Children of Guatemala // The Children of the Sierra Madre // Children of Yucatán // The Grandchildren of the Incas

author: Jules Hermes
photographer: Jules Hermes
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 1997
grades 2-4 

Children of Guatemala is an interestingly uneven book. It is not blatantly patronizing or ignorant; the author is really working at being an observer, even though he constantly shows his frame of reference—downtown Minneapolis. For example, he says that “[t]he market offers a break from everyday work and gives friends a chance to catch up on the latest news.” Jules! No, wait! The market is the goal! The object of the week's labors! The place to sell what you produce, to trade for essentials, to buy what you need to feed your family! Then, it is a place to hear the news, to catch up on important events, and, always, a place to socialize. It's not the mall!

On the other hand, Hermes is not afraid to discuss political situations, from the horrible 1990 massacre by the government in Santiago Atitlán, to the 80,000 Maya who have been brutally murdered by their own government since 1978, the longest “civil war” ever. He also talks about the lack of government support for public education and shows teachers and students picketing for quality education.

Hermes ought to have mentioned Rigoberta Menchú, the Mayan hero who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her unflagging quest to educate the world about Guatemala’s genocide against its indigenous peoples. That would be the logical extension for study from this beautifully photographed book. Marginally recommended.

author: Frank Staub
photographer: Frank Staub
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 1996
grades 3-5

In Children of the Sierra Madre, Staub highlights the U.S. influence on Latin America, using as an example the Tarahumara who live in the Sierra Madre region of Mexico near Chihuahua. He describes a strong class system in this region, ruled by the “white” Mexicans with the “Mestizos” doing all the work, even though many of his photos show “white” Mexicans and Mestizos doing just about same thing. I don't know, as a Chicana, I think we’re all pretty much a mixture of whoever landed on our shores or stormed up our creeks.

Staub obscures the issues of the theft of Tarahumara land and impoverishment of the people by presenting fact as opinion: “[M]any Tarahumara want to live apart from Mexicans, whom they think of as intruders in their land.” He describes the Tarahumara, rather than as the freedom fighters they have always been, regarded by most Mexicans with awe because of their steadfast opposition to colonialism, as merely “wanting to stick to the old ways.”

Staub’s discussion of Tarahumara religion is useful as a model of why one ought not to interpret a culture one doesn’t understand. He says, “Many Tarahumara have combined Catholicism with their traditional religious beliefs. They believe the Christian god is the same as their god, called Onoruame (Great Father) or Repa Beteame (He Who Lives Above).” Way wrong. Part of the Tarahumara’s self-imposed isolation is to worship the gods they choose. The Catholic Church reluctantly had to let the Mestizos as well as the Indigenous population maintain their own gods, as long as they took the form of the Catholic ones. For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe, with her dark skin and close ties with the people, is not the Virgin Mary; she is the people’s representation of Tonatzín, the goddess of home and hearth, and is only one of the aspects of Cuatlique, the Mother of the Gods. The church let that one slip by because forcing Guadalupe out would have caused mass revolt; it was easier to “say” she was the Virgin Mary. Every church in Mexico has at least one statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, usually where Jesus should be; in small churches there often is no statue of Jesus at all. This book is terrible. Not recommended.

author: Frank Staub
photographer: Frank Staub
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 1996
grades 3-5 

Children of Yucatán is a travel guide rather than a children’s book, highlighting the exotic in dress, food, marketplaces, and of course, “ruins.” To the Maya, these “ruins” are temples, holy places that, despite the best efforts of the conquistadores and the Catholic Church, have endured.

Deeply embedded throughout the text is an attitude of paternalistic superiority and colonialist arrogance. Here is but one example out of many insulting passages:

One reason the people of Yucatán treat their ancestors with such respect is that they have provided their grandchildren with an important source of income. People come from all over the world to see the wonderful stone structures the ancient Maya left behind. And when visitors come, they spend money on food, hotels, and souvenirs.

This is one of the worst racist, elitist, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes toward another culture I have seen in my 48 years of teaching. Not recommended.

author: Matti A. Pitkanen
photographer: Matti A. Pitkanen
Carolrhoda Picture Books / Lerner Publishing, 1991
grades 2-4 
Inca (Quechua, Aymara)

The photographs in The Grandchildren of the Incas are stunning; they are of people being themselves, looking into the camera more with pride than with fear. They are a gritty look at how the Quechua and Aymara have been able to survive Spanish conquest. Many continue traditional ways, living in the mountains, herding sheep, llamas and alpacas, and of course, farming the rugged slopes of the Andes Mountains.

The text is, for the most part, clear and accurate, especially about farming and herding. I found it curious, though, that the author tells us that almost every man, woman, and child wears a hat, but doesn’t mention the extreme cold and the need to protect the head from hypothermia, even though everyone wears sandals. He also mentions people leaving their mountain villages to work as servants in the cities to “make more opportunity for” themselves, but does not say that they are trying to help their families survive.

What bothers me most is the glossing over of the Spanish conquest. When Pitkanen says that “[n]ow the treasures are gone and so are many of the Inca's buildings,” the brutal manner in which the Inca Empire was destroyed and the people forced into slavery, with the survivors thrust into abject poverty, comes off as trivial. To his credit, the author mentions that the Inca fought back and that, “[d]uring the last half of the 20th century, the Quechua have begun to work together to make some changes. They have regained some of the land that was taken from them, and they are starting to demand that the people in government pay attention to their needs.”

Overall, I would use the book, mainly for its realistic photos: an unromantic look at a people struggling for survival. But I would direct students to look up Tupac Amaru and read about indigenous resistance movements. They might learn a lot about what was done in the name of Christianity and the people who are still fighting for their lives. Marginally recommended.

—Judy Zalazar Drummond
(published 4/11/13)

These reviews, in a slightly different form, first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

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