¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A.

author: Diana Cohn
translator: Sharon Franco
illustrator: Francisco Delgado
Cinco Puntos Press, 2002
grades 3-up
Mexican, Mexican American

Through the eyes of a janitorial worker’s young son, readers come to know the conditions that united some 8,000 workers in the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles in April of 2000.

Carlitos’ mother is a present-day hero, struggling to support her family. She works nights as a full-time janitor, and cleans houses and takes in laundry on weekends. Still, she is not paid enough to afford the medication that his grandmother needs. Mamá explains to Carlitos that she and the other workers will have to go on strike for higher wages and a better life, including more time to spend with their families. As Mamá tucks her young son into bed, Carlitos wonders how he can help.

The answer comes when he shows newspaper photos of the striking workers and supporters to his classmates, and finds out that some of their parents are on also on strike. His teacher, whose grandfather was part of the farm worker struggle, tells the children, “When many people join together, they can make a strong force.” Together, the children make signs for the marchers and, with their teacher, join the three-week strike, which is ultimately successful. After, Carlitos takes his sign and marches with his mother, who, as an organizer, is off to assist the hotel workers:

 “I took down my sign from the living room wall and walked out with her,” Carlitos says. “That afternoon, we joined the workers and marched up and down in front of the hotel. Mamá and I met lots of new friends. And together we shouted, ‘¡Sí, Se Puede!’”

Cohn’s writing is straightforward, political and evocative, with stories from this and other strikes and struggles woven into the text. The book ends with a two-page essay by acclaimed author, poet, and union organizer, Luis J. Rodríguez, who profiles union organizer Dolores Sánchez, “a woman of struggle, a woman of hope.” And on the final page, an amazing poem that ends: “The truly human who now step into the streets, into our tomorrows,/ And declare: Basta! Enough! What we clean, we also make sacred.”

Franco’s Spanish translation, for the most part, rarely goes beyond the English text. In a few places, though, it sings. When Miss Lopez tells her young class about her grandfather’s struggle together with other immigrant farm workers, Carlos asks if they won, and Miss Lopez answers with real passion: “¡Claro que sí! Cuando mucha gente se junta, puede tener mucho poder.”

Delgado’s illustrations, in colored pencil and pastels, are strong and bright, reminiscent of the mural paintings of José Clemente Orozco. Here is Mamá, her forearm muscles bulging, pushing her mop across an office floor. Here is Miss Lopez, talking with her children about the importance of this struggle. Here are the strikers, silently standing together, holding candles, the “glowing light of our strength.” Here, on another day, is a striker, playing a trashcan like a big steel drum; and other strikers, shaking maracas made of soda cans filled with beans. Here is Carlitos’ mother, standing on a podium, taking a strike vote, with hundreds of janitors shouting, “¡Sí, se puede!” Here are the children, waving their handmade placards in the air. Here are thousands and thousands of people, all of them strong and resolute, “a celebration of courage.”

For Raza children, ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! is a gift, a rare connection with their own families’ lives and struggles. For all children, it’s one of the few picture books that celebrate the power of people uniting for a cause, and that invite discussion of contemporary issues of social justice, of exploitation, of migration and immigration, of the struggle for a living wage, of the need for strong unions, of modern-day heroes, and of women as leaders. Highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 2/14/14)

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