Going Home

author: Eve Bunting
illustrator: David Diaz
HarperCollins, 1996
kindergarten-grade 3
Mexican, Mexican American

Ever since the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, when “CBS Reports” aired a documentary called “Harvest of Shame,” the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers has been a national scandal. Farm workers—then and now—live at or below the poverty level and depend on their meager income to feed their families here, and often to support relatives in their home country as well.

Two years later, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers, a human rights and labor organization that successfully focused the national media’s attention on the struggles of agricultural workers for better pay, safer working conditions, and the right to organize. “Alone, the farm workers have no economic power,” Chávez said, “but with the help of the public they can develop the economic power to counter that of the growers.”

More recently, the corporate successes and excesses of NAFTA have brought nothing but impoverishment to Mexican workers, both in their country and in the US. While large transnational corporations profit hand-over-fist from free trade, slack regulation, and abundant and cheap Mexican labor, hundreds of thousands of displaced people—from cities, towns and villages—are forced to head north in order to survive. On this side, the Mexican migrant workers, many if not most undocumented, have nowhere else to go.  

Eve Bunting’s Going Home was published 35 years after “Harvest of Shame” was aired, 33 years after the United Farm Workers was founded, and two years after NAFTA was enacted into law. So one might think that Bunting would have had plenty of information about how agricultural workers and their families live—if she had looked. Apparently, she didn’t. 

In Going Home, the young narrator, Carlos, finds out that he and his farm worker family will soon be “going home” to La Perla, Mexico, for Christmas vacation. “Home is here,” his mother explains, “but it is there, too.” Well, I would bet anything that no agricultural workers in their right mind would refer to a labor camp as “home.” Turn two pages: “Papa locks the door of our house,” Carlos says. “The house really belongs to Mr. Culloden, the labor manager, but it is ours as long as we work the crops for him. It has been ours for almost five years.” On the facing page, the artwork depicts this farm worker family’s “home” as one in a row of suburban tract houses, with neatly manicured lawns—as far from a typical ramshackle labor camp domicile as Santa Barbara might be from Appalachia.   

Papa tells the children that they are “legal farm workers,” so they will have no trouble crossing the border. Well, that’s convenient—not only does Bunting neatly avoid describing the incidences of harassment, arrest, jail and deportation common at border crossings, she also does so by having Papa explain why: This family is “legal.” The world is good.

Then there is the peppering of Spanish words in the text—“sí,” “mijo” [sic], “papeles”—coming from the parents. Carlos explains to the reader that, “Papa speaks always in Spanish. He and Mama have no English. There is no need for it in the fields. But I’m always trying to teach them.” But. Since there are only a few Spanish words in the entire text, everyone appears to be speaking English. And Carlos is correcting Papa when he says a word in Spanish, which Mexican children do not do because it would be rude. Rather, children learn early on how to code-switch, an important skill in a household where the parents speak one language and the children speak two. This is all different from teaching the parents English or interpreting when interpretation is needed, a subtlety that is lost on Bunting. And I’m not sure why Bunting decided to use Spanish grammatical forms in Carlos’s English, either. This whole language thing is just a mess.

Carlos says that he and his sister know “how hard the work is. The heat in the strawberry fields. The sun pushing down between the rows of tomatoes. The little flies biting our faces. We know because we work, too, on weekends and school vacations.” In truth, children often work alongside their parents in the fields—before and after school, when they are fortunate enough to be able to attend school—as well as weekends and vacations. While federally mandated Migrant Education Programs exist, children living in rural areas often do not get to go to school. And despite the existence of child labor laws that vary from state to state, children are often forced to work under a parent’s name or under an alias. It’s a dirty business, but one that Bunting conveniently ignores. 

Why did Carlos’s family come here, then? “We are here for the opportunities,” Papa says. More likely, the children would not ask, because they would know. Toiling in the fields as migrant agricultural workers is hardly done for the “opportunities”—it’s done for survival and possibly to send some money home. 

So Mama, Papa, Carlos, Delores, and Nora arrive at La Perla, where they meet the rest of their family and have a great time. Everyone is impressed with the children’s nice clothes and English skills, and the family talks more about “opportunities”:

They laugh and clap. “Imagine, Consuelo! Your son—and all your children—speaking English. So smart!” “Yes,” Papa says. “Their school is very fine. They are getting a good education.” The woman nods. “You were wise to take them and go. Our school is good, too. But where are the opportunities for our children after?”

La Perla is a beautiful place, but there is no “opportunity” here, only in the US. That night, the children sleep in the car, and Mama and Papa come out to dance in the streets. Older sister Delores tells Carlos that Mama and Papa “plan to come back someday and live in Grandfather’s house and work his land.” Carlos thinks, “It will be after our opportunities.” 

“Diaz’s fiesta-bright artwork,” a reviewer for Kirkus gushes, “ignites this joyous tale of a Mexican American family’s sentimental journey…. The fiery colors and bold lines of Diaz's woodcut-like illustrations lend a strength and nobility to these scenes…. [H]e sets his artwork within photographic backdrops that show gaily painted pottery, folk art figurines, Mexican Christmas decorations, festive flowers and other shiny holiday trinkets. A veritable feast for the eyes…” What the Kirkus reviewer lauds is precisely the problem. Diaz has aptly illustrated Bunting’s sanitized story of a hard working Mexican family for the edification of cultural tourists: take home all the pretty things and look away from the garbage. Indeed, this story and art together function as an apologia for imperialism. 

Bunting’s purposeful ignoring of racism in order to maintain the status quo is palpable. Where she sees issues, they are not so bad. In the case of Going Home, there is no backbreaking labor, no inhaling of toxic pesticides, no sweat, no tears, no exhaustion, no harassment from labor bosses or La Migra. Just “opportunities.” A Publishers Weekly review of Going Home could have been about any of Bunting’s “social justice” books, which “(hint) at the depth of parental love and sacrifice while distancing children from genuine understanding.”


Scholar Joyce King has coined a term for this kind of thinking: “dysconscious racism,” which she defines as “a form of racism that tacitly accepts the dominant white norms and privileges.” [1] And Scholar Dan Hade has labeled Bunting’s “social justice” books as “aestheticizing the poor, anesthetizing the reader.”[2]

One last thing: On the dedication page of Going Home, Bunting writes: “Sincere thanks to Joe Mendoza, Regional Director of Migrant Education, Region #17.” Curious to know what kind of involvement someone who works with migrant families might have had with this book, I phoned him. What he told me[3] was that he and Bunting were “like two ships passing in the night; if she walked in right now, I wouldn’t remember her. As I recall, she walked into my office and asked if she could meet a migrant family because she was writing a book. I vaguely remember introducing her to a family, more as a courtesy than anything else and that was that. I spoke with her once or twice; she never asked me to read her manuscript or anything like that.”

Bunting is not the only mediocre writer who acknowledges sources solely to create credibility for a book. When a writer acknowledges someone who is not a friend but whose name carries a particular credential, the assumption is that the person has lent some kind of oversight or has helped in significant ways. In Going Home, Bunting implies something that isn’t there; it’s disingenuous.

Bunting’s “social justice” books show a distortion of reality in order to appeal to what some want to believe. Her formula fits issues such as homelessness (Fly Away Home, 1991), immigration (One Green Apple, 2006), rebellion (Smoky Night, 1994), youth gangs (Your Move, 1998), forced relocation (So Far from the Sea, 1998). Et cetera. As with Bunting’s others, Going Home is sympathetic in a seemingly harmless way. But it’s not harmless; on the contrary, it’s cruel. It’s cruel to the children of agricultural workers and other migrant and immigrant children who must struggle for the “opportunities” that others have as their birthright. And it’s cruel to the unsuspecting children who are being anesthetized to the hard lives of others.

Going Home is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/18/13)




[1] Joyce E. King, Ph.D, holds the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Teaching, Learning, and Leadership in the College of Education at Georgia State University. This definition is from her paper, “Disconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers” (Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2, 1991).

[2] Daniel Hade, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy at Penn State College of Education, where he looks at how poverty is constructed in children’s books and how it is used as an aesthetic. In 1995, he spoke at a children’s literature conference; the title of his talk was “Aestheticizing the Poor, Anesthetizing the Reader: the ‘Social Justice’ Books of Eve Bunting.”

[3] Joe Mendoza generously gave me permission to take notes while we were talking, and to quote him. He said, “Only liars don’t let themselves be quoted.” Thanks, Joe.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, Beverly. Bunting's books strike me as ones that support the master narrative about the United States - land of opportunity. Just work hard, be honest, and keep hope alive. But her books seem lazy and deceitful to me, the opposite of what the master narrative purports to advance.

    Dan Hade

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