La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa

author: Deborah Mills 
author: Alfredo Alva
illustrator: Claudia Navarro
translator: María A. Pérez 
Barefoot Books, 2018
grade 2-up 

For more than 100 years, Alfredito’s family has lived in the small pueblo of La Ceja in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, working in the pinyon forest and the corn fields in the valley. Both forest and valley are far from their home and, now, Abuelo can no longer walk the distance. The children are always hungry, and Papá, unhappy about splitting up his family, takes Abuelo’s advice and, with young Alfredito (Papá’s first-born son), sets off for a place he can bring his family: somewhere “donde haya abundancia de trabajo y donde tu familia prospere.” 

La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa is a powerful and compelling narration of a father and his young son’s difficult journey, and it’s also the story of the many thousands who are forced for many different reasons and in many different ways to leave their homes and relocate to the US. 

Alfredito thinks about all the people and things he will miss: his home, his family, his friends, and his beloved donkey, Fernando, who was born in the same year. He can’t even imagine leaving his mother; indeed, he’d prefer being hungry to changing his life.

After his papá purchases the services of a coyote (in US dollars, of course) to assist them across the border, and after a huge going-away celebration with all the villagers, Alfredito’s sorrowful mother reminds him to be strong and that she will always love him. What she doesn’t tell him is that they will not see each other for many years.

Father and son’s harrowing journey includes floating across the Río Bravo / Río Grande on an old inner tube, only to find that the coyote has disappeared—and taken all of Papá’s money with him. (This is not an unusual occurrence.) Alone, the two walk for five days, through a desert, over a mountain, and across a valley—stopping only to take a quick nap on the top of a train that had stopped and to grab a jug of water left for the migrants by a train crew. Finally they get to a place known as the “Embassy” where others are resting—a metal-and-plywood shack, a few broken-down trailers and an old well. 

A few weeks later, Alfredito is able to begin school. Here, he meets another Spanish-speaker and learns to navigate his new environs, while watching out for men in uniforms. Things are changing for the better and, four years later, after President Ronald Reagan grants amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, Alfredito and Papá travel to El Paso, where they reunite with the rest of their family.

Alfredo Alva’s journey began some 30 years ago—before the current US administration that demonizes immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and before the current US administration that breaks up families and imprisons terrified youngsters.

For immigrants such as Alfredito and his Papá, stealthily crossing the border to find work so that their families can survive is a desperate and heroic act. One of the things that makes La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa special is that it’s a true story of a hazardous journey, written at a level that will appeal to younger readers and listeners—both hablantes and English-speakers alike.

Most bilingual (Spanish-English) books for children (published in this country, at least) automatically privilege the English title and written text by their positions and layouts, so it’s refreshing to see the Spanish in the forefront here. As well, Pérez’s flawless idiomatic Spanish reads as beautifully and thoughtfully as the English text. For instance, the English has our young narrator saying, “I did not even want to think about leaving Mama. I was hungry, yes, but I did not want life to change.” And the Spanish reads, “Y no quería ni imaginarme cómo sería dejar a mamá. Tenía hambre, sí, pero no quería que cambiara mi vida.” (“And I did not even want to imagine what it would be to leave mom. I was hungry, yes, but I did not want my life to change.”)

In Navarro’s brightly saturated acrylic, graphite, and digital collage artwork, all of the characters’ expressions are clear: Papá’s sorrow as Abuelo tells him that he is no longer able to walk the distance to and from the pine forest; Alfredito’s initial disbelief as he hears from Mamá that they may not see each other for awhile and that he has to be strong; Papá’s and Alfredito’s sadness as they wait for the bus to take them to Acuña; Alfredito’s wonder as he makes friends with classmates who teach him English words; and, on the last spread, the family’s joy as they reunite in El Paso four years later. The illustrations also carry symbolism to which younger readers will easily relate. In one, Alfredito sadly caresses the family donkey, Fernando, who appears to be wondering what’s going on. In another, the youngster listens behind a wall as his father talks quietly with a coyote. Readers will not see the image of the human smuggler, but they will note the pencilled-in shadow of a coyote (the animal) on the floor. And on several pages, younger readers will note the appearance of at least one swallow—“a little bird,” Alfredito’s mamá tells him, “who does not need much to eat or drink to keep flying north.”

Most of the stylized art consists of full-bleed double-page spreads, with the text superimposed on or complementing the sky, the grass, or the adobe walls in the illustrations. Throughout the story, Alfredito wears blue pants, red sneakers and a blue-green shirt with yellow stripes; Papá wears dark blue pants and a light blue shirt, Mamá almost always wears a red dress with embroidered trim, and Abuelo wears un vestido de paisano con huaraches, typically worn by gente de campo. That most of the characters wear a “signature outfit” provides a cue for younger readers who otherwise might have difficulty in differentiating some of them.

Although all of the art is appealing, one illustration in particular stands out. At Alfredito’s and Papá’s going-away celebration (for which Uncle Tomás had announced that he would roast the family pig), bright lights and papel picado are strung between trees. The table is loaded with food, and it appears that the whole town has shown up. Yes, the family is hungry and must be split apart. But for now, as the multigenerational, multiethnic Mexican family, friends and community—desde el más viejo hasta el más joven—gather for what may be their last party together, there is dancing and laughter and flirting and love y abrazos y besos. And as they sing their favorite song, “Amor eterno,” there is joy. Younger readers may discover here that, while an individual family may be hungry, in this moment, together, in community, they are all wealthy.

The back matter contains black-and-white family photos (one of which shows Alfredo Alva and his large, smiling, extended family in Texas in 2016) and presents notes in Spanish and English that extend Alva’s narrative: a short history of his journey to Texas in the 1980s, a brief illustrated discussion of the changing frontier between Mexico and the US, and a short “objective” explanation of the hows and whys of immigration.

Story, art, translation and design beautifully come together in La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa. For younger readers and listeners—and everyone else—it’s *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections. 

—Beverly Slapin 
(posted 4/16/19)

Gracias a mis colegas, Oralia Garza de Cortés and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

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

P.S. A few more words: 

(1) Although Alfredo Alva worked with his neighbor, author Deborah Mills, to write this story, La Frontera is essentially his narrative, his story—and, rather than presenting Mills’ name first on the cover and title page, the publisher should have placed Alfredo Alva’s name in the primary position.

(2) Creating an authentic bilingual children’s book requires the equal participation of author, illustrator, and translator. In La Frontera, the publisher failed to include the translator as a legitimate member of the team by listing her name only on the CIP page, in tiny type.

I hope that these two errors will be corrected in the next printing.