Movie in My Pillow / Una película en mi almohada

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
translator: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Elizabeth Gómez
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2001
grades 2-up
Pipíl, Salvadoran, Salvadoran American

During the bloody Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992) between the military government representing the 12-family oligarchy of wealthy landowners, and leftist forces representing mostly impoverished peasants, US-supported government death squads terrorized, tortured, murdered and disappeared thousands of civilians, especially targeting students, intellectuals, and Indian people in the rural areas. By the time the UN-brokered peace agreement was signed, it’s estimated that more than 75,000 people had been killed and more than half a million refugees had fled to the US.

In this lovely bilingual collection of autobiographical poems, young Jorge tells the story of how he and his father, fleeing from the war, arrive in San Francisco. Eventually, the rest of the family will join them, but for now, father and son, leaving in the middle of the night—and without saying goodbye to anyone—must travel alone.

In an introductory note, Argueta writes about the beauty of his home country and the war that forced his family to leave. “These poems are my memories, my dreams,” he writes, “the movies in my pillow.” This brief history of his “transplantation” reminds me of the stories my grandmother told me about having to leave Mexico with her brother packed into a trunk so he would not be taken to become a soldier. Although my grandmother always longed for the homeland of her childhood, still she embraced this country for the safety it provided. Like my grandmother was, young Jorge is also resilient. While holding tight to the memories of his homeland, he is able to put down roots in San Francisco with its “sopa de lenguas en el viento / soup of languages in the wind.”

When his uncle sends him an audiotape of his grandma, talking and singing to him in Nahuatl and Spanish, we know that Jorge, wherever he is, will always remain connected to his culture and community:

Jorge, Jorge, maybe
you will never come back.
Remember when you sat
next to me on the river bank?
Jorge, Jorge, don’t forget
that in Nahuatl “tetl”
means “stone” and “niyollotl”
means “my heart.”

 Argueta’s writing—both in Spanish and English—are pure poetry, with brilliant metaphors that will resonate with young children. On one page, for instance, he is a yo-yo, and his poem is a long unpunctuated sentence: 

I have a yo-yo that makes me crazy but I can’t stop playing yo-yo in the mornings yo-yo in the middle of the day yo-yo in the afternoon yo-yo at night yo-yo yo-yo yo-yo I dream yo-yo I walk yo-yo I eat yo-yo I am a yo-yo.

Gómez’s brightly colored acrylics beautifully illustrate Argueta’s beautiful poems. She has a lot to work with: Here is Jorge, avoiding cobras on the sidewalk; riding a dragon dancing the cumbia; with his family flying like parakeets between San Francisco and El Salvador; and turning into a yo-yo. One of my favorites is the image of Jorge’s family members, embracing each other in a huge nest—“abrazando nos sentimos como un gran nido con todos los pájaros adentro.”

The Spanish is wonderful, depicting Jorge’s struggle and emotions of his abrupt immigration to San Francisco; the translation was most likely accomplished from Spanish to English. I especially like the way the Spanish and English versions alternate on each spread, with both languages presented as equal in importance.

In A Movie in My Pillow / Una película en mi almohada, Argueta gives young readers insight into the one of the most difficult experiences a child can have—being uprooted from your homeland and transplanted far away to a very different place. For young Jorge, landing in “la misión” provides him with a world of adventures and enough cultural connections to El Salvador to make his transition a little less traumatic than if he had landed somewhere else. This book is a welcome addition to a collection of stories about the immigrant experience and is highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/24/14)

Juanito Counts to Ten/ Johnny cuenta hasta diez

author: Lee Merrill Byrd
illustrator: Francisco Delgado
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010
Mestizo, Mexican American

It’s so sweet to count kisses! Narrated by Juanito’s grandma, the simple little story is about who receives Juanito’s delicious kisses. Beginning with one little kiss for his big sister, two big kisses for his daddy, three wet ones for his momma, and, as he counts to nine, Abuelita’s worrying that he might have run out of kisses. But—of course not—he has ten delicious ones for her!

Who would think of a counting book that is so loving, so family-oriented, so delightful? Clearly, Juanito Counts to Ten is not just about counting. And, while “traditional” counting books usually count just the objects, this one actually describes each kiss. With appropriate idiomatic Spanish, Juanito Counts to Ten is language expansion at its best.

Delgado’s artwork, in rich, saturated oils, complements the loving, enthusiastic text and carries the emotions. Big sister is grossed out, Beatriz’s dog is jealous—and the cat’s not especially loving it, either. Here, he portrays Juanito’s family, friends and everyone else he kisses (but not girls outside of the family, whom he wants to but doesn’t) as real Mestizo people and community. And one of the messages—an important one—is that it’s totally OK for Latino boys to kiss their close friends and relatives. Highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/16/14)

New Sun / Un Nuevo Sol

authors: Max Benavidez and Katherine Del Monte
illustrator: José Ramírez
Latino Literacy Press, 2002
grades unknown

 A New Sun / Un Nuevo Sol appears to have been written for hablantes who are learning English. Here, the narrator, newly arrived from Mexico, is struggling with the differences between the familiar culture he left and the strange new culture he encounters. Ultimately, he finds that people everywhere want “to have hope and make their dreams a reality.” This sparse prose-poem (I came with a dream, / Yo vine con un sueño, / with so many hopes. / con tantas esperanzas. / I was looking for a new life. / Buscaba una nueva vida.) has no story—it’s just phrases on a page with no real connection to the immigrant experience.

The melting-pot ending—(Yet, no matter how different we are / Sin embargo, no importa cuán diferentes somos / we have the same hopes. / tenemos la misma esperanza. / We share the same dream of a better tomorrow. / Compartimos el mismo sueño de un major futuro.)—is the most annoying part, implying that, while we all have some differences, we are really all the same. The reality, of course, is that, while we all may dream of a better tomorrow, our dreams aren’t the same. In truth, some of us dream about staying alive, about being where the bombs aren’t falling. Some of us dream about having enough food to eat, about drinking clean water. Some of us dream about going home, about reuniting with our families.

Ramírez’s art, in highly saturated oils on a dark, morose palette, does not reflect what little message of hope there may be. The people’s faces are distorted and unhappy-looking and most of them appear to be wearing masks. On close inspection, one might find La Virgen de la Guadalupe and a few calaveras.

What’s apparently being taught here is basic translation, grammatical sentence structure and working with antonyms. The text is flat; here’s no passion or even emotion. There is just not enough content to be meaningful—to anyone. A New Sun / Un Nuevo Sol is not recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/16/14)

Gift from Papá Diego / Un regalo de Papá Diego

author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz
illustrator: Geronimo García
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010
grades 3-up
Mexican, Mexican American

Dieguito is missing his Papá Diego a lot. He wants to see his grandfather and he doesn’t understand the concept of far away—“if I could see my Papá Diego every day, …then every day would be as perfect as a sky full of summer clouds.” Dieguito’s father tells him that Mexico is far away, that it’s Papá Diego’s home and that he wouldn’t be happy in El Paso.

When, for his birthday, Dieguito receives the Superman suit he had wanted, he finds that he is unable to fly to see his Papá Diego. Upset, he refuses dinner, including champurado, which, he is told, helps him speak Spanish and feel warm inside. When he finally comes down—to his surprise and joy—Papá Diego has arrived!

García’s molded clay art, in muted, natural colors, is gorgeous; with brightly colored backgrounds that enhance, rather than obfuscate, the clay figures. Here is Dieguito, excitedly watching his mother in the kitchen, fixing chiles relleños. Here is Dieguito’s sister, taunting him. Here is Dieguito’s father, telling Dieguito the story of the day he was born.

The Spanish text, which I read first, is idiomatic and wonderful. For example, Papá Diego tells Dieguito (in English), “Tonight Chihuahua is not so far, and I do not feel so old, and it was very easy to cross the border. The border is nothing for people who love.” And in Spanish, “Esta noche Chihuahua no está tan lejos y no me siento tan viejo y no fué tan difícil cruzar la frontera. Una frontera no es nada para los que se aman.”

In this story, Mexico is about where Papá Diego’s home is, but El Paso is Dieguito’s immediate family’s home as well.

When we think of borders, we generally think of physical lines, but the reality is that they are often political and economic borders that divide families. In reality, many, many children are taken from their parents and parents are taken from their children. Children—born here or there—feel the loss of their relatives on the other side, and fear the breakup of their families.

We don’t know why part of Dieguito’s family members came to the US and some stayed in Mexico; it seems to have been an economic decision. We also don’t know whether or not the family has documents. Nevertheless, this story lends itself to a rich discussion of the migrant and immigrant experiences of separated families, and can be supplemented by other stories, such as Jorje Argueta’s beautiful Alfredito Flies Home. A Gift from Papá Diego / Un regalo de Papá Diego is highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/16/14)

Harvest Birds / los pájaros de la cosecha

author: Blanca López de Mariscal
illustrator: Enrique Flores
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1995
grades 2-up

Allegedly based on a folktale from Oaxaca, The Harvest Birds / los pájaros de la cosecha tells the story of a young man named Juan. We don’t know his last name. People call him “Juan Zanate” (not in quotes in the story) because he has a special relationship with zanates (grackles), who “consider him their friend.” He daydreams a lot about having his own land. He also works for the town shopkeepers, yet they mock him because he doesn’t “know anything about making things grow.” So the young man makes a sharecropping deal with an elderly landowner, and a shopkeeper provides him with leftover miscellaneous seeds:

“Juan, sweep up the corn, the beans and the squash seeds from my floor and take them to my pigs. Then, if you wish, you can take some seeds for yourself.”

One of the birds, whom Juan calls “Grajo,” is Juan’s special friend: “There was one bird in particular who cared very much for Juan and wanted him to find his way in life.” The birds, in unison, advise Juan to “plant weeds on the borders” of the land, but Juan’s planting corn, beans and squash together appears to be an accident.

OK, let’s stop here. In Indigenous traditions, wisdom can come to someone in many forms. Sometimes an elder provides wisdom. Sometimes an animal provides wisdom. Sometimes dreams provide wisdom. But here, the birds themselves provide agency for the poor guy by actually telling him what to do. This is not the way traditional oral stories go. It just isn’t.

And, the story of the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—is told in many ways, to provide actual ecological and scientific knowledge, which this story, of course, doesn’t. Rather, this heavy-handed moral from Juan:

“The zanates taught me that all plants are like brothers and sisters… If you separate them, they become sad and won’t grow. But if you respect them and leave them together, they will grow happily and be content.”

Actually, all plants do not grow well together; some plants overwhelm others. People need to know which plants grow successfully together and why. In oral stories, seeds would not be planted together so that the plants could be happy—“happiness” is not a characteristic given to plants.  

The Spanish pretty much follows the English, but it’s not as poorly written. For example, unlike the English, “Old people know many things because they’ve lived longer,” the Spanish, “Los viejos, porque han vivido más, saben mucho” (“Old people, because they’ve lived more, know much”) reads like a traditional dicho.

The art, probably rendered in watercolor and ink on a brightly colored palette, is unappealing. The characters’ faces are often expressionless and inconsistent—sometimes Juan appears to be a young man and sometimes he appears much older.

Had it been written in the form of an oral story, with lessons hinted at but unstated, The Harvest Birds would have been richer and more exciting.  As it stands, it’s didactic and boring and not recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/16/14)

César Chávez: the Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia

author:  Richard Griswold del Castillo
translator: José Juan Colín
illustrator: Anthony Accardo
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2008
grades 3-up
Mexican American

It was 1969, and I remember marching with César Chávez in Delano and in front of the Berkeley Safeway. Everyone was shouting, “¡Huelga! Don’t buy poison grapes!” César was a small man, and sometimes you could hardly hear him. Yet he spoke with such great passion and presence. His power came from within and inspired us and ignited our spirits. Even though grapes were one of my favorite fruits, I did not eat them for years. We were there to support César and the agricultural workers and our movement was exciting and purposeful. For Chicana/o students like me, it was more than the struggle for one group of workers—it was also our struggle to grow our identities and cultural connections.

In simple words and almost-photographic watercolor illustrations, this large, bilingual picture-book biography introduces young readers to the humble migrant farm worker who led the labor struggle that became known as the “fight in the fields”—to secure better pay and working conditions for Raza and other agricultural workers. The design is striking—on each double page spread, the large well-spaced text appears on the left, with full-page paintings on the right. The English and Spanish texts are separated—and yet connected—by a repeating banner of black UFW eagles on a red background.

When I look at Accardo’s boldly colored illustrations, they give me chills. They remind me of those exciting days and of the passion, struggles and triumphs of my people. Here is his mother comforting young César, after he’s learned the harsh lessons of discrimination at school. Here is an older Chávez, studying a book about Gandhi, and leading people on a march, and speaking at a rally, and breaking a fast by accepting a small piece of bread from Robert Kennedy. And here is a depiction of Chávez’s funeral. At the center is a plain pine coffin carried by farm workers. In front is a little girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders. And all around are people and flags—of La Vírgen de Guadalupe, and the UFW eagles, and the American flag. What is especially moving is that, in those paintings where Chávez is leading a march or speaking with farm workers, he is indeed one of them, not separated in any way. This is exactly what our students need to understand—Chávez’s strong connection to the people.

Unfortunately, the narrative (along with the literal Spanish translation) is a historical walk-through; it’s flat and passionless. The sentences are short and choppy, more a recitation of facts than a story. 

For example, here is the first paragraph:

César Chávez was a very important Mexican American leader in the United States. He was a man who improved the lives of poor farm workers. He fought to help them get better wages and working conditions. He helped them gain more respect and end discrimination against them. César Chávez organized the United Farm Workers Union to do this. He gave the poor hope that life could be better.
Here, in Griswold del Castillo’s presentation of César Chávez as a larger-than-life leader who “improved” the lives of farm workers and “gave them hope,” the agricultural workers themselves have no agency—no capacity to make their own choices. In reality, César Chávez was a leader of the people. As César organized and encouraged the poorest workers in the country, they took their own power and were able to make significant changes in their lives and the lives of their families.

And in some instances in the narrative—“Working and moving from place to place, Cesar learned how poor the farm workers were”—Griswold del Castillo makes it appear that Chávez is outside looking in rather than acknowledging the first hand experience of his own family as migrant agricultural workers. As it is, the narrative loses the opportunity to tell a rich story.

Nevertheless, César Chávez: The Struggle for Justice / La lucha por la justicia can be used alongside Carmen Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can! and Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez and is recommended.

—María Cárdenas
(published 1/9/14)