Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá

author: René Colato Laínez 
illustrator: Anthony Accardo 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2004 
grades 2-4 

In all the news media today, we see terrorized and desperate refugees—many are mothers with their young children, and many are unaccompanied children—running for their lives, fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as other countries torn by war. They arrive here by the thousands, to the unknown, to what they desperately hope is the relative safety of life in the country whose governmental policies and military practices are responsible for most of the chaos and horror engulfing their worlds. Guided by coyotes—the paid smugglers of humans who couldn’t care less if their charges live or die—many refugees from El Salvador make the perilous trek to el norte; dodging robbers while crossing three countries partially by bus and mostly on foot: up and down mountains, through rivers and across deserts. And soon after the so-called “illegals” arrive here, many are caught, jailed and deported by US immigration police.

The issues of refugees and immigrants are complex; but simply defined, refugees are desperate people forced to flee countries ravaged by war and human rights abuses. They are refugios, looking for safety and shelter. There are also economic refugees, whose livelihoods were destroyed, for instance, by the economic policies of the US toward Mexico. They are, as a colleague mentioned, “leaving home to go into the jaws of the shark.” Immigrants, on the other hand, are people who, for many reasons, move permanently from one country to another. All refugees are immigrants, but only some immigrants are refugees.

Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá is Colato Laínez’s story of a young boy who, with his mother, flee to the US three years before the story begins:

When I was five years old, Mamá and I had to leave El Salvador. The detergent factory where Mamá and Papá worked was bombed during the war. Two days later, our house caught on fire. All my toys, all my clothes, and even Papá’s favorite boots were burned. ‘Now, we do not have work, food, or a house,’ Papá said. (emphasis mine)

Here, the author’s use of the passive tense serves to obfuscate the agents of repression and terror, so young readers (even if they themselves are refugees) won’t have a clue about why all of these bad things happened.

Mamá’s father, who lives in the US, applies for and receives visas for his daughter and her son, but Papá has to stay behind. The story, though Beto’s eyes, is how the family eventually reunites.

Beto and Mamá quickly and easily obtain a visa. They arrive here by airplane, which is highly unusual for refugees from El Salvador, then or now. While in El Salvador, Beto narrates, Papá could not find work, and “going out in public was very dangerous.” But in their new home, by contrast, Mamá quickly and easily finds a job in a sewing factory and, after a year, has saved enough money to hire an immigration lawyer. It’s also assumed that they quickly and easily find an inexpensive place to live. Although the story hints that the family is seeking refuge here, through a series of unlikely events and occurrences, it belies the terror and uncertainty of the refugee experience.

Later, his teacher tells the children about Christopher Columbus. In this odd and historically inaccurate paragraph that infers that Columbus was the “first immigrant,” the author, through Miss Parrales, apparently tries to normalize immigration:

“Did you know that when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, many people from Europe came to what we know as the United States? Since then, millions of people from other countries have come. They are called ‘immigrants.’ I am from Mexico. I am an immigrant, too.”

At this point, Beto raises his hand and excitedly reveals that he, too, is an immigrant; and that his Papá could not come, but he hopes that they will soon be reunited.  Miss Parrales’ and Beto’s dialogues are neither natural nor believable. Both exist only to convey information—as well as to conflate refugees with other immigrants.

Soon, Mr. González, who is from Nicaragua and works as a radio host for “Voice of the Immigrant,” visits Beto’s class and suggests that, since Father’s Day is soon approaching, students write letters to their fathers “to tell him why he is special.” Since it’s widely recognized that many children either don’t know or have lost their fathers, exercises asking children to write letters to fathers is bad teaching practice, even if it’s suggested by a guest who should and would know better.

So Beto writes a beautiful letter, on the back of which “I drew my Salvadoran house on fire. I also drew Mamá screaming and Papá holding me in his arms while I cried.” What’s Beto’s motivation? Children who are refugees and other immigrants don’t write home about what a bad time they had at home. Rather, they’d be more likely to say, “I miss you,” and draw a picture of where they are now to make it look attractive so their relatives would come faster and be reunited with the family in this great place.

Beto is invited to appear on Mr. González’ radio show. While they’re on the air, an immigration lawyer phones and tells Mamá that “Papá will come home soon!” A few days later, Beto and his classmates gather a huge number of aluminum cans, which, “within a couple of weeks,” they take to the recycling machine and are paid $80, with which Beto purchases a pair of boots for Papá (exactly like the ones that were destroyed in El Salvador). And. “On the very next day,” Papá arrives by plane, and joins Beto and Mamá “in a big tight hug.” And. “On the last day of school,” Miss Parrales presents Beto with “a trophy for perfect attendance and a certificate for good behavior,” both of which he gives to Papá, along with the boots the child had bought. More big hugs, and Papá promises to be with Beto “forever.” The End.

Accardo’s bright pen-and-ink and watercolor art reflects the story, so much so that each child in Beto’s multiethnic classroom appears to represent a different continent. And, although the Spanish translation (with no translator noted) appears to be grammatically accurate, it’s as unexciting as the story.

The events in Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá are inappropriate and unrealistic, the dialogue is trite and wooden, and the story is contrived with too many coincidences and an all-too-neat resolution. It would not be a stretch to say that all refugee and immigrant kids dream of reuniting with their families. Waiting for Papá is the author’s attempt to write this dream—it’s hopeful, but in reality the dream is almost never realized. Colato Laínez was himself a refugee from the 12-year “civil war” in El Salvador, in which the US financed and trained the right-wing military and the death squads. Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá was Colato Laínez’s first children’s book and, fortunately, some of his later ones are better. As it stands, this one is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/29/16) 

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