author: Ethriam Cash Brammer
illustrator: Daniel Lechón
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2003
On the cover, musical notes fill the air as an elderly mustached grandfather, wearing a woven straw sombrero and a green shirt, shows his young grandson, who wears a white shirt, how his fingers glide along the frets of his guitar. This cover image is repeated later in the story, as young readers ascertain that the youngster on the cover is the narrator’s grandfather (his tata) in the story, and the grandfather on the cover is his great-grandfather (his tata’s tata).
Narrated by a child who finds an old guitar while exploring “the mazes of boxes and discarded furniture” in his tata’s dusty garage, this warm story of family and community takes young readers into the lives of a Chicano child and his Mexican tata—and how music and culture are passed from one generation to another.
Lechón’s attractive, full-page pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, mostly in primary colors—are as gentle as the story. Although each scene is framed, in most of them, the characters step out of the frame. Since this story spans several generations, the artist circumvents confusion by assigning specific colors to the clothing of each character. For instance, the child narrator wears a black shirt, his tata wears a white shirt (as does his tata as a child), and his tata’s tata wears a green shirt and sometimes a sombrero.
The short, boxed English text on top and the Spanish below both read with a rhythm that youngsters enjoy. (Since this is a story about a Mexican American family, forefronting the Spanish text would have been a benefit.)
Rather than an attempt at literal translation, for the most part the English and Spanish texts appear as similar versions of the story or scene. For instance, in showing Tata’s grandpa and others in the community playing in the posadas, the English text reads:
“My tata played in the posadas every Christmas. ‘In the name of Heaven, won’t you give us shelter? My dear beloved wife, tonight can go no further.’ ” And in the Spanish text is the traditional rhymed Mexican version:
—Mi tata tocaba en las posadas cada Navidad: “En nombre del cielo, pedimos posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.”
In both of the group scenes—the people gathered together to portray las posadas navideñas and children celebrating a friend’s birthday—the people are shown with varying skin tones and hair color and textures that reflect the Indigenous and colonial heritages of the Mexican and Mexican American people.
And when the story focuses on the music that Tata’s tata plays, he’s shown as singing Mexican songs in Spanish that are compatible with well-known American songs. As a young man, he serenades the young woman who will soon become his wife. “Dulce amor de mi vida, despierta, si te encuentras dormida” (“Sweet love of my life / wake up if you find yourself asleep”) is well matched with the English: “I’m in the mood for love / simply because you’re near me.”
There’s also the traditional (English) birthday song, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear ….” which, in Mexican Spanish, becomes: “Éstas son las mañanitas que cantaba el Rey David, hoy por ser tu cumpleaños, te las cantamos a tí.” (“These are the mañanitas that King David sang, because today is your birthday, we sing them to you.”)
And, while the child’s tata relates the story from his tata of when the family came to the United States from Mexico, there’s a beautiful scene of farmworkers, wearing woven straw sombreros, sitting around the campfire after a hard day of labor. They sing the traditional Mexican song, “Cielito Lindo” (“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores…”).
As Tata gently and lovingly passes on the music of his culture, musical notes and moths flit out of the guitar and transform into butterflies and flowers and fill the background. In gifting his young nieto with the family’s guitar, Tata both passes on a family treasure and transmits the cultural history of the community.
As Tata gifts his nieto with this guitar—as his own tata did with him—it becomes more than “just” a gift from grandpa to grandson. Rather, his tata’s guitar is a gift from and for the generations. It’s the gift of love, the gift of language and song, the gift of historical and cultural continuity.
My Tata’s Guitar / La guitarra de mi tata is highly recommended.
Note: On the CIP page, the publisher thanks Teresa Mlawer of Lectorum Publications “for her professional advice on this book.” I want to acknowledge Teresa, who left us in March of this year, for her great talent and gentleness and love of the culture. She helped shape many children’s stories and their translations, and her loss is deeply felt in the community.