Jimena Pérez puede volar / Jimena Pérez Can Fly

author: Jorge Argueta 
translation: Elizabeth Bell
illustration: Fabricio Vanden Broeck 
Arte Público Press (2019)
grades 4-up 
(Pipíl Nahua, Salvadoran)

In these difficult political and economic times, whole families are running from their homes in the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), and through Mexico—desperately trying to get to El Norte. They are running away from their extended families, away from their languages and cultures, away from the only home they have ever known. They are running into the mouth of the shark, the United States, whose economic and political policies have cleared the path for the drug cartels, which have taken over and made life unlivable. 

When they reach the border, the US government breaks up family groups and often imprisons the terrified children in overcrowded detention cells, with no physical or emotional warmth, for long periods of time. 

Argueta presents Jimena Pérez puede solar / Jimena Pérez Can Fly from the perspective of one of these children. In his beautiful, empathetic story-poem, the narrator is ten-year-old Jimena Pérez, a happy child who lives with her parents in the barrio San Jacinto, in El Salvador. She and her mom sell produce in San Jacinto Market, and her mom tells her it’s their home:

“El mercado / nos ha dado de comer
toda la vida.
Tu abuela y tu bisabuela
también trabajaron aquí.
La frutas son benditas
como tú, Jimena.”

“The market / has fed us 
our whole lives.
Your grandmother and great-grandmother
worked here too.
Fruits are a blessing
like you, Jimena.”

After being threatened by the gangs, Jimena’s family makes the painful decision for her and her mom to travel all the way to Texas to live with relatives. They board the dangerous train, known as “La Bestia,” And after their long journey, they’re grabbed by La Migra:

Escucho a lo lejos
la voz de mi mami.
Me siento sola.
Otros niños lloran.
Somos pajaritos
solos y tristes
en una jaula de metal.

Far away I hear
my mama’s voice.
I feel alone.
Other kids are crying.
We’re little birds
alone and sad
in a metal cage.

In the detention cell, she finds a cardboard box filled with books that someone has donated. They remind her of San Jacinto Market and her friends, and give her a measure of comfort. And for a little while, the terrified Jimena is at peace:

Me gusta ver los colores 
y los dibujos de los libros.
Me llevo uno a la esquina
y al abrirlo, 
me abrazan la letras
como las palabras de mi mami, 
como las palabras de me papi.
Soy una pajarita.
Nadie puede detenerme.
Soy Jimena Pérez.
Puedo volar.

I like seeing the colors
and pictures in the books.
I take one into a corner
and when I open it,
the letters kiss me
like my mamá’s words,
like my papá’s words.
I am a little bird.
No one can stop me.
I am Jimena Pérez.
I can fly.

Of course, this is not the whole story. We don’t know how this story ends for Jimena and for the other terrified, incarcerated children. We know that, for this moment, with these beautiful books, Jimena Pérez puede volar. 

Argueta wrote this short, evocative and empathetic story-poem in Spanish, which Elizabeth Bell beautifully translated into English. Mexican artist Fabricio Vanden Broeck’s mostly somber illustrations, rendered in India ink on scratchboard, effectively portray the initial joys and later the terrors of a young Salvadoran child, abruptly separated from her family and imprisoned in a detention center along with other frightened children. 

Through Jimena’s story, Argueta gently supports our young protagonist with some measure of comfort as she begins to feel less alone. At the same time, he presents middle-grade readers with a glimpse into the nightmares that child refugees endure in dealing with their terrors and their unknown fates. Jimena Pérez puede volar / Jimena Pérez Can Fly is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/25/20)

Note: It’s a box of donated books that allows Jimena’s dreams of home and family to embrace her one more time. One of Argueta’s passions is to provide beautiful picture books in Spanish to children in El Salvador and to those incarcerated in US detention centers. Although Jimena Pérez puede volar / Jimena Pérez Can Fly does not mention his project, it’s worth noting and appreciating. (See also Oralia Garza de Cortéz’s lovely poem, “Nueva Generación.” (https://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/search?q=Oralia)

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 making an exception to our vision and posting a review essay by David Bowles, a friend and colleague, about Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which was published today. In the past few days, this title 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 David writes, “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama,” including damaging racist tropes about Mexican immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. 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


Cummins’ Non-Mexican Crap
If you haven’t already, you’re going to be hearing a lot of praise for Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican bookseller who has to escape cartel-related violence with her son, fleeing to the US. Cummins received a seven-figure advance for this book.

And it’s harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.•••


Problem 1: The Author

Let me start with the obvious: Cummins has never lived even within five hundred miles of Mexico or the border. In fact, until very recently, she didn’t lay claim to the Latinx heritage that comes to her through a Puerto Rican grandmother. Just five years ago, she was calling herself white.

Latina or no, Cummins certainly isn’t Mexican or Chicana. That’s a problem.

If you don’t know this, Mexican writers are horribly underpaid. Women writers in Mexico, more so. And Chicanx authors suffer marginalization in the US market. As a Mexican American writer, I have seen my Chicana and Mexicana colleagues struggle to get their stories told, to get their manuscripts into the hands of agents and past the publishing industry’s gatekeepers.

While I have nothing against Jeanine’s (or anyone else’s) writing a book about the plight of Mexican women and immigrants (especially if they do their homework and don’t exoticize our culture), I am deeply bothered that this non-#OwnVoices novel has been anointed the book about the issue for 2020 (with a seven-figure advance, no less) with glowing reviews from major newspapers and the support of big names in US publishing.

Such reception is especially harmful because authentic stories by Mexicanas and Chicanas are either passed over or published to significantly less fanfare (and for much less money). There’s been strong pushback, especially Myriam Gurba’s masterful take-down of the book (that magazines refused to publish) and Parul Sehgal’s examination of how the book “flounders and fails.”

Author Daniel Peña characterizes the book in stark terms: “lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair.”

US readers would be much better off diving into one of the many books on immigration by actual Chicanx and Mexican writers that already exist. I mean, Cummins sure as hell did:

“My research started with reading everything Luis Alberto Urrea ever wrote. Then I read everything else I could find about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers. Then I read everything I could find about migration. Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey is magnificent. So is The Beast by the Salvadoran writer Óscar Martínez.” (from her Shelf Awareness interview: https://www.shelf-awareness.com/max-issue.html?issue=352#m743)

And American Dirt leans heavily into that source material. I don’t mean word-for-word plagiarism. Instead, the novel features scenes / elements from articles, novels and social media posts by Mexicans and Chicanx writers. Sometimes, ironically, Cummins depicts things that no longer exist (because she’s ripped them from older works).

You see, even after reading existing works, Jeanine Cummins still apparently felt she needed to write about the plight of Mexican immigrants. Ostensibly, however, she was conflicted and nervous.

On the one hand, she admits to Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” And in the afterword of her book, she worries that “privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths,” wishing that someone “slightly browner than [her] would write it.”

But on the other hand … she still wrote it. After talking to various Mexicans on the border, this was her response: “Every single person I met made me more and more determined to write this book.” Cummins was concerned, she claims, that people at the border were being depicted as a “brown, faceless mass.” She wanted to give them a face. To be their white savior.

Of course, she conveniently forgot about the very #OwnVoices books she had mined for ideas and cultural texture.

In the midst of this literary amnesia, she decided to make millions off the pain and struggle of women from a completely different culture.

Her response to the criticism? She tells Alter, “I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people.”

When we criticize her, in other words, we’re the bad guys.

In addition to laying claim now to a Latina identity, she also cites her marriage to a formerly undocumented man as credentials for telling this story. Of course, her husband is from Ireland. Not a lot of Irish folks in camps or cages, last I checked. I daresay Trump would go easier on—nay, welcome—such immigrants.

Why does her identity even matter? Because she gets nearly everything wrong as a result.


Problem 2: The Content

For example, Cummins screws up Spanish egregiously (especially nuances in Mexican Spanish). First, when depicting Spanish-language dialogue as English, she sprinkles it with Spanish words, which is ridiculous (“Hola, abuela” is just “Hello, Grandma,” in English, not “Hello, Abuela,” as Cummins prefers). Even if we accept this as poetic license to add cultural texture, she does it poorly, never using Mexican Spanish terms, just sterile, standard ones. If you’re going to add spice, make it chile, Jeanine. “Maldita sea” could be “chingada madre,” for example. “Horseshit” could be “pendejadas” (as David Schmidt points out in an upcoming negative review) and “bogeyman” should be “cucu” or “cucuy” (as Myriam Gurba clarifies).

Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor. Take this note from Lydia’s husband for example:

Lydia,
Hay sangre en tus manos también. Lo siento por tu dolor y el mío. Ahora estamos destinados a permanecer eternamente unidos por este pesar. Jamás imaginé este capítulo para nosotros. Pero no te preocupes, mi reina del alma—tu sufrimiento será breve.
Javier

(There is blood on your hands as well. I’m sorry for your pain and mine. Now we are bound forever in this grief. I never imagined this chapter for us. But do not worry, Queen of my Soul—your suffering will be brief.)

The Spanish is … not idiomatic at all.

Cultural references are often missed, and Lydia Quixano Pérez (what a name, huh?) is ignorant of things that any Mexican knows. Take this exchange about the bad guy, an elegant cartel leader:

“I know you don’t like to think of it like this, but at the end of the day, these guys are businessmen, and this one is smarter than most.” He put his arm around her. “He’s not your typical narco. In a different life, he could’ve been Bill Gates or something. An entrepreneur.”

“Great,” she said, threading one arm across his midsection and resting her head on his chest. “Maybe he should run for mayor.”

“I think he’s more of a chamber of commerce kinda guy.” Sebastián laughed, but Lydia couldn’t. They were quiet for a moment, and then Sebastián said, “La Lechuza.”

“What?”

“That’s his name.” The Owl.

Now she was able to laugh. “Are you serious?” She sat up to look him in the face, to determine if he was messing with her. Sometimes he fed her nonsense just to test how gullible she was. This time, his face was innocent. “The Owl? That’s a terrible name!” She laughed again. “Owls aren’t scary.”

A “lechuza” is a screech owl. They have been feared throughout Mexico for literally thousands of years, considered harbingers of death, witches in disguise. Lydia’s reaction is that of the white readers, not actual Mexicans. And this is just one of literally dozens of examples.

People are stereotypes in this novel, participating in stereotypical activities (quinceañeras, for example). They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct. Lydia and Luca—despite having money—escape to the precious freedom of the US aboard La Bestia (that dangerous, crime-infested train) because of course they do. But they don’t suffer the maiming, abuse, theft, and rape so common on that gang-controlled artery to the border.

La Bestia (from Wikipedia)pastedGraphic.png




It’s all very Hollywood, very best-selling thriller.

And the characters. Gah. I am close friends with people from all social classes in Mexico, including light-skinned, middle-class, book-loving women like the protagonist ostensibly is. But none of the peculiarities of those lives and experiences make their way into this novel.

Instead, Lydia and Luca feel like a white US mother and her son, with nominally Mexican names slapped on, sprinkled with a bit of lime and salt. They could easily appear in a Gillian Flynn novel with little adjustment at all. Furthermore, Cummins clearly wants us to be startled at how “erudite” and “elegant” some of the males are.

“OMG! Really?” I imagine some US reader gasping. “In Mexico? Aren’t all men uncouth swarthy beasts?”

And frankly, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Setting aside the melodramatic plot and mediocre writing, there is so much more to say, especially about how this book (which the editor characterizes as “a portrait of a nation and a people under siege”) does little to explore the complicity of the US in the violence wracking Mexico. In avoiding politics, Cummins ends up implicitly blaming the victim.

Hopefully in the weeks and months to come, others will join their critical voices to the small group of us making a stand, exploring other problematic elements of this dangerous work.


Final Thoughts

Let me be clear: because American Dirt contains multiple inaccuracies and distortions, the white US readership in particular will come away with a stylized understanding of the issues from a melodramatic bit of literary pulp that frankly appears to have been drafted with their tastes in mind (rather than the authentic voices of Mexicanas and Chicanas).

Ah, and there’s the rub. White folks and other non-Mexican Americans in the US: you cannot judge for yourselves whether American Dirt is authentic. You’re going to have to trust Mexicans and Chicanx folks. I know that runs counter to the upbringing of so many. I know it defies our national discourse.

Pero ni modo. That’s too bad.

At a time when Mexico and the Mexican American community are reviled in this country as they haven’t been in decades, to elevate this inauthentic book written by someone outside our community is to slap our collective face.

To close, here’s a poem I wrote in Nahuatl (an Indigenous language of Mexico) in protest:

Xictzicalhuicān inīn ītlāllo cemānahuacatl, 
in tlazōlli in mictlāmpa cah—
ticemanazqueh inic titetlatlaquechilīzqueh 
inic tiquihcuilōzqueh 
in totlahtōllo nelhuayōtomāhuac … 
zan tehhuāntin, nicān titlācah.

Keep that “American Dirt,”
the filth of the US—
we will keep telling our tales
and writing down
our thick-rooted history…
we, the inhabitants of this land.
____________________________________________

••• For those who’ve complained about my decision to call the book “crap” and “trauma porn” (or the use of Spanglish and profanity in Myriam’s takedown of the novel), please note:

Our community (especially Mexican Americans on the border) has never been heard when we bow to faux civility and respectability politics. Indeed, it makes us “faceless,” as Cummins asserts. Voiceless. Needing a savior.

A la chingada con eso. Loud, rude and crude. That’s the ticket.

People who hate us won’t be swayed by our politeness, anyway.

Frederick Douglass said it best:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.”

You have to scream your right to exist. You won’t be heard otherwise.

—David Bowles


This article originally appeared on David Bowles’ Medium account. 

Abuelita full of life / llena de vida


author: Amy Costales
illustrator: Martha Avilés
publisher: Luna Rising (2007)
(Mexican, Mexican American)

Move over, everyone! Abuelita’s come to stay! Aquí viene, de Mexico, with two small suitcases and a lot of love, bringing something new and wonderful into her grandchildren’s lives. Although there’s a little hesitation at first, there’s no conflict as Abuelita gently, energetically and happily transforms a typically “American” mom, dad, and two children into a bilingual, bicultural extended family.

She’s “too old” to speak English, she says, but Abuelita and an English-speaking bus driver get along just fine. Meanwhile, young José starts to like the way the Spanish words feel in his mouth and expertly performs some tongue-twisters for his little sister: “tres tristes tigres.”

In Abuelita Full of Life / Abuelita llena de vida, Cosales and Avilés wisely and hilariously show young readers and listeners what it’s like to embrace the everyday joys of having an exuberant, life-loving elder move in with her younger relatives. Together, the spare and rhythmic text in Spanish and English “shows,” rather than “tells,” and the gorgeous illustrations and book design support the story rather than overpower it, and beautifully demonstrate love and respect for elders and children.

It’s an awesome, stereotype-busting bilingual blend of story, art, and design that shows love of family members for each other and the wisdom that elders can share with younger family members. 

In beautifully crafting this loving story of a joyous grandma’s arriving home to her family and community, Costales and Avilés gently push back against familiar tropes about age and disability, creating an abuelita who’s, por supuesto, llena de vida. 

Young readers will notice small details on every page. Here is Abuelita, bending over with her legs spread out, harvesting pole beans and straightening their poles; children will see a smiling caterpillar, ladybugs and a dragonfly or two. Here is José, in his soccer uniform—with no room left in the yard to kick the ball around—happily munching on an ear of fresh corn while using his fútbol as a seat. 

The first in a series of four full-page illustrations shows three ladybugs and a bespectacled Abuelita in a field of green cornstalks. A few pages later, Abuelita and the ladybugs are smiling at the ripening corn. In the third image, her basket is filled with corn and, in the final one, it’s heavy with corn, tomatoes, squash, chiles, and beans—and, holding a bunch of roses he’s picked, José shows up to help Abuelita take home the harvest, while the ladybugs watch. 

In each of these spreads, Abuelita’s long, neatly plaited hair extends onto the next page, where it becomes two braids, a design element that divides the English text from the Spanish. At the center of the page to its margin, the braids reconnect with a loosely tied string whose color matches Abuelita’s dress. By seeing the interweaving of two languages to make meaning, youngest readers will encounter the visual symbolism of what it is to be bilingual.

Opposite these images, Costales gently transforms how young children might initially view Abuelita’s physical appearance: Su piel está arrugada, pero es suave para besar. Es frágil, pero sus abrazos son fuertes. Su voz es suave, pero se oye claramente. (“Her skin is wrinkled, but soft to kiss. She is frail, but her hugs are strong. Her voice is soft, but it is heard clearly.”) Especially engaging is how she describes Abuelita’s hands: sus manos parecen dos ramas en el otoño, cuando se caen las hojas—(“her hands look like two branches in autumn after the leaves fall off”).

Costales originally conceptualized and wrote this delightful story in a rich, playful Mexican dialect (“va bien rápido” rather than “va muy rápido,” “andar en bici” rather than “montar en bicicleta,” and “se sienta bien callada” rather than “se sienta en silencio”), which she then translated into captivating, rhythmic English. And Avilés’ stunning, super-bright, super-saturated acrylic artwork—full of Mexican blue-greens and cinnamons, with lots of reds and gold tones, and roses everywhere—brings Abuelita and her family and culture forward with particularly Mexican visual humor and sentiment. 

Filled with love and joy and laughter, these two languages—words and pictures—talk to each other, going back and forth across the border. Together, author’s and artist’s repetitive and fun styles will especially appeal to young hablantes and their teachers, as well as to English-speaking youngsters who want to learn Spanish. 

Without a hint of moralism or condescension, Abuelita is a beautifully told and gorgeously illustrated story accessible to very young children—hablantes and English-speakers alike—that models respect for both elders and youngsters.

Abuelita: full of life / llena de vida is a joy. It’s highly, highly recommended. Míl gracias a Amy Costales, Martha Avilés, and everyone at Luna Rising. Y a mi amiga y colega, Lyn Miller-Lachmann. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/18/20)

Manuelito, una novela gráfica // Manuelito, a graphic novel

author: Elisa Amado
translator: Elena Iribarren 
illustrator: Abraham Urias
Annick Press (2019), grades 7-up 
(Mayan, Guatemalan)

Amado dedicates Manuelito to “the real Domingo, who was disappeared by the Guatemalan army, and to his family and all other Maya who have experienced—and who continue to experience—so much social injustice and violence.”

In Spanish, as in English, “to disappear” (desaparecer) is a verb. When the word, “desaparecido” is used as a noun (“disappeared”) it means that the person was a victim of murder, usually by right-wing government forces. In Latin America, “disappearance” is a tactic to get rid of people who might cause “problems”—a political concept and political reality that’s been used for generations.

Sometimes, families don’t find out about these “disappearances”—numbering hundreds of thousands—until decades later. Beginning in the 1970s and ‘80s, grassroots organizations called Madres de los Desaparecidos (Mothers of the Disappeared) formed all over Latin America; and currently, August 30 marks International Day of the Disappeared.

Amado and Urias present Manuelito as a graphic novel, narrated by a 13-year-old Maya boy whose family sends him to the United States in order to find safety and refuge from the rampant government and gang violence in Guatemala. Manuelito knows that several of his friends and relatives have been disappeared, including his tío, Domingo. 

The story begins in the present and flashes back to Manuelito’s journey.

The first two fully illustrated pages are set in the form of a photo album and Manuelito’s brief, matter-of-fact description of almost all family and friends (except for the coyote—“a very bad man who gets paid to take people like me to the USA.”) Just about everyone is smiling and looking directly at the camera. Readers will notice from the text that Manuel presents some of them in the past tense, a signal that these people are no longer alive. 

In the lower left-hand corner of the second page is the gut punch: “My mother’s brother Tío Domingo. He was disappeared when he was 12, almost 35 years ago.” It’s apparent that family members had kept his last photo—of a boy smiling at the camera—and bestowed his relationship-name, tío, long after he had been disappeared, and long before his nephew, Manuelito, was born.

On the next page, Manuelito shows a photo of himself with his friend: “My friend Coco Loco. He was older than me. His father owned the village store.” Again, Manuelito describes his older friend and Coco Loco’s father in the past tense. Manuelito doesn’t say that they were disappeared as well, but it’s implied. 

The villagers are under armed siege from every angle—harassed by the government soldiers (soldados), the civil patrol (PAC), and the gangsters, the narcotraficantes and “maras,” and the reign of terror is palpable. Villagers frantically phone their relatives in the US, begging them to take in the boys before they’re killed or forced to join a gang. Manuelito’s parents find a coyote and, together with Coco Loco’s parents, raise some money to pay him and to purchase a cell phone for the boys. Manuelito pretends to be brave, and Coco Loco, who is a little older and whose father owns a small store, shores up his confidence a bit. 

The coyote often doesn’t show up as promised, and one of the boys at a temporary shelter warns the two that they had gotten a bad coyote, a dangerous guy: “Les tocó un coyote de los malos, un tipo bien peligroso.” He’s right. 

Manuelito, who is on the road with a family he has met, phones his father and tells him that the coyote they hired to see them across has threatened to kill Coco Loco, which is apparently what had happened. Still, Manuelito continues to hope that his dear friend is alive somewhere. In his imagination, Manuelito looks out the window of his home and sees the maras, the soldiers—and Domingo and Coco Loco. By now the reader suspects that Coco Loco has been murdered and learns that this—or joining the maras or the soldados—“entonces pensé en las maras, en los soldados y en mi tío Domingo”—might be the reality of the socio-political terrorist act known as “disappearance.”

After a two-day bus ride, the family escorts Manuelito and some new friends to the Río Bravo and tells them exactly what to say to the US Border Patrol on the other side. After crossing the river, Manuel recites the exact words he’s memorized:

Me llamo Manuelito López. Soy de Guatemala y pido asilo. Las pandillas dijeron que me iban a matar. (My name is Manuelito López. I am from Guatemala and I ask for asylum. The gangs said they were going to kill me.) 

After a day at a crowded detention facility, the children are escorted to another center—with books and computers, and a TV, and a caring director. He feels safe. But when the heartbroken director tells the children that there is suddenly “no more money from the new government” (read Trump) and the center is closing, Manuelito finds himself on a bus again. He wants to go home. He imagines his family, waiting for him. And he also imagines the mara, and the soldados—and Coco Loco and Domingo.

Arriving in Long Island, Manuelito meets his aunt and begins to settle in. His aunt cautions him not to open the door for any reason but, when he hears the pounding and shouting, he’s afraid not to. It’s an ICE raid, and he’s quickly nabbed and put on an airplane headed for home. 

Manuelito: A Graphic Novel, and Manuelito: una novela gráfica are complex stories that are neither sensationalized nor romanticized. This is how it was then. This is how it continues to be. 

In an afterword, Patricia Aldana presents a short, accurate historical and sociopolitical history of the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), which she describes as “three of the most dangerous peacetime countries in the world.” Unfortunately, the US policy of “regime change” that has and continues to foment terror in this and in other areas of the world, is not discussed.

Urias’ dark and sometimes smudged charcoal illustrations appear rushed and, as so, complement the action and reflect the dread and horror in the story. As well, he portrays most of the faces of the gangsters, soldiers, border patrol, ICE agents and shelter staff, along with the hordes of other child prisoners, as anonymous blurs—the way that newly arrived and terrified young refugees would see them. But it’s the almost photo-realistic portraits of Manuelito and his friends and relatives—and also, his caring teacher and the sneering, menacing coyote—that readers will not soon forget. 

Neither the Spanish nor the English version is a direct translation of the other. Rather, each reflects, not only the natural flow of the language, but how specific characters might actually speak. However, while the coyote’s “street language” is totally realistic and threatening in the Spanish version—he’s a mean, sadistic dude—it appears to have been toned down in the English version. The Spanish appears to have been similarly toned down in other sections as well. 

This is a story without a happy ending and is age-appropriate for middle- and high school students who are coming to see that things don’t always work out for the best. Set in the Northern Triangle, this book is a contemporary, realistic complement to Phillipe Diederich’s Playing for the Devil’s Fire (Cinco Puntos Press), which takes place in Mexico.

Elisa Amado, a Guatemalteca who currently lives in Canada, is a brilliant writer and an excellent translator. And graphic artist Abraham Urias, a Salvadoreño who currently lives in the US, is a remarkable talent as well. For Manuelito: A Graphic Novel, and Manuelito: una novela gráfica, (the creation of which could not have been easy for either author or illustrator), they deserve every award there is. In these difficult and dangerous political times for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, both Spanish and English versions are highly, highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/12/20)

Gracias to my friends and colleagues, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Noam Szoke. And thanks to Annick Press for the interior image.



Update, 1/15/20

Since there was no translator credit listed in the English version, I mistakenly assumed that Elisa Amado, whom I knew often translates her own work, had been the translator for the Spanish version (which I had received several weeks after the English version). 

After communicating with Annick Press, I learned that (1) Elena Iribarren was the Spanish translator here, and that the order of operations was actually to finalize the English edition first (both text and images) and then to create the Spanish translation, in order to preserve the integrity of the image-to-text relationship. 

Kaela Cadieux, Annick’s managing editor, told me that the author, Elisa Amado, and the translator, Elena Iribarren, have a longstanding working relationship, and that Elisa closely and precisely guided the project, including the translation. Any discrepancies between the English and Spanish versions were the product of careful consideration. Elisa has extensive experience as a writer in both English and Spanish, in addition to her familiarity with the real-life situation that forms the foundation of the story. Working together with the publisher and translator,  the shared intention was to reflect the inherent differences between the two languages and to preserve the truth of each character’s voice. For example, in the Spanish version, the coyote calls Manuel and Coco Loco “cobardes” (cowards), while, in the the English version, he calls them “sissies.” These particular colloquialisms were meant to be accurate, both to the story and to the reading audience in each language.

Pablo encuentra un tesoro // Pablo Finds a Treasure


author: Andreé Poulin
translator (Spanish): Yanitzia Canetti 
illustrator: Isabelle Malenfant
Annick Press, 2016 (English), 2018 (Spanish) Grades 1-5 (Latin American)

On the cover are two children with dirty faces, behind what will soon be revealed as a mountain of trash. Slightly smiling, they invite young readers into their lives. The two represent the thousands of children who work as garbage pickers in parts of Latin America, and hundreds of thousands in parts of Asia and Africa.

These young garbage pickers comb the smelly mountains of trash, looking for anything that can be sold as recyclables—or even barely edible food—to bring home to their families. Going to school is a fantasy, as may be owning a book or a pair of boots. It’s filthy and dangerous, mind-numbing work: deadly accidents and robberies are everyday occurrences, and parents pray that their children will return home safe at the end of the day.

Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure tell the story of a resilient young brother and sister who experience the impoverishment of thousands of anonymous children who live in unnamed slums and daily scour the dumps of Mexico (“pepenadores” is Mexican Spanish for “trash-pickers”) or one of the countries known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. 

While Pablo works, he dreams of a better life, but his older sister, Sofía, is more realistic. When he finds un tesoro—a treasure of a torn-up book—and tells Sofía that he wants to learn to read, she’s not impressed: ¿Para qué? she asks. ¡La lectura no llenará tu estómago! (“Reading won’t fill your stomach!”) Later, Sofía finds “el segundo tesoro del día”: two carrots—soft but not yet rotten—which they eat quickly and silently: “En la montaña, es mejor comerse enseguida cualquier comida que uno encuentre, o alguien se la robará.” (“On the mountain, it’s best to gobble up any food that you find, or someone will steal it.”)

Pablo finds the third tesoro, a broken gold chain: “En su mano sucia, el metal precioso brilla como un rayo de sol”—whose precious metal, “in his dirty hand, shines like a ray of sun”—that has Sofía and Pablo fantasizing about what it will buy.

Pablo dreams of a book, a soccer ball, a new pot for their mamá, and an ice cream; and Sofía dreams of a chicken for dinner every day of the week, a bag of caramels, a new dress for their mamá, and gloves to protect their hands while digging in the trash.

But when “Cara-Sucia”—“Dirty Face,” one of the violent and menacing robbers who roam the dump, accosts the two children, he takes everything that they’ve worked for all day, and they return home, empty-handed.

Except not. After a scolding from his frustrated sister, Pablo opens his mouth—and reveals the hidden treasure. In the final illustration, the two children, relaxed and happy, are leaning against their casita. Pablo is looking at his tattered book, Sofía is savoring a caramel, and their dog is licking at a large bone. A well-deserved respite from a hard day.


Malefont’s smudged, dark gray charcoal illustrations, heavy with symbolism, effectively portray both the children’s harsh reality and their sometimes-hopeful expressions; while light splashes of pale color call attention to their successful treasure-hunting moments. Young readers will notice, for instance, Sofía’s waving a blue boot in the air, while the children’s brown dog runs to show them a newly killed rat. Their floating fantasies are in color as well: a red book, brown chicken in a pot, green gloves, cherry ice cream, and wrapped caramels.

Young children know about poverty, and Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure provide an excellent opportunity for educators to introduce a conversation about poverty and power and the connection to their own lives; and about child labor and children’s rights. At higher grade levels, Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure are invaluable in extended conversations about the roots of power and how it can build or destroy entire communities and even governments; and about community, national, and world movements to redirect power for the benefit of everyone. Pablo encuentra un tesoro and Pablo Finds a Treasure are treasures. Both are highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(12/31/19)