White Flower: A Maya Princess

author: Victor Montejo
translator: Chloe Catan
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2005
grades 4-6 

Montejo’s grandmother, who was Jakaltek Maya, told him this Mayan version of the Spanish folktale, Blanca Flor. In this story, which is set in the classic Maya civilization, the father is W’itz Ak’al, the shape-shifting Lord of the Mountains and the Valleys, who rides huge deer and eats the spirits of those who had bargained their hearts for extreme wealth. W’itz Ak’al’s daughter, Saj Haq’b’al (White Flower)—rather than being a wimpy, self-sacrificing “Snow White”—also commands the forces of nature. One day, an impoverished young prince, Witol Balam—who has lost his family, his wealth, and even his memory—wanders into the area, searching for work and shelter. He encounters a kingdom and falls in love with Saj Haq’b’al and, despite all the fierce power that confronts him, takes on a series of impossible tasks in order to marry the strong young woman who makes the impossible possible while ameliorating her father’s wrath.

Yockteng’s softened watercolor and graphite pencil illustrations reflect both the detailed Maya symbols and patterns in the great city, and the flora and fauna of the lush, endless jungles. Here is Saj Haq’b’al, giving her voice to an ear of corn, transforming herself into a thorn hedge, and turning into a deep blue lake. Here is the pursuing queen, riding into an endless magical cornfield, futilely searching for the one ear she knows to be Saj Haq’b’al. Here is a seven-pointed ribbon becoming a path with seven branches to confound W’itz Ak’al in his pursuit of the bold fugitive couple.

Of course, we always knew the story would end well—the marriage party “lasted many days and the musicians played age-old songs on their marimbas, so that the people of the city could dance and forget all their sorrows.” Don’t let the length of the narrative stop you—White Flower is a well-told and beautifully illustrated story full of magic and magical realism that young readers will love. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/24/14)

Seeds of Struggle, Songs of Hope: Poetry of Emerging Youth y Sus Maestros del Movimiento

editor: raúlrsalinas
editor: Jennifer Shen
El Centro de la Raza, 1997
grades 4-up
Mexican American

It is never too early to expose children to good poetry. This excellent volume, done by the young people and their teachers who participated in El Centro de la Raza’s summer youth leadership conference’s writing workshop in 1997, is a companion to ¡Word Up! Hope for Youth Poetry from El Centro de la Raza (1992). In Spanish, English and Spanglish, the poems and artwork in Seeds of Struggle are an example of what our youngsters are capable of, when they are acknowledged as our most valuable resource.

In their introduction, Hap Bockelie and raúlrsalinas write: “When oppression becomes so unbearable to a people, poetry, among other forms of expression, flows and gushes forth, as part of the human spirit’s rebel scream against injustice.” It is the nurturing of this scream in a safe environment that has produced, for the past three years, pieces such as this group poem:

Hay que poner atención
la historia de nuestra gente
Quieren robar de repente
Don’t you know this is our home
El Centro es nuestro canton
Para seguir la nación
De conquistas y traiciones
We have truth in our canciones
You can’t buy us out with fear
People shed tears for what is here
They gave us their corazones.

Seeds of Struggle is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review 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.

Sculpted Stones / Piedras Labradas

author: Victor Montejo
translator: Victor Perera
Curbstone Press, 1995
grades 7-up 

If our ancestors came to life
they’d surely give us, their descendants
thirteen lashes for being
sleepwalkers and conformists.
They always advised us
to struggle, build and forge ahead
so that no one’s left behind,
and no one’s forgotten by his brothers.
Yet today we Maya
remain hushed up
and have even forgotten the message
that might inspire us to break the silence.
That’s why if our ancestors came back to life
they’d give us thirteen lashes
to cure the amnesia of centuries
which has made us forget our names.

Victor Montejo is a poet, a human rights activist and an anthropologist, studying in depth his own people. After the massacre of his village in 1981, in which Guatemalan soldiers killed his brother, Montejo’s name appeared on a death squad list and he was forced to flee to the US. Since then, his life’s work has been to make known, in a variety of ways, the continuing human rights violations confronting the Mayan peoples.

After Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, after The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables, after a spectacular children’s version of the Mayan sacred book, the Popul Vuh, comes this book of poetry, Sculpted Stones. Here, in Spanish and English, Montejo’s poems express the resilience of the Mayan peoples, expose the Guatemalan army’s attempt to destroy the Indigenous population, and give lie to textbook anthrobabble about “history” and “culture.”

In the first poem, “Interrogation by the Ancestors,” Montejo asks,

Just think:
what can we say
to the ancients
when they return
with thunder and lightning
and ask about the fire
they left with us
in the cone of the great volcano?

And for the poor, betrayed, sad, humiliated, plundered, frightened people, there is this advice (beginning, of course, with an anthropological discourse):

Among the Maya
to cure a fright
you put a fresh-laid egg
in the armpit
of the frightened person
and in that way
the self-worth and health
that the phantom has stolen
will return to the afflicted.

But, how can we cure
the pain and fear
built up over the many centuries
of plunder and negation
of our Mayan identity?

Someone said
the egg is a great idea,
but in our day it’s better
to confront
and do battle
with those causing the fright,
then endure the centuries
warming turkey eggs
in your armpits.

This is really good advice. Sculpted Stones is testament to a people’s tenacious determination to survive in the face of centuries of colonization. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review 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.

Girl from Chimel // Honey Jar // Secret Legacy

In 1992, Indigenous and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s Nobel Peace Prize brought to a world audience the truths of the U.S.-orchestrated and –supported Guatemalan government’s 36-year campaign of genocide against the Maya there—and of one of the longest guerrilla resistance movements in Latin America. After her brother and mother were “disappeared” and her activist father was tortured and burned alive in the assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, Menchú went into exile and took up residence in Mexico, where she taught herself Spanish in order to denounce to the world the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army.

Despite the hardships and poverty her people have endured—and rebelled against—ever since the Spanish conquest, Menchú’s wonderful recounting of her childhood stories in these titles, in close collaboration with Guatemalan author Liano, shows what it is to live with beauty and integrity, with land, culture and community. Domi’s oil paintings, on a jeweled palette of all the colors of the Mayan forests, jungles and mountains, are a luminous symphony of colors and images.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books/ House of Anansi Press, 2003
grades 3-7

As The Girl from Chimel begins, Rigoberta introduces herself and her village:
I am Rigoberta. Chimel is the name of my village when it’s large, and Laj Chimel when it’s small, because sometimes the village is large and sometimes it’s small. During good times, when there’s honey and the corn is so heavy it bends its green stalks, when the yellow, green, purple, white and multicolored orchids bloom, displaying their beauty, then my village is big and it’s called Chimel. During bad times, when the river dries up and ponds can fit into the hollow of my hand, when evil men walk the earth and sadness can hardly be endured, the village becomes small and is called Laj Chimel. Right now, I’m remembering Chimel…
It is in the hearts of the people of Chimel, then and now, that the old stories reside. Traditionally, told stories such as the ones in Menchú’s trilogy teach children how the world works. For young Rigoberta and other Mayan children, this is how they are taught about the history of the land and right behavior; about compassion, courage, and generosity; about asking permission from the nahuales, the spirits who reside in everything; about planting seeds and harvesting fruits; and ultimately, about fighting injustice and struggling for a better world.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2006
grades 3-7 

In The Honey Jar, Menchú imparts some of the cultural knowledge she learned as a child: How Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon created the stars, and Mother Earth and Father Sky, whom they carefully instructed in the creation of sea, land, plants, and animals. How each creature was assigned to be a nahual, a keeper of something. How the elders were given power and wisdom and why they deserve respect. What happens when people violate nature’s laws and don’t apologize and what happens when they do. How monkeys are descended from humans (not the other way around). How the weasel taught people to be grateful for what they are given. How a man and a buzzard exchanged bodies and what they learned from their horrible experience. How the hormigo tree, suffering from nostalgia—the illness borne of longing “to sing and release from its heart all the trills the birds had sung throughout its life”—is given the gift of music.

author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum
author: Dante Liano
translator (Spanish to English): David Unger
illustrator: Domi
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2008
grades 3-7 

In The Secret Legacy, Seven-year-old Ixkem’s grandfather is 100 years old, and he is ready to pass on his legacy and knowledge. Of all the people in the village, Grandfather chooses his youngest granddaughter to be the new caretaker of the cornfields. “But I’m too little,” Ixkem protests. “Neither age nor size has anything to do with it,” her grandfather assures her.

Off they go together, the old man and the little girl, through the forest, to the cornfield, the “best place to scare off parakeets, blackbirds, wild boar, squirrels, turtle doves, the smallest of worms and moths and even a few invisible insects who wanted to eat the corn. Now it would be Ixkem’s job.” Her yelling and thumping reach the nahuales who live at the center of the earth. A committee of b’e’n (as the nahuales are called in K’iche’ language) brings Ixkem down to their underground turf, where she tells them about life on the surface and the amazing stories her grandfather told her.

Among them: How an arrogant, boastful lion learns a lesson in humility. How the futures of young children can be shaped by what is done to their umbilical cords. What makes good people good and bad people bad. How a hummingbird brings happiness into the world. About the miracle of falling in love and the requirement of a lengthy courtship. How happiness comes from a peaceful heart and the love that others know how to give. Why the light in our eyes is a reflection of those who love us.

In exchange for these stories, the b’e’n whisper a secret in Ixkem’s ear for her to take back to her grandfather. Now that he knows that Ixken will hold this secret legacy for the next hundred years and that the Mayan lineage will “live forever in the forests, in the jungles, in the mountains and on the coasts of Guatemala,” the grandfather happily closes his eyes.

When one considers the past and recent history of the Maya, Menchú’s children’s stories become even more poignant, and each story in each book has a significant message for children today. As Ixkem explains to the tiny b’e’n,
There are some bad people with lots of power….They declare war on others, they enslave their fellow man, and they don’t know how to share their wealth. Of course there are good people who fight for peace, set slaves free and give to others. The future of the world depends on these good people.
In The Girl from Chimel, there is a story of Rigoberta’s mother, who as a child fought off a pack of coyotes to rescue her pet pig. It was said that the whole village was awed by her courage.
Our elders said, “This is a good sign. She’ll grow up to be a brave woman who will survive many challenges. She should thank her nahuales and they in turn will give her strength and wisdom and will protect her memory forever. Her sons and daughters and grandchildren will all be courageous.” 
If there’s a word to describe Rigoberta Menchú Tum and her mother and all the Maya who continue to struggle to maintain land, culture and community, that word would be “courageous.”

These three beautiful storybooks are about a happy little girl, secure in her world, with a “heart full of sunlight,” who, as an adult, wants for the world all that she had: “a mountain to protect me, a river to refresh me, birds to sing to me.” Both Rigoberta Menchú and her stories are an international treasure. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in MultiCultural Review. We thank Editor-in-Chief Lyn Miller-Lachmann for permission.

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra

author: Jorge Tetl Argueta
illustrator: Lucia Angela Pérez
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2006
all grades 
Pipíl, Nahua, Salvadoran

In a clear, child’s voice, Argueta’s poems, in Spanish and English with Nahual words dispersed throughout, are intense, honest and moving. They are about gratitude for Mother Earth, for the four directions and for all the gifts of life. They are about the beauty that is all around. They are about healing from the wounds of racism. And they are about knowing who you are forever. Whether he is called Tetl (by his grandmother), or Jorge (by everyone else), this young boy knows who he is and who his relatives are. And he knows what keeps him strong: 

Mother Earth tells me,
“Do not be sad anymore
my Indian boy.
You are as beautiful as the wind.”

Pérez’s vibrant pastel art, on a bright, multicolored palette, complements Argueta’s poems. Each painting invites discussion. Here is Tetl, wearing a t-shirt that reflects the rays of the sun. Here are Tetl and his friends, sitting and standing on the huge stones that we always knew were alive. Here is Tetl, in the company of the gorgeous macaws, who taught humans the Nahuatl language. Here is Tetl, contemplating a ripening ear of corn, “a bearded child/ laughing with all its teeth.” And here is Tetl, protecting himself from racist taunts.

Don’t hesitate to read and show this beautiful book to young children. It is for them, and for all of us. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in MultiCultural Review. We thank Editor-in-Chief Lyn Miller-Lachmann for permission.

500 Años del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures // 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History / 500 Años de la Mujer Chicana

author: Elizabeth (“Betita”) Martinez
SouthWest Organizing Project, 1991
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

 Originally published as 450 Years of Chicano History in Pictures / 450 Años del Pueblo Chicano in 1976 in response to the 1776 Bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution and its lies, this newer edition was published in response to the Quincentennial celebration of Columbus’s arrival and its lies.

The hopeful poem that opens this book sets its tone:

From the past struggles of the people,
this book was born.
To the future struggles of the people,
this book is dedicated.
With all of the Raza 
with poor and working people everywhere
with all who love humanity
and this beautiful planet,
we join in a vision 
of bread and peace 
of a free tomorrow
of arriving at springtime.
The road is yours, people.

Containing hundreds of photos, paintings, drawings, political cartoons, and text in Spanish and English about truths long denied, 500 Años is a huge photoessay, both a rare and valuable collection and a family album, about the Mestizo people in whom Indian blood runs strong, in whose blood runs the cry for freedom. There is much to celebrate, Martinez writes: the survival of the people and the resistance to exploitation, colonization and assimilation; the particular strength of Raza women in the face of discrimination and oppression; the great love, determination and fighting spirit of the elders; and the children who are the future.  The struggle for tierra, paz y libertad is to be celebrated, as Martinez writes, “as all of humanity’s great stories of struggle.” It’s a story still being written.

An excellent teacher-friendly guide, written by Judy Zalazar Drummond, is also available. Both books are highly recommended.

author: Elizabeth (“Betita”) Martinez 
Rutgers University Press, 2008
grades 7-up 
Mexican American

If one thing can be said of Betita Martinez in particular and Chicanas as a group, it’s this: They’re no wimps. And 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History/500 Años de la Mujer Chicana is proof. It’s a family photo album spanning more than 500 years, filled with some 700 photographs, drawings by Rini Templeton, political cartoons, newspaper clippings and short biographies, in Spanish and English, that highlight the histories and struggles of the women who now call themselves Chicana.

This giant compendium of female resistance—a companion to Martinez’s earlier work, 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures—includes many names and photos some will recognize, such as United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, writers Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldúa, visual artist Carmen Lomas Garza, and the bullet-belted, rifle-toting guerrilleras of the Mexican Revolution.

But here are also stories of the Native women who rebelled against colonialism: the Aztec women who “rained down darts and stones” on the invading Spaniards; Toypurina, who led a revolt against slave labor in the San Gabriel Mission; the women who led the 1692 “corn riot,” during which they burned down the viceroy’s palace and the mayor’s office. And stories of the Mexicanas who fought and died in the War of Independence and Mexicanas who came to the conquered northern territories, surviving a hard life, bringing with them the legacy of resistance.

Here are Chicana healers and midwives, migrant workers, cannery workers, laundry workers, garment workers, union activists, anarchists and communists, feminists and lesbian activists, Brown Berets, Raza Unida and other community organizers, storytellers, artists, students and teachers—individually and collectively fighting war and racism and continuing to sabotage the empire.

Although Betita Martinez pays tribute to the many whose stories are here and the many who helped put this book together, she herself is a national treasure, no, an international treasure. ¡Gracias por todos, Betita! Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 9/22/14)

This review first appeared in MultiCultural Review. We thank Editor-in-Chief Lyn Miller-Lachmann for permission.