Caravana al Norte: La larga caminata de Misael // Caravan to the North: Misael’s Long Walk

author: Jorge Argueta
translator (English): Elizabeth Bell 

illustrator: Manuel Monroy 
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press, 2019 
grades 4-up 
Pipil Nahua, Salvadoran

On the mostly black-and-white line illustration that wraps around the jacket, an anonymous group of people gathers in the Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo. Most wear caps and lug drawstring sacks or backpacks or duffel bags or rolled-up sleeping bags, several carry toddlers or babies in slings, and one has a guitar. All of the people are brown and they face the same direction. Except for one man who is turned to the south, waving goodbye, all bodies and eyes are focused north.

In the group’s center is a young boy. With one hand, he holds a duffel bag and with the other, he grasps his father’s hand. While everyone else is depicted in white and is outlined in black or blue inks, this child wears a red t-shirt and his gaze is directed at the reader. He is the only one depicted with a mouth. His name is Misael Martínez, he is nine years old, he is part of the caravan to the north, and this is his story.

Through narrative verse in a voice that will resonate with young readers, Misael tells them why he and his family are leaving for the north. 
Hemos decidido
porque en mi pueblo
ya no se puede vivir.
No hay trabajo
ni oportunidades.
Lo que hay
es violencia, maras.
We decided to leave
because you can't really live
in my village anymore.
There's no work.
There's no way to get by.
What there is,
is violence, gangs.
As the families walk the 2,500 miles through Central America to the Tijuana border where they hope to cross into the US for a life that that will be safe and secure, Misael remembers his home—the good times and the beauty of simple things:
Yo quiero mucho
pero mucho a mi país.
Me encanta
hacer siembras,
ver crecer el maíz
y los frijolitos
I love my country
so, so much.
I love to plant
the fields,
see the corn come up
and the little beans sprout.
Readers also hear the voices of Misael’s parents. When they talk about the gang violence, their hearts are full of empathy for “those poor babies,” nobody’s children anymore but the gang’s. They talk about a neighbor’s son, killed by the cops.
Pobre cipote, se murío llorando
y llamando a su mamá.
A uno de tata, eso le duele.
Poor kid died crying
and calling for his mamá.
As a dad, that really hurts.
Misael remembers the good things about their home, the beautiful things: 
Cuando cantan
las gualcalchillas
canta mi corazón
y yo sé que canta
el corazón
de nuestra Madre Tierra.
When the gualcalchillas
my heart sings
and I know
our Mother Earth’s heart
is singing too.
Each short chapter begins with a title and a black-and-white line illustration that sets the scene for the narrative that follows. For the interior illustrations, Monroy used a calligraphy pen and Chinese ink on rustic rice paper, and for the cover, he processed the illustrations digitally to add color. This technique works beautifully with the spacious book design, hinting at detail and leaving room for readers’ imaginations—encouraging them to pause, examine and reflect—and identify with young Misael, his relatives, and the other asylum seekers.

Through these simple line drawings and beautiful narrative poems that need no interpretation, young readers will see the impossible conditions, the violence that is continuing to drive thousands of refugees into the mouth of the shark. And they will also see the impossible beauty of the land that young Misael has left—and the warm arms of his relatives and the beauty of the countryside and the beauty of a kernel of corn sprouting up, breaking the soil and saying “hello.” 

As they walk, the young refugees dream about what they’ll do when they reach the border. Misael fantasizes bathing in warm water and having a washing machine. Another boy wants to work and send money home to his mamá. Another’s ambition is to become a lawyer or a doctor, and yet another is happy to settle for just getting to the north. 

On their long, difficult journey, the refugees are often met with kindness from strangers along the way. In Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, 
Aquí nos regalan agua y comida.
Lo más sabroso son las sonrisas
de la gente.
They give us water and food.
The smiles that people give us
taste best of all.
And in Mexico City, a man at the shelter makes pupusas for everyone:
¡Vaya, las pupusas!
¡Pupusas revueltas de sueños,
pupusas revueltas de arcoíris,
pupusas revueltas de cantos,
pupusas revueltas de amor!
“Come get your pupusas!
Pupusas filled with dreams,
pupusas filled with rainbows
pupusas filled with song,
pupusas filled with love!”
But when the large caravan finally reaches the US border they are confronted by the foreboding barbed wire-topped wall. Suddenly, cops and soldiers descend on them, attacking the families with tear gas and batons. The screaming, panicked, choking, people run every which way. 

That night, as Misael falls into a fitful sleep, he dreams that he’s flying, that he’s a song, that he’s a butterfly, that he’s a fish and a wave. And then he dreams 
el sueño más dulce:
en vez de llegar al Norte
llegué a El Salvador.
the sweetest dream of all
Instead of going to the North
I went back to El Salvador.
Although both Caravana al Norte and Caravan to the North employ language as spoken by a child, they don’t talk down to child readers. Argueta wrote this story in Spanish, and Elizabeth Bell’s spot-on English translation maintains both the poetic rhythm and Misael’s deep feelings. Monroy’s simple, evocative drawings, combined with the desperate narrative of a frightened child, show young readers what it is to be confronted with the real terror of the Central American asylum seekers desperately attempting to get to El Norte. 

*Highly recommended for home, library and classroom collections.

Argueta has a great talent and a gentle heart. Whether he’s writing in Nahuat, Spanish, or English, he knows his responsibility to the children of El Salvador and the children of the world—and he joyously takes it on. 

*Also highly recommended for home, classroom  and library collections are Argueta's Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, translated by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Alfonso Ruano (Groundwood, 2016); and Dos conejos blancos and Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, translated by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Rafael Yockteng (Groundwood, 2016).

—Beverly Slapin
(published 10/5/19)

Gracias a mi amiga y colega, Lyn Miller-Lachmann.