Book Review: La Frontera: El Viaje con Papá / My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illus. by Claudia Navarro

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Based on a true story! Join a young boy and his father on an arduous journey from Mexico to the United States in the 1980s to find a new life. They’ll need all the courage they can muster to safely cross the border — la frontera — and to make a home for themselves in a new land. Inspired by the childhood immigration experience of co-author Alfredo Alva, this story of perseverance is told in both Spanish and English to empower language-learning. Includes 4 pages of endnotes that unpack facts about Alfredo’s story and other stories like his and borders around the world to help parents and educators talk with children about immigration, resilience, empathy and belonging.

MY TWO CENTS: This bilingual picture book tells the story of Alfredo Alva (a co-author) who leaves his family and home in Mexico to make the journey to the United States with his father. Told from the child’s perspective, Alfredo tells the reason why his father makes the difficult decision to make the harrowing journey to the U.S. by stating that he “could no longer provide for our growing family” (n.p.). The language that is used is simple, yet powerful. Alfredo makes the poignant statement in thinking about leaving his Mama and brothers: “I was hungry, yes, but I did not want life to change” (n.p.).

Their journey, like that of so many, is difficult and they pay a coyote to guide them in their journey across the border to the U.S. Alfredo and his father are abandoned by the coyote, and they must make the journey through the dessert on their own and on foot. Alfredo documents how they traveled and the dangers they encountered, “We started walking at dawn every day, and we walked for five days. There was no path, and the brambles ripped my clothes. I had many cuts. When I sat or slept on the ground, I got bitten by fire ants, and I was always watching for scorpions and snakes.” Eventually, they reach their destination. Alfredo begins to attend school, he learns English, and makes friends. Alfredo and his father are able to begin the long process of applying for citizenship through President Reagan’s amnesty program. Alfredo does not see his mother and brothers for four years.

The illustrations in this book are vivid and bring life to the experience that Alfredo is describing. They also depict the sense of sadness that Alfredo feels when he finds out he will be separated from his family, they depict the harshness of the trip, and also capture the closeness and love of family.  This is a timely and very important book that shows the difficult choices that parents must make to provide a better life for their children. It also showcases the love that Alfredo’s father has for him as he carries him through some of the journey and tries to provide comfort in any way to his son. The book also showcases the difficulties that children experience when they leave their families behind, travel through the dangerous terrain, and begin life in a different country. This book provides an excellent space for discussions about the immigration experience, the journey that families make, and the difficulties in adjusting to a new life. One of the best features is that it is told through the perspective of a child and therefore can provide a window into the difficulties into the immigration journey that so many children experience. The educational end notes provide four pages detailing Alfredo’s story, describing borders and cultures, and reasons why people immigrate. The end notes also provide real pictures from Alfredo’s family. This book is a heartfelt and moving depiction of a family’s difficult decision to immigrate and a child’s experience in that journey. It is a must have in classrooms and libraries.

Click on the video below for an introduction to La Frontera by Barefoot Books:

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORSAlfredo Alva was born in La Ceja, Mexico. He came to Kerrville, Texas, with his father when he was eight years old. He is now married with two children and runs a successful masonry business. He wanted to share his story because he sees immigrants facing the same difficulties today that his family faced over thirty years ago.

Deborah Mills studied architecture and worked in the field while living overseas with her husband and five children. She now divides her time between Kerrville, Texas, and Thousand Islands, New York. When she met Alfredo’s family and learned his story, she wanted to write it down and share it. She believes that all children everywhere need to understand this important piece of history.

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Claudia Navarro studied at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas UNAM in Mexico City, and has illustrated for clients around the world. She lives in Mexico City.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

Happy Book Birthday to My Year in the Middle!

Happy book birthday to My Year in the Middle! What you are gazing at is my debut children’s book. It’s a middle-grade novel featuring a 12-year-old Latina character named Lu Olivera— a story of friendship, self-discovery, athletic challenges, and the courage to stand up to racism. 

Here is what Shelf Awareness wrote about My Year in the Middle: “Weaver, who previously published a graphic memoir called Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, writes vividly about the spaces in the middle, between black and white. Any reader who has struggled to find a safe and happy place between polarities will appreciate Weaver’s deep understanding of just how difficult–and rewarding–this can be.” (You can read the whole review here.)

And now, for a quick rundown of the story’s major points, follow this picture essay, complete with sticky notes and chalk dust.  

NOTE: Each chapter starts off with a pencil drawing that I created. I hope young readers enjoy the vintage touches these images bring.

 

And did I mention there’s running? One day in PE class, it hits Lu that she can run like the blue blazes! Field Day is around the corner—and with it comes the chance to race against a fierce and accomplished competitor.

Racial and political drama is everywhere—in the headlines, at the breakfast table, in the classroom. Based on historical events that I remember from my own youth, the gubernatorial primary playing out in the story’s background serves as a textbook case for nasty elections. Somehow Lu gets caught in this tangle.

Is there romance? Oh yes!

Also: MUSIC. Lots of timeless rock & roll and delicious soul music, just the way Lu and her friends dig it!

Okay, this is only a blitz tour! If you’d like to learn more about the novel itself and the story behind the story, please visit my website. There, you will find extensive information, including a downloadable discussion guide developed by education specialists at Candlewick Press, as well as links to early reviews—plus some My Year in the Middle extras for young readers!

Please ask your librarian to acquire My Year in the Middle for your community or school library! It’s also available for sale at many independent bookstores and all major national booksellers. It’s listed here in Candlewick’s catalog. 

One more thing: I wrote a from-the-heart guest post for Nerdy Book Club. Please check it out by clicking HERE—and while you’re there, enter their giveaway (time sensitive). Each of four winners will receive a copy of My Year in the Middle, plus one of the original art pieces I created for the book. Here’s an advance peek of what winners will receive.

 

Interview and Resource on Family Separation and Detention

 

Here at Latinxs in Kid Lit we are deeply concerned over the crisis at our southern border and the long-range effects that family separation will have on children. Today we are pleased and honored to share expert insights on this critical issue from three outstanding Latinas— children’s literature scholars Marilisa Jiménez García and Cristina Rhodes, and immigration-law expert Losmin Jiménez. In this article, you will also find resources for advocacy and a list of recommended books for the classroom. 

By Marilisa Jiménez, Losmin Jiménez, and Cristina Rhodes

The separation of families at the U.S. border and news coverage about family separation and detention has reached a pinnacle. However, those working with these communities know this dire situation was long in the making. As members of the children’s literature community, and those who advocate for the stories of young people and their families, we wanted to create a resource providing more information about the facts on family detention and separation.

For this post, we were able to interview a legal expert in the field of immigration law, Losmin Jiménez, the Project Director of Immigrant Justice for the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. Losmin is also Marilisa’s sister and brings with her years of experience advocating for immigrants in detention. We also assembled a list, undergirded by Cristina Rhodes’ research expertise on activism in Latinx children’s literature, for educators to consider when discussing these issues in the K-12 and higher education classroom.

Interview with Losmin Jiménez, Project Director of Immigrant Justice at the Advancement Project

  1. How long have you worked in this area of law? What have you seen change? What has not changed?

I have been practicing law for 10 years. I went to law school to represent children in foster care and started volunteering with Lawyers for Children America in Miami in 2004. During law school, I concentrated on children’s rights and family law. After law school, I worked in civil legal services in domestic violence, disability rights, family law, and conducted outreach to migrant workers in a rural part of Florida. I then started working in the field of immigration and have worked in the field of immigration for 6 years. From 2012-2015, I was appointed to the Legal Needs of Children Committee for the Florida Bar. Also, in 2012, I started volunteering on the American Bar Association (ABA) Right to Counsel Strategy Group, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. Some of that time was spent working on immigration detention issues and representing unaccompanied minors. I have seen more erosions of due process and attacks on the independence of immigration judges. I have not seen detention of immigrants decrease, but only increase, much to my disappointment.

  1. What do you wish people knew about the border crisis?

The reasons why people flee to the United States are very complicated. Many of the individuals seeking protection in the United States are fleeing persecution, gender-based violence, human trafficking, and narco-traffickers. Many individuals seeking protection at the southern border are from the Northern Triangle Countries. The Northern Triangle is a term commonly used to refer to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Northern Triangle countries are some of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of a conflict zone, after years of U.S. funded government interventions in the 1980s. People know they could die on the journey to the U.S. as they travel through the desert with a guide that they do not know, but risk their life and leave their country because staying home is not an option, as staying home could mean sexual assault, death, or torture. If you are fleeing for your life, applying for a visa and waiting years for a visa is not an option.

Also, it is not just people from Central America seeking protection at the southern border, but immigrants from Africa, South Asia, and other regions of the world who are seeking protection. All individuals have a right to seek protection under international law and federal law, including the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. That is the law. Prosecuting individuals for seeking protection in the U.S. is an affront to human rights.

Something else that people new to this area may not know is that immigration detention is not new, it has been happening for decades. Over sixty percent of immigration detention centers are run by private prison corporations that are publicly traded on the stock exchange, thus these corporations have a profit motive. Family detention has existed under previous administrations, and most recently under the Obama administration there was an expansion of family detention with four detention centers, one of which closed after litigation because of the horrible conditions. At the moment, there are three family detention centers: Berks Family Residential Center in Berks County, Pennsylvania (Berks), Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas (Karnes), and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas (Dilley). To give you an idea of the size of these family detention centers, Dilley has 2,400 beds. It costs about $342.00 a day to detain a family. That is the financial cost, but the human costs are infinite.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended at the southern border has been very high for the last several years as the conditions in the Northern Triangle countries continues to worsen. Between 2014 and 2016, 168,203 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Regarding families, between 2014 and 2016, 185,957 family units were apprehended at the southern border by CBP. As of June 1, 2018, 58,113 family units were apprehended at the southern border. Please note that there are approximately 40,000 detention beds in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. ICE detention centers are meant for adults only. Under federal regulations and as a result of the Flores settlement, children are detained in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of U.S. Health and Human Services. However, families can be detained in a family detention center, but should only be detained for short period (20 days) to comply with Flores. The administration recently filed a motion asking a federal court for permission to detain children with their parents in ICE facilities while their criminal and/or immigration case is pending, and this could be years.  

When I heard that the administration wanted to prosecute adults entering without a visa or valid travel document under Operation Streamline, I was outraged, but I also thought it would be a horrific policy that could not be sustained given the numbers of people and families apprehended at the southern border. Just in May 2018, 9,485 family units were apprehended.

Given this information, you may understand that when some groups began making well-intentioned arguments for keeping families together, but not addressing the use of prosecution under Operation Streamline, I was very concerned that what the administration would do would be to expand family detention. The solutions we envision or solutions we want are not the solutions this administration provides. This is why decriminalizing migration is so important and necessary. I would suggest that the demand be to decriminalize migration, suspend all deportations, and end immigration detention. In addition, government policies should address the root causes of migration so people will not have to flee their countries and would be free and safe to thrive in their home country.

  1. What can those concerned with children being separated from their families do to help?

Call your Congressional Representatives, meet with them, and advocate for policies that decriminalize migration, donate to organizations working with impacted populations such as RAICES, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Detention Watch Network, and Grassroots Leadership. There are so many more, these are just suggestions.

  1. What are some myths about the current crisis that you hope are dispelled?

One myth that I see is the myth that people are “breaking the law.” By choosing to prosecute individuals at the southern border under Operation Streamline, the government is criminalizing a multitude of asylum seekers; however, under U.S. law and international law, individuals can seek asylum and should be able to do so. They should also be afforded due process– that is also “the law.”  Another myth is that a “court order” is what is making the government separate the families. The reference to a court order is a reference to the Flores v. Reno settlement (1997) agreement. This settlement involves protections for children apprehended by immigration enforcement and concerns protections and conditions for all children in immigration, including unaccompanied minors and accompanied children. For more information, please look at materials on KIND’s website or WRC’s website about the Flores settlement. The Flores case was first filed in 1985 because of the egregious detention conditions unaccompanied minors endured in immigration detention.

Another myth is that detention is the solution when in fact it is not. Detention is inhumane, exacerbates trauma, and negatively impacts child development. In addition, it is incredibly expensive. There are humane ways to ensure the government processes individuals and families seeking protection. One method could be to move away from a law enforcement model to working with humanitarian personnel or social workers who are trained in dealing with survivors of trauma and are familiar with best practices in child welfare in a home-like setting or by placement with family in the home country. Lastly, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings, so there is no public defender who will be getting appointed to represent indigent clients in immigration court. Immigrants facing prosecution will be appointed a federal public defender in their criminal court case, but immigrants will not be appointed counsel in their immigration case. So you could have a 7-year-old unaccompanied minor who is facing court by himself or herself or a mother with two children facing court alone.

Further resources recommended by Losmin and Marilisa Jiménez:

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Relief for Unaccompanied Minors by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/06/immigration-relief-unaccompanied-minors/

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Court and Due Process–NITA’s Official Position by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/11/immigration-court-due-process-nitas-official-position/

Raices: https://www.raicestexas.org/

Kids In Need of Defense: https://supportkind.org/

Teaching Central America: http://www.teachingcentralamerica.org

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights: https://www.theyoungcenter.org/

Detention Watch Network, https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/

Mijente: https://mijente.net/home/

Grassroots Leadership: http://grassrootsleadership.org/

Reading Recommendations by Cristina Rhodes

The following is not an exhaustive list of children’s books, websites, and academic sources, but each reveals, examines, and meditates on undocumented immigration, deportation, and childhood. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that children are disproportionately affected by geopolitics, and recent events more than solidify that fact. But children’s literature takes up that trauma, molds it and reshapes it into something new, something transformative. Children’s literature offers perspectives not just of hope (though hope is certainly there in those pages), but of the harsh reality of border crossing and children’s resiliency in the face of peril. In times when we’re left wondering what to do, what to think, I believe that turning to the pages of books for young readers allows us to mediate our feelings of hopeless and helplessness and allows our children to understand that they are not alone.

Children’s Books:

Picture Books

  • Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado by Gloria Anzaldúa
  • Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago
  • Super Cilantro Girl by Juan Felipe Herrera
  • Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre by Rene Colato Laínez
  • Waiting for Papa by René Colato Laínez & Anthony Accardo
  • My Diary from Here to There by Amada Irma Pérez
  • Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade

  • Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
  • Us, in Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre
  • The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
  • The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
  • My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
  • The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

 

 

YA

  • La Línea by Ann Jaramillo
  • Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
  • Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

Further Reading:

Websites

Articles

Peer-Reviewed Articles

  • Benuto, Lorraine T., Jena B. Casas Frances R. Gonzalez, and Rory T. Newlands. “Being an undocumented child immigrant.” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 89, 2018, pp. 198-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.04.036
  • de Cortes, Oralia Garza. “Behind the Golden Door: The Latino Immigrant Child in Literature and Films for Children.” Multicultural Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 24–27, 59–62.
  • Gonzales, Roberto G. “On the Rights of Undocumented Children.” Society, vol. 46, no. 5, 2009, pp. 419-22. doi: 10.1007/s12115-009-9240-7

We are deeply grateful to the authors of this article for exemplary work in their respective fields.

Marilisa Jiménez García is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in Latino/a literature and culture.  She is particularly interested in the intersections of race, gender, nationalism, and youth culture in Puerto Rican literature of the diaspora.  Marilisa also specializes in literature for youth and how marginalized communities have used children’s and young adult texts as a platform for artistic expression, collective memory, and community advocacy. She is an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University. Her Twitter handle is @MarilisaJimenez.

 

 

Losmin Jiménez is Project Director and Senior Attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project. She has practiced law in numerous areas affecting children, families and immigrants. Losmin received her law degree with honors from the University of Florida College of Law. Learn more about her work here. Follow her on Twitter via @LosminJimenez.

 

 

 

Cristina Rhodes, a frequent and valued reviewer on this blog, is a Ph.D. candidate in children’s literature at Texas A&M University. Her thesis is entitled “Embodying la Resistencia: Activist Praxis in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” Follow Cristina on Twitter at @_crisRhodes. 

Doodling as Activism: How I Produced My Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer

Earlier this week, we published a review of Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life. Today we are pleased to present a guest post by the author-illustrator.

By Alberto Ledesma

From 1989 to 1996 I attended graduate school at UC Berkeley. During my last four years in the Ethnic Studies doctoral program, I spent almost every day studying the ways that undocumented immigrants had been represented in Mexican American novels and short stories. I read hundreds of pieces, dozens of novels and many, many short stories—the works themselves and the literary criticism that had been written about them—all in an effort to understand what role undocumented immigrant characters and stories played in the larger world imagined by Mexican American authors. I had pursued this project because of my own experience as a previously undocumented student. It’s funny how our own biographies sometimes compel us to seek answers to questions about ourselves, right?

Being undocumented had had such a profound impact on the shaping of my and my family’s cultural identities that I was eager to understand the many ways that that experience had also been represented in the collection of books and stories contained by Chicano literature. But, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in graduate school, there seemed to be few works that placed undocumented characters as the protagonists of their stories. This confused me, because I knew that there were millions of undocumented people living in the same neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. And I knew that several million undocumented immigrants had just gone through the federal amnesty process that my family and I had just gone through. Surely, I thought, some Mexican American authors must have written stories that focused on experiences like mine.

For the most part, my interest in exploring undocumented stories remained undaunted during the mid 1990s. And though the days that I spent working on my dissertation were long, often starting at the crack of dawn and ending only once the library at UC Berkeley closed, I was driven by a strong desire to show that undocumentedness was another kind of Mexican “American” experience and that it deserved to be told within the corpus of books we now called Chicano literature. In the end, however, after I finished my dissertation and published a number of articles connected to it, that scholarly dialogue that I was hoping to initiate about the role of undocumented immigrant experience within Chicano literature did not seem to want to take off. Still, I taught classes focusing on immigrant subjects, attended many literary conferences where I made impassioned presentations about the importance of incorporating undocumentedness as an important interpretive lens within the field of Chicano letters, and while I was heartened by the emergence of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands theory and analytical focus, it seemed that undocumented ways of knowing would remain largely absent from Chicano literary studies. So it was that after attending a major conference in Zacatecas, Mexico, in the late 1990s, and after noticing that once again I seemed to be the lonely voice in the wilderness, that I decided to take a break from my research while I raised my infant daughter.

That break ended up lasting eighteen years as I moved from teaching and research to doing college administrative work. As the years passed I thought that I had left my project behind; however, in 2012, while I was teaching a Summer Bridge class as part of my responsibility of being an administrator at Berkeley’s Student Learning Center, something magical happened—the Undocumented Student Movement emerged and it placed the concern over undocumented immigrants at the heart of Latinx studies. Throughout the country, undocumented students were participating in marches and protests, all in an effort to get the US Congress to pass the Dream Act. Some students had gone to protest President Barack Obama during the Democratic National Convention. Some initiated sit-ins at senator offices. And eventually, as a result of all their efforts, the Obama Administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), a policy that permitted undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children to attend college and work.

The creation of the DACA policy inspired me to return to the questions I had about what being undocumented meant in the United States. But, instead of writing more essays about this issue, I decided to draw cartoons instead. It all happened because of that Summer Bridge class I was teaching when the undocumented student movement exploded across the United States. Though I was excited about doing a lecture about the undocumented student movement, my students had expressed a frustration with the amount of work that I had already assigned them. So, in order to pique their interest, I tapped into and old and neglected talent and drew a quick sketch of “A Day in the Life of an Undocumented Student.” Though my students had complained about all the work that they had had to do, I noticed that many of them began doing research on the movement on their own. So, I sketched other cartoons and shared them via Facebook. All of the sudden, I began getting hundreds of friend requests and they began asking me to draw more cartoons, to share my experience though art. After several years of doing so, of drawing vignettes based on my undocumented life, I had the makings of a book.

You might wonder why I, as a trained literary scholar in this field, decided to do something for which I had no training at all? Interestingly, it was only after I started doing cartoon sketches about my undocumented heritage that that the conversation that I wanted to get started actually occurred. What changed? Why did it my cartoons elicit a reaction that my scholarship did not? I think that the main reason my cartoons hit the nerve that my essays and stories could not do had everything to do with the form. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Here, I was creating visual essays, communicating the same ideas I had been researching, with the cartoons I was crafting. I realized that the young people who responded to my cartoons were also more accustomed to consuming visual text. Snapchat, Facebook, emojis, all of these had developed in them literacy skills for quickly digesting ideas in images.

It did not take me long to understand that my cartoon memoir was also effective because of its flexible narrative form. I did not have to assume a stuffy authorial voice to maintain my credibility. In my cartoons the fourth narrative wall was pliable; I could as easily be an overeducated omniscient narrator as I could be a vulnerable first-person witness to the same story without jarring the viewer. And yet, because my assumption was so strong that the only way my undocumented story could be accepted was if it came from an overly academic point of view, I had not even considered cartoons as a serious tool for inquiry. All those years of academic training that I had received in graduate school had led me to believe that the only option I had for sharing my undocumented experience was through dense textual analysis.

Today, when I attend important lectures and I am really into what the speaker is saying, I don’t take traditional notes. Rather, I take out my sketchbook, my favorite fountain pen, and I start doodling. I judge the quality of a talk by the complexity of the sketches I produce. Indeed, now that I have done a bit more research on it, I have learned that cartooning is an effective form of communication: it allows for better mental digestion of complex ideas; engages multiple intelligences; and, it allows viewers of an image to understand a story from multiple lenses. It is because of this that cartooning has allowed me to communicate the fears I felt when I was undocumented much more effectively than my writing ever could. This is the reason why I created my illustrated memoir, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer.

And yet, there is only so much my little book can do. The xenophobic program that is now aiming to persecute undocumented immigrants is all too real. This program, however, is not just aimed at undocumented immigrants. The attack on undocumented immigrants is just but the most obvious aspect of what seems to be a larger policy that has taken aim at the heart of what used to be an American progressive democracy—the social infrastructure that, as a result of the labor organizing and social activism of the ‘30s to ‘60s, increased access to education, health care, and legal protections for all working class and poor people. My belief is that working class and poor people of all ethnic backgrounds now need each other more than ever and that we cannot let false debates based on false moralisms distract us from our common humanity. To view undocumented immigrant experience in the US as a totally unredeemable experience that needs to be excised without mercy is to buy into a false equivalency that has already stopped us from discerning what is lawful versus what is just.

This is the reason why I have chosen to confront my fears about what it meant for me to be undocumented, because I cannot ask that people show empathy for the undocumented community, unless I first show empathy for the totality my own undocumented experience. And that is why, in spite of my fears, I will continue to illustrate my undocumented American life.

Book Review: Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life, Written & Illustrated by Alberto Ledesma

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: In this hybrid memoir, Alberto Ledesma wonders, At what point does a long-time undocumented immigrant become an American in the making? From undocumented little boy to “hyper documented” university professor, Ledesma recounts how even now, he sometimes finds himself reverting to the child he was, recalling his father’s words: “Mijo, it doesn’t matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you.”

Exploring Ledesma’s experiences from immigrant to student to academic, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer presents a humorous, gritty, and multilayered portrait of undocumented immigrant life in urban America. Ledesma’s vignettes about life in the midst of ongoing social trauma give voice to a generation that has long been silent about its struggles. Delving into the key moments of cultural transition throughout his childhood and adulthood—police at the back door waiting to deport his family, the ex-girlfriend who threatens to call INS and report him, and the interactions with law enforcement even after he is no longer undocumented—Ledesma, through his art and his words, provides a glimpse into the psychological and philosophical concerns of undocumented immigrant youth who struggle to pinpoint their identity and community.

MY TWO CENTS: Powerful and timely, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is the stunning, hand-illustrated chronicle of Alberto Ledesma’s twelve years in undocumented limbo and the psychological toll those years exacted. Drawing—or doodling, as he often calls it— became of one Ledesma’s most reliable coping mechanisms for the stresses of living in the U.S. without documentation. He began the doodling practice as a quiet act of defiance, since even privately acknowledging one‘s lack of papers broke a cultural taboo held by many insiders in Ledesma’s undocumented community. This taboo reached inside the very walls of his family home, where the fear of detection and deportation hung like a black cloud over their daily existence.

In this work, Alberto Ledesma offers a perspective of the American experience that few have written about, plumbing its layers of complexity through richly observed episodes, supplemented by striking text-and-image panels. His personal stories reveal troubling family dynamics, from the pain of feeling misunderstood to his father’s emotional unavailability and bouts of drinking. They also explore Alberto’s adolescent years, when the ache to free himself from the constant secrecy demanded by the family’s status was at its height. Stories of close calls render the fear palpable. In one vivid example, Alberto, his siblings, and their mother sit in a parked car next to a field while their father wanders into the undergrowth to pick wild cactus leaves. As cars occupied by white people pass by, some drivers cast suspicious glances at the Mexican family. When one of the sisters spots a no-trespassing sign, tension turns to panic and eventually to anger at their father for placing them in such a vulnerable position.

In 1986, the Ledesma family achieved legal status through provisions outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a law passed during the Reagan administration. But as Alberto explains, “though we were now ‘legal,’ those twelve years of conditioning did not disappear.” Long after his status is resolved, the fear of being hunted persists. He demonstrates the extent of that struggle through contemporary exchanges with his young daughter, Sofia, who peppers him with such questions as, “What does it mean that you were once illegal?”

Ledesma ultimately transitioned into academic life, earning a Ph.D. and landing a teaching and administrative position at the University of California at Berkley. He connects his academic drive to the phenomena of “hyper-documentation.” Originated by Dr. Aurora Chang, this term “describes the effort by Dreamers to accrue awards, accolades, and eventually academic degrees to compensate for having been undocumented.” The burdensome effect of this impulse comes through in one of Ledesma’s most potent drawings, which shows a brown-skinned person dressed in cap and gown, pulling a file cabinet tethered by rope and bursting with award certificates.

In addition to its memoir sections, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer includes dozens of serial and stand-alone text-and-image panels, which reflect on multiple aspects of undocumented life. An entire chapter, “The Undocumented Alphabet,” illuminates twenty-six poignant realities experienced by the community. They include:

        “A” is for the ABUELITOS left back in Mexico and the knowledge that until you fix your status you can’t go visit them no matter how much you miss them.

        “E” is for the EDUCATION your mother asked you to get so that you wouldn’t end up working at the same garment factory she did.

Crossing the southern border without papers is an act fraught with peril, but as Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer makes clear, it’s only the start of a long, precarious journey that plays out in the daily existence of millions of undocumented Americans. At this writing, the future of many DACA recipients and other undocumented youth remains in limbo. Their fate is in the hands of elected officials all too willing to play political football with human lives. Alberto Ledesma’s account offers a strong and essential counterpoint to the xenophobia infecting public discourse about U.S. immigration. It brings penetrating light into the liminal spaces occupied not only by Dreamers, but all undocumented immigrants, and makes a convincing case that their stories deserve a chapter in our national narrative.


Last month, while Alberto Ledesma was at The Ohio State University for a panel on comics and immigration, he stopped for this photo opportunity with Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés Pérez, sons of our fellow Latinxs in Kid Lit blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez.

Liam Miguel read Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer from cover to cover (even the parts in cursive, which were tricky for him at first), and he was thrilled to get his copy signed. For him, hearing Alberto’s stories was a way to better understand his father’s path to legal status as well as the realities for many young people who were not so fortunate to come at a time when that path was opened.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Alberto Ledesma, a Mexican-American scholar of literature, holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include poetry, academic articles, and short stories, which have appeared in Con/Safos: A Chicana/o Literary Magazine, and in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series (#17). He has also published essays  in ColorLines and New America Media. Ledesma, who participated in Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Workshop and in the VONA Writers Workshopserves as Graduate Diversity Director for the Outreach and Diversity Office of the Arts & Humanities Division in the College of Letters & Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Book Review: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafael López

 

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Musician, botanist, baseball player, pilot—the Hispanics featured in this collection come from many different backgrounds and from many different countries. Celebrate their accomplishments and their contributions to collective history and a community that continues to evolve and thrive today!

Poems spotlight Aida de Acosta, Arnold Rojas, Baruj Benacerraf, César Chávez, Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, Félix Varela, George Meléndez Wright, José Martí, Juan de Miralles, Juana Briones, Julia de Burgos, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Paulina Pedroso, Pura Belpré, Roberto Clemente, Tito Puente, Tomás Rivera, and Ynés Mexia.

MY TWO CENTS: This beautiful and memorable picture book once again showcases the partnership of creative luminaries Margarita Engle and Rafael López, following their award-winning collaboration on Drum Dream Girl. In Bravo!, Engle’s eighteen poems and López’s accompanying illustrations highlight notable Hispanics with strong connections to the United States. Some subjects are Puerto Ricans, while many are Latinx notables from the U.S. mainland. Quite a few came to its shores as immigrants, exiles, or refugees. A few are world-famous, like Tito Puente, César Chávez, and Roberto Clemente, but most are not. In fact, some individuals whose thrilling achievements should have earned them a prominent place in history have yet to receive their due, such as Cuban American Aída de Acosta, the world’s first woman pilot. (I eagerly anticipate the March 2018 release entitled The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, a picture book by Margarita Engle illustrated by Sara Palacios, which should go a long way toward filling that gap.)

The profiles are arranged chronologically, and each featured individual receives a double-page treatment consisting of a brief poem and a portrait illustration. The first spot belongs to Juan de Miralles (1713-1780), a Cuban supporter of the American Revolution, whose intervention helped save George Washington’s troops from scurvy. The final selection is Tomás Rivera (1935-1984), an influential teacher, poet, and University of California chancellor, who was also one of Margarita Engle’s creative-writing professors.

As with her novels in verse, Engle presents the stories of the characters through first-person-voiced poems that draw attention not only to that individual’s contributions to society, but also to the passions that drove them to action.

As mentioned earlier, most of these historical figures are not widely recognized. For example, how many readers in the U.S. are familiar with poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953), who advocated for her native Puerto Rico’s independence? In “My River of Dreams,” we learn of her poverty-stricken childhood and the natural world that she loved, as well as the heart of her advocacy:

I struggled to become a teacher

and a poet, so I could use words

to fight for equal rights for women,

and work toward meeting

the needs of poor children,

and speak of independence

for Puerto Rico.

Another selection, “Wild Exploration,” profiles Ynés Mexia (1870-1938), highlighting Mexía’s botanical studies in Mexico and South America, but also bringing out her bicultural origins, the anguish she suffered as the child of warring parents, and the fact that she discovered her true calling later in life than most:

But when I’m all grown up and really quite old,

I finally figure out how to feel useful,

Enjoying the adventure of a two-country life.

As with all eighteen of the profiled subjects, we can learn more about Ynés Mexía in the supplement “Notes About the Lives,” which explains that her career as a botanist began at age fifty-five and led to the discovery of five hundred new species.

In his bold, graphic portraits, Rafael López signals each person’s setting and historical period through carefully selected details in their apparel, the background scenery, and through visual symbolism that enriches the poetic text. One noteworthy example is in the profile of Félix Varela (1788-1853), an exiled Cuban priest whose ministry in New York focused on newly arrived Irish immigrants. In his portrait, Varela wears a clerical collar and holds an olive branch in his right hand, signifying the pacifism that set him at odds with his countrymen in Cuba. On the opposite page, a smaller and simply rendered three-leaf clover pays homage to Varela’s Irish parishioners.

Readers familiar with Margarita Engle, whose poetry often elevates the work of unsung Latinas, will not be surprised that the collection includes seven noteworthy women. In addition, a generous proportion of those featured are of African or indigenous ancestry, and this diversity is satisfyingly represented in López’s stunning portrait work. By showcasing extraordinary, yet under-represented achievers, Bravo! enhances their visibility and sends an affirming message to girls and children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. With that said, this collection would have felt more complete if it offered a wider representation of ancestral lands. Among the eighteen profiles, there are no Dominicans, and only one of each from Central America and South America. (Editors, please take note that Latinx people represent a broad sweep of nations and cultures.) Perhaps in recognition of the impossible task of selecting just eighteen subjects, a supplement at the back of the book entitled “More and More Amazing Latinos” provides a list of over twenty more Latinx achievers. These include Tony Meléndez, a Nicaraguan American guitarist; Adriana Ocampo, a Colombian American planetary geologist for NASA; and Jaime Escalante, a teacher of mathematics from Bolivia.

Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics is a jewel of a picture book. It offers children an introductory glimpse of important historical figures they may never otherwise hear about. And let’s face it: adults will learn a great deal from these pages, too. As members of the Latinx community, these history-makers represent a rich variety of educational and economic backgrounds, an impressive array of careers and causes, as well as a diverse range of racial and ethnic legacies. Taken together, the tributes in this beautiful book point to the depth, complexity, and durability of Hispanic contribution to culture, innovation, civic advances, and many other components of life in the United States.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. For more information, visit Margarita’s website.

 

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López, who was born in Mexico City, is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. A children’s book illustrator, he won the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2012, he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival poster. He has been awarded the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, three Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards. The illustrations created by López bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Learn more on his website.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLila Quintero Weaver is the author-illustrator of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darkroom recounts her family’s immigrant experience in small-town Alabama during the tumultuous 1960s. It is her first major publication and will be available in Spanish in January 2018. Her next book is My Year in the Middle, a middle-grade novel scheduled for release in July 2018 (Candlewick). Lila is a graduate of the University of Alabama. She and her husband, Paul, are the parents of three grown children. She can also be found on her own websiteFacebookTwitter and Goodreads.