Hard Road to the Heavens:
The Genesis and Publication of The Garza Twins

It was Spring 2012. My second book, Mexican Bestiary (an illustrated bilingual encyclopedia of creepy cucuys), had just been released by a small press, much like my previous collection of short stories, The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge. Outside of the Río Grande Valley of South Texas, that stretch of borderland where my family has lived for generations, no one really knew who I was. But on the strength of a few school presentations, Pat Anderson of Overlooked Books—distributor of hard-to-find and little-known Texas titles to school libraries—had invited me to sign at his booth at the annual conference of the Texas Library Association (TLA). 

As fate would have it, both of my signing slots put me at a table with two talented, more established authors, both of whom would become close friends: Jason Henderson, promoting his Alex Van Helsing series from HarperCollins, and Belpré Award-winning Guadalupe García McCall.

Loops (as I affectionately call her) was there for her second book, Summer of the Mariposas. She was generous with her time and advice, which I appreciated deeply, but perhaps more important was that sophomore publication itself. I read it that evening in my hotel room, awed by the beautiful prose and inspired by her deft integration of not only Mexican American legends into the narrative, but also Aztec mythology.

I had been toying with an idea. During my kids’ childhoods, I read all the major series with them: The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, and others We would often joke that it would be so nice to crack open a cover one day and find a Chicana battling cucuys and Mesoamerican deities (instead of the typical Chosen White Dude facing off against European monsters and gods, with an occasional Secondary Sidekick of Color). Our laughter would often fade to wistful looks, as it didn’t seem particularly plausible.

But after my first book was published, I began to dream about creating just such a series, centered on magical Mexican American kids whose abilities must be put to use to stop the forces of chaos from ending the world for a fifth time (as predicted by Mesoamerican sacred stories). 

Speaking with Guadalupe García McCall, reading her work, I became convinced that this could actually happen. I gave the characters a family name from my dad’s side—Garza—that also served as a nod to Loops (the five sisters in Summer of the Mariposas, which I would go on to translate into Spanish, are also Garza: cousins of my protagonists, we have officially agreed). 

By late 2013, I had written The Smoking Mirror, the story of Carol and Johnny Garza, 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her talent. But there’s more. Twin shapeshifters come along only once a millennium, capable of wielding savage magic, a power even the gods can’t control. In order to rescue their mother, the twins have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them in each of its nine levels. 

This was a quest story, which I infused with video-game logic and middle-school snark, with a thematic twist at the end: it isn’t the twins’ might that ultimately saves their mother, but their love for her and each other. 

I began sending it to editors. Every single one of them rejected it. Nearly two dozen. Most expressed some variation of the following concerns:
  1. There are no white kids. Can’t the twins have a white sidekick they have to explain all the unusual cultural stuff to?
  2. There’s too much Spanish. Can’t you cut back on it? Readers will be confused or alienated. 
  3. Aztec gods have hard names. Can’t you shorten them or something?

To which my responses were, over and over:
  1. No. Donna, Texas, has hardly any white people. It would feel forced.
  2. No. There’s not too much Spanish, to my mind. And who do you mean when you say “readers”? Do you think that Latino kids don’t read? 
  3. No. Tezcatlipoca isn’t any harder than Hephaestus. You’re just used to the latter because we teach Greek gods in school. 

Soon I started sending it to smaller presses that accepted un-agented manuscripts. Many gave me similar pushback. A couple of prominent publishers of Mexican American kid lit passed on the manuscript as well. One said, “We don’t publish fantasy.” The head editor of the other rejected the book five minutes after receiving the first chapters, citing excessive adverbs (there were three—I counted). 

Finally, I saw an ad from IFWG Publishing, an Australian outfit that also distributed in Europe. They were looking to break into the US market and had put out a call for manuscripts. I submitted: editor Gerry Huntman loved the book (a big fan of Mexico, he really got what I was trying to do). Seeing that it was clearly the first volume in a series, he offered me a contract for all five books. 

Small publishers had been good to me so far, so I agreed. When the cover illustrator dropped out, they took my advice and hired my then 18-year-old daughter Charlene, a great artist who had just begun her BFA. If you’re wondering about the benefits of publishing outside of the Big Five, those sorts of opportunities top the list.

The book was released in the spring of 2015, right before that year’s TLA conference. Pat Anderson of Overlooked Books sat down with me, and we came up with a strategy for promoting The Smoking Mirror. I bought 100 copies from IFWG, and Pat helped me to give them away to key librarians from all over Texas, with no strings attached beyond the hope that they would share the book with students at their schools, especially Mexican American kids. If they also wanted to give it a positive review with online booksellers, Goodreads, or their own blogs, that would be wonderful, too. 

Ah, who can fathom fate? There’s no way of knowing what will grow from the seeds we plant. All we can do is our best, hearts full of good intentions, actions free of malice. 

One of those librarians loved the book. She gave it to her friend, who was on the Pura Belpré committee, looking for titles by “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

The committee member loved it, too. Shared it with the rest of the members. Advocated for it despite the small size and unusual situation of the publisher.

I was sitting at the dining room table with my wife that January afternoon when calls started coming in from Baltimore. Whom do I know in Baltimore? Probably a robocall or bill collector. Chale, not answering.

Then my editor messaged me. Answer your phone. It’s the American Library Association. 

It was a good thing I was sitting down when they finally got through. It was one of the most unexpected, beautiful things to ever happen to me, listening to the committee congratulate me on the book’s being selected for one of the author honors. 

Awards change things, for authors and publishers both. IFWG had to revamp its distribution model and retroactively put out a hard cover edition. I was interviewed again and again. Agents came out of the woodwork, trying to sign me. 

I came away from la Celebración in Orlando with two new book deals with publishers who had (no hard feelings, folks) passed on The Smoking Mirror. 

At the same time that The Smoking Mirror was receiving all these accolades, the publication of its sequel, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, went somewhat unnoticed. Set about six months after the first volume, this second installment finds the Garza family’s Christmas vacation in Mexico cut short by the appearance of Pingo, one of the elfish tzapame. The news is grim: a rogue prince from an ancient undersea kingdom is seeking the Shadow Stone, a device he could use to flood the world and wipe out humanity. Now Carol and Johnny must join a group of merfolk and travel into the deepest chasms of the Pacific Ocean to stop the prince and his monstrous army with their savage magic.

The book was structurally a departure from the first. Setting it in a fictional place of my own devising (rather than in an established region like the Aztec Underworld) gave me the freedom to raise the stakes considerably and craft an entire culture from a few throwaway lines about mermaids in an old Nahuatl text. 

Speaking of being overshadowed, the third book in the series was released in 2018, sandwiched between the mythology collection Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky and the multiple-award-winning They Call Me Güero, my first novel in verse (see the De Colores review here). Around that same time, after a recommendation from Matt De La Peña, author Adam Gidwitz asked me to co-author the fourth book in his Unicorn Rescue Society series from Dutton Penguin. It was a wonderful, high-profile opportunity, and together we wrote The Chupacabras of the Río Grande (see the De Colores review here). As Penguin Random House prepped us for our tour, I could see Garza Twins #3 fading in the rearview mirror.

And, yikes! There’s the rub, the downside to being prolific, no matter the quality of one’s work: invariably some of it “hits” better than the rest, and there’s no way of predicting what project will. I try to make sure that when multiple books of mine are coming out the same year, none of them compete against the others for the same readers (each project should be intended for a different audience). 

Still, The Hidden City just didn’t get the same love (from its author or its public) as my other work that year. The book is ambitious, opening up the twins’ adventures to conflicts not just with gods, but also with humans, setting up the endgame that will play out in books 4 and 5. When Carol and Johnny learn of the Ollamat—an ancient stone that can channel savage magic—they convince their parents to take them to the cloud forests of Oaxaca. With Pingo’s help, they search for the legendary city where it has been protected for a thousand years. But the twins aren’t the only ones hunting for the Ollamat. After it is stolen, they travel to the beautiful yet dangerous Tlalocan, the paradise of the rain god. To retrieve the stone, they face talking apes and forest elementals, rock wyrms and vicious elves, demons of lighting and something even more unexpected: the souls of people they have watched die. As always, they are aided by allies old and new, though nothing can quite prepare them for the biggest foe of all—a member of their very family.

Now here we are, two years later, and I’m working on book 4, Wings Above the Burning Earth. Racing against the clock and against the better judgment of their parents and allies, Carol and Johnny head for the Above, the heaven of the sun god, to retrieve the lost soul of their cousin Stephanie before she becomes a cihuateotl, a fearsome ghost that haunts the evening skies. Their desperate trek lands them in the midst of a massive civil war in heaven, as a former sun god leads rebels against Nanahuatzin Tonatiuh, trying to wrest away control of the sun so he can set the earth’s atmosphere on fire. The twins will have to forge a fast alliance among harpies, phantoms and ancient vampires if they’re going to stop the destruction of all they hold dear.

Publication is set for 2021, but Charlene has already completed the cover, and I wanted De Colores readers to be the first to lay eyes on that artwork.

For those of you who haven’t read the series or who stopped after The Smoking Mirror, now is the perfect time to get caught up. And if you prefer Spanish, Gemelos Garza (translations done by the amazing Libia Brenda) will start publishing this winter, beginning with El espejo humeante.

The Garza Twins will wrap up with book 5, The World Tree, in 2022, ten years after I started writing The Smoking Mirror
The twins will be climbing the axis mundi to reach the highest heaven of all, Omeyocan, Place of Duality. What a fitting finale for a series that nearly didn’t see the light of day. 

Ad astra per aspera, my friends. Much respect and love to all of you who struggle day and night along your own hard road to the heavens. 

—David Bowles
(published 5/8/20)

Imagine // Imagina

author: Juan Felipe Herrera
translator (Spanish): Georgina Lázaro
illustrator: Lauren Castillo
Candlewick Press: 
Imagine, 2018 
Imagina, 2020
preschool-grade 4 

[Note: This review developed as a conversation between María Cárdenas and Beverly Slapin.]

María: This morning I cracked open an egg and was delighted when I discovered two yolks—in the culture of my family, a symbol of good luck and abundance. It transported me back to my childhood and my heritage—of the imagination my family encouraged in me and my siblings.

In considering my own childhood—the traumas and the joys and the things in between—I thought deeply about how important imagination is for all children, but especially for those who are struggling in their lives, who are trying to find a way for things to be better. As a long-time educator, I’ve found that imagination can have the power to redirect children in sometimes-problematic circumstances—to inspire them to see themselves positively.

Beverly: In Herrera’s series of short, evocative, free-verse poems—each of which ends with the whisper, “imagine” or “imagine what you could do”—he welcomes young children into his own life, encouraging them to enlarge their own perspectives and consider their own possibilities. As well, youngsters will learn to embrace compassion, humility and empathy.

Immigrant, migrant and refugee children who are hablantes will easily imagine young Juan Felipe’s life as a farmworker child, helping his mom feed the chickens, walking to the next town to fill a bucket of water, feeling the tadpoles swimming across his hands in a creek—and waving a sad adios to his amiguitos when his family has to move yet again. 

And there’s the incomparable beauty of an unfettered imagination that could belong to every child:

If I let the stars
at night
paint my blanket with milky light
with shapes of hungry birds
while I
slept outside,
imagine what you could do…

María: As I read, I’m also thinking about the desperate and frightened children from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and México. Educators need to be careful to remember where the children are in their lives. Of course, all children need support and love—and also the capacity to imagine themselves in positive circumstances. They need to be encouraged to see themselves outside in the rain or in the sun or in a field or going somewhere they have never been. Or reunited with their families. 

Beverly: As the young hablante enters school in the US—confronted by a language he doesn’t understand but everyone else speaks and reads—young readers born here will catch sight of his difficulties and immigrant young people will recognize them.

As he matures and immerses himself in two languages, the young student collects discarded “gooey and sticky ink pens” whose ink flows “like tiny rivers across soft paper”—and his love of creating poetry emerges:
If I grabbed a handful 
of words
I had never heard and
sprinkled them over a paragraph
so I could write
a magnificent story,

Talented translator Georgina Lázaro is the perfect partner for Herrera’s short, lyrical verses. Rather than a word-for-word translation, Lázaro’s Spanish version beautifully evokes Hererra’s rhythm and voice in the original. In her expressive and sometimes playful Spanish, Lázaro often switches metaphors, dancing between the two languages. 

Si de niño
recogí flores de manzanilla 
en los prados doblados por el viento
y les susurré a sus caritas vellosas

And, no less importantly, in translating Herrera’s repeated line, “Imagine what you could do,” Lázaro employs the familiar “tú” rather than the formal “usted.” (“Imagina lo que tú podrías hacer.”)

Lauren Castillo’s luminous artwork, in pen-and-foam monoprint, brings young readers into Herrera’s life. Heavily textured, red-earth tones with dappled light and color in backgrounds suggest the Mexican countryside of Herrera’s childhood. Other spreads contain lots of white space and detail, such as the youngster’s helping his mamá feed the chickens while laundry dries in the sun. 

María: Imagine // Imagina are deep enough—in meaning and symbolism—for older readers as well. For instance, younger readers may not immediately understand the importance of walking to the next town to fill a bucket of water for the whole family, but older readers will. And older kids in the city may not know what it feels like to have tadpoles slipping though their fingers, but younger campesino kids will.

Sometimes young people struggle to imagine good things, or even being in a place that’s not chaotic. In particular, Latinx kids who may be struggling with issues at school will see themselves supported in Herrera’s work. That said, I don’t see Imagine // Imagina as  “bootstrap” stories. Rather, they're hopeful stories that encourage young people to think about who they are and to imagine what they can do.

María and Beverly: In Imagine // Imagina Herrera (US Poet Laureate, 2015-2017) extends his hand to the many child refugees, migrants and immigrants here in the US—and encourages them to think about who they are and imagine the possibilities of their own lives. He’s created  deeply satisfying and empowering books that will help build resilient kids who can imagine a better world. They’re highly, highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas and Beverly Slapin
(published 5/4/20)

IMAGINA. Text copyright © 2018 by Juan Felipe Herrera. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Lauren Castillo. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Abuelo vivía solo / Grandpa Used to Live Alone

author: Amy Costales
illustrator: Esperanza Gama
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2010
kindergarten-grade 3 
(Mexican, Mexican American)

Narrated by the granddaughter whose birth and growing up transform her grandpa’s peaceful, solitary world, Abuelo vivía solo / Grandpa Used to Live Alone is an intergenerational story-poem of adaptation and love. It’s told first in Costales’ rhythmic Mexican Spanish and followed by its equally rhythmic English translation. 

When his daughter and her new baby move in with Abuelo, everyone’s world changes: Mamá, who is depicted in only one scene, works and goes to school; while Abuelo, who had only himself to care for, now takes on the responsibility of raising his nieta. 

Each left page contains text blocks of the Spanish and English, separated by a detail that reflects the theme on the full page illustration on the right. For instance, a few lotería cards on the left segue into an older abuelo and his teenage nieta on the right playing cards at the kitchen table.

Almost all of the images depict Abuelo and his nieta together. Beginning with him as the grandpa of a new baby, story and illustration show time passing. While Abuelo is growing older, Nieta is growing up—her crib is switched for a bed and her high chair for a chair at the table, she grows proficient at making arroz con leche, and eventually learns to drive. But while their roles change, their loving relationship remains the same.

Two poetic themes central to this story—and symbolic of the child’s growth and the grandpa’s aging—are almost identical descriptions of their preparation of the evening’s arroz con leche and the bedtime routine that follows. At first, the toddler plays with the measuring cups and watches her abuelo stirring the arroz con leche in the pot on the stove; later, she’s preparing the ingredients by herself. The other theme centers on their bedtime ritual. Beginning with grandpa’s carrying his grandbaby upstairs and, as she sleeps, rocking in the chair by her crib “sólo para escucharme respirar”—“just to hear (her) breathe.” The story ends with the adult granddaughter holding her grandpa’s hand as he walks upstairs, and rocking in the chair by his bed “sólo para escucharlo respirar”—“just to hear him breathe.” 

Gama’s soft, colored-pencil illustrations reflect the gentleness of the story and, for the most part, cultural details of this Indigenous Mexican family and household. And Costales’ rhythmic Spanish story-poem will have the youngest hablantes—as well as English-speakers who want to learn Spanish—learning the details for preparing arroz con leche, and enjoying the cadence and repetition as well. Abuelo vivía solo / Grandpa Used to Live Alone is highly recommended. 

— Beverly Slapin
(published 4/6/20)

Hello Night / Hola noche

author: Amy Costales
illustrator: Mercedes McDonald
Luna Rising, 2007
 preschool-grade 2 

Hello Night / Hola noche begins at dusk. With a stroller parked outside, a young child in his mamá’s arms waves to the rising moon. As the two begin their nightly walk down a cobblestone path and through the woods to greet the rich nocturnal world, the child points to—and mamá greets—everything they see. For the two, each nightly experience is new and wondrous.

Hello night. Hello river. Hello bird with a chirp and a quiver.
Hola noche. Hola rîo. Hola pájaro de tímido pío pîo.

McDonald’s soft jewel-toned pastel illustrations of the world around them are as luminous as the night itself. Everything is alive and has volition, and some animals, looking directly at the humans who stroll among them, greet mamá and child in their own unique ways.

Hello night. Hello cricket. Hello mouse under the thicket.
Hola noche. Hola grillo. Hola arbusto y ratoncillo.

Large, double-page spreads alternate with single-page illustrations on the left side and a detail surrounded by white space on the right. Each spread contains, on the left, a rhyming couplet in English. It’s followed on the right by a rhyming couplet in Spanish. Neither couplet is a translation of the other; rather, each is its own poem. 

In an especially beautiful spread, Mamá and son are standing by the edge of a lagoon, looking up at what appears to be the luminous Azteca or Maya Rabbit Moon:

Hello night. Hello moon. Hello sky, dark lagoon.
Hola noche. Hola luna. Hola cielo, grande laguna.

Towards the end, youngsters will see a stuffed toy bunny alone, looking wistfully across the book to mamá giving her son (in ducky pajamas) one last hug before bed. And on the last double-page spread, the boy is asleep, cuddling the bunny, while the moon smiles down at them:

Goodnight night. It’s time to sleep. / I close my eyes without a peep.
Buenas noches noche. Estoy casi dormido. / Cierro los ojos sin gemido.

The luminous endpapers—front and back—depict a small, Mexican-styled house with a cobblestone path leading through a tiny enclosed orchard and out into the woods, where a winding path circles back to the house. There are cacti and agave growing near the house and the woods; and an owl, several rabbits, a cat, a raccoon, and fish swimming in a lagoon. Stars light up the sky.

With gentle, loving Spanish and English texts complemented by soft, vibrant illustrations, Hello Night / Hola Noche are calm, quieting bedtime poems for the youngest hablantes and English-speakers to contemplate and enjoy. Highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/1/20)

Sundays on Fourth Street / Los domingos en la calle Cuatro

author: Amy Costales 
illustrator: Elaine Jerome
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2009
preschool-grade 3 

Set in a Mexican barrio of Santa Ana, California, Sundays on Fourth Street / Los domingos en la calle Cuatro is a warm, loving story of the author’s memories of her daughter and two nephews on their Sunday excursions along la calle Cuatro. Young readers and listeners accompany Kelsey (the narrator), Mamá, Tía Pilar, Tío Armando, and primos Pepe and young Edgar, as they get haircuts (and tamarind lollipops for being patient), shop for groceries, try on beautiful (and way too expensive) boots, attend una feria in the church parking lot, have lunch at the taquería, watch un grupo folklórico perform in the plaza, and, that night, dream of all the things kids dream of.

The book design is inviting. On each left page, a textured, light-blue background holds a text block in English and Spanish, separated by a small, framed picture that touches on the theme. The facing, full-page illustration on each right page moves the theme into the story. For instance, the image of a salt shaker, a slice of lime and a jar of chile con limón on an “explosive” background hints at the scene of young Kelsey enjoying a delicious mango-on-a-stick, “bailando en la lengua.”

Some of Jerome’s ink and watercolor illustrations beautifully convey the story: Skin tones are varied, as they might be in a Mexican family; and several of the scenes are playful and gorgeous. The closeups especially—such as the scene where Kelsey is having her hair cut, another in which she is savoring her mango-on-a-stick, and the one in which the children and Tía Pilar are looking in the mirror at Kelsey’s (temporarily) painted lips—have a Diego Rivera-like quality that vividly portrays the Indigenidad of the family.

However, some of her illustrations appear flat and literal, and some unfinished. The scene of the danzantes folklóricos, for instance, lacks the energy described in the story. At a taquería, family members sit rigidly around the table, on which plates of food are arranged in a geometric patten. And the image of everyone walking home in the evening seems to have been hurriedly sketched. 

Perhaps most important, details were left out that would have accurately depicted a Mexican family and culture. While the story implies that the family is economically strapped, the images hint that the family is culturally poor: there’s no Mexican art on the walls, no crucifix or figure of La Virgen de Guadalupe inside or hanging over the car’s dashboard, no colorful, planted flower pot outside.

Costales first wrote the story in her “storytelling” language and rhythm—a vibrant, playful Mexican Spanish—that rolls off the tongue. The English version (which she wrote afterwards) reads well and moves the story forward (There are folk dancers in the plaza… The dancers stomp their feet and the rhythm vibrates in my chest). And young hablantes and English-speakers learning Spanish will feel the pulse and energy of the Spanish (Hay un grupo folklórico en la plaza… Los danzantes zapatean, y el ritmo vibra en mi pecho).

Since Los domingos en la calle Cuatro is a story about an extended Mexican immigrant family in a Mexican barrio, celebrating each other and their shared culture—and the story was primarily envisioned to be told or read in Spanish—it would have been appropriate to lead with the Spanish (title and text) and follow with the English.

Kelsey knows that, once she outgrows her boots, she may not get the gorgeous new boots she admired. She knows that she may not get a new bike. But what she gets—no, what her family already has—is more important. 

Here is a loving story about a close Mexican family enjoying each other, being together in a community where everyone knows each other—where a haircutter washes Kelsey’s lollipop-sticky hands and a cashier quickly replaces Edgar’s’s balloon that’s floated all the way to the ceiling before he starts crying. Sundays on Fourth Street / Los domingos en la calle Cuatro is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 3/31/20)

Gracias a mis amigas y colegas, Judy Zalazar Drummond and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

The Unicorn Rescue Society: The Chupacabras of the Río Grande

author: Adam Gidwitz
author: David Bowles
illustrator: Hatem Aly
Dutton Children's Books, 2019
grades 3-7
(Mexican, Mexican American)

El Chupacabras is a mythical, hairless, blood-sucking creature in Mexican popular culture, known for its fondness for the blood of goats and other ruminants. The name comes from “chupar” (to suck) and “cabras,” (goats) and “chupacabras” can be both plural and singular.

As a way of getting their children and grandchildren to behave or keep them from running around at night, Mexican parents and grandparents often tell them frightening stories about El Chupacabras. This technique is not always successful.

El chup was first sighted in Puerto Rico in the late 1970s and then reappeared in the 1990s. At about that time, people in México started talking about them. By the early 2000s, el chup was more associated with México than Puerto Rico. (And there are now indications that el chup has crossed the border and set up camp en este lado.)

In this fast-moving, fourth book of the series, Peruvian professor Erasmo (“Mito”) Fauna (“Defende Fabulosa! Protege Mythica!”), “the most eccentric social studies teacher on the planet” and founder of the Unicorn Rescue Society (whose members are “sworn to protect all the creatures of myth and legend”)—enlists the aid of his young cohorts, Uchenna and Elliott, to investigate the accounts of something that may have crossed the México-Texas border and drained the blood from a cow’s body. 

As Uchenna explains to Elliott: 

[A] chupacabras is short and has spines down its back. It looks a lot like a bald coyote crossed with a porcupine. It hops on its hind legs, kinda like a kangaroo. Oh, and it has sharp, long teeth. Like needles. The chupacabras plunges them into a victim’s flesh and…

The three fly to Laredo and team up with two of the locals: Lupita and Mateo—and their parents, Dr. Alejandra Cervantes and her curandero husband, Israel—to solve the mystery and rescue a chupacabras pup (whom they name “Choopi”). 

As with actual bilingual speech patterns, there is no translation of Spanish words and phrases. When done well, this can be an excellent technique for children at this level: those who are bilingual get a smooth read, and those who don’t speak Spanish easily deduce the meanings.

Hablantes (native Spanish-speakers) will recognize regional dialects, accents and terminology here, as well as spot-on code switching, which implies fluency and thought in both languages as well as Indigenous roots. A Chicano radio DJ, for instance, warns his listeners in Tex-Mex: “Chequen sus cabras and cows, folks! Get them in the shade si no están muertos. It’s gonna be a hot one aquí en Laredo today!”

And Lupita’s and Mateo’s mom scolds her children: “¿Cómo pudieron?” she shouts at them. “I strictly asked you—”

Here, young and middle-grade readers will learn, among other things, the difference between intention and function, which begins with the professor’s beat-up single-propeller airplane’s being used as a car. This event segues into a struggle—at the human and chupacabras level—against a newly constructed border wall that cuts off the pack’s territory and disrupts their traditional feeding pattern. 

As the wall becomes the center of a socio-political storm that divides the community, the young people learn about the necessity of coming together to keep the chupacabras safe and achieve a measure of social justice as well. Although this lesson doesn’t come easily for our protagonists, young and middle-grade readers will be both entertained and instructed.

The usual characters are here—good guys and bad guys (some painted with a broad brush)—and there are also some whose long-held values begin to change. For the young members of the Unicorn Rescue Society, it’s the panic-stricken whining of a chupacabras pup—and the frantic calls of his desperate pack on the other side of the border wall—that will encourage young people on this side to investigate the horrors of real-life family separation at the wall.

Astute readers will also find hints at the so-called “Treaty” of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the results of which are often remembered today: “We didn’t cross the border—the border crossed us!”

To create a children’s story that’s part-fantasy and part-reality—and that focuses on an important social justice issue, without polemic—is not an easy task. Bowles and Gidwitz have accomplished it with grace and style. 

This is not simply a “rescue.” Rather, the children and their families engage in—and model for young and middle-grade readers—participation as an act of solidarity. 

Now, more than ever, in these troubled times, it couldn’t be more needed. 

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande is not only a fast-paced story that will appeal to rescuers of all ages—it’s also a stereotype-busting lesson about the the issue of immigration and migration, the function of the border wall, the separation of families and the necessity of coming together to achieve a measure of social justice. It’s highly recommended. 

And, if we listen closely to their whistling, we can hear the families of the chupacabras singing (in their own language): “¡Aquí estamos—y no nos vamos!”

—Beverly Slapin
(published 3/23/20)

Gracias a mi amiga y colega, Rose Berryessa.

Pendeja, You Ain't Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature: A Review of American Dirt

Note from the editor

As readers of DE COLORES know, for ten years we have been evaluating children’s, middle grade and young adult books by and about Latinx peoples. Our reviews and essays highlight the best and call attention to the bad and the ugly. We are expanding our vision and posting a review essay by Myriam Gurba, about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which was originally published in Tropics of Meta on 12/12/19. In the past couple of months, American Dirt has garnered an unusually large amount of positive reviews from the professional review journals and sites and may well be nominated for several major awards. Now, in the “Era of Trump” we need to continue the larger national dialogue. American Dirt is, as Myriam writes, “a literary liquado that tastes like its title.”

American Dirt has become the model for racist tropes about Mexican immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. These tropes—attached to huge contracts—are growing in number and intensity. We see it as our responsibility to help stop the speeding train. American Dirt should continue to be discussed deeply and should not be rewarded for its racism thinly disguised as literature. 

Beverly Slapin

When I tell gringos that my Mexican grandfather worked as a publicist, the news silences them.
Shocked facial expressions follow suit.

Their heads look ready to explode and I can tell they’re thinking, “In Mexico, there are PUBLICISTS?!”

I wryly grin at these fulanos and let my smile speak on my behalf. It answers, “Yes, bitch, in México, there are things to publicize such as our own fucking opinions about YOU.”

I follow in the cocky footsteps of my grandfather, Ricardo Serrano Ríos, “decano de los publicistas de Jalisco,” and not only do I have opinions, I bark them como itzcuintli. También soy chismosa and if you don’t have the gift of Spanglish, allow me to translate. “Chisme” means gossip. It’s my preferred art form, one I began practicing soon after my period first stained my calzones, and what’s literature, and literary criticism, if not painstakingly aestheticized chisme?

Tengo chisme. Are you ready?

A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.

Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:

  1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
  2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
  3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.

Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.

I learned about Dirt when an editor at a feminist magazine invited me to review it.

I accepted her offer, Dirt arrived in my mailbox, and I tossed it in my suitcase. At my tía’s house in Guadalajara, I opened the book.

Before giving me a chance to turn to chapter one, a publisher’s letter made me wince.

“The first time Jeanine and I ever talked on the phone,” the publisher gushed, “she said migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as a ‘faceless brown mass.’ She said she wanted to give these people a face.”

The phrase “these people” pissed me off so bad my blood became carbonated.

I looked up, at a mirror hanging on my tía’s wall.

It reflected my face.

In order to choke down Dirt, I developed a survival strategy. It required that I give myself over to the project of zealously hate-reading the book, filling its margins with phrases like “Pendeja, please.” That’s a Spanglish analogue for “Bitch, please.”

Back in Alta California, I sat at my kitchen table and penned my review. I submitted it. Waited.

After a few days, an editor responded. She wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was “spectacular,” I lacked the fame to pen something so “negative.” She offered to reconsider if I changed my wording, if I wrote “something redeeming.”

Because the nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper, the editors hauled out the guillotine. I was notified that I’d be paid a kill fee: 30% of the $650 I was initially offered for my services.

Behold my unpublishable cruelty as it rises from the dead!

In México, busy people drink licuados. Making these beverages requires baseline skills. Drop fruit, milk, and ice into a blender and voilà: a meal on-the-go.

Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins’ narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic hetero-romanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.

México: bad.

USA: good.

I pinched my metaphorical nose and read.

Cummins bombards with clichés from the get-go. Chapter One starts with assassins opening fire on a quinceañera, a fifteenth birthday party, a scene one can easily imagine President Donald Trump breathlessly conjuring at a Midwestern rally, and while Cummins’ executioners are certainly animated, their humanity remains shallow. By categorizing these characters as “the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico,” she flattens them. By invoking monsters with English names and European lineages, Cummins reveals the color of her intended audience: white. Mexicans don’t fear the bogeyman. We fear his very distant cousin, el cucuy.

Cummins employs this “landscape of carnage,” a turn of phrase which hearkens to Trump’s inaugural speech, to introduce her protagonist, the newly widowed Lydia Quixano Perez. Police descend upon Lydia’s home, now a schlocky crime scene, to pantomime investigation. Lydia doesn’t stick around. She understands what all Mexicans do, that cops and criminals play for the same team, and so she and her son Luca, the massacre’s other survivor, flee.

With their family annihilated by narcotraffickers, mother and son embark on a refugees’ journey. They head north, or, as Cummins’ often writes, to “el norte,” and italicized Spanish words like carajo, mijo, and amigo litter the prose, yielding the same effect as store-bought taco seasoning.

Through flashbacks, Cummins reveals that Lydia, “a moderately attractive but not beautiful woman,” age thirty-two, operated a bookstore. Her character soon takes absurd shape. As a protagonist, Lydia is incoherent, laughable in her contradictions. In one flashback, Sebastián, Lydia’s husband, a journalist, describes her as one of the “smartest” women he’s ever known. Nonetheless, she behaves in gallingly naïve and stupid ways. Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican.

It shocks Lydia to learn that the mysterious and wealthy patron who frequents her bookstore flanked by “[thuggish]” bodyguards is the capo of the local drug cartel! It shocks Lydia to learn that some central Americans migrate to the United States by foot! It shocks Lydia to learn that men rape female migrants en route to the United States! It shocks Lydia to learn that Mexico City has an ice-skating rink! (This “surprise” gave me a good chuckle: I learned to ice skate in México.) That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities, realities that I’m intimate with as a Chicana living en el norte, gives the impression that Lydia might not be…a credible Mexican. In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.

Susan Sontag wrote that “[a] sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about” and with this challenge in mind, I assert that American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween. The proof rests in the novel’s painful humorlessness. Mexicans have over a hundred nicknames for death; most of them are playful because death is our favorite playmate, and Octavio Paz explained our unique relationship with la muerte when he wrote, “The Mexican…is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” Cummins’ failure to approach death with appropriate curiosity, and humility, is what makes American Dirt a perfect read for your local self-righteous gringa book club.

Writer Alexander Chee has said that writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding. These are:

“Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?”

“Do you read writers from this community currently?”

“Why do you want to tell this story?”

The introductory letter from Cummins’s editor answers the final question. Cummins believes she’s important, and expert, enough to represent “faceless” brown people.

Step aside, Jesucristo. There’s a new savior in town. Her name is Jeanine.

Saviors terrify me, they always fuck things up, often by getting people killed, and if you don’t believe me, look closely at the first four letters of the word messiah.

To fit the messyanic bill, Cummins re-branded herself as a person of color. A glance at recent interviews shows Cummins now identifying as “Latinx,” her claim to this identity hinging on the existence of a Puerto Rican grandmother. Cummins, however, is still breaking in her Latinx-ness because four years ago, she wasn’t.

I repeat: Four years ago, Cummins was white.

“I don’t want to write about race,” Cummins wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. “What I mean is, I really don’t want to write about race…I am white… I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.”

Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.

By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt.

And she did it anyways.

For a seven-figure sum.

A seven-figure sum.

As Bart Simpson used to say, “Ay caramba!”

Dirt isn’t Cummins’s first book. In addition to several other novels, she wrote a highly racialized true crime memoir, A Rip in Heaven. I also wrote a memoir in this genre, Mean. Mean features a budding serial killer, Tommy Jesse Martinez. In 1996, Martinez sexually assaulted several women, me included, and his final victim helped police capture him.

In the months between my sexual assault and his capture, Martinez raped, disfigured, and bludgeoned to death Sophia Castro Torres, a soft-spoken Mexican migrant who sold Mary Kay cosmetics and performed farm work. Martinez stole her green card, kept it as a trophy, and threw it in a trash can once it bored him.

Sophia’s ghost haunts me. She’s always with me, I supposed you could say she talks to me, and she has words for Cummins:

Mexicanas die en el otro lado too. Mexicanas get raped in the USA too. You know better, you know how dangerous the United States of America is, and you still chose to frame this place as a sanctuary. It’s not.

The United States of America became my grave.

Perhaps Cummins fascination with borders explains Dirt’s similarity to other works about México and migration: her novel is so similar to the works she used for research that some might say it borders on the P word. In Dirt’s acknowledgements, Cummins announces her ignorance by thanking people for “patiently teaching me things about Mexico.” She lists writers “you should read if you want to learn more about Mexico” and lists a slew of authors—Luis Alberto Urrea, Oscar Martinez, Sonia Nazario, Jennifer Clement, Aida Silva Hernandez, Rafael Alarcon, Valeria Luiselli, and Reyna Grande—contradicting her characterization of us as an illiterate horde. We not only have faces and names. Some of us have extensive bibliographies.

If Cummins had really wanted to draw attention to the assorted crises faced by Mexicans, Mexican migrants in particular, she could’ve referred readers to the primary and secondary sources she plundered. Let’s take, as an example, Across a Hundred Mountains, a novel written by Reyna Grande. At age 9, Grande entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant. She “became the first person in her family to set foot in a university,” and obtained both a B.A. and M.F.A. Her lived experience as a Mexican migrant inspires both her fiction and nonfiction and Grande writes intimately about a phenomenon Cummins has emphasized she knows nothing about: racism.

While recently attending a literary gala at the Library of Congress, a fellow writer misidentified Grande. Instead of assuming she was his peer, he treated her as a member of the waitstaff. Grande wrote about this experience, stating that “feelings of inadequacy” have persisted in spite of her success. These feelings begin early. When I was in high school, I scored better on the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam than all of my white classmates. Instead of celebrating my success, many teachers openly insinuated that my score was suspect. I must have cheated.

While we’re forced to contend with impostor syndrome, dilettantes who grab material, style, and even voice are lauded and rewarded.

Dirt reads like a gringa remix of Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey and a sloppy mash-up of Urrea’s entire oeuvre. His early works, Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, echo throughout Dirt. The book’s cringe-inducing awkwardness reminds me of the time I walked in on my roommate dressed from head to toe in my clothes. It astonished and disturbed me to find this fellow undergrad in front of our dorm room mirror, pretending to be… me. Suddenly aware of my presence, she made eye contact with me through the reflection. Unsure of what to do, I left. We never discussed the event.

She returned my clothes to the closet, but her choice to wear them as a costume had altered them. I couldn’t wear them anymore. They smelled of my roommate. Seams were torn.

My roommate and I weren’t the same size.

Cummins did the same thing as my roommate but took her audacity a step further: she stepped out in public wearing her ill-fitting Mexican costume.

Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Imperative Entertainment, a production banner notorious for having teamed up with the likes of libertarian cowboy Clint Eastwood, has acquired the rights to the “Mexican migrant drama novel.”

Because my catastrophic imagination is highly active these days, I can visualize what this film might inspire. I can see Trump sitting in the White House’s movie theatre, his little hands reaching for popcorn as he absorbs Dirt’s screen adaptation. “This!” he yells. “This is why we must invade.” I don’t think Cummins intended to write a novel that would serve a Trumpian agenda but that’s the danger of becoming a messiah. You never know who will follow you into the promised land.

—Myriam Gurba
published 3/18/20

This essay was originally published in Tropics of Meta, 12/12/19. We thank Myriam Gurba and Tropics of Meta for permission.