Home at Last

author: Susan Middleton Elya
illustrator: Felipe Davalos 
Lee & Low, 2002 
grades 1-3 

Eight-year-old Ana Patiño and her family—Mamá, Papá, and baby twins, Jesús and Julio—come from a village somewhere in Mexico and move to “a town surrounded by corn” somewhere in the US. We don’t know what circumstances brought them here; all we know is that, from the first page, Mamá is “already missing home.” (Apparently, this “town surrounded by corn” does not contain Spanish-speaking agricultural workers—actually, it doesn’t contain any agricultural workers at all. Maybe it’s the off season, even though the illustrations show a field full of corn that’s ready to be harvested.) The first spread shows Ana, curiously looking out the window at the field full of corn. Maybe she’s wondering about the absence of farm workers, too.

“After the family settles in,” the story continues, Ana is in school, in what appears to be a friendly, multiethnic third-grade classroom with a supportive teacher who encourages her to say “hello.” At first, Ana is too shy, but by afternoon, she’s saying “hello.” By the next spread, we are told that Papá has gotten a job at the factory where Uncle Luis works, and Ana likes school. Mamá is in the kitchen, and the babies are probably taking a nap. On the next spread, Ana is back in school. There are a calculator and lots of art supplies, all the students are smiling and the teacher is looking on as the students share their artwork.

The next day Ana learned to say her name in English. Everyone in the class practiced with her. By the end of the day she had said “My name is Ana Patiño” a dozen times.

Let’s stop here for a moment. The child’s name is Ana Patiño. It’s the same name in English as it is in Spanish. A name is a name. Exactly what is it that she’s practicing? And why is everyone else practicing? And why is it taking all day? Everyone is sure devoting a lot of time to saying Ana’s name. If this is a third-grade classroom as it appears to be, don’t the students and their teacher have anything else to do? Like study for standardized tests?

On the next spread, Ana and Papá are practicing English together and keeping the babies entertained while Mamá is boiling rice and beans (because that seems to be all that Mexicans eat). Mamá wants to understand English, but when Ana suggests that she could learn, she responds with “¡Imposible!” (Except for “¡Imposible!” just about every Spanish question or phrase in the dialogue is repeated in English. This is annoying.) 

The next pages depict Mamá’s problems because she doesn’t speak English: a rude grocery clerk who overcharges her, an inability to read Ana’s teacher’s note, and finally—The Crisis That Changes Everything. Mamá panics because baby Jesús is running a fever, Papá’s not home from work yet, and their neighbors “didn’t understand her frantic Spanish.” Or gestures. Or the fact that she’s holding a sick baby and apparently doesn’t know what to do because she doesn’t speak English. 

Let’s stop here for a moment. Why, with two babies and an eight-year-old, is Mamá so helpless that she can’t treat a baby with a fever? Why isn’t she resourceful, as Mexican parents are? Why doesn’t the family have remedies in the apartment? Such as baby aspirin or Tylenol? Or apple cider vinegar to mix with water? Or alcohol to rub on the legs? Or chicken broth? Or any of a number of Mexican herbs? Why can’t the English-speaking neighbors understand the gestures of a panicky mother with a sick baby? Why can’t Ana, who speaks English, find a neighbor who can help or go to the store and get something?

Finally, Mamá agrees to learn English. So she goes to evening school while Ana and Papá prepare “overcooked pork wrapped in a tortilla” for her (because only Mexican mothers know how to cook), she learns “how to count, how to answer the phone, and how to shop at the store,” and—aces her test! With Ana watching proudly, Mamá corrects the grocery store clerk who had cheated her the first time (after which “she dances around on the sidewalk”). And one might surmise that she now knows what to do when one of her babies gets sick. 

After hurrying back to the apartment where Papá, Uncle Luis, and the twins are waiting, she declares (in English), “We’re home!” Meaning the US, not Mexico, is now their home. The End.

Home at Last was probably written to help English-speaking children understand the struggles of new immigrants. But this unrealistic and didactic story serves only to reinforce the stereotype of Mexican women as helpless and dependent; and to infantilize a Mexican mother with several children, who needs the pressure of her husband and daughter to learn to speak English, which will be interpreted as the only road to empowerment, not to mention survival.

Davalos’s vivid oil paintings, on a bright and varied palette that beautifully depicts facial expressions as well as a multiethnic neighborhood and classroom, are not enough to save this poorly conceived and poorly written story. Home at Last is not recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/26/17)

SanTana’s Fairy Tales / Cuentos de SanTana

author: Sarah Rafael García
translator: Julieta Corpus
Raspa Magazine, 2017 
grades 9-up 
Mexican American

Storyteller and visual artist Sarah Rafael García offers six “Fairy Tales for Trust and Justice,” all of them set in Santa Ana, a city in southern California that borders “the happiest place on Earth.” But that place is “never happy” for the brown people who live and work there, who live in fear of the landlords, the police, and ICE. In the first story, “The Carousel’s Lullaby,” we see the stakes, as teenager Saul remembers the carousel where he reunited with his parents after their separate migrations across the border, where he and his younger brother spent so many joyful weekends until Señor Billy Spurgeon, the real estate developer, tore it down to make way for shops and restaurants for rich Anglos. One night, Saul sneaks out to hear the ghost of the carousel, and never comes home—one more unarmed person of color killed by police. 
In “Zoraida and Marisol,” perhaps the most heart-wrenching of an emotionally powerful collection, transwoman Zoraida remembers her struggle for survival and to be herself while trying from the next world to save her younger friend Marisol:
I am an enchanted woman named Zoraida.
But of course you already know my name. You knew me when I was alive.
In this life, I reign from far, far above the castles and queens. I travel by whispers, wished upon the North Star and hushed weeps. Just like you called upon me in midst of bloody murmurs, wishing for death to ease the pain. Some call me death, others the Godmother of life.
In my last life I too thought it was my fate to die as a woman on a night like tonight. But death came just too soon, leaving me trapped between others’ lives and my own.
While Saul and Zoraida lose their lives to the supernatural ogres and beasts that represent forces of repression, the resourceful and resilient children of the next two stories, “Just a House” and “Hector and Graciela,” manage to outwit those who would steal their happiness and their lives—though not without great loss. Josefina’s nemesis in “Just a House” are Anglo gentrifiers turning their close-knit community into a playground for the wealthy (hers is the unhappy mother toiling in that artificially happy place). Graciela and Hector’s parents debate how to tell them that ICE threatens to destroy their family. Graciela, the older one, tries to protect her younger brother, but he is far more aware and clever than she gives him credit for. Readers will note the parallels between this story and the Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” including the ogre that lures the children with food.
For the last two stories, García narrates from the point of view of adult characters. The Anglo prosecutor in “When the Mural Speaks” hears the voices of Chicana/o veterans painted on a mural, and the Chicana writer of “The Wishing Well” hears the voices of her characters, most of them whose lives were cut short by the “snouted beasts.” 
García’s poetic language employs code-switching and incorporates individual words, dialogue, and songs in Spanish in an organic and believable way. For instance, in the first story, she code switches in dialogue:

“Saul! Where are you going? Don’t leave, you know what Apá says about being out after sunset.”
“Daniel don’t you want to know what happened to the carousel? Vas a ver, first the carousel and quinceañera shops, soon los fruteros, and one day it might be us!”

Rather than a word-for-word translation, Corpus’s Spanish version captures the rhythm and voice of the original, as shown by the Spanish beginning of “Zoraida y Marisol,” the English version quoted above:
Soy una mujer encantada de nombre Zoraida. Pero claro que ya sabes mi nombre. Me conocías cuando aún estaba viva. 
En esta vida, gobierno desde lejos, muy por encima de los castillos y las reinas. Viajo por medio de susurros, deseos pedidos a la Estrella Polar, y llantos silenciosos. Así como tú me invocaste enmedio de murmullos sangrientos, deseando que la muerte aliviara el dolor. Algunos me llaman Muerte, otros, la Madrina de la Vida.

While SanTana’s Fairy Tales was created for general adult readers, its focus on young people resisting oppression, coming of age, and coming into who they are makes this a compelling choice for teens. *It’s highly recommended for all home, library and classroom collections.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 10/8/17)

Camino a casa // Walk with Me

author: Jairo Buitrago
illustrator: Rafael Yockteng
translator: Elisa Amado 

Fondo de Cultura Económica 
(Camino a casa), 2008 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press (Walk with Me), 2017 

The cover of the Spanish version, Camino a casa, depicts a little girl who’s being held in the safety of whom we soon learn is a lion. The English version, Walk with Me, shows her offering a flower to the lion, who is sitting on a grassy knoll near a pedestal on which is engraved, “1948.” And girl, lion, and pedestal appear on the first full-bleed spread of both versions as well. 

The little girl asks her lion-friend to protect her from “falling asleep” as she navigates her dangerous, dilapidated city, picking up her baby brother from child care, shopping for groceries from the tienda whose owner refuses credit, arriving home to cook dinner, and waiting until her mamá returns from her job at the factory. Finally, the girl gives her lion-friend-protector permission to “go up back into the hills again,” but to be sure to return when she needs him.

Throughout, we see people falling asleep where they stand or lie down. The few adults who aren’t falling asleep are just staring blankly at the lion. And one appears to be dead. Only the children seem to be interested as they exit a school that resembles a prison (with a uniformed guard at the gate). In fact, there appear to be bars everywhere: on the school doors, on buses, even on the windows of the broken-down apartment houses. 

Many of the people in the city are impoverished and shabbily dressed, as is the little girl. A car passes by a man who’s digging through garbage cans. A man wearing a suit ignores a homeless man who’s leaning against a building with his hand out. A child looks out the window while a woman and her child walk up the hill, carrying everything they own on their backs. People pass by an elderly woman who’s dropped her bags of groceries, but no one offers to help. Indeed, complacency to the political and economic climate has put almost everyone to sleep. 

In 1948—the year carved into the pedestal—Liberal Party leader and Presidential frontrunner, Jorge Eliécer was assassinated in an operation widely believed to have been orchestrated by the then newly created US CIA. His murder provoked a riot in Bogotá (known as "El Bogotazo") which, between right-wing and progressive forces, almost completely destroyed Colombia’s capital city, claiming some 200,000 lives. Throughout the country, the more than ten-year epoch of violence became known simply as “La Violencia,” during which many more thousands were killed or disappeared over the years. In 1953, Colombia’s commander-in-chief, Gustavo Rojas Pinella, seized power in a US militarily and financially supported coup and ruled as dictator until 1954, when he was declared President. Today, under many guises, US support for “friendly” right-wing forces throughout Latin America continues to be well-known.

But the lion—the little girl’s protector—appears to be making things happen. As he passes by with the child on his back, people wake up and notice. There’s a car crash but no one is hurt. A young man has pasted a revolutionary poster on a telephone pole and is making a “peace” sign at bus passengers, who are all looking at him and the lion. A woman turns around to wave at the lion. People are looking out of the windows of the neighborhood buildings. A roar from the lion convinces the scared-to-death tienda owner to extend credit. Maybe, just maybe, people are beginning to wake up.

After dinner, with four bowls set out for the three humans and the lion, the girl knows that it’s time to send the lion back into the hills if he wants to go. She knows that he has more work to do.

On the next to the last page, as her little brother and their mother are asleep, the girl places her flower beside a framed family photo. It’s the same flower she has offered to the lion on the cover of the English edition and the first page of both Spanish and English versions. Next to the bed is a chair that holds an empty book bag and beside the chair is a pair of large boots. They are the same boots whose prints we see on the back endpapers. On the floor behind the chair is a stack of newspapers. On the last spread is a closeup of the stack of newspapers, with its headline now visible: “FAMILIAS DE DESAPARECIDOS DE 1985.” Under the headline is a photo of a man giving a statement to the media during a demand for information about all those whom the Colombian government has disappeared. And on the night table is a closeup of a framed photo that depicts happier times together: mother, father, baby and little girl are smiling, and the little girl is holding out her fingers in a “peace” sign. The father has a mane of curly hair—just like the lion who has walked with and guarded the little girl throughout the story. 

On the front endpapers we saw two sets of prints: those of whom belonged to the little girl and those of whom belonged to the lion. On the back endpapers are also two sets of prints; but this time, the lion’s paw prints have been replaced by the boot prints of an adult—the little girl’s father.

Yockteng sketched his illustrations—all on full-bleed spreads—in pencil and then digitally redrew and colored them. On a muted and somber palette of mostly grays, greens, blues, and browns, the only standouts are the girl and the lion—and the one spread that shows the grocer frantically pushing two bags full of groceries to the girl whose lion, in a full roar, exhibits all his teeth. And, as always, Amado’s English translation is excellent.

Together with Rafael Yockteng, Jairo Buitrago, who is Colombian, have written picture books for young children, including Dos conejos blancos // Two White Rabbits, that describe people’s hardships and struggles to survive the economic and political realities throughout Latin America and here in the US. As with Camino a casa // Walk with Me, they appear as quiet stories and are full of symbolism for young children and their teachers to discern and discuss in a non-threatening way—and to support those children who have their own stories to tell.

Throughout Latin America—most notably, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and El Salvador—families of the disappeared and murdered are still holding vigils and protests and demands for information. In some of these countries, unmarked graves have been uncovered and victims identified and, with love, reburied. And in some cases (such as Chile), perpetrators have been tried and imprisoned. Nevertheless, families of the disappeared have kept up the pressure. It is to keep alive the memories of the disappeared, the activism and sorrow of their families, and their prayers for reunification (one way or another)—that Camino a Casa // Walk with Me holds so much hope. These are lovely, poignant, compassionate books. 

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

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/6/17; revised 10/17/17)

(Note: "El Bogotazo" was not the name of the Liberal Party leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán; it was the name of the riots that followed his assassination. I made this correction above. Thank you, Lyn Miller-Lachmann; good catch!)