Merit Press / Simon & Schuster (2017)
Teenagers Juan Pablo and Rocio are neighbors and best friends, two young people who have spent their lives together, each raised by a grandparent in a quiet butterfly sanctuary in the tiny village of El Rosario in the State of Michoacán in Mexico. The two are not your ordinary small-town Mexican teens: they are budding scientists who are bilingual and homeschooled, well-read in both English and Spanish and often communicate to each other in English via their iPads. They spend a lot of time together learning from JP’s abuela, who is the town’s curandera, medical doctor, and all-purpose wise woman. JP is a brilliant classical violinist and, having taken online courses at the Khan Academy with Rocio, he’s a math whiz besides. The teens’ main passion, besides reading and watching movies on TV as well as The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, is working for the butterflies.
JP’s elderly abuela is dying. JP’s mother had died while giving birth to him, Rocio’s mom is working in Arizona and her brother is attending medical school in the US, and neither of their fathers is present (although JP’s abuela has told him that his father’s name is “Juan Laves”). Oh, and Juan Pablo has green eyes. Which the author mentions often. Hold that thought.
All hell breaks loose when a drug cartel invades and almost everyone leaves. In an attempt to protect Rocio who has been grabbed and is about to be raped, JP accidentally kills some of the narcotraficantes with his abuela’s poison. His abuela dies shortly thereafter, followed by Rocio’s abuelo. Pursued by agents of the murderous cartel, the teens hurriedly bury JP’s abuela in the butterfly meadow and are forced to leave Rocio’s abuelo’s body to the cartel. JP takes desperate measures to save his dear friend while they are on the run, following the butterflies north to Pacific Grove, California where, his abuela had told him with her dying breath, someone would be waiting for him.
Guided by the butterflies and his now deceased abuela’s wisdom, the two cross the Mexican desert, travel by water, encounter the generosity of strangers, temporarily split up, and deal with the violence of the drug traffickers and issues of poverty, immigration, and human rights.
Unfortunately, Juan Pablo & the Butterflies is littered with, among other things, highly unlikely events; each signaled by the arrival of a butterfly, who guides JP, showing him where to go and what to do. (The butterflies, of course, embody the spirit of JP’s abuela, now residing with the “Sky People.”) Such events include, but are far from limited to, the sudden appearance of strangers—from wealthy tourists to poor agricultural workers—who arrive on the scene to save JP from catastrophe and provide a passport and birth certificate for Rocio; the opportunity for JP and Rocio to save a baby whale (while the youngster’s mother hovers nearby), who had become entangled in netting; and—as JP confronts his own inevitable death and hears his abuela’s wisdom about everyone’s being spirits having a physical experience here on earth—the sudden arrival of the cops and a SWAT Team (the “good guys”) to rescue him from the narcotraficantes' bounty hunter.
Besides these unlikely events, there’s confusing dialog and mangled Spanish. And, although Juan Pablo is the protagonist, the focus of the story is his abuela. It’s JP’s memories of Abuela’s teaching that becomes the vehicle for the author’s nonsensical imaginary perspective of “old Indian wisdom.” For instance, she tells a young Juan Pablo about one of the roles of the “Sky People”:
Sky People are immersed in the energy of love, in a way we cannot imagine. It gives them a great wisdom and bad people view their deeds through a prism of boundless compassion. You are too young to understand, but there can be no greater punishment for a soul. (p. 34)
Most of Abuela’s spiritual teachings and admonitions guide Juan Pablo from beyond the grave, which allows the author to insert of lot of fortune-cookie philosophy:
Coincidences [are] no more than an awakening to the miracle of life. (p. 15)
If you show [the Sky People] a problem, they will show you the answer. (p. 26)
One unlocked mystery leads to ten more mysteries in the cosmic geometry of the universe. (p. 53)
If a problem has no good solution, then it is best to decide not to have the problem. (p. 87)
Even in the darkest times, you can choose happiness. You can choose your thoughts. (p. 110)
Abuela also maintains that whales, elephants, and butterflies are the “three sacred species…special souls from the spiritual realm…”
You can tell because almost all people have a wealth of heart energy for them; people everywhere want to see them, touch them, draw close to their presence. Their spiritual purpose is to use this heart energy to connect people to the plight of all living things on earth. (p. 117)
Middle readers (and everyone else) are to be forgiven for not knowing what any of this means. And the author is not above tossing in a bit of “old Indian wisdom” that she’s found on the Internet. For instance, when JP finds out that he is wanted by the drug traffickers and that his picture has been plastered all over the Internet:
[T]he great World Wide Web that covered the entire earth, just as that old Indian predicted a hundred years ago: “The land shall be crisscrossed by a giant spider’s web.” (p. 137)
NOTE ABOUT THE LANGUAGES AND MANGLED SPANISH
The story is located mostly in Mexico, and most of the characters are Mexican, with the implication that everyone speaks Spanish. Later, readers discover that JP and Rocio’s grandparents have raised them both to be bilingual, with an emphasis on reading and writing in English. To demonstrate this, the author tosses in an occasional Spanish word or phrase, such as “sí, sí” instead of “yes” or immediately translates a Spanish word into English, such as when Abuela tells Juan Pablo: “This is your journey, your transformación.” (p. 14) There are also some weak attempts to demonstrate code-switching, such as this, from a Spanish-speaking gang member:
He gets the job done. No questions. Finito, done, everyone is muerto; the problem is no more. (p. 23)
Nobody talks like this.
And, while it’s appropriate to use Spanish for honorifics, such as “abuela,” or “curandera,” or names of words that might be lost in translation, the only terms in English used for Juan Pablo’s abuela are “old lady” and “old woman.” Although the literal translation, “vieja,” is a term of endearment, “old woman” and “old lady,” both of which the author uses a lot, are derogatory.
It’s apparent that the author used Google Translate, rather than actual Spanish speakers, to check her use of Spanish. Here are just a few mistakes in the author’s use of Spanish:
Last week, a large black, red, and white banner sporting a menacing el diablo with sinister eyes and a leering grin…(p. 8) (“A menacing el diablo” translates incorrectly as “a menacing the devil.”)
“You”… he began with a soft viciousness, but he was breathing in huge, unnatural heaves,…“don’t know what you’ve done…persona estúpida…” (p. 32) (“Estúpida" or “estúpido” means “stupid person,” so the word “persona” is an incorrect repetition.)
He shook his head furiously, motioning for Juan Pablo to vamoose, to save himself… (pp. 28 ff)
The old man shouted, his hand waving, “Vamoose, Juan Pablo, vamoose.” (p. 35) (“Vamoose” is an English—white, Texan—corruption of the Spanish word, “vamos” or “vamanos,” let’s go. It’s not a Mexican-Spanish term and it’s not used by Mexicans.)
The older men cursed, spit, shook their heads. One swore, “La maldición del dios banditos.” (p. 186) (As written, this is meaningless: “The curse of the god bandits.” Perhaps the author meant that the bandits are the curse of God. That would be “Los bandidos son la maldición de Dios.” Or maybe she meant, “The curse of God: bandits.” That would be “La maldición de Dios: bandidos.”)
Towards the end, JP finds out that his father, whom his abuela had identified as “Dr. Juan Laves,” was the famous butterfly scientist, Dr. John Keys, of Stanford University (hence JP’s green eyes). Only “laves” is not the Spanish word for “keys.” That would be “llaves.”
NOTE ABOUT JUAN PABLO’S ABUELA
Juan Pablo’s abuela is the local curandera, also referred to as a “medicine woman.” She’s an Indian woman and a practitioner of traditional medicine. And she graduated from medical school.
His abuela was both a real doctor and the local curandera. The old ways had been passed down to her and after absorbing this ancient wisdom, she had gone on to attend Mexico City’s medical school. She had wanted to make sure she knew every aspect of healing. (p. 11)
Curanderas are trained, sometimes from childhood, in healing the body and spirit; indeed, curanderismo is something that requires lifelong dedication. Curanderas don’t just magically “heal” people; they work with people and with herbs and plants, to affect healing. There’s also an occasional curing that can’t be explained, and there are some things curanderas can’t do. But here, the author, by referring to this lifelong education and practice merely as “absorbing ancient wisdom,” diminishes all that goes into its study and practice.
Abuela appears to be a shaman as well. She’s an all-in-one spiritual phenom, singularly embodying not only a whole culture’s metaphysics but also bits of other cultures—a mishmash of mythology and mysticism that the author invents.
Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s [sic / the nickname for “José” would be “Pepe,” not “little José”] poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away. (p. 11)
Of all the characters, Abuela is the most confusing because there are so many unanswered questions: Where did she get the money to attend medical school in Mexico City, where only the rich and privileged go? Where did she learn to speak and read English well enough to teach Juan Pablo and Rocio? (“Much of his abuela’s medical education,” the author writes, “had been in English and she was very fluent.” (p. 54) But. The courses in Mexico’s medical schools are taught in Spanish.)
More questions: Where, how and from whom did Abuela learn her shamanism and curanderismo, which are two different studies? How and why did she become the embodiment of everything that’s noble and mystical?
Yet, despite all of Abuela’s talents, she’s helpless because she doesn’t know of any medicine or magic that would save her community from the terrible plague of the drug traffickers. But. Abuela is a healer. It’s not a curandera’s job to stop corruption and lead the people in rising up and taking back their village. Many curanderas are gifted, but this thread is major cultural appropriation.
And, despite her training in both traditional and “city” medicine, Abuela gets a lot of things wrong. Just before Rocio’s abuelo succumbs to a fatal heart attack, for instance, Abuela warns Rocio that her abuelo’s poor health is due to his bad eating habits: He needs to stop eating like a barn animal and start eating like a hummingbird or I fear even my medicine will fail, she warns. (p. 24) However. Hummingbirds are tremendous eaters. With the fastest metabolism on earth, 100 times that of an elephant, they eat as much as three times their body weight each day. They eat all the time. No medical practitioner who is treating an obese person in poor health would counsel him to eat like a hummingbird.
NOTE ABOUT THE PLACE
The story takes place in the tiny village of El Rosario, in the State of Michoacán, next to the winter nesting grounds of millions of monarch butterflies. While butterflies have a place in Mexican literature (see Guadalupe García McCall’s beautiful Summer of the Mariposas, Lee & Low, 2012, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2015/07/summer-of-mariposas.html), the butterflies’ pretended cultural context here is appropriative. For instance, rather than instructing Juan Pablo and Rocio to follow the North Star in their escape, JP’s abuela advises them to follow the butterflies’ migration pattern, a major plot line.
There are several El Rosarios in Mexico, including one in Baja, and another in the State of Sinaloa, the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, an international drug trafficking, organized crime syndicate that’s considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Does the author not know that El Rosario is the name of where the Sinaloa Cartel lives?
In at least two places, the author gets the basic geography wrong: “Milkweed fed the butterflies on their perilous journey from El Rosario to the great lands of North America.” (p. 13) And, “[e]very year, fewer of the colorful winged creatures returned to El Rosario, and this year, in alarmingly diminished numbers, they had left for North America early.” (p. 15) When refugees from Mexico flee to El Norte, they’re going to “the north.” Mexico is part of North America.
NOTE ABOUT DRUG TRAFFICKING
Throughout, the author often and incorrectly uses “banditos” to mean “bandits.” “Banditos” is an Italian word for thieves or robbers who steal property, people who live outside the law. The Spanish word for “bandits” is “bandidos.” During the Mexican Revolution, the ruling classes and the press referred to the revolutionaries as “bandidos,” and in 1967, Frito-Lay created their racist icon, “Frito Bandito,” to sell their chips.
Here, the author conflates the Italian term “banditos,” which was used by Frito-Lay to rhyme with “Fritos,” with the drug traffickers, whom she refers to as “narco-traffickers,” which is not a thing. The cartels are drug traffickers or, in Spanish, narcotraficantes. The cartels—the narcotraficantes—are far worse than “bandits.” Besides selling drugs, they recruit and bribe the local “leaders,” including mayors, judges, sheriffs, cops, and priests; and they murder—in the most vicious and gruesome ways possible—journalists and teachers and students who dare to challenge them. For everyone else, the choices are limited: stay and fight (and be likely to be tortured and murdered), flee to the US (and risk being arrested and sent back), or join the local narcotraficantes. (For an accurate picture of how the narcotraficantes wreak havoc in Mexican towns, see Phillippe Diederich’s excellent Playing for the Devil’s Fire (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016, http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2016/05/playing-for-devils-fire.html).
NOTE ABOUT “PLAYING INDIAN”
When Juan Pablo and Rocio were children:
Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee [sic] in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee [sic] became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave; hospital—Rocio was the doctor and he the patient; school—Rocio was the teacher and he the student; and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—finally, he was Harry Potter and Rocio was Hermione. But lately, as they began outgrowing imaginary games, they hiked up to the tepee [sic] just to read good books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Old Man and the Sea, but also The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. (p.21)
Since most Mexicans are of Mestizo heritage, they’re “Indians.” That Juan Pablo’s Indian abuela would encourage the Indian children to “play Indian” doesn’t make any internal cultural sense. And, as Indian children, why would they want to enact stereotypical Plains Indians? This is all the author’s cultural assumptions and does not apply to Mexican children who probably did not grow up watching “cowboys and Indians” on 1950s TV shoot-‘em-ups. (JP and Rocio’s “tepee” shows up in a later chapter, when Juan Pablo and Rocio are on the run and hide in this “wooden structure,” which a tipi is not.)
The author also inserts some miscellaneous stuff that misrepresents Indians and Mestizos:
If [JP] squinted against the light just so, he could see the narrowest of paths reaching around the cliff. Probably an old Indian path. Indians used to live here hundreds of years ago, after the Aztecs and before the Spaniards. (p. 81)
NOTE ABOUT POOR WRITING, STEREOTYPES AND DESCRIPTIONS OF
In a comment to an interviewer (Adventures in YA Publishing, 6/30/17), the author said that she wrote Juan Pablo & the Butterflies in two months. Besides showing sloppy research, faulty grammar and mangled Spanish, her often decontextualized writing contains a plethora of mixed metaphors and over-the-top exaggerations. An example:
These were not ropes, but hair. Girl’s braided hair. Just like ill-fated animals’ heads on a trophy hunter’s wall, no girl had willingly parted with her braids. (p. 20)
And if this is too subtle, the author doesn’t leave any room for misunderstanding:
The boss man Carlos wore a creepy smile, as if the smirk came with murderous thoughts….The man’s face spelled the word mean. Not a normal mean, but the kind of mean that was for no reason. English word: malice. (p. 22)
What does “normal mean” mean?
And the author could have used the services of an editor and copyeditor, who would easily have picked up material like this (italics inserted):
Rocio lay next to him, her tasseled hair forming a dark halo around her head. (p. 49)
The tiny whisper of a noise played like the crash of symbols in Juan Pablo’s mind… (p. 50)
NOTE ABOUT OTHER STEREOTYPES
Besides the “Indian” stereotypes and those of elderly people and Mexican and Mestizo cultures and lifeways, the author inexplicably throws in these:
(1) “Middle Eastern” People Are Afraid of Dogs
In a moment’s inspiration, [JP] remembered once a Middle Eastern tourist had stood at the plaza, terrified by little Tajo. Tajo’s hair lifted and he barked uncertainly… (Abuela explains to JP that “dogs smell emotions the way we see emotions on faces” and that “Tajo was confused by the lady’s fear. ‘Why is the lady afraid of me?’ Tajo wonders.”) (p. 58).
(2) “Gay” and “Queer” People Are “Weird”
While stowing aboard an American cruise ship, JP meets twins, Cory and Rory. As JP withdraws his iPad from his abuela’s shopping bag, Cory notes:
“You have a girl’s purse.”
Juan Pablo shrugged. “It is all I have.”
“Weird.” Cory grimaced with a shake of his head. “Are you gay?”
Juan Pablo greeted the question with confusion. He supposed he was gay…
“I am having fun, yes.”
The twins exchanged glances. “But are you…like, gay—like, you know, queer?”
Queer? An English word meaning “not usual.” Was he queer? (His life might) seem odd to other kids, but he would not use the word queer. “I don’t think so. Do I seem queer to you?”
They shook their heads. “I’ve just never seen a boy with a purse.”
“It was my grandmothers,” Juan Pablo explained. “I need it to carry my iPad. I don’t have a phone.” (pp. 146-147)
(3) Children with Disabilities Are Just, You Know, “Special”
Dolores loved sharing stories about her family. Dolores’s husband, Sam, was a professor like her daughter-in-law, but of psychology. Her oldest daughter, Laura, was a veterinarian, and she was married to Lewis, a doctor. They had three children: Mark, fifteen, who loved sports and girls; Kyle, thirteen, who loved astronomy; and little Eva, a “special needs kid,” who Dolores said was a conduit for love. Conduit meant a conductor. Eva was a conductor of love. Dolores’s other daughter, Kimberly, was a schoolteacher…(p. 170)
(4) Villainous People Are Physically Ugly
A loose-fitting black dress shirt over black trousers draped his massive shape. A bear housed in human form. He had a large round head, as bald as a soccer ball, and almost as big. His puffy face squeezed his small, dark eyes. It was impossible to imagine this man smiling. (p. 19)
[A] lady guard stepped forward. The guard’s overweight form spilled out of the too-tight guard uniform. She had large eyes, rimmed in black like a raccoon, and bright red lipstick accented the thin lines of her mouth. Written in messy cursive, her name tag read Margo. She looked angry and sounded mean. (p. 162)
NOTE ABOUT THE REFUGEE CHILDREN’S DETENTION CENTERS
In one of JP’s escapes from the bounty hunter, he turns himself in to a cop by saying “the hardest words he could imagine: ‘I am Juan Pablo from El Rosario, Mexico, and I do not have the proper papers to be in America.’” (p. 160) He soon finds himself housed in what the author refers to as a “shelter,” in which he is “surrounded by a thousand desperate children.” (p. 161) When she discovers that JP speaks English, a grateful social worker immediately recruits him as a translator. It’s unbelievable, even in the context of this novel, that detention facilities—in which unaccompanied refugee children are warehoused while they’re being screened for asylum—would be called “shelters” and which would have no one on staff to communicate with the children. While the detention centers are horrible, there are translators.
The author’s simplistic, formulaic, poorly conceived and abysmally written story disappears the realities behind the narcotraficantes and all those institutions that support them. Indeed, she chooses to ignore the important questions of the political and economic roles of the US and Mexico in the Mexican drug trade—and of the Mexican and American people on both sides of the border who buy and sell illicit drugs. She also chooses to ignore the thousands of undocumented immigrants who die struggling to get to El Norte, and the fates of the thousands of terrified, unaccompanied refugee children languishing in detention centers before being sent back.
In Juan Pablo & the Butterflies, the narcotraficantes are just a gang of murderous “banditos.” They’re the “Mexican bad guys” who just happen to invade a small Mexican village and take over. And, of course, it’s up to Juan Pablo, almost singlehandedly, to stop them—or to escape. Not recommended.
(Update, 8/17/17): Another term the author frequently uses is “droguistas,” which, in context, is supposed to mean “drug traffickers.” Aside from the unreliable-at-best Google Translate (which defines “droguistas” as “druggists”), I could not find the term anywhere and assumed that it was either Caló for “druggies,” or that it didn’t exist. None of my Spanish-speaking colleagues had heard of it either, but one told me that she thought it sounded like “drogadistas,” Spanish for “drug addicts.” Another, who is fluent in Tex-Mex, told me that “drug addicts” in Caló was “drogadicta/os.” Finally, a definitive answer: “Droguistas” is not a Spanish or Caló term for “drug traffickers,” “drug addicts,” or anything else. It. Doesn’t. Exist. Rather, street drug dealers are “tiradores,” from “tirador,” to toss around; and “narcotraficantes” (a term I had referred to in the body of the review) are high-level drug traffickers, such as the cartel bosses.
(published 8/6/17, updated 8/17/17)
Míl gracias a mis colegas, María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.