Abuelita's Heart

author: Amy Córdova
illustrator: Amy Córdova
Simon & Schuster, 1997
kindergarten-grade 3 
Mexican American, Diné

Just before she is to return to the city with her parents, a young girl spends the day with her abuelita, exploring river and canyon areas, listening to stories about medicine plants, and, finally, visiting the “Cave of the Heart,” high on whose wall is carved a heart, “the greatest healer on Earth.” This is “Abuelita’s Heart,” the greatest knowledge she has to pass on to her granddaughter.

Here are some of the problems with Abuelita’s Heart:

(1) The writing is vague and New Age-y. This is what Abuelita tells her granddaughter about the heart carved on the wall of the "Cave of the Heart":

See how the spirals of the heart reach out, giving themselves one to the other? It is by reaching out to one another that we, too, create something beautiful to last throughout the ages. No matter where life leads you … if you follow the heart your path will be one of wonder.

(2) The writing is also self-conscious, with clichéd “Indian” metaphors. The young girl says, for instance, “My moccasins pat the ground in soft drumbeats,” and, “My Abuelita lives in a land the color of sunset, where each day the great sky herds woolly clouds over the mountains to far-off pastures.”

(3) The dialogue is forced, with English phrases immediately followed by literal Spanish translations, or vice versa: “Abuelita says, ‘The earth is enchanted here. La tierra está encantada aquí.’” The first issue with this kind of unimaginative writing is that no one talks like this. If the story were about a grandma’s teaching Spanish to her English-speaking granddaughter, maybe they would communicate back and forth, in Spanish and English, but this is not what’s happening here.

Secondly, literal translations are often clumsy and confusing to Spanish-speaking children. In the case of “The earth is enchanted here,” the Spanish would more likely be, “Aquí está la tierra encantada,” which means that this spot right here is enchanted. In another example, the child greets Abuelita’s dog: “Hola, perrita, mi amigita [sic]. Hello, little dog, my dear friend. Como estás hoy día? How are you today?” Again, the Spanish would more likely be: “Hola, perrita. ¿Como estás?”

(4) And this is curious: It appears that Abuelita is Diné (Navajo): her hair is rolled and tied in a hairstyle known as a tsiiyéél, she’s wearing a chunky turquoise-and-silver bracelet, and there’s a rug on the wall that’s reminiscent of a contemporary Diné “Tree of Life” design. Yet, Abuelita lives in an adobe house rather than a hogan and speaks only Spanish and English. And, there are no sheep. And, she sprinkles blue cornmeal—rather than blue corn pollen, as Navajos do—as a thank-offering to Mother Earth.

(5) Although Córdova’s art is rendered in mixed media on a subdued palette that evokes the high desert, the facial features of the little girl and her grandma change from page to page, and the child appears to be a different height with each picture as well. It’s disconcerting. Also disconcerting is the owl perched in a tree next to the doorway in the canyon wall that Abuelita and child are about to enter. If Abuelita actually were Diné and she saw that owl, she’d take her granddaughter and beat a trail out of there!

Poorly written and illustrated, heavy on trite metaphor and New Age jargon, and full of incorrect cultural markers, Abuelita’s Heart is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/6/13)

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