Elegy on the Death of César Chávez

author: Rudolfo A. Anaya
illustrator: Gaspar Enriquez
Cinco Puntos Press, 2000
grades 5-up 
Mexican American

And we have wept for him until our eyes are dry…

Here, brilliant novelist and seasoned Chicano activist Rudolfo Anaya pens for middle readers (and everyone else) an impassioned poem about grief, about mourning, about history and the greatness of a humble man of la gente—and ultimately, about hope for the future.

With a nod to Christianity, Shakespeare, Shelley and Whitman—and spot-on use of meter and repetition, combined with natural code-switching throughout the poem (“Across the land we heard las campanas doblando/ Ha muerto César; Ha muerto César”)—Anaya teams with Chicano artist Gaspar Enriquez to bring us a work of unparalleled clarity and beauty, a poem of honoring and love for a person whose untimely passing was a blow to the Raza community and to the world.

As an elegy for a humble leader, la gente’s hero, it moves from grief (“this earth he loves so well is dry and mourning”), to hope (“his disciples know he is not dead/ for in the dawn we see the morning star/ el lucero de Dios”), and finally, to a continuation of the struggle against oppression (“throughout Aztlán we call the young to gather: Rise, mi gente, rise”).

That Anaya’s poem and Enriquez’s artwork “lack subtlety” (as one reviewer wrote) is an understatement: there is no pretense here, no couching of either emotion or motive. This is an elegy, to be sure; it’s also a cry for action and unity, to rise against injustice and oppression.

Enriquez’s airbrushed mixed-media collage artwork, presented as a series of old snapshots, is built from existing photos, some from the United Farm Worker archives. As such, his art both communicates a feeling of familia y comunidad and complements Anaya’s poetry. Here, amid farm worker flags, the US flag, and Aztec symbols, is a weeping Virgen de Guadalupe (“you starved your body so we might know your spirit”). Here is a handcuffed farm worker, tendrils from a cluster of grapes framing his hands and the cop’s gun (“a scourge on the oppressors of the poor”). Here are agricultural workers, bent over in the backbreaking labor of harvesting onions (“this man who was a guide across fields of toil”). Here are farm worker children—superimposed over an image of a crop duster and a newspaper headline—whose lives are threatened by cancer-causing pesticides (“children uneducated in a land grown fat with greed”). Here are a group of cholos, the young people with whom Enriquez works, contemplating unity (“rise not against each other, but for each other”).

Helpful additions, especially for classroom and school libraries, include a chronology at the end of the book, which is made into a beautiful poster on the inside of the dust jacket, and a heartfelt note from Anaya about César’s life and work. At the end, Anaya implores young people:

Build the house of justice, the poem says in the end. Each one of us has a role in building that house. Each one of us must make a commitment to build a better society. Yes, we must organize. We must work together. We must fight against oppression. In this way we honor César and all the good men and women who have struggled to better our lives.

In a classroom or school library, Elegy can provide a multiplicity of thoughtful exercises. Pairing Elegy with Carmen Bernier-Grand’s excellent César: Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! can elicit discussion of contrasts and similarities in the ways that poetry can be used to describe oppression and call for struggle, and students can try out different forms of poetic writing to express their feelings about family and community. Contrasting the art in Elegy with Yuyi Morales’ art in Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez and Ilan Stavans’ Cesar Chavez: A Photographic Essay can support discussion and art activities around the topic of symbolism and realism in art. Both Spanish speakers and Spanish language learners can look at the power of code-switching and idiomatic Spanish in poetry and try this technique in writing about their own lives. As well, non-Spanish speakers can use Elegy to examine the use of metaphor in poetry and discuss what kinds of writing resonates with them. And finally, all students can be asked to think deeply and describe their personal commitments (in writing or art or both) to “build the house of justice.”

Bravo, Rudolfo and Gaspar and Cinco Puntos Press! Elegy on the Death of César Chávez is an amazing work that’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin and María Cárdenas
(published 6/30/14)

César Chávez: A Photographic Essay

author: Ilan Stavan 
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010
grades 5-up 
Mexican American

“We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live,” César Chávez once said. “We shall endure.”

In the evocative cover photo, César and an elder agricultural worker embrace each other. As both look directly into the camera, the elder’s right arm rests on César’s right shoulder, while César’s right hand supports the elder. Reflected in the elder’s eyeglasses are the images of agricultural workers and supporters holding signs and banners of protest. In this excellent photographic essay, carefully selected black-and-white archival photos combine with honest and accessible text to present for middle readers the story of the life and struggles of a courageous person—and the people who struggled with him.

In his introduction, Stavans is clear and to the point: “Chavez needs to be re-introduced to the young,” he writes, “as a model in the larger fight against poverty and corporate abuse. It is crucial to reinstate him to the rightful place he deserves in United States history: as both a voice for and a champion of the oppressed.” Although the tactics of non-violent resistance of such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., became César’s trademark, his heroes also included Emiliano Zapata and other Mexican revolutionaries. Indeed, César was an agricultural worker, and a local, national, and international leader as well.

At the same time, he is not an icon and was far from a superhero. Rather, César was a humble person, a common man of la gente who, together with activists Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and other organizers—and with thousands of agricultural workers and supporters—accomplished the all but impossible: they garnered recognition of, and won human and civil rights for, some of the most impoverished and exploited workers in this country.

Most of the black-and-white photos here are from the Farm Workers Archive, many taken by agricultural workers themselves, rather than by professional photographers. These compelling photos have an intimate look that’s reminiscent of a family album.

Some of the photos are, indeed, family snapshots. Here is six-year-old Cesario with his sister on the family farm near Yuma, Arizona. Here is César’s eighth-grade graduation photo, a snapshot of the 17-year-old in the Navy, and César and Helen with six of their own children.

But it’s the agricultural workers and their struggle that are at the heart of this photographic essay. Here is César as a young organizer speaking at a small meeting in what appears to be a classroom in the early 1960s, and at a much larger open-air rally in the 1970s. Here are agricultural workers engaging in the backbreaking labor of gathering melons, harvesting onions, and thinning rows of lettuce. Here is a 1950s photo of workers using the crippling short-handled hoes, which became a symbol of their particular exploitation. And here is a family of striking farm worker parents and children picketing the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Especially moving are the photos of César breaking his 25-day fast in 1968, during a mass attended by some 8,000 farm workers; and of his 1993 funeral procession in Delano, in which some 40,000 mourners marched.

And although the book is essentially about César Chávez, Stavans would have been remiss had he not included Dolores Huerta. Indeed, there are pages of photos and text here about Dolores, an organizer in her own right, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, who led the huge grape boycott and negotiated contracts with the large growers, who campaigned for the 1973 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and who survived a vicious beating at the hands of the San Francisco police in 1988.

Stavans, who himself emigrated from Mexico, organized the photos semi-chronologically, with the sequence broken whenever necessary to provide visual consistency. The evocative black-and-white photos he chose lend themselves to discussion, not only about the movement, but also about the hard work of the people in the fields—combined, they give a sense of familia, of comunidad, something not often seen in photographic essays. 

With an all-inclusive chronology at the end, César Chávez: A Photographic Essay is a must-read for all middle schoolers—not “just” Mexican American students—and an excellent introduction to what it is to be involved in social activism. Highly recommended.

—María Cárdenas and Beverly Slapin
(published 6/28/14)

Note: For further research, students can be directed to the United Farm Workers website (http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/07.html), which contains a wealth of information, including history, key campaigns, victories, photos and worker voices.

Mr. Sugar Came to Town / La visita del Sr. Azúcar

author: Harriet Rohmer
author: Cruz Gomez
translator: Rosalma Zubizarreta
illustrator: Enrique Chagoya
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1989
Mexican American

About 25 years ago, I taught afterschool classes for migrant children through the Santa Clara County Office of Education. During some of these classes, migrant college students visited and performed puppet plays about the importance of proper nutrition and the dangers of smoking. My children loved the puppet plays, especially because young people who could have been their older sisters and brothers performed the plays. The puppets were kind of magical for the young children, who could see that the puppets were on someone’s hands, yet they were able to suspend disbelief and pay attention to the message. These puppet plays came to mind as I read Mr. Sugar Came to Town.

Mr. Sugar Came to Town is adapted from a puppet play by Cruz Gomez, Bárbara García, Jesus Gaytan and Jeff Steinhardt and produced by the Food and Nutrition Program of the Watsonville, California Rural Health Clinic as part of its outreach program to agricultural workers and their families.

In the book, a character named “Mr. Sugar” arrives in town and quickly gets a young brother and sister addicted to junk food. They get sugar highs and lows, put on a huge amount of weight, and get in trouble in school. Grandma saves the day by pulling off Mr. Sugar’s mask and revealing the ugliness of Mr. Sugar and his junk food. Mr. Sugar disappears “in a cloud of sugar smoke” and the family celebrates: “They ate rice and beans, chiles and meat, fruits and vegetables from the garden.” And Mr. Sugar goes on to try to addict innocent little kids elsewhere.

Since they were performed in the migrant camps, these puppet plays were for whole families to enjoy together. The evil Mr. Sugar, probably cackling as he distributes his addictive substances to the unsuspecting little kids; the children stuffing their faces and blowing up like balloons; grandma’s confronting Mr. Sugar, struggling with him and pulling off his mask to reveal his ugly face—the shows were fun and there were nutrition lessons to supplement them. But reduced to a children’s book, it’s all just blah.

While the intention here is to teach young children about the dangers of eating too much sugar, it’s didactic and exaggerated and doesn’t give the message of moderation or balanced eating.

The problem with food and obesity in this country—and worldwide—is that agribusiness corporations widely advertise junk food, and aim these commercials specifically at young children. And poverty is not a small issue, either: When I was teaching preschool, I visited a parent who told me that she gave her children cookies and milk in the morning because that’s all she was able to afford.

The Spanish, which is not incorrect but is an almost exact literal translation, is blah as well. It doesn’t hold its own as a story; rather, it replicates the humdrum English version. Chagoya’s illustrations, rendered in multicolored pencil and pastel, complement the story as well.

If Mr. Sugar Came to Town / La visita del Sr. Azúcar were accompanied by a puppet show and some curriculum about nutrition education, maybe there would be some value in it. But it’s not and, as such, I cannot recommend it.

—María Cárdenas
(published 6/27/14)

Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book

author: Yuyi Morales 
illustrator: Yuyi Morales
Chronicle Books, 2003, 

With his sugar-skull face and Día-de-los-Muertos outfit consisting of a bowler hat, wristwatch, and braces to hold his teeth in, Señor Calavera is polite yet insistent. It’s time, he says, for Grandma Beetle to come along with him. Pues, Señor Calavera will soon to find out that Grandma Beetle has other plans—she’s staying around for a while, and Mr. Death will just have to wait—“just a minute.”    

From the first double-page spread—in which a grinning Señor Calavera tips his hat to the left and Grandma Beetle, with a bemused expression on her face, nods to the right—young readers, especially Mexican and Mexican American children, will guess that something hilarious is about to happen. The scene is set: Señor Calavera’s not hiding who he is, and Grandma Beetle has no intention of going with him. The only one who seems frightened is a little black-and-white kitten, who runs away—or hides, or tries to appear large—on every spread.

And Señor Calavera, impatiently checking his watch, waits. He waits “just a minute,” while Grandma sweeps ONE (UNO) house, “just a minute,” while she boils TWO (DOS) pots of tea, “just a minute,” while she prepares THREE (TRES) stacks of tortillas, “just a minute,” while she slices FOUR (CUATRO) fruits, “just a minute,” while she melts FIVE (CINCO) cheeses, “just a minute,” while she cooks SIX (SEIS) pots of food, “just a minute,” while she fills SEVEN (SIETE) piñatas with candy, “just a minute,” while she arranges EIGHT (OCHO) platters of food on the table, and “just a minute,” while her NINE (NUEVE) beautiful grandchildren come through the door to celebrate her birthday. And when everyone is seated, Grandma pulls up a chair for—¿puedes adivinar quién?—guest number TEN (DIEZ), a very happy Señor Calavera himself, whose expression says he can’t believe he’s actually been welcomed to join the festivities.

Here, prestigious award-winner Yuyi Morales renders her beautiful, lively artwork in acrylics and mixed media on paper. In rich, warm colors and bold geometric shapes that bring to mind the bright Mexican murals, here is a working kitchen with chile peppers strung together, well-used ollas on the stove, a humongous cast-iron pot with stew bubbling over, baskets of corn and an old corn-grinder, hand-painted wooden chairs, and gorgeous piñatas, hanging from the ceiling.

And here is Grandma Beetle. She’s a strong, dark, round-cheeked, zaftig Indian woman with sparkles in her gray hair and in her eyes as well. She’s single-handedly enjoying her work: grinding corn, wielding a machete to slice a watermelon, filling piñatas, carrying the huge ollas to the table. And all the time, she’s laughing, laughing, laughing, and sometimes sneaking winks to her child audience. Her nine grandchildren—ethnically mixed, some with darker complexions and dark, straight hair; some with lighter complexions and curly hair; and two with red hair—are reflective of a large, loving Mexican family. And the expressions on Señor Calavera’s face (um, skull)—as he grows more and more impatient—are priceless. All of the artwork is warm and lovely, especially that of the grandchildren, surrounding Grandma with hugs as Señor Calavera makes his exit.

Just a Minute, which complements the celebrations of el Día de los Muertos—is way more than “just” a well-executed counting book—it’s a treasure that will charm readers, young and old alike, and is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/16/14)

Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez / Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez

author: Monica Brown
translator: Carolina Valencia
illustrator: Joe Cepeda
HarperCollins, 2010
grades 2-4
Mexican American

To the best of my knowledge, Side by Side/ Lado a Lado is the only bilingual picture book about the decades-long collaboration between César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, leaders of a labor struggle that organized thousands of the most impoverished workers in the US into an unstoppable force. Indeed, in the 1960s, “¡Sí, se puede!” and “¡Viva la causa!” were battle cries for human rights and social justice.

The story begins with double-page spreads showing Dolores’s story on the left and César’s on the right-hand side. Here, young readers will see how their childhoods differed: Dolores is a talker while César is a listener; Dolores is an activist while César is an agricultural worker; Dolores’s family takes care of others while César’s family’s life is difficult. As adults, Dolores teaches migrant farm worker children while César labors in the fields. When the two meet years later, their life experiences become their organizational and philosophical strengths as they join forces to fight for justice in the fields.

A helpful author’s note, geared to parents, teachers, and older readers as well, provides further historical information—such as the immigration act of 1986, and victories including collective bargaining, health benefits, pensions, and farmworker clinics—to supplement the picture book format.

Cepeda’s mixed-media paintings—using oils, acrylics and collage on a bright palette of blues, oranges, yellows, greens and browns—are expressive and dramatic. Here are agricultural workers trying to escape the poisonous fumes of a plane spewing pesticides. Here are Dolores and César together, standing on a flatbed truck, speaking to a few somewhat-interested listeners. Here is César during his 26-day hunger strike, weakly looking out the window, while Dolores rallies the workers. And here is César’s funeral, with thousands of farmworkers and supporters honoring him.

Unfortunately, weaving Dolores’ and César’s stories together in this parallel style sometimes results in inconsistency and oversimplification. For instance, “Dolores saw that Cesar had great faith…Cesar saw that Dolores had great courage.” In fact, both César and Dolores had great faith and great courage. Another problem is that a major struggle—perhaps one of the most famous United Farm Worker struggles—is described here inaccurately. On a spread depicting an organizing meeting, the text reads:

Cesar and Dolores asked people to stop buying grapes from California because the poisons the growers used there were making the workers sick. People listened, and the grapes rotted on the vines. The farmworkers won! They got a safer place to work, and the grapes became safer for people to eat.

Here, the Delano strike, boycott, and secondary strike against California growers of table grapes—a massive struggle that lasted for five years—is collapsed into what appears to be one meeting. On the following spread, which depicts the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, the text says that the purpose of the march was “to demand that workers get paid enough to live on.” But this famous march, in fact, occurred during the grape boycott, not after it was over, and it encompassed many demands, not just one.

Nevertheless, Side by Side is one of the few picture books that demonstrate that César Chávez did not work alone and that Dolores Huerta was more than a political sidekick. Along with Carmen T. Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, se puede! / Yes, We can!, Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, and Sarah Warren’s Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, Side by Side / Lado a Lado is a valuable addition to a collection of picture books that bring the courageous struggles of migrant agricultural workers to an early elementary audience. Recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 6/10/14)