: “… Ruben’s ethical dilemma and emotional turmoil without preaching, and his struggle and journey toward the moral choice…(are) both dramatic and genuine.”

From School Library Journal: “This title hits on the issues of poverty, peer pressure, and self-control…. Parents of all economic backgrounds can use this selection to start a conversation about right and wrong.”

From Wall Street Journal: “…Boelts captures the agony of a moral dilemma…. In this rewarding tale, …Jones’s expressive, naïve illustrations reinforce the sincerity of a boy’s valiant struggle with temptation.”

Here are two alternate scenarios. Rather than poverty, what’s centered here are Ruben, his family and his community. (Since Ruben and Sergio could be Latino names, I’ll insert a few appropriate Raza cultural markers.) 


Scenario One



Rubén and Mamá and younger sibs go to the bodega to buy some masa and a bag of oranges. While Mamá’s back is turned, Rubén sees some bills fall out of Sra. Rodríguez’s purse. He picks up the bills and runs over to return them to her. Sra. Rodríguez gives Rubén una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” Rubén, excited and happy, runs over to Mamá and tells her what has occurred. She gives him una sonrisa y un abrazo and says, “Estoy orgulloso de ti.” They all go home and, when Papá returns from work, Rubén tells him the story and receives una sonrisa y un abrazo. When Rubén goes to bed, he counts all the sonrisas y abrazos he has received this day.


Scenario Two



When Rubén comes home from school, Mamá asks him to go to the bodega and buy some masa and a bag of oranges. Outside the bodega, Rubén sees that a woman in a blue coat has dropped her purse. She picks it up, but she doesn’t notice that some money has fallen out. Rubén picks up five $20 bills and turns around to give them back to the woman, but she has gone! Rubén goes home with the money and tells Mamá what happened. Rubén and Mamá, with baby Elena in tow, return to the bodega and ask Sr. Martínez if he had seen a woman in a blue coat a little while ago. Sr. Martínez says that, yes, Sra. Rodríguez was just here and she lives somewhere on the next block. Mamá and Rubén (and baby Elena) start knocking on doors. Finally they find Sra. Rodriguez, and Rubén returns her money. Sra. Rodriguez is surprised and happy. She gives Rubén un gran abrazo and says, “¡Ay, Diós te bendiga, mijito!” And Rubén and Mamá and Elena soon find out that Sra. Rodriguez is about to take some fresh-baked cookies out of the oven….

No grinding poverty and no pining for something that’s unobtainable. No pretending that stolen money is found money. No contrived moral and ethical dilemmas and no sociopolitical metaphors about being poor and then rich and then poor again.

A Bike Like Sergio’s is a white construction of an economically marginalized family of color and their neighborhood. And it’s a white construction of the “ethical dilemmas” of a child of color—not to mention the sadness after having made the right decision: “I am happy and mixed up, full and empty, with what’s right and what’s gone.”

A Bike Like Sergio’s is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/20/16)


Gaby, Lost and Found



author: Angela Cervantes 
Scholastic, 2013 
grades 4-6 
Honduran American

Sixth-grader Gaby Ramirez Howard loves cats and storytelling. When an ICE raid breaks out at the factory where her mother works—resulting in her mother’s deportation back to Honduras—Gaby is left in the care of her father, whom she does not know well and who does not seem too interested in parenting.

Despite the bullying she experiences at school, Gabby is convinced that her mother will soon return. But she is distraught when her mother tells her the journey back to Kansas City is too expensive and too dangerous. Young readers will see that Gaby has been bottling up her feelings regarding her mother’s deportation and her father’s inability to take care of her; and, while her burst of emotions is not entirely surprising, it’s heart wrenching to read her outpouring of anger and frustration aimed at her mother:

“No, Mom! I’ve been patient. I’ve been patient for three months! And stop calling me your princesa. If I were your princesa, you’d be here. You said before that I was worth the journey. I’m your daughter and I want you to come back! You promised!”…. The silence that followed sent a sharp pain through Gaby’s whole body. How could she hang up on her mom? She ran out the front. Her father yelled after her, but she wasn’t stopping.

Gaby’s outburst reveals that her mother’s absence—even though it is certainly not her fault—has ruptured the unspoken expectations between parents and their children. Parents are expected to take care of their children and, at this moment, Gaby blames her mother for her inability to do so. I found this particular scene painful to read because it’s the broken immigration system that thrives on separating families and making it extremely difficult for parents to parent. As a result, the children are left feeling abandoned and unworthy. And while Gaby is furious, she is also sensitive to her mother’s difficult situation and feels a sense of responsibility to keep herself together for her mother’s sake.

This separation of mixed status families changes their dynamics and roles: Children are often forced to mature early and parents who have been deported must find new ways to parent. Because of this dynamic, Gaby does not let her mother know how much of a hard time she is actually having; and rather, she becomes a nurturer.

While dealing with her own family situation, Gaby, as part of a class project, volunteers at an animal shelter. She becomes responsible for creating flyers with stories about the shelter animals in hopes that someone will read them and give the animals a home. When Gaby encounters a cat abandoned by her neglectful owners, she steals the cat from the shelter and takes it home with her. Gaby, who feels abandoned herself, vows to nurture her new cat the way she wishes someone would nurture her.

Cervantes's narrative details Gaby’s downward spiral due to her mother's deportation, which has stolen the child’s sense of security and has traumatized her. After the deportation, Gaby sleeps by the door with the phone under her pillow so she doesn't miss her mother's return. She is not eating well, and she begins to push her friends away. But by the end of the novel, Gaby is in a much better state of mind: She has a better understanding of how dangerous it would be for her mother to attempt to cross Guatemala and Mexico to get to Kansas City, and she finds comfort in knowing her mother is safe and in knowing that her mother will love her despite the distance.

As xenophobic immigration laws have negatively impacted many, many mixed status families, Gaby’s story remains painfully relevant. Since 2009, more than 2.5 million people have been deported. Indeed, President Obama has deported more immigrants than has any other US President and the numbers continue to rise. In addition, the Supreme Court’s deadlock on DAPA has left many more families vulnerable.

Cervantes’s novel does not attempt to provide a solution to the fraught immigration system that has taken Gaby’s mom away; nor does the author give Gaby a neat, happy ending. Rather, Gaby, Lost and Found presents a realistic telling of the fear, anger, and pain involved when a child’s parent is deported. While immigration continues to be a prominent theme within Latinx children’s and young adult literature, many books focus solely on Mexican experiences—and even then, most of them involve “legal” immigration. Luis J. Rodriguez’s América is Her Name was the first Latinx picture book I read that has an undocumented protagonist; and Jorge Argueta and Rene Colato Lainez continue to be the leading authors writing Latinx children’s books that center Central American experiences. There’s a clear need for a broader discussion of immigration in Latinx children’s literature in order to capture and represent the multiplicity of migrant, immigrant and refugee experiences.

Gaby’s narrative gives hints to her life with her mother before she was taken away and, clearly, she has other interests. She’s a complex character—a fun, cat loving, regular girl. And it’s also evident that her mom’s deportation will impact the rest of her life just like it does for real Latinx children whose parents have been deported or face deportation.

Gaby, Lost and Found is the first Latinx children’s literature novel I’ve read where a parent is deported and does not return. It’s compelling because it captures the reality impacting many young Latinx living in mixed status homes. And, while providing an ending in which Gaby and her mom are happily reunited might have been satisfying for many young readers, my concern is that such “happy endings”—by resolving everything at the end—might serve to minimize the severity of the issue and to alienate children whose parents have not and cannot return. Here, by staying away from a too-neat and too-happy ending, Cervantes points out the long-term implications for families that have been separated by an immigration system that fails our families.

Cervantes’s novel addresses issues related to mixed status families including deportation, and Gaby is indeed a multi-dimensional character whose story extends beyond her mother’s deportation. Gaby, Lost and Found is a much-needed addition to conversations around Latinx literature and immigration. It’s an extraordinary story, and is highly recommended. 

Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD
(published 12/16/16)
  

An earlier version of this review first appeared on Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s blog: https://soniaarodriguez.com/2016/07/05/gaby-lost-and-found-expanding-the-conversation-on-latinx-kids-books-immigration/.


Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón

author: Xavier Garza
illustrator: Xavier Garza 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
grades 5-7
Mexican American

Seventh-grader Joe Lopez is a burgeoning young artist “who can draw anything,” but he has a special passion for roosters. He sketches “roosters, roosters and more roosters,” he tells his best buddy, Gary, because roosters are strong and brave and will always stand their ground, even when threatened by an animal bigger than they are.

When Joe intervenes to save a classmate from a lunch-money shakedown by the school bully and his friends because his “anger at the injustice being played out is more than (he) could stand,” they mark Joe as their next victim. Joe refuses to be a “snitch” and to let fear rule him, but after an encounter in which he accidently “depants” his nemesis under the bleachers in front of everyone, Joe is sure there will be a price to pay.

Joe’s mentor is his soft-spoken Grandpa Jessie, who is an accomplished artist. While instructing his grandson about new painting materials and techniques, Grandpa answers Joe’s questions about why his own paintings focus on struggle: for badly needed change, for human rights, for better wages, against unfair laws. “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” he tells Joe.

“Just one person can inspire,” Grandpa says, and can motivate and unite many to struggle for justice. History, he says, is full of lessons about people who were looked upon as being small and powerless, “but bravely stood up to those who were bigger than them. They not only stood up to them, but actually beat them.” People such as “César Chávez[1] and Emma Tenayuka[2] became inspirations that motivated countless people to stand up and say, ‘No More’ to the abuses they were facing.”

And standing up to bullies, Grandpa says, is the same thing. Together with his friends, including Kiki, a girl from his past, Joe does just that. And, with encouragement from his art teacher, Kiki, Gary, Grandpa, and others, Joe enters an art contest—after which he becomes known as Rooster Joe. There are several believable middle-grade issues here, but the main thing that preteens will remember is the necessity of uniting others in the struggle for justice.

Garza’s bold, black-and-white sketches of Joe and his friends—and, of course, the ever-present roosters—complement this short, fast-moving story. And Baeza Ventura’s colloquial Spanish translation in this bilingual flipbook is, as usual, extraordinary. Here, for instance, Grandpa tells his young grandson, in English:

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” exclaims Grandpa Jessie. “That’s Spanish for ‘the people united will never be defeated.’ Even the tallest mountain will crumble when the people stand united against it.”

And Baeza Ventura’s Spanish reads:

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido—exclama. Hasta la montaña más alta se puedo derrumbar cuando la gente se enfrente a ella.

Rooster Joe and the Bully / El Gallo Joe y el abusón is a satisfying story about art and budding love interests and bravery and struggle and overcoming obstacles that will engage middle readers—and it’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/11/16)




[1] Some recommended picture books about César Chávez include: Rudolfo Anaya’s Elegy on the Death of César Chávez, Carmen Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!, Monica Brown’s Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez / Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez, Richard Griswold del Castillo’s César Chávez: The Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia, and Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez. All are reviewed in De Colores.

[2] An excellent picture book about Emma Tenayuca is Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca’s That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia. It’s reviewed in De Colores.

Lowriders in Space

author: Cathy Camper
illustrator: Raúl the Third (González) 
Chronicle Books (2014)
grades 4-up 
Mexican American
  
In Camper’s and González’s hilarious graphic novel, three amigos—a mammal, an insect and a cephalopod—embark on a loopy, out-of-this-world adventure in an all-encompassing display of friendship and species diversity in which everyone speaks Caló.

The three, who live together and work at a car dealership six days a week, are the protagonists in the fastest, wildest hyperbole-driven story in the world. “Mechanic extraordinaire” Lupe Impala is “the finest mechanic south of Vacaville.” Ace car polisher El Chavo Flapjack Octopus wields “the wettest washcloth north of the Salton Sea.” And “the best detail artist around” is a mosquito named Elirio Malaría (“Don’t be scared, eses! Only lady mosquitos bite vatos for food!”).

They don’t have a cent, but they have big hearts, big ambitions and big dreams. They dream of having their own garage where they could build their own car: a lowrider that hips and hops, dips and drops. A lowrider that is low and slow—bajito y suavecito. One day, they see an announcement about a (literally) “universal car competition,” in which the “most mechanically inventive, exquisitely detailed cosmic car wins!” First prize is a solid gold steering wheel and a carload of cash—more than enough to fulfill all their dreams! But all they have is “the start of a car, the shell of a car. It was already low and slow, so slow it didn’t even go.”

After an uproarious, fast-paced intergalactic adventure involving at least one fart joke, the three have built a lowrider extraordinaire—bajito y suavecito—adorned with rockets and planets and stars and a tiny “burro-corn” on the front. They “cruised back to earth (with cinto de Orion on the roof), the milky way coated their car, stars stuck to the paint job like glittering dandelion fluff, (and) the Big Dipper gleamed from their license plate.” Their lowrider is, as one of the judges exclaims, “retro-nuevo cool.”

A note about the illustrations: After studying traditional Chicana/o art for many years, graphic artist Raúl the Third took the leap and returned to his cultural roots. For Lowriders in Space, his media became the time-honored red, blue and black Bic® pens, on what appears to be used brown paper grocery bags but is actually paper stained with Nescafé Suave. In this complementary partnership between author and artist, crosshatched, stamped and spiraled patterns mix with papeles picados, the characters change size and form according to the needs of the story, asteroids become pom-poms for the windshield, and the planet Pluto is transformed into a gearshift knob.

Teasing the reader, González’s dizzying graphic references fly by. Here is Flapjack, wearing a Chavo hat (of course), sitting in his bucket, blowing bubbles (as octopi do), except he’s blowing soap bubbles. Here, leaning against a wall in his super-cool posture, is Elirio, a Zoot suit-wearing mosquito with a Cantínflas mustache. Here are dust bunnies that are literally bunnies. Here are the Cartínflas garage and Sapo Bell taquería. Here—if you look really carefully—you’ll see Cheech and Chong. And here are our homies in the background careening down a hill on a handmade, fire-spewing, big-tired bike; while an aged, sombrero-wearing, serape-clad Pluto makes a token appearance. We see him sitting next to a nopal cactus, rather than leaning against it—as if to say, “adiós, tired old comic book stereotypes, y ¿qué tal? cool new graphic novel vatos.”

For children, Camper’s uproarious story and González’s over-the-top artwork together encourage development of imagination and appropriate suspension of disbelief. Chicana/o children in particular will appreciate the cultural and linguistic references that have deeper meanings for them. As well, children who are not Chicana/o (and even those who do not speak or understand Spanish) will enjoy the story’s fast pacing and great good humor, and may learn new things as well. The story also works for teens and adults, who will “get” some of the smart and funny references and nuanced word play on just about every page that younger readers might miss. (Such as the great Mexican comedian, Cantínflas, morphing into “Cartínflas,” the name of the garage; and the Mexican sitcom, “El Chavo del Ocho,” into “El Chavo Flapjack Octopus.”)

Camper’s glossary, explaining Spanish, Spanglish, Aztec and Caló references, words and phrases, along with technical and scientific info, is a hoot as well. Take, for instance, “holy mole*,” where the asterisk leads to a lengthy explanation of a “thick Mexican sauce for meat made of many ingredients, including peppers and chocolate.”

No less important is that an aspect of “diversity” modeled here—one that often escapes authors and publishers—is group, rather than individual, problem solving. No fake “multiculturalism” here. No tokenism. No ethnic overlays. Lowriders in Space is the real thing, and it’s hilarious. And it’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/22/16)

Finding the Music / En pos de la música

author: Jennifer Torres
illustrator: Renato Alarcão
translator: Alexis Romay 
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2015 
grades 1-4 
Mexican American

Mariachi has always has been a part of la música de mi familia, la música de mi gente.

When I was a little girl, my mom used to sing in the kitchen all the time. The window from the kitchen faced the front of the house, so I’d hear her as I was coming home from school. She would sing corridos and mariachi songs and all kinds of Mexican music. Sometimes she’d sing with the radio and sometimes she’d sing a cappella. I loved her songs; they always made me feel connected to my culture. We grew up listening to that music, and we have a heartfelt reaction whenever we hear it.

So when I received Finding the Music / En pos de la música to review for De Colores, I was looking forward to reading a culturally rich bilingual story about mariachi—the music itself, the people who perform, and the Raza community in whose hearts the music lives.

On the surface, the story is endearing: A pre-teen girl accidentally breaks a beloved family heirloom. She goes around town looking for some way to fix it before her mom finds out what she has done. When the girl figures out that fixing it will take a long time, she decides to fess up to her mom, who forgives her.

But the problems are in the cultural details—or rather, lack of them.

On the cover, we see young Reyna, wearing a sombrero de charro and holding a vihuela. One of her hands is on the struts and the other is on the base of the instrument. Although there are visual allusions to music emanating from her guitar, she is not playing the instrument.

Reyna’s mamá runs a popular Mexican restaurant. It’s noisy. My experience with noise in a Mexican restaurant is usually because of very loud music, and people have to talk over the music in order to have a conversation and be heard. Here, there’s no music and everyone seems to be shouting and arguing, which is what bothers Reyna. I just don’t see that in a restaurant.

Reyna sits in a booth reading, and, one day, frustrated by the noise, she throws her book in the air, knocking down her abuelito’s vihuela, which had been hanging on the wall. I can’t believe that, while everyone else sees and hears the vihuela crash to the floor “with a loud thud,” Reyna’s mother doesn’t come running out of the kitchen.

When Reyna sees her abuelito’s broken vihuela, she remembers:

Reyna had never heard Abuelito play the vihuela, but every night at bedtime Mamá described the Mexican folk songs he had performed. She said the music was like an old friend, taking your hand and pulling you onto the floor.

Why would Reyna’s mamá tell her about the music but doesn’t play it or sing it? If this were a real story about mariachi music, the family would feel the loss of Abuelito’s music, but it doesn’t seem like Reyna knows about the music at all. I find it hard to believe that a child who comes from a mariachi family and whose family owns a Mexican restaurant would not regularly be exposed to mariachi music. Rather, the mother seems more connected to the vihuela hanging on the wall than to the actual mariachi music and culture. And I question the lack of interaction back from Reyna to her mamá, such as: “Take me to see the mariachi,” or “let’s listen to the music.”

Reyna desperately tries to find someone who will help her fix her abuelito’s broken vihuela before her mamá finds out what she’s done.

Don Antonio, who runs a hardware store, can’t fix the vihuela, but he gives Reyna an old photo of her abuelito and his mariachi conjunto. “This was at my wedding,” Don Antonio says. “None of us had much money then, so instead of a gift, your abuelito and his mariachis played for us.”

This makes no cultural sense. Hiring a mariachi conjunto to play at a wedding would cost a lot of money. Reyna’s abuelito and his mariachi conjunto’s playing at their friend’s wedding was not instead of a gift, it was their gift.

Reyna’s school’s music teacher can’t fix the vihuela either, but she gives her what Reyna calls “an old hat”—actually, a sombrero de charro—originally, a gift from Reyna’s abuelito. Señor Marcos, at his shop called Adelita Music Shop (named for La Adelita, the Mexican revolutionary?), can fix the vihuela, but it will take some time, so he gives Reyna an old recording of her abuelito’s mariachi music. The recording is Cielito Lindo, which also happens to be the name of her mamá’s restaurant. So Reyna goes back to the restaurant, tells her mamá what happened, and shows her all the stuff she’s been given. At dinnertime, she puts on the record, and they dance, “laughing and spinning,” to Cielito Lindo, which is hardly a spinning song. The End.

All of these superficial cultural icons—vihuela, photograph, sombrero de charro, and recording—appear to be an attempt to place a thin veneer of Raza culture where there actually is none reflected in the story.

Alarcão’s acrylic illustrations are a shallow depiction of the culture as well. The restaurant is devoid of anything Mexican, except for a stereotypical collection of icons on a wall—there’s the vihuela, a Día de los Muertos skeleton mariachi, a papel picado of three skulls, a luchador near a Virgen de Guadalupe, a folklórico dancer, and two pictures of men in sombreros.

While Alarcão draws some of the characters realistically, he caricatures others, such as two rough looking guys loudly arguing, and a young Black woman with hair that looks like strips of brown construction paper have been pasted onto her head. 

In addition, the art appears to be at odds with the story. For instance, while the cover shows Reyna holding her abuelito’s vihuela, the story doesn’t even have her expressing that she’d like to learn how to play it. Also, while the story refers to the music teacher’s pulling weeds in her garden, in the illustration she’s not pulling weeds. She’s not even wearing gloves or holding a weeding tool—and her garden is postcard-perfect, with not a weed in sight.

Romay’s phrase-by-phrase Spanish translation is grammatically correct, but it doesn’t show the richness of the language. Rather, both the Spanish and English texts appear to be for the benefit of English readers, without regard to Spanish readers. The Spanish is matched to the English text, rather than translated to show the internal logic necessary to appeal to hablantes. It’s not respectful of hablantes or the Mexican American community portrayed in the story. In some of the English text, for instance, an italicized phrase in Spanish is immediately followed by its English translation. Bilingual people do not talk this way:

 ,” Don Antonio said. “Yes.”
A ver,” he said. “Let’s see.”
Gracias,” Reyna said. “Thank you.”
“¿Qué pasó?” he asked. “What happened?”
Sígueme,” Señor Marcos said. “Follow me.”

From the inside cover: “Finding the Music / En pos de la música is a heartwarming bilingual tale of family, community, and the music that brings them together.” But it’s not. It’s a contrived story that purports to show how the people in the community are related to the protagonist’s grandfather. But the community does not come together to solve a community problem; rather, they’re all individuals, the problem is that of an individual, and the child has to figure out the solution by herself.

“Little does Reyna know along the way she will find herself growing closer to Abuelito and to the power of his music,” the copy also reads. This, too, does not happen.

Although she comes from a mariachi family, Reyna may have never heard mariachi music, but she’s heard many descriptions of mariachi music from her mamá. And like Reyna, young readers will not learn anything about mariachi either. The story is just cultural tourism—a superficial tale that appropriates Mexican American lives without providing any depth of cultural learning.

Finding the Music had potential. It could have explored a young Latina’s discovery of the music, embracing the music and wanting to learn to play the music. It could have explored what it is about mariachi that’s so soulful to Raza children. But Finding the Music / En pos de la música doesn’t do any of this and, as it stands, I can’t recommend it.

—María Cárdenas
(published 11/5/16)


Here are some suggestions for alternate scenarios that may have imbued a story like Finding the Music with cultural richness:

1. Mamá and Reyna are washing the dishes in the restaurant. The radio is playing mariachi music. Mamá sighs, “That’s the music of mi gente,” and Reyna responds, “Oh, Mamá, I want to learn all about mariachi music. Maybe I can learn to play Abuelito’s vihuela. Can you help me find someone to teach me?”

2. A non-Latino family moves into the neighborhood. They visit Mamá’s restaurant and fall in love with the mariachi music playing on the radio. Reyna, who comes from a mariachi family, introduces the new neighbors to her barrio, and offers to teach their daughter about mariachi music and culture.

3. Mamá and her family have had to sell their restaurant and move out of their barrio. In this neighborhood where Spanish is not typically spoken, there are no close neighbors and no corner bodegas, and mariachi music is rarely heard. Mamá and Reyna voice their loneliness for their friends, culture and language. They have a difficult decision to make.

4. Mamá and her family move to a new barrio, where Spanish is spoken and the local radio station plays mariachi music, but there are no mariachi conjuntos as there were in their old neighborhood. Lonely for the music of their gente, the family organizes to form a fledgling mariachi student group, who, with discipline, hard work and passion, will eventually bring mariachi music back to their barrio.

—M.C.

Surprise for Teresita / Una sorpresa para Teresita

author: Virginia Sánchez-Korrol 
illustrator: Carolyn Dee Flores 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016
grades 1-4 
Puerto Rican

On the cover is a Nuyorican child named Teresita. Her head is slightly thrown back and she is laughing. Her laugh is so big that young readers can see the mixture of both primary and permanent teeth. Her outfit is a rainbow. The piragua in her hands is a rainbow. The background is a rainbow. And—Teresita is a rainbow.

Today is Teresita’s seventh birthday. She’s a big girl now—she can dress herself, help her mamá water the plants on the fire escape, lead her friends in “Red light, green light, 1, 2, 3,” and be trusted to stay in front of their building. But as the day goes on and she watches for Tío Ramón, she begins to worry that the barrio’s beloved vendedor de piraguas has forgotten her birthday surprise. (Young readers may intuit that Mamá knows what surprise Tío Ramón has for Teresita, but no one’s letting on.)

Flores’ intense, textured art—deep, rich oils on raw cardboard with an overlay of Liquin—is perfect. Her technique, she told me, is painstaking and time-consuming.

“I add one drop of paint directly from the tube,” she said, “and dip my brush into Liquin, mixing my colors right on the canvas. After each drop, I clean my brush, and start all over again.” The Liquin, she said, is a blender that also acts as a dryer. So, while the oil seeps into the cardboard and can take months to dry, the surface dries relatively quickly.

It’s the representation of these joyous and exuberant young Nuyorican children of the rainbow—and the neighborhood that their families have transformed into a “tropical island” whose colors are superimposed on the brick, stonework and facing of 19th Century brownstones—that appears to have fired Flores’s imagination and her bright palette of piragua colors that illuminates this sweet story.

A word about illustrating skin tones: Most of the time, the perceived darkness or lightness of our skin is determined by whether we’re in the shade or in the light. In addition, the insides of our arms and hands, for instance, are lighter than the outsides. Flores beautifully captures this phenomenon in the children and adults here, especially with Tío Ramón, who—since he moves around a lot in this story—appears darker on some pages and lighter on others. I don’t know any other children’s book illustrator who consistently reflects this kind of reality.

Baeza’s colloquial Puerto Rican Spanish translation is rhythmic and appealing. She uses, for instance, “jugo de china” rather than “jugo de naranja” for orange juice because, in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, oranges are called “chinas.” And hablantes will enjoy hanging out with Teresita and her friends as they jump “la doble soga” and “agua sube—agua baja” (“Double Dutch” and “High water—Low water"). Baeza also used a single term in English followed by the Spanish—“Teresita…fue a la ventana que abría el fire escape o salida de incendio”—to introduce a concept that a lot of kids might not fully understand.

She told me that when she works on translation, she takes care to create something that sounds natural to native speakers. For example, she said, certain grammatical constructions in English may not have corresponding structures in Spanish, so when they are translated word for word or even phrase for phrase, the result sounds awkward in Spanish. She said that her translation and editing process always includes reading the text out loud to herself and a translation committee, and working closely with the author to select the terms that best respect the characters and communities portrayed in the books.

To me, when Baeza translates, she centers hablantes who are reading the Spanish version. This is different and more effective—for both Spanish and English readers—than translating for English readers only, which is more often the case in “bilingual” children’s books.

Unlike too many other “multicultural” stories for children, readers here will not find any belabored expositions of language, food or music. Rather, author, illustrator and translator have seamlessly woven together the elements of a warm story of family, friends and community, where Nuyorican children of the rainbow find joy in each other’s company and little things—like hugs from loving parents, like running through the spray of an opened fire hydrant in the summertime, like jumping rope with friends, like waiting for the piraguas vendor and choosing which color and flavor of ice cone to buy—and where a child’s only worry is what will be her birthday surprise. (Spoiler Alert: It’s alive, it’s very cute, it has a green-and-white collar just like Tío Ramón’s piraguas cart, and its name is Piragua.)

Teresita is a real little girl in this sweet little story with excellent Spanish translation and luminous art; and everything about it is real. A Surprise for Teresita / Una sorpresa para Teresita is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/29/16)

Míl gracias to Carolyn Dee Flores and Gabriela Baeza Ventura.