Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá

author: René Colato Laínez 
illustrator: Anthony Accardo 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2004 
grades 2-4 

In all the news media today, we see terrorized and desperate refugees—many are mothers with their young children, and many are unaccompanied children—running for their lives, fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as other countries torn by war. They arrive here by the thousands, to the unknown, to what they desperately hope is the relative safety of life in the country whose governmental policies and military practices are responsible for most of the chaos and horror engulfing their worlds. Guided by coyotes—the paid smugglers of humans who couldn’t care less if their charges live or die—many refugees from El Salvador make the perilous trek to el norte; dodging robbers while crossing three countries partially by bus and mostly on foot: up and down mountains, through rivers and across deserts. And soon after the so-called “illegals” arrive here, many are caught, jailed and deported by US immigration police.

The issues of refugees and immigrants are complex; but simply defined, refugees are desperate people forced to flee countries ravaged by war and human rights abuses. They are refugios, looking for safety and shelter. There are also economic refugees, whose livelihoods were destroyed, for instance, by the economic policies of the US toward Mexico. They are, as a colleague mentioned, “leaving home to go into the jaws of the shark.” Immigrants, on the other hand, are people who, for many reasons, move permanently from one country to another. All refugees are immigrants, but only some immigrants are refugees.

Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá is Colato Laínez’s story of a young boy who, with his mother, flee to the US three years before the story begins:

When I was five years old, Mamá and I had to leave El Salvador. The detergent factory where Mamá and Papá worked was bombed during the war. Two days later, our house caught on fire. All my toys, all my clothes, and even Papá’s favorite boots were burned. ‘Now, we do not have work, food, or a house,’ Papá said. (emphasis mine)

Here, the author’s use of the passive tense serves to obfuscate the agents of repression and terror, so young readers (even if they themselves are refugees) won’t have a clue about why all of these bad things happened.

Mamá’s father, who lives in the US, applies for and receives visas for his daughter and her son, but Papá has to stay behind. The story, though Beto’s eyes, is how the family eventually reunites.

Beto and Mamá quickly and easily obtain a visa. They arrive here by airplane, which is highly unusual for refugees from El Salvador, then or now. While in El Salvador, Beto narrates, Papá could not find work, and “going out in public was very dangerous.” But in their new home, by contrast, Mamá quickly and easily finds a job in a sewing factory and, after a year, has saved enough money to hire an immigration lawyer. It’s also assumed that they quickly and easily find an inexpensive place to live. Although the story hints that the family is seeking refuge here, through a series of unlikely events and occurrences, it belies the terror and uncertainty of the refugee experience.

Later, his teacher tells the children about Christopher Columbus. In this odd and historically inaccurate paragraph that infers that Columbus was the “first immigrant,” the author, through Miss Parrales, apparently tries to normalize immigration:

“Did you know that when Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, many people from Europe came to what we know as the United States? Since then, millions of people from other countries have come. They are called ‘immigrants.’ I am from Mexico. I am an immigrant, too.”

At this point, Beto raises his hand and excitedly reveals that he, too, is an immigrant; and that his Papá could not come, but he hopes that they will soon be reunited.  Miss Parrales’ and Beto’s dialogues are neither natural nor believable. Both exist only to convey information—as well as to conflate refugees with other immigrants.

Soon, Mr. González, who is from Nicaragua and works as a radio host for “Voice of the Immigrant,” visits Beto’s class and suggests that, since Father’s Day is soon approaching, students write letters to their fathers “to tell him why he is special.” Since it’s widely recognized that many children either don’t know or have lost their fathers, exercises asking children to write letters to fathers is bad teaching practice, even if it’s suggested by a guest who should and would know better.

So Beto writes a beautiful letter, on the back of which “I drew my Salvadoran house on fire. I also drew Mamá screaming and Papá holding me in his arms while I cried.” What’s Beto’s motivation? Children who are refugees and other immigrants don’t write home about what a bad time they had at home. Rather, they’d be more likely to say, “I miss you,” and draw a picture of where they are now to make it look attractive so their relatives would come faster and be reunited with the family in this great place.

Beto is invited to appear on Mr. González’ radio show. While they’re on the air, an immigration lawyer phones and tells Mamá that “Papá will come home soon!” A few days later, Beto and his classmates gather a huge number of aluminum cans, which, “within a couple of weeks,” they take to the recycling machine and are paid $80, with which Beto purchases a pair of boots for Papá (exactly like the ones that were destroyed in El Salvador). And. “On the very next day,” Papá arrives by plane, and joins Beto and Mamá “in a big tight hug.” And. “On the last day of school,” Miss Parrales presents Beto with “a trophy for perfect attendance and a certificate for good behavior,” both of which he gives to Papá, along with the boots the child had bought. More big hugs, and Papá promises to be with Beto “forever.” The End.

Accardo’s bright pen-and-ink and watercolor art reflects the story, so much so that each child in Beto’s multiethnic classroom appears to represent a different continent. And, although the Spanish translation (with no translator noted) appears to be grammatically accurate, it’s as unexciting as the story.

The events in Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá are inappropriate and unrealistic, the dialogue is trite and wooden, and the story is contrived with too many coincidences and an all-too-neat resolution. It would not be a stretch to say that all refugee and immigrant kids dream of reuniting with their families. Waiting for Papá is the author’s attempt to write this dream—it’s hopeful, but in reality the dream is almost never realized. Colato Laínez was himself a refugee from the 12-year “civil war” in El Salvador, in which the US financed and trained the right-wing military and the death squads. Waiting for Papá / Esperando a Papá was Colato Laínez’s first children’s book and, fortunately, some of his later ones are better. As it stands, this one is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/29/16) 

Charmed Life / Una vida con suerte

author: Gladys E. Barbieri
illustrator: Lisa Fields 
translator: Carolina E. Alonso 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2016 
preschool-grade 3 
Latin American  

In A Charmed Life / Una vida con suerte, a young immigrant Latina accompanies her mother to work. As they get off the bus and walk the rest of the way to Mamá’s housecleaning job in a gated mansion, Felicia is told in no uncertain terms to behave herself and the child, having heard this many times before, nods her head. From the beginning, the portrayal of the relationship between parent and child is strained, culturally inappropriate and problematic: Mamá appears harsh and dismissive; Felicia appears exasperated and rebellious.

In the illustration of the two approaching Mamá’s workplace, parent and child in the foreground are dwarfed in relation to the huge mansion and forbidding black gate, which spans the width of the page. 

While Mamá sets to work, Felicia, annoyed and bored, sits at a large table “to keep out of [her] mom’s way,” and starts coloring. Her mother’s appearance also embarrasses her: “I don’t really like her headscarf,” Felicia says, “nor do I like being here.”

The young reader is not told—and there are no visual hints, either—about other family members. Is there a father? Are there grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins? Where are the family’s past and present communities? Why are they here? Why does Mamá take her daughter to work with her? Why isn’t Felicia at school? And, being stuck here with her mom, why isn’t the child helping out? A Latina child about Felicia’s age would probably know the routine: she would be more likely to come in, pick up a broom or dust rag, and get to work by her mother’s side.

Rather, Felicia gets up from her coloring and takes a furtive tour of the mansion. Walking into a lavishly designed child’s room with enormous stuffed toy animals and a canopied crib, she “can’t believe [her] eyes” at all the gorgeous stuff she sees. “Forgetting [her] mom’s list of dos and don’ts,” Felicia races out to the patio, gets on a swing and swings “so high that [she feels she] could touch the sun.” She’s way impressed at all the things she doesn’t have.

An important short digression: Felicia’s little adventure makes no sense, cultural or otherwise. For a Latina child, especially an immigrant Latina child, to sneak off by herself, roam around a mansion and walk through the rooms, go outside and use the swings on an open patio where she could be seen and caught, might—at the very least—endanger her mother’s job. The child and her mother could be accused of stealing, they could be arrested, and, depending on their immigration status, there could even be deportation proceedings. For a Latina child to be blissfully unaware of this kind of danger is unreal, even if this is “just” a picture book.

But young readers will see no danger here, just a curious Latina child and a kindly white employer. She’s Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a red-haired white woman who, rather than castigating the child, brings her a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of cookies, sits on the swing next to her, and tells Felicia that her own Irish great-grandparents had immigrated to America with dreams of a better life for their family.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick, of course, is wealthy. She is also pregnant. She knows her child will never want for anything: that her child will have a charmed life. So, with that realization, she gives Felicia a charm bracelet. For the benefit of young readers who may not immediately “get” the improbability of this scene or the concepts of paternalism and noblesse oblige, Mamá peers through the window while Mrs. Fitzpatrick tells Felicia: 

Believe that you will have a better life and don’t let anyone make you feel that you don’t deserve it, because you do. We all deserve to have a charmed life.

Here, the bringer of wisdom is not a hardworking Latina parent, but her employer, a privileged white woman. The implication is that all immigrant, migrant and refugee families are on an escalator ride from poverty and neediness to wealth and independence. Indeed, “a charmed life” is a metaphor for obtaining the American (material) Dream. If you follow the script—work hard and strive for material goods—your children will have a “charmed life.”

On the bus home, Felicia exuberantly tells her mom that she is “going to have a super charmed life,” to which her mom doesn’t respond. And when Felicia insists that they “both are” going to have this charmed life, Mamá responds, “Yes, Felicia, you will have a very charmed life.” The End.

Alonso’s Spanish translation closely follows the text, sometimes to a fault. Felicia’s description of a house that’s “so grand,” for instance, is translated as “tan grande”—so big. And Fields’ digitally produced illustrations, in bright glowing colors, parallels the text as well. Here, Felicia forefronts just about every scene: Where she is with her mother in the beginning pictures, the child is bored and unhappy. When she sees the material wealth that surrounds her and when she’s with her white benefactor, the child is joyous, as she is in the last scene, where she is trying to convince her mom that she—no, the two of them—will eventually have a charmed life.

In knowing that this “charmed life” will somehow happen to them, Felicia—unlike the majority of desperate, fearful immigrants, migrants and refugees who come here from Mexico and Central and South America—is not looking for a peaceful life, a safe life, or a life without hunger—she’s looking for a life with lots of stuff. And she knows that, because of her new charm bracelet, or maybe because her mom works hard, they will somehow have this life. The subtext and unstated assumptions here are that, if immigrant, migrant or refugee parents work hard enough, like her mother does, their children will “make it.” If their children don’t “make it,” it’s because the parent or parents didn’t work hard enough.

That Felicia is so enamored by Mrs. Fitzpatrick and her great material wealth suggests to young readers that Mamá and child live in an economically marginalized neighborhood with little of value, material or otherwise. There is no evidence of societal or class circumstances. Rather, readers see only the perspective of a Latina child who’s an outsider with no family except for her mother, no community, and no culture of any worth. There is no hint that people who are economically impoverished can still hold on to all that makes them familia, all that makes them cultura, and all that makes them human.  

While the author and illustrator have created what many children will consider an engaging and compelling picture book, the story’s message is dishonest. Coming to the US and working hard does not guarantee that anyone will achieve the American Dream—or that descendants of hard-working immigrant, migrant and refugee families will live charmed lives. Far from it. This system is rigged to benefit the 1%, and children of Felicia’s age—who may not be immigrants, migrants or refugees but who probably already know about unfairness in things large and small—need to learn about the long, hard struggles for justice as well.

There are many picture books that can move children to understand the necessity of people’s struggles for justice, and even encourage them to become participants. These include (but are not limited to):

• Ann Berlak’s Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito

• Carmen T. Bernier-Grand’s César: ¡Sí, Se puede! Yes, We Can! (available in English and Spanish editions)

• Diana Cohen’s ¡Sí, Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A.

• Carmen Tafolla’s That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s struggle for justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia

It’s possible that, in the opening pages, Mamá’s expression when she reminds Felicia to behave might be more out of fear than coldness. It’s possible that, in the illustration where an unsmiling Mamá looks out the window at Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Felicia enjoying each other’s company, that her expression might be more of concern than distance. It’s possible that when Mamá stares out the bus window rather than admiring Felicia’s charm bracelet, she’s contemplating the reality of their lives. But young children will not see any of this. What they will see—as evidenced by the story and by Mamá’s smile on the last page—is that life is what you make it and turns out well if you really want it to.

Recently, a colleague suggested that young students could be encouraged to rewrite and/or reimagine A Charmed Life / Una vida con suerte in ways that relate to their own lives. I can see the value of such an exercise, but it’s not enough to recommend this book. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve to see the truths of their lives, and to see what part they can play in helping to shape their own futures—and the futures of other children as well. They do not need yet another Cinderella story that makes no sense to them.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/23/16)

Lo que mi abuela me dijo / What My Grandmother Told Me: Practical Wisdom from Spanish Proverbs and Sayings

author: Maria Paz Eleizegui Weir
illustrator: Mahala Urra 
University of New Mexico Press, 2015
grades 3-5 

When young Cesario Estrada Chávez came home from school one day, humiliated and punished by his teacher for speaking Spanish, he received the gift of this dicho from his mother: “Quien sabe dos lenguas vale por dos”—He who knows two languages is more valuable than he who knows only one. This dicho, and the love he received from his parents and grandparents, shaped the boy who grew up to become a leader in the struggle against the oppression of migrant agricultural workers.

Everywhere that Spanish is spoken, parents and grandparents teach through dichos. Children learn these easily memorized cultural markers that—in the process of educating and instructing children about their own lives and the lives of their families, their peers, their society, and the world—indirectly communicate values, behaviors and morality. In short, dichos are signifiers: They live in, and are an integral part of, the culture.

In Lo que mi abuela me dijo / What My Grandmother Told Me: Practical Wisdom from Spanish Proverbs and Sayings are dozens of dichos, organized into six thematic units—Juventud / Childhood, Amistad / Friendship, Comportamiento / Manners, Lucha y trabajo / Work and Strife, Sabiduría /Wisdom, and Amor y destino / Love and Destiny—appearing in Spanish first, paired with an English translation or interpretation. The book, in some ways reminiscent of 1950s readers, is attractively designed, and Mahala Urra’s illustrations, in ink and flat watercolors, mostly feature the young “Maria” in a red dress and grandma in an olive dress.

In her preface (La voz de mi abuela / the Voice of My Grandmother) and afterword (Las lagrimas de mi abuela / The Tears of My Grandmother), Eleizegui Weir writes about how these dichos from her Spanish-speaking Filipino grandmother shaped her life (“En tus apures y afanes / acude a los refranes” // “When needs and difficulties arise / take refuge in the proverbs.”) 

There are some beautiful dichos and illustrations here. Here is an illustration of two girls hugging each other: “A buen amigo, / buen abrigo” // “A good friend is as comforting / as a warm coat.” (pp. 34-35). Here is a girl, comforting her sad friend with a cup of steaming cocoa: “En la necesidad / conoce la amistad” // “True friends are with you / when you need them.” (pp. 36-37). And here is a blindfolded girl, offering a gift to an appreciative child she may not know: “Haz el bien, y no mires a quien.” // “Do good without concern / for whom you do it.” (pp. 42-43).

Unfortunately, without regard for appropriateness for today’s children, many of the dichos (brought from Spain and Portugal through the Philippines) read like advice from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Authoritarian and basically medieval in their value systems, they perpetuate gender stereotypes, conformity and acceptance, greed and ill will, and physical child punishment.

Here are some examples of gender stereotyping:  La gracia de la fea, / la bonita lo desea.” // “Beautiful women desire / the grace and good nature / of someone who is plain.” (pp. 52-53); and “Calladita te ves más bonita.” // “A quiet little girl / appears prettier and sweeter.” (pp. 68-69). Here, conformity and acceptance: “La mayor felicidad / es la conformidad.” // “Acceptance is a major key / to happiness.” (pp. 152-153); “A falta de pan buenas son tortas.” // “When you have no bread, / cake will do.” (pp. 148-149); and “Algunos nacen con estrella / y otros nacen estrellados.” // “Some are born under a lucky star; / others are born shattered.” (pp. 160-161). Here, greed and ill will: “No digas todo lo que sepas, / ni des todo lo que tengas.” // “Do not say everything you know, / nor give everything you have.” (pp. 48-49); and “Con su pan se lo coma.” / “Let him eat his own bread.” (pp. 114-115). And here, physical punishment of children: “Si a tu hijo no le das castigo, / seras su peor enemigo.” // “An unpunished child / can become your worst enemy.” (pp. 16-17); and “Quien bien te quiere / te hará  llorar. // “Who loves you best / also makes you cry.” (pp. 30-31).

The implications in most of this collection are that what life has given you is God’s will—know your place in society and you’ll be rewarded in heaven for submissiveness on earth.

Often, the tone is softened to the point of not making any contemporary cultural sense and the literal illustrations have little or nothing to do with the particular dicho. Here, for instance, is a dicho that reads, “A Dios rogando / y con el mazo dando.” // “Praise God / but keep on hammering.” (pp. 124-125).  The illustration shows two girls, one praying and the other hammering a plank onto a picket fence. But making a fence has nothing to do with the dicho, which, in all likelihood, originated in Spain during the Inquisition. The use of the word “mazo” would link it to torturing—praising God while clubbing people with maces, the deadly weapons often used for this purpose.

The religious orientation of these dichos is not from Filipino culture so much as from Spanish colonial culture brought over in the 16th Century. Here, the historical origins have been appropriated and, with the aid of the illustrations, placed into more benign cultural contexts. This collection—interpreted in a way that attempts to make the dichos relevant to today’s children but fails to do so while glossing over the reactionary ideology of the originals—is unappealing.

As a primary source of historical significance—an academic collection of teachings that encompass colonial Spanish Catholic mores, together with a discussion of how some of them were transmogrified into dichos for children in contemporary Spanish-speaking Filipino culture—these dichos might have been valuable. But in the attempt to transform them into a book for young audiences, the original meanings were overlooked as were their appropriateness for contemporary children. Despite several very nice pieces and lovely artwork, Lo que mi abuela me dijo / What My Grandmother Told Me: Practical Wisdom from Spanish Proverbs and Sayings is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/18/16)

Mil gracias a mi colega, Oralia Garza de Cortés.