It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio

author: Luis J. Rodríguez 
illustrator: Daniel Galvez
translator: Francisco X. Alarcón
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1999 
grades 4-up 
Mexican American

Poet, novelist, educator, and activist, Luis J. Rodríguez, has been writing from his own experiences for more than 30 years. His beautiful picture book, La llaman América // América Is Her Name (Curbstone, 1997) was one of the first to focus on racism, immigration and migration from the voices and hearts of the people themselves.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio is narrated by 10-year-old Monchi, who’s being recruited by a local gang. Monchi becomes enamored of Clever, who is both engaging and intimidating. Both Monchi’s insightful and supportive uncle, Rogelio, and the child’s slightly older cousin, Dreamer, advise him not to take this road, but Clever’s pull is stronger. 

Rodríguez knows firsthand why young people join gangs: “to belong, to be cared for, and to be embraced.” In an introduction that includes a photo of himself as a gang member at age 11, he writes,“I hope we can create a community that fulfills these longings, so young people won’t have to sacrifice their lives to be loved and valued in this world.”

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way is Rodriguez’s envisioning of what his own childhood could have been had he not been seduced into becoming part of this dysfunctional, violent world.

Renowned mural artist Daniel Galvez’s compelling watercolor paintings, on a palette of vibrant floral colors and tones, beautifully express the East LA barrio and the people who live there. On the copyright page, Galvez thanks the adults and fifth-grade students who appear as characters in this story. Tío Rojelio is iconic artist Juan Fuentes, who has a gallery named after him at Acción Latina on 24th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The character who buys the bike that Monchi has stolen is René Yañez, who recently passed away. He was one of the founders of the Galería de la Raza and himself a Mission icon. 

Leading with the Spanish text on some pages and the English on others—along with some phrases in Mexican street Spanish woven into both the Spanish and English—reveals the community’s bilingualism.

Alarcón’s Spanish version is filled with his usual strong images and deep magical symbolism, as does Galvez’s art. 

Clever, the gang recruiter, brings to mind Edward James Olmos’ character, “El Pachuco,” in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. He is omnipresent, often lurking in the background. He is the evil who is there but not there, the one who follows the neighborhood, whispering in everyone’s ear. His presence is always there because he permeates the barrio, foreshadowing evil: watching Monchi from afar, giving him bad advice, inviting him to a jump-in, showing him how a gangsta dresses, encouraging him to steal a bike, noting his reaction to his cousin’s being shot, and observing his encounter with a cop. Practically the only scenes here that do not include Clever are when Monchi is with his family, especially with his uncle. The message is strong: Kids who live in the barrio must understand that they have to learn to be careful.

Monchi’s slightly older cousin, Dreamer, is Clever’s counterpoint—she’s the angel on Monchi’s shoulder. When we meet her, she’s fixing a loose board on the porch, and, mocking him as “medio tonto” after he’s tripped over a rock, pretends to hit her own head with the hammer. Although she appears to be joking with Monchi, she’s implying that he has the capacity to make the right choices, but he will still make mistakes along the way. Later, despite her being dissed by Clever, Dreamer tries to convince Monchi not to join the gang. When that doesn’t work, she takes a bullet for him. Kids who live in the barrio must understand that they have to learn to be careful.

Rodríguez’s story of the barrio brings in the same Chicano subtext that Luis Valdez captured in Zoot Suit—the strong history of rural East LA of the 1960s that goes back to Sleepy Lagoon and the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots” in 1943 which spawned the movie—to incorporate the neighborhood and the gangs.

Young Monchi is the poet Luis J. Rodríguez and, ultimately, his story is about resisting the strong pull of the gangs. In a particular illustration, Clever confronts Monchi, who is holding a notebook in which he’s been writing his poems. And Monchi, terrified, nonetheless is meeting Clever’s eyes. 

The rich symbolism continues throughout. In Monchi’s encounter with a cop after Dreamer has been shot, for instance, the illustration indicates that he is answering the cop’s questions reluctantly if at all. Readers see the policeman looming from behind, his arm close to the gun at his waist. Monchi, his arms at his side, looks directly up at him—while Clever stands a few feet away, but nobody sees him.

In another illustration, after Monchi has stolen and sold a bike, he purchases a knife. This knife comes from the outside world, and Monchi brings it inside and puts it on the table where Dreamer can see it. Mom is preparing food in the kitchen, her back turned to them, but her worried expression says that she, like everyone else, knows what’s going on. 

Ultimately, it’s the violent event that almost takes Dreamer’s life—rather than anyone’s pleading with him—that convinces Monchi to get out before it’s too late. 

In the hospital, Monchi is filled with grief and guilt, And the boy’s uncle is there to support him: “Esto no tiene que ser así, m’ijo,” he says. “Sé que quieres ser un hombre, pero tienes que decidir qué clase de hombre quieres ser.” (“It doesn’t have to be this way, my son. I know you want to be a man, but you have to decide what kind of man you want to be.”)

Rogelio is proud of Monchi's decision, and tells him that “nosotros podemos mejorar las cosas, m’ijo, si todos trabajamos juntos” (“we can make things better, my son, if we all work together”).

My comadre, Judy Zalazar Drummond, told me that she used Monchi’s story in San Francisco middle schools for many years in discussions about making positive and negative choices. It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio is *highly recommended for all home, library and classroom collections.

—Beverly Slapin

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

Gracias a mis colegas for their helpful input: David Bowles, María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Juan Camilo Prado, Noam Szoke, and Lila Quintero Weaver.


Although this story is highly recommended, the Spanish text is more nuanced and subtly different from the English. The result is, that in English, it tends to diminish Monchi’s autonomy and sense of self. I suspect that this flattening in the English language was an editorial choice, and I’d like to see an updated edition with the subtlety and message of the language restored.

A few examples:

• Describing an encounter with Clever, Monchi tells readers (in English) “I tried to sound cool, but I was scared.” And in Spanish, Monchi says that he was “trying to look calm, but the truth is that this vato scared me.” In the English, Monchi is blaming himself for being scared, while in the Spanish, he acknowledges the source of his fear.

• After Dreamer’s near encounter with death, Monchi tells his tío that he has decided not to join the gang. Rogelio responds: “Ésa fue uno decisión valiente…. Y te respeto mucho por eso.” Monchi’s uncle uses the empowering term, “decisión,” acknowledging both the decision itself and that the youngster is learning to make positive choices. In the English text, however, Rogelio tells Monchi that he did “a brave thing,” which implies that it may have been something he was compelled to do, rather than his choice. Here, the use of the word “thing” rather than “decision” deemphasizes Monchi’s developing self-awareness.

• In the end, Rogelio tells Monchi that: “Nosotros podemos mejorar las cosas, m’ijo, si todos trabajamos juntos.” (
“We can make things better, my son, if we all work together.”) Spanish readers see advice that comes from Rogelio’s experience and strugglewhile English readers see Rogelio telling Monchi that “we can make good things happen, m’ijo, if we all work together.” Using the passive term here—“happen”—minimizes the community’s task ahead and Monchi’s role in it. 

We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults

Author / Photographer: Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press, 2019 
grades 5-up 
Colombian, Mexican, Ghanaian, South Korean, Samoan

The original title of Kuklin’s book of interviews with undocumented young people was to be Out of the Shadows: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. This was during the time of the Obama administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which allowed individuals who were brought to the US as babies or children without documentation—US passports, green cards, or visas—to receive renewable two-year periods of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for Social Security, work permits, driver’s licenses and other necessary documentation. The book was to feature Kuklin’s stunning portraits of the young tellers who were, indeed, out of the shadows. 

However, after the book was imagined and planned and accepted by Candlewick Press for a 2017 release, the interviews accomplished, the portraiture shot and developed, and the book laid out and ready to go to print—the incoming Trump administration moved to repeal DACA, spreading hateful, divisive messages about immigrants, migrants, and refugee and asylum seekers. And the young people, among some 700,000, were forced back into the shadows.

A painful decision had to be made, and everyone decided to stop the presses. But after some two years, during which this volume of young people’s important, truth-telling stories sat in a drawer somewhere, all agreed—Kuklin, Candlewick, and the courageous young people themselves—to bring the book into publication. This was too important, they all said in their own ways, to leave it unpublished. At the same time, it was decided that changes had to be made for the protection of these young people. Here, they are referred to only by their first initials, empty frames replace their portraits, and all other identifying information has been redacted. As Kuklin told me (see interview below), their safety was everyone’s first priority.

In We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, nine young people from Colombia, Mexico, Ghana, Independent Samoa, and South Korea—now living under the constant threat of deportation to their countries of birth—narrate their “American” lives and, for those who remember, what their lives were like in their countries of birth and what circumstances brought them here. Each chapter is narrated by one or more of the young people. Their narrations are raw and honest. 

Kuklin’s stark, black-and-white photos in Chapter 3 are foreboding images that complement the young people’s stories. They include a sign that warns travelers about encountering “smuggling and illegal immigration,” a heavily-armed Border Patrol officer, a barbed-wire-topped enclosure, surveillance towers, footprints and empty water jugs. 

From G—, who came here from Mexico:

When I say good morning to my parents, I’m never sure that I will be able to say good night to them. I’m afraid to go to school, because it could be the last time I see them for a while. My dad’s got to go to work. He’s got to drive to get there. Because he does not have a US license, if a police officer pulls him over, he could end up in jail. Once he’s in jail, he could go through deportation proceedings. It’s happened to some of my friends—their parents get deported, and they are left alone.

And from Y—, who arrived from Colombia:

A lot of people grow up with shame and anxiety about being undocumented. It’s not something you want to share with people. On the news you hear about “the illegals,” and about all the resources they take from Americans. I don’t think people have a particularly nice image of us. So when I say, “I’m undocumented,” it’s hard to tell how people are going to react….

Maybe next time they hear someone railing about how terrible immigrants are, they’ll think about me. I’m a real person. I go to school with their kids. I have a wonderful family. Maybe after listening to me they will feel differently about immigrants.

Rather than being told (and interpreted) by outsiders, the voices in We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Young Undocumented Adults are authentic and impassioned and moving. This volume is *highly recommended for all home, classroom and library collections; and I look forward to holding an edition in which readers can feel the voices and see the faces of these courageous young people.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/1/19; revised 5/2/19, last sentence above.)

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

Note: Susan Kuklin is an award-winning author and photographer whose main interest in her more than 30 books for children and young adults is to address important social issues. Her photographs have been shown in the Museum of the City of New York and in documentary films, as well as published in Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She cares very much about young people and getting the story right and, as I found out, she is generous with her time as well. 


Beverly Slapin: How did you originally envision this book? How has this project evolved? How and why have you and the young people you interviewed had to change your plans since the election of Trump?

Susan Kuklin: The book depended upon who came forward and volunteered to do an interview. One person led to another person. For example, Y told me that she felt really safe in New York but had she lived in Arizona, she probably would not have felt safe. P, a young woman from Mexico, really wanted her story to be in the book, but she was shy. Very, very shy. We met four or five times, but I was unable to get the details and introspection necessary for a narrative. Oh, how she wanted to do this. At one point in between our interviews, I went to Arizona, into the desert, and took photographs for an essay that appears in the book. When I returned, P— and I attempted another interview. I just happened to show her the photographs. “That’s exactly where I was!!!” All of a sudden, her experiences came rushing out. It was a magical moment. And by the way, she’s not shy any more. In fact, P’s arms are on the cover of the book and in the video on my Website.

So these interviews are organic—they’re flashes of memories, with one memory opening to another deeper memory.

How have the young people you interviewed reacted to Trump’s election? How have their lives changed since the election?

Their emotions range from scared to angry to defiant. And those emotions changed from day to day—from hour to hour. Can you imagine what it’s like to wake up one morning and learn that all your documentation—all your hopes and dreams—are down the drain? And also a new government hostile to immigrants has your address and telephone number and all your personal information?

The election was scary for me, so I can only imagine how it was for them. But still, the participants wanted the book to come out.

I felt responsible for their safety and well-being. I didn’t want to do anything to put them in jeopardy. I also realized that I was in effect sending them back into the shadows, the very shadows we saw the book as obliterating. They were much braver than I was. They kept texting me to stop worrying so much!

How has the book been received? How have the tours been received?

Very, very positively. People have been so compassionate about these kids and want to know how they’re doing now. Since the book came out, I’ve gone to border states and have met a number of DREAMers there who appreciate that the book was published.

The full-page frames with no photos in them are jarring; especially since they are all captioned as if they in fact contain portraits. They remind me of so many of the “disappeared” in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and other fascist regimes of the time, whose families and communities still struggle to obtain the remains of their “disappeared” relatives. Who arrived at this decision to focus on the young people by “disappearing” their faces and names? Was it a collaborative decision? What do the young people think of it now?

Although it was not my intention to write a political book, the young people’s stories make a statement about what is going on now. 

For the year-and-a-half the manuscript and photos were in a drawer somewhere, I thought the book would never be published. But the participants had made it clear that they wanted their stories told, and those stories needed to be told. I gave them options to help me make the final decision: publish the book as is, publish it using names but not photographs, publish it using photographs but not names, or publish it without names or photographs. They also had the option of dropping out of the project. Everybody had a different idea of what they wanted to do. I decided—based on their views and based on their safety—that we should omit both the photos and names. I told them that I wanted to protect the most vulnerable people in the book. Basically, everyone agreed to protect each other.

I see these empty frames as telling people who look at them that we live in an unfree country and that many people who live here are in real danger. 

Yes, this is our reality. 

Despite the fact that these are all narratives, the book reads like an authentic collaboration. None of the young people who entrusted you with their stories have been named. How were they involved in the editing process? How were they involved in the decision-making process? 

While I was working with my editor, the young people had the opportunity to read the drafts for accuracy, authenticity, and voice. It was back and forth almost until the book went to print. Everything is in their voices, their syntaxes, their rhythms. Their stories are intimate. It was a true collaboration. 

Where are they now?

On one hand, they are in limbo and, on the other hand, their lives go on. Five have graduated from college, four are in graduate school, two are teachers, one’s becoming a journalist, one’s married, another has been able to bring his whole family here. They were raised as typical American kids. They know how to organize. They don’t take fools lightly. At the book launch that most of the New York participants attended, they immediately felt comfortable with each other——it was like they’d been friends forever.

All the participants are looking forward to the time when we can republish the book with their names and photographs—when they can actually come out of the shadows.