Luca's Bridge / El puente de Luca

author: Mariana Llanos
illustrator: Anna López Real
Penny Candy Books, 2019

In these harsh economic and political times, there are as many immigrant stories as there are families who immigrate, migrate, or seek asylum. Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca is an engaging story of a Mexican family’s trying to make the best of a terrible situation. Mami and Papi, who are not documented, are being deported, and their children, brothers Luca and Paco, are US citizens. They have the “choice” of staying on this side of the border—with their school, their friends, and everything they know—but without their parents; or accompanying their parents to a place they don’t know. The family decides, of course, to stay together.

It appears that Llanos wrote this story in one language and then in the other. Young hablantes see a Spanish version that is at least as authentic and beautiful as the English, a poetic interpretation rather than a translation, with much symbolism and metaphor. For instance, Llanos interprets the English beginning: “Sometimes the only way to go back home is to fly…” as “Hay veces en que volar es la única forma de volver…” In this case, there’s a word play in the Spanish between “volar” and “volver,” and the sentence literally translates as, “There are times when flying is the only way to get back.” And in Luca’s Bridge, Luca is, indeed, a migrant, flying home in his dreams, accompanied by the migratory Wilson’s warblers on just about every page. 

As he looks out the window, Luca imagines himself flying with the flock: —¿Estarán yendo a casa?—he asks himself. Are they going home? 

And, asleep, Lucas dreams he is napping on the moon, flying back home on a bridge of papel picado, playing his trumpet and leading a marching band, and laughing, laughing, laughing. 

Luca’s Bridge is a story of hard choices that should not be necessary: to break up your family so that your children might have a better, maybe safer, future without you; or stay together and live in uncertainly and quite possibly, poverty. As Luca plays his trumpet, “(His family’s) eyes sparkled. And for a moment, their sadness seemed to fly away through the open window.” / “los ojos les brillaban, y por ese momento, su tristeza salió por la ventana.” In their imaginations, they’re together, with each other, with the migratory warblers, at home in two places. 

López Real’s artwork, using graphite and colored pencil on acid-free paper, visually interprets and complements Llanos’s timely and bittersweet story while focusing on a subdued palette of mostly charcoal grays and blues with bright highlights in yellows and golds. As the family approaches the bridge they must cross to get to Mexico, readers see a forbidding gray fence and a formation of gray clouds above—“Everything had turned gray and scary, even the guards.” 

In almost every illustration, observant readers encounter bright images of yellow-and-black Wilson’s warblers—sometimes tiny and sometimes large, sometimes in a flock and sometimes alone, and sometimes reflected as wings on Luca’s trumpet or in the design of several beautiful papel picado. There’s even one perched on the back of a chair, right near family photos on a wall. These birds are migrants without borders—their habitats ranging with the seasons all the way from Alaska to northern South America—and their presence here will especially resonate with young people whose families also move back and forth. 

As well, young readers will notice the subliminal messages carried in López Real’s colorful spot images. On one page, for instance, there’s a patch of wildflowers growing just outside the window of Abuela’s little house. A sad, pensive Luca is leaning out the window while a tiny warbler perches on the sill, keeping him company and possibly offering consolation. 

There’s so much more to tug at the heart. At supper, for instance, Abuela mentions a dicho—“Donde come uno, comen dos” (“Where one eats, two eat”)—and then has to translate it for Luca and Paco, who don’t speak Spanish. 

Without didacticism, without polemic, Llanos’ and López Real’s intent in Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca is to spark discussion among the youngest children about what it might be like to experience immigration and deportation, and that sometimes—only sometimes—there might be hope in what appears to be hopeless situations. 

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

[Note to educators: If there are young immigrant or migrant children in your classroom, please use caution. Some young children may not be free to talk about their lives, their families, their experiences or their countries of origin.]

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/30/19)

Conversation with Mariana Llanos and Anna López Real

Beverly Slapin: In her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cautioned against the misunderstanding of others, and specifically, how decades of misrepresenting and stereotyping “the other” have dominated mainstream Western society. I was reminded of her presentation when I read your awesome children’s book, Luca’s Bridge / El puente de Luca, which I described as “an engaging story of a Mexican family’s trying to make the best of a terrible situation.”

Indeed, in these harsh economic and political times, there are as many different “immigrant stories” as there are immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum. Many, if not most, of these stories are about hard choices. Some end well and others don’t. Yet, children’s books about immigration, more often than not, tell a single story. 

What were your visions in the writing and illustration of Luca’s story? Was there something in your own lives that contributed to the telling in this way? 

Mariana, did you think about the problems involved in telling a “single story” or did this story grow on its own? Ana, what were your thoughts as you envisioned the illustrations?

Mariana Llanos: In my case, my immigrant experience, and also the fact that I have children who are born American citizens, were the reasons I wrote this story. I think all immigrants who have to go through the “legalization” process can relate to this kind of experience, the pressures and uncertainty: What if I don’t get a green card? What if they deny my application? What if? What if not? So this is what I am exploring in the story. In the case of Luca and his family, they are what is called a “mixed-status” family: Luca and Paco are US citizens while their parents are undocumented. There are many types of mixed-status families, where some family members are legal residents, others are naturalized citizens, others are American-born citizens, and others are undocumented. 

Anna López Real: I’m Mexican. I have lived in Mexico all my life, so I’m not an immigrant. But I know lots of people from my generation who are immigrants themselves, people I went to school with, some are legal residents and some are undocumented, but their children are growing up as American citizens. The families don’t have the freedom to come and go. I have a friend whose relative had died, and she couldn’t return to Mexico for the funeral because if she had, she was afraid that she would not have been permitted to come back to the US. I was reminded of all these stories and I also think that we have almost always been in motion in one way or another, and almost all people who come from somewhere else travel through Mexico, even people from as far away as Africa. Many of us who are not native were not born in a place we may now call “home.”

BS: Mariana, why did you decide to portray Luca’s family as mixed-status? I don’t think I’ve seen any other children’s story as having a mixed-status family.

ML: The story grew on its own. I did not set out to write a story about a mixed-status family. I started with a feeling, an idea. A car that felt sad and heavy. A family inside, their belongings packed. A child waving goodbye through the back seat window. I knew they were sad, but why? And where were they going? That is when I started finding pieces of their story and stringing them together. This is a story not often told, as you well mention, but it is very common among immigrant communities.

BS: Mariana, why does Luca not speak or understand any Spanish? Is there an unspoken backstory that you’d like readers to know or figure out? 

ML: I thought about Luca as being like my own children: they understand Spanish, but aren’t fluent when speaking. Sometimes, if a Spanish-speaking person speaks too fast or has an accent, my children have a hard time understanding. My middle child told me before we went to spend a month in Peru: “But I can't speak Spanish!” Even though he understands it, he doesn’t feel at ease with the language, perhaps just like Luca. Not all children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are fluent in their parents’ language. I wanted to walk away from what feels typical in a Latino family. Yes, this is a Latino child for whom Spanish is not his first language. I promote bilingualism, at home and at schools, but I understand becoming bilingual isn’t always an easy process. 

When I was researching for this story, I found some interesting material about American citizen children who lived in Mexico with their deported parents. They related how at school they were mocked for their accents. Some spoke in Spanish, but it wasn’t the same as being native Spanish-speakers. So in telling Luca’s story, I decided to add another layer: Lucas is worried about how he’s going to communicate and make friends. What is more problematic to a child than that?

BS: Mariana, both the Spanish and English are heartfelt and beautiful, and neither appears to be a direct translation of the other. That way, both hablantes and English readers can read whichever version they choose, and bilingual readers can read both and possibly note their differences. Did you write the Spanish first and translate it into English or write the English first or write them separately? What was your plan or did both the languages grow organically with the story?

ML: Although I was born and raised in Lima, Peru, I usually write picture book stories in English and poetry in Spanish. That is the way my bilingual brain works. But it wasn’t always like this. I have been a writer since I was a child, but when I moved to the United States I stopped writing. There was so much I had to deal with: a new country, a new language, a new culture. I became a mother, away from my family. I was on survival mode. When my second child was around three, I had an existential moment. I asked myself: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” And I remembered how much I enjoyed writing and how I had dreamed of writing a story. I tried to write, only to find the page in front of me always remained blank. I could not utter a sentence, much less tell a story. One day, a phrase came to my head—in English. The story seemed to unfold on its own and it was finished in a few hours. All in English. It was the way my brain had found to go around that big knot that was blocking my writing. And I embraced it. To this day, I write in English. Poetry comes at me in Spanish, it flows much easier, but it took some time for this process to happen, too.

So when I envisioned Luca’s Bridge as a story in Spanish and English, I threw my bilingual superpower into gear by imagining that I was writing poetry. 

BS: Anna, very often, the publisher separates the author from the artist in order, they say, to allow them their own visions. How did you come to work on this project? I’m especially impressed by how your illustrations beautifully complement the story; and also, how your limited use of color (mostly grays and golds with some blues and greens) moves the emotions of Luca and his family. What was your artistic vision behind the story? 

ALR: As I thought about and started working on the illustrations, I wanted to emphasize the emotional journey that Luca and his family were going through—their sadness, the loss of their home, the loss of their friends—but also how the power of love and family and the joy of doing what he loves could help lessen Luca’s ordeal. I tried to convey all of this with the color palette, with the grays and the blues representing the sadness and the darkness of his parents’ facing deportation, and then the yellows to signify the hope and the magic that is within him and in his family’s love. So even though Mariana and I did not work together, she had made the story so rich that I had a lot to work with. 

BS: Anna, I’m also impressed with the symbolism, especially the role of the migratory warblers who appear everywhere, even in the most unexpected places, such as the papel picado, on a windowsill, in Luca’s dream, perching on a chair or on a windowsill… Can you say more about why you chose to portray this little bird who knows no boundaries as a representative of this story?

ALR: Thank you for noticing that, Beverly. Luca imagines himself flying with a flock of birds, and I thought that it was just perfect that Mariana added that. When I read that I felt that Luca wanted himself and his family to be free like those birds, so those yellow warblers—who are migratory birds, free to come and go across the continent—became a symbol of freedom, companions to Luca in all of his journey and also a contrast to his family's situation. I added other bits of visual symbolism throughout the story as well: the ominous wall, the wilting flowers, because these symbols can be understood by everyone.

I also wanted to insert part of my own Mexican culture to the story without it’s being a cliché: the bridge is a combination of the patterns in Tenango embroidery from the state of Hidalgo; and Talavera, a traditional pottery painting from Puebla. I chose embroidery because, as we are humans, there is a thread that connects us all, there is more that brings us together than what separates us from each other, and the Talavera pottery because I associated it with being home and cooking. That’s why I added the birds in that form in the image of the bridge.

BS: Mariana and Anna, Luca’s Bridge is not only a well-told and beautifully illustrated story—it rings true to the tough decisions many families, especially mixed-status families, have to make.

ML: I’m grateful that there is a space for stories that can be uncomfortable but reflect the world in all its shades and colors. Luca’s Bridge describes a difficult theme, but it is also full of hope and love. Luca and his family find laughter and we see happiness and solace can sometimes be found even in situations that may be seen as hopeless. I think all of us, not only immigrants, can relate to this.

ALR: I just hope that when children and adults read this story, they get a sense of how difficult most immigrant experiences are. My hope is that this story helps children become more empathetic. In Mexico and everywhere else, we need more compassion and empathy for those whom we see as being different from us.

BS: Mariana y Anna, ¡Muchas felicidades y míl gracias for this beautiful story!

ML: ¡Y gracias a ti también!

ALR: ¡Míl gracias, Beverly y Mariana!

(published 9/28/19)


  1. Enjoyed reading this review. We will definitely have to buy this book!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation! I absolutely love both pieces


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