Playing for the Devil’s Fire

author: Phillippe Diederich  
Cinco Puntos Press, 2016 
grades 7-up 

Some 500 years ago, conquest of this hemisphere was relatively easy: foreigners arrived, planted their flags, massacred the inhabitants and stole the land. Now, conquest involves massive CIA-financed drug trafficking via international cartels, mass murder and “disappearances” to soften up and terrorize the populace, rapid economic destabilization, and finally, “regime change” from elected governments to US-friendly fascist dictatorships.

In the Americas, the conquest and never-ending colonialism create dire consequences for hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees—many of them unaccompanied children—who flee to El Norte to escape both state-sponsored terror and the murdering narcotraficantes. They flee, as a colleague told me, “into the mouth of the shark.” Even as they escape the issues in their own homelands, the conquest follows them into  lifelong struggle and trauma.

And, just this morning, the Obama administration announced a new series of raids to round up and deport families who have been seeking asylum here from violence and death threats in Central America.

As I read Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I’m thinking of all of these aspects of colonization, and, in particular, about the “disappearance” of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Teaching College in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014. Here, the police, local politicians and everyone else in power, acting in league with the gangsters, maintained business as usual.

The title’s “devil’s fire” is two things: It’s the diablito rojo, the rare, coveted marble every Mexican teenage boy dreams of winning. And, perhaps more important, it’s a metaphor for the carnage and conflagration sweeping much of Latin America.

Libero (Boli) Flores’ harrowing story begins as the 13-year-old narrator describes the scene in Izayoc (the place of tears), his sleepy little town near Mexico City:

It was a hot Sunday morning when we discovered the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped up on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza.

The head belonged to Boli’s teacher, who was a known activist, and a note was found in his mouth: “He talked too much.”

Boli, an average teen—whose only interests had been winning at marbles and polishing shoes to earn some cash so he and his friend, Mosca, could attend the lucha libre—begins to notice the arrival of well-dressed strangers driving late-model SUVs with black windows, spinning silver rims and California license plates. They’re moving into town and building big houses. A new four-lane highway has been built—and townspeople start to disappear, businesses start to close, and Boli’s friends start to hang out with the newcomers.

There are whispers. The townspeople know what’s going on. But when Boli’s parents ask questions of those in charge, there are no answers. The police chief knows nothing, but he’s seen in the company of the strangers. The priest knows nothing, but his church has been beautifully renovated. And then Boli’s parents, on their way to Toluca to alert the federal police, suddenly join the “disappeared.”

Boli is certain that “something bad has happened.” Nevertheless, he puts his hope in an unlikely hero, a washed-up luchador named “El Chicano Estrada.” Boli sees him as larger-than-life—like El Hijo del Santo, son of the world’s most beloved luchador; a superman who battles rudos in the ring and criminals on the outside; a crime fighter who rights wrongs and brings truth and justice to all those in need.

But the violence in the lucha libre ring and in the Santo movies is choreographed and scripted. What’s real is horrific and unpredictable. As El Chicano Estrada tries to warn Boli,

“Everyone’s giving you hope, telling you there’s a chance, that everything’s going to be okay. It’s all lies. We are a country built on lies. Listen, forget the illusion that the world is a good place. It’s not.”

Boli’s loss of innocence—as his initial belief that bad things happen to other people grows into the knowledge that there is no redemption, no miracle that will quickly disappear the violence, corruption and destruction all around—echoes the real situation in Mexico and much of Latin America. As with life in the region, there is no happy ending. After the last horrible murder, readers will see that the battle between good and evil truly exists, and the devil’s fire will continue to rage for a long time coming.

The secondary characters are real people as well: Abuela, who, in her mind, is able to return to the beauty of Veracruz; Boli’s no-nonsense sister, Gaby, who takes over the family’s panadería in their parents’ absence and whose business decisions reflect the trajectory of the town’s downfall; Jesusa, the Flores family’s maid, who knows the dual reality of soul-numbing poverty and terror; the beautiful Ximena, who, along with several other young women, throws in her cards with the gangsters; Boli’s best friend and alter-ego, Mosca, who suddenly disappears; and, of course, Father Gregorio and the police chief, Pineda, whose salaried job descriptions include pacifying the populace.

Both dialogue and narration are peppered with rough-and-tumble Mexican street-Spanish in all its permutations, and there’s a helpful glossary as well. Note to teachers: This is how boys and men in small-town Mexico—and in some cities as well—speak. Anything less would be a cultural erasure.

Make no mistake: Playing for the Devil’s Fire is not “just” about what is often referred to as the “drug wars.” Indeed, readers will not find the terms, “narcos,” “gangsters,” or “drugs” anywhere here; nor will they find “government complicity” or “colonialism,” either. Rather, what they will find is real people in a particular small town in a particular Latin American country—who have become collateral damage in a violent, murderous game of international dominoes—and for whom the message is: Sal si puede. Pack up your dreams if you have any left and get the hell out while you can. 

This is what readers here, in the belly of the beast, need to see and understand. Playing for the Devil’s Fire is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/26/16)

Un año sin domingos: la imagen de la alfabetización en Cuba / A Year without Sundays: Images from the Literacy Campaign in Cuba

author: Catherine Murphy 
author: Carlos Torres Cairo 
Ediciónes Aurelia and The Literacy Project, 2014 
grades 7-up

In 1959, when Fidel and Che and their victorious group of young revolutionaries came down from the Sierra Maestra and marched into Havana, they realized that part of their long, hard struggle had come to fruition. Having thrown out the hated Batista dictatorship and their Mafia cronies—at least for now—the island’s new leaders immersed themselves in thought and discussion about both the problems, and the opportunities they had to achieve the participation of everyone into a society about to be reborn.

It soon became apparent that the single most important barrier to break through was illiteracy: some 14% of Cuba’s population was unable to read or write. So as early as 1959, Fidel sent out the call for volunteers. The campaign was known simply as alfabetización, and thousands upon thousands of young people from throughout Cuba volunteered to be trained as maestras—teachers—to go out into the countryside and teach everyone how to read and write. (Although “maestras” is a feminine form, both young men and women participated in the literacy campaign. In the photographs and interviews in this book, however, most of the participants appear to be young girls and women.)

Beginning in 1960, volunteer teachers—“the literacy campaign’s pioneers”—were trained in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Here, where much of the fighting for the revolution had taken place, the Cuban people involved themselves in a campaign to bring literacy to all of the tiny country’s people.

Alfabetización had a dual purpose: eradicating illiteracy and bringing down the social barriers between the urban population and the rural working class population. Organized into four brigades—experienced volunteer teachers, La Brigada Conrado Benítez (made up of young people and teenagers from urban areas), La Brigada Patria o Muerte (made up of workers), and active and retired teachers who worked in urban areas—the volunteers covered the countryside.

During the day, the young maestras worked with the campesinos and in the evenings, they worked together at reading and writing. Seven days a week—un año sin domingos. Their textbooks were called, “Alfabeticemos” and “¡Venceremos!”—two words that helped unite the campesinos and the maestras, the campaign with the political reality.

For the campesinos, this would be their first time holding pencils and looking at print on a page and working hard to decipher the meanings of printed words; “for some, recognizing vowels was the hardest thing they had ever done in their lives.” While the campesinos recognized that they were, indeed, becoming part of a great societal change, those who changed most were the maestras. For many of the young people, this would be their first time away from home—ever. This would be their first time sleeping in hammocks, living inside bohíos with palm-thatch roofs and dirt floors, chopping down trees, washing clothes in the river and getting covered with mud, and eating “country food.” Most of all, they learned how to be women and men who could change the world.

The lives of these young people were not without hardship and danger. Indeed, during the CIA-planned and -sponsored invasion of Playa Girón (known in the US as the “Bay of Pigs”), groups of armed counterrevolutionaries kidnapped, tortured and murdered ten of the young teachers. But the young brigadistas, rather than being moved to safety, chose instead to stay with their campesino families who had refused to leave.

Still, one after another, municipalities and provinces nationwide were declared “illiteracy-free zones,” and by the end of 1961—un año sin domingos—the campaign was pronounced a victory, Cuba was proclaimed a country free of illiteracy, and the heroic achievement of so many young people was honored. At a closing ceremony in Havana, thousands upon thousands of maestras, waving enormous pencils to symbolize the campaign, gathered together to celebrate what they had achieved.

All of this history is documented in this 128-page, beautifully designed, bilingual “family album,” Un año sin domingos / A Year Without Sundays. Between 2003-2013, Catherine Murphy, working with The Literacy Project, interviewed over 50 teachers and students who had participated in this monumental campaign. Un año sin domingos is composed of fragments of interviews from 18 of the women and men who spoke of this great experience that transformed their lives—and, indeed, transformed Cuba. Archival photographs, songs, posters and other important and beautiful material from that historical time accompany and complement the interviews.

The large photos are mostly sepia tone, and readers can see the excited expressions on the faces of both the young teachers and their adult students. Color highlights in some places, like a blue sky or a Cuban flag, make the photos even more attractive. Here, on the front cover, are uniformed young people—mostly teenage girls—proudly marching into Havana, holding large banners on which are inscribed “¡Vencímos!” (“We Won!”). Here are the maestras at a rally, honoring Conrado Benítez, the first young teacher murdered by the counterrevolutionaries. Here are two young maestras, riding horseback for the first time. Here are three campesinos at “lunch hour,” intensely studying while their cattle eat. Here is a campesina, laboriously writing her name on a chalkboard. “It was incredible,” a young maestra said, “when they learned how to write their names for the first time. It was like they were discovering themselves.” Here is a young child watching a maestra writing thoughts from José Martí on a chalkboard. A maestra later said,

I learned a lot. I went to teach them, but they taught me many things that I didn’t know. I think I learned more from them than they did from me, because I gave them the light of learning, but they taught me how to be a person.

Here is a letter written by campesino who had just learned to write. And this is what the campaign—and this beautiful book that memoralizes it—is all about:

Amigo Fidel. Te escribo para decirte que ya no soy analfabeto y que cada día me siento más proféro y más feliz con esta Revolucíon que nada ní nadie podra arrebatarnos. Te deseo salud y suerte. Juntos venceremos. (“Friend Fidel. I write to tell you that I'm no longer illiterate and every day I feel more articulate and happier with this revolution that nothing or nobody can take away from us. I wish you health and luck. Together, we will win.”)

And here, on several single- and double-page spreads, are the thousands of young, joyous volunteers in Havana, celebrating the end of the campaign on December 22, 1961. Some are taking photos of this historical moment. Some are wearing the flag: “Territorio Libre de Analfabetismo.” And each is holding up an enormous pencil, the symbol of literacy.

The Cuban literacy campaign is a little-known event here, but it was a year that changed the people of Cuba, campesinos and maestras alike. Catherine Murphy’s documentary, Maestra, and this book bring together living testimony of their struggles and triumphs, and beautiful archival film and photo footage. Both book and documentary are highly recommended. As the Cuban people say, “¡Vencímos!”

*Highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin
 (published 5/7/16)

¿Hasta Dónde Me Amas? // How Far Do You Love Me?

author: Lulu Delacre 
illustrator: Lulu Delacre 
translator /interpretor (English): Verónica Betancourt 
Lee & Low, 2013 
all grades

Stories about children or anthropomorphic young animals looking for boundaries appeal to youngsters all over the world. Sometimes these are teaching stories that give young listeners or readers a safe place in which to think about the limits of what they can and cannot do.

In Margaret Wise Brown‘s delightful Runaway Bunny, a little kid bunny verbally spars with his momma bunny, testing her unconditional love by declaring his plans to run away from home. As the momma bunny joins in the game, the little kid bunny’s imagined escapades—from becoming a fish to a flower to a rock to a bird to a tree to a sailboat to a circus performer to a little (human) boy—finally land him at home, where momma bunny reassures him that she’ll always be around to take care of him. In 1942, when much of the world was at war, momma bunny’s calm reassurance resonated with little human kids and, along with Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), still does.

In the years following the publication of The Runaway Bunny, there have been many picture books that focus on children’s or young animals’ testing their parents’ unconditional love for them; each one ends with the parent (usually the mother) affirming an everlasting love for the child.

In 1991, author Barbara M. Joosse and illustrator Barbara Lavallee created the first best-selling “multicultural” version of a child’s testing a parent’s unconditional love: Mama, Do You Love Me?, featuring an Inuk child and her mother. This abysmally written and –illustrated appropriation of Inuit life and culture proved to be a lucrative project, and in 2005, the Joosee-Lavallee team followed with the equally awful Papa, Do You Love Me?, which featured a Maasai child’s testing his father.[1]

An earlier, and much better written, story of the love between mother and child is On Mother’s Lap by Ann Herbert Scott and illustrated by Glo Coalson. This story, originally published in 1972 and republished in 1992, also takes place in the Arctic, but focuses on “showing” rather than “telling.” And the little-known but no less beautiful Mama’s Little One by Kristina Heath, may be difficult to obtain, but is well worth searching for.[2]

And now, multi-talented (and multiple award-winning) artist, author and poet, Lulu Delacre, has created ¿Hasta Dónde Me Amas? and How Far Do You Love Me?, two gorgeous picture books about love for youngest listeners to readers of all ages—containing neither conflict nor testing nor “runaway multiculturalism.” Rather, her lyrical verses that describe the love between adults and children—in both Spanish and English versions—are deceptively simple, yet complex in their connection with the lands and peoples; and stunningly illustrated with soft pastels, lush with intense color.

Each dazzling double-page spread tells a story of its own. From the beautiful sandy beaches of Vieques, to the top of the Grand Canyon, to a freshwater spring in Yucatán, to the unimaginable heights of Machu Picchu, to an enormous glacier in Antarctica, to where the sun and the rain produce a rainbow on the Serengeti Plain, to the crests of the desert in the Sinai, to the lavender fields of Provence, to where the river meets the sea in the Alps, to a Himalaya Mountain Range, to the bright pink water lilies floating on the Mekong River, to a gigantic eucalyptus on Kangaroo Island, to the coral reefs on the ocean floor of Queensland, and back to Vieques, are parents and their children, enjoying each other’s company and living in their worlds.

Here, at the top of a peak in the Grand Canyon area of Arizona, a father talks with his daughter who is perched on his shoulders. Here, in the windswept desert of the Sinai, a mother cradles her infant. Here, in a field of lavender in Provence, three girls pick flowers as an adult watches from a distance. Here, in the Mekong River, a joyful little girl and her parents paddle amidst the bright blossoms of water lilies. Here, on Kangeroo Island, a young boy and his father lean against an enormous eucalyptus tree that just about touches the sky.

The books begin and end with a mother and her young son in Vieques, the place of Delacre’s birth. In the first illustration, the two are lying on the warm sand, and the boy asks, “¿Hasta dónde me amas?” or “How far do you love me?” And on one of the final spreads, the circle is closed as Mamá asks her son, “¿Y tu? ¿Hasta dónde me amas?” or “And you? How much do you love me?” To which the child answers, “¡Yo te amo hasta la luna!” or “I love you to the moon!” and as she kisses her child goodnight, Mamá says,

Y yo, hasta más allá de las estrellas,
donde la luz déjà de verse en el espacio
más allá de universos conocidos
y se vuelve en el amor
que anida dentro,
muy adentro de ti.

And I love you farther than the stars,
to the space beyond the space we know,
where light becomes love
that nestles deep,
deep inside you.

“The inspiration for the original poem in Spanish,” Delacre told me, “was a game I used to play with my own daughters when they were little. We never played ¿Cuánto me amas...? We played ¿Hasta dónde...? It was always fun trying to travel farther and farther away by showing the length and depth of our love.” One afternoon, she said, after going for a walk and thinking about the love she felt for her daughters, she sat down to write what she had composed in her head. “I've traveled to many places in my 32 years of marriage when I wrote the poem,” she said, and “without those trips I don’t think the poem would have come to me so effortlessly. So did it take 45 minutes to write it or 32 years?” Maybe somewhere in between, I’d guess. In any event, it’s clear that Delacre did not sit down to write a marketable bedtime picture book with conflict that called for resolution. And I’m glad for that.

After writing the lyrical Spanish, Delacre gave the text over to her daughter, Verónica, who worked with her mother to craft these books into an evocative dual-language expression of love. Without polemic and without belabored notes about “multiculturalism,” what Delacre shows—rather than tells—is that, across continents, cultures, ethnicities and religions—caring adults love their children.

Some other plusses: On the next-to-last spread, Delacre has hand-lettered “the question” in 23 different languages in order to prompt children and loving adults to play in the language of their choice. There’s also a map that references the 13 locations around the world in which the poems are situated.

However, there was a missed opportunity here that I feel must be addressed, so I’ll direct these questions to the publisher: Why was this brilliant book—originally written in Spanish—published first in a small English-only hardcover, and then later, seemingly as an afterthought, in an even smaller, Spanish-only paperback? Why wasn’t this awesome work seen as important and beautiful enough to have been made into a much larger, hardcover, bilingual book, with the Spanish text predominant? Such an effort would have given more space to the art and would have made the one book accessible to both hablantes and English speakers. And, finally—wow! Why didn’t someone catch that the title on the title page of the Spanish version is missing an initial interrogation mark? (This was a major typo.)

As they stand, both ¿Hasta Dónde Me Amas? and How Far Do You Love Me? encompass a beautiful journey of endless love, without conflict, without testing; and they are highly recommended. Lulu Delacre is a kind, generous spirit—an international treasure whose art and words are a gift. Muchísimas gracias, Lulu.

*Highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/1/16)

[1] See my essay, “Runaway Multiculturalism,” in MultiCultural Review, vol. 15, no. 3 (Fall 2006), p. 114.

[2] See reviews of both of these titles, along with Mama, Do You Love Me?, in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005), p. 302.