Book Review: Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle

By Zoraida Córdova

Silver People

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young “silver people” whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rain forest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.

MY TWO CENTS: Silver People is a historical novel written in verse. Told in alternating perspectives over eight years, each poem is vibrant, unique, and many times heartbreaking. The story starts with Mateo, a fourteen year old boy from Cuba who lies about his ethnicity in order to get passage to and work in Panama. He’s mixed, and even though this takes place over 100 years ago, the feeling of not fully belonging to one part of yourself or culture is still relevant. His dark skin and green eyes allow him to “pass.” Like many of the men who flocked to Panama during this time, Mateo wants to work. But with a new world and new people come many challenges. First, there’s the hunger for food. Second, there’s a hunger for home. Third, there’s a fear of survival.

Through his careful observations, we are given a scope of surviving the working life on the canal. A structure of segregation is placed: “Americans, Frenchmen, and Dutch./ Spaniards, Greeks, Italians./ Jamaicans, Barbadians, Haitians” leaving Mateo wondering how any of them will be able to work together. Although all of the men are doing backbreaking and soul crushing work each day, the white men get paid in gold, the dark Europeans in silver, and the islanders in half the silver as other men. During the night, the monkeys howl and insects bite; Mateo ends up wondering “How can I miss the place/ I was so desperate to leave?” When I read that I thought to myself that even now, that’s the immigrant struggle. You long for a place that might give you a better life, a place that could be better, but also a place to belong to. At the end of the day, no matter where the working men came from, whether they wanted home, refuge, gold, silver, they were still joined in one thing: surviving the rain forest.

Although physical survival isn’t the only thing that bonds them. Henry, a Jamaican worker who watches as the medium-dark Spaniards get to sit for their meals while he has to stand, finds an unlikely friend in Mateo. They find commonality in sickness, mudslides, bitterness, pain, fighting, and a longing for home.

Other narratives include that of Anita “La Yerbera” who becomes a close ally of Mateo’s. Also an orphan, Anita was abandoned in the forest and taken in by an old Cuban woman. Her voice is unique and offers a different perspective to life in Panama. Unlike Mateo and other newcomers who are there to blow up the trees and remove entire landmasses, Anita feels she belongs to the forest itself. It’s her home, and we watch with her home is destroyed right before her eyes.

I love that in this story of the struggle of humans versus nature, Margarita Engle gives nature a voice. “The Forest” gets its own sections, detailing the point of views of the animals as they watch and howl at the intruders.

Okay, so I know this book is told in poems. Don’t let this shy you away. After all, it’s Poetry Month! What I love about this book is that each poem pulls you to the next. You can’t read just one poem; you have to read just one more. This blog post could be 10 pages long because each poem packs such a punch and makes you stop and think about what Mateo, Anita, and Henry are going through. It makes you wonder just how much is different today. I laughed out loud at one of Anita’s poems during Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to the canal, and the sludge of tourists that “…all they want/is hats–white hats like the American president’s,/ hats woven in Ecuador, hats that tourists/ insist on calling Panama hats. Don’t they/understand that Latin America/ has many countries?” It’s not a “laugh out loud” thing, but 100 years later, still relevant.

I wish Silver People had been around when I was in school. From our text books, all we learned about the Panama Canal was that “America built it.” I wish I’d known about the Silver People. But when you’re little, how do you go about describing the injustices of the world in a way that a child will understand? This is just the book for that. Margarita Engle weaves questions about identity, struggle, and discrimination, all through beautiful poetry.

The truth about most of these men is that they didn’t go home. Some didn’t make it out of the forest alive. But the white Americans, the Italians, the Jamaicans, the Cubans who “passed,” some of them stayed in Panama and became locals. Some spread out across the continent. This books reminded me that the history of the world should always be told through many perspectives, and that when pushed together we keep creating new cultures.

TEACHING TIPS: This book is a great read on it’s own, but would also be fun when learning about Panama, the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, rain forest depletion, Latin@ studies, or because it’s National Poetry Month.

Margarita Engle has a section for teachers on her website! –> click.

AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender TreeThe Poet Slave of CubaTropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters.

Engle’s most recent books are The Lightning Dreamer and When You Wander.

Her new middle grade chapter book, Mountain Dog, was published in August 2013. Margarita’s latest book, Silver People, Voices From the Panama Canal is out now.

She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

3 comments on “Book Review: Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle

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