Book Review: Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito


Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Margarito’s Forest, a bilingual book in English and Spanish with excerpts in K’iche’, is based on the life of Don Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velázquez as told by his daughter, Doña Maria Guadalupe. It is a story of Maya culture and wisdom passed from one generation to the next. As the devastating effects of climate change become clear, Don Margarito’s life and the ways of the Maya offer timely wisdom for a planet in peril.

MY TWO CENTS: Margarito’s Forest/El bosque de don Margarito is a nonfiction account of a Guatemalan man’s extraordinary devotion to the forest he loved. In addition to offering a heroic and memorable story, this picture book also enriches the range of Latinx representation in U.S. children’s literature. The story takes place in the central highlands of Guatemala, among the K’iche’ people and includes phrases in the K’iche’ language. Margarito’s Forest also expands the range of truth-telling by taking on a reality I’ve never seen acknowledged in a children’s book: Guatemala’s dirty war, which brought tremendous suffering to many Guatemalans and was especially devastating for the country’s indigenous peoples. The book makes these contributions while focusing on introducing young readers to the late Margarito Esteban Álvarez Velásquez, an unsung warrior for the environment. This humble man dedicated his life to maintaining the forest near his Guatemalan home as a place of nourishment, beauty, and ancestral significance. Don Margarito often labored alone, saving trees even as many others in the region cleared them for the sake of crop cultivation, and his story offers a powerful example of the impact one person can have even when facing obstacles and indifference.

Based on oral histories shared by Don Margarito’s daughter, María Guadalupe Velásquez Tum, the narrative is set up as a conversation between Doña Guadalupe and her young grandson, Esteban. As Doña Guadalupe makes clear, her deep knowledge of the forest came from Don Margarito, who received it as a boy from the village holy man, Don Calixto. By emphasizing this chain of communication, the text also elevates the importance of transmitting family lore and practical wisdom to younger generations. It also offers valuable opportunities to recognize bodies of knowledge and practice that are often marginalized or belittled in mainstream narratives.

Engaging Difficult Histories

As mentioned, the story also touches on a deeply troubling passage in Guatemala’s recent history. For thirty-six years, beginning in 1960, Guatemalans endured a “dirty war” in which government military forces were deployed against citizens. During this protracted horror, indigenous peoples suffered disproportionate losses at the hands of government soldiers, including deaths now classified as genocide. According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the Guatemalan government often scapegoated Maya communities, and this was the precise fate suffered by the village where Doña Guadalupe and Don Margarito lived. Tragically, when Guatemalan forces raided their home village, Don Margarito was among those killed.

Doña Guadalupe, who witnessed the raid, describes her harrowing experience to Esteban in honest terms, yet sparing details that might disturb young readers: “While your father was still a baby, the army came and destroyed our village. They burnt our homes down to the ground and they dug up our crops.” She and her two children fled to the forest, where her father’s lessons on edible plants and healing herbs proved critical to their survival. Needless to say, this is an age-appropriate version of the story, but as Doña Guadalupe makes clear, Esteban will learn the rest later: “When you are a little older, I will tell you more about those days and the dirty war that tore us apart.” This approach carefully balances honesty with consideration for the age of readers, offering a compelling example of how to speak truthfully to young audiences about difficult topics.

Words and Images

Margarito’s Forest is also interesting in its layered approach to word and image. Incorporating the translation work of multiple contributors across three languages, the book is a multilingual text. English and Spanish sections appear on the same page along with embedded instances of K’iche’. (Adult readers may know this language by its former spelling, Quiché.) Although the presentation of K’iche’ phrases sometimes feels a bit forced and ungainly, its inclusion is a positive step toward unmaking the assumption that Spanish is “the” language of Central America by foregrounding its linguistic diversity. In fact, K’iche’ remains Guatemala’s second most widely spoken language after Spanish, and it is one of numerous surviving members of the Mayan language family.


(Images are the work of Allison Havens, used here by permission from Hard Ball Press)

The illustrations in Margarito’s Forest are multimedia collages by Allison Havens, a native of Chicago who now resides in Guatemala. Her original art is central to each collage and often appears as black-and-white graphite figures framed by a patchwork of full-color elements. The collages incorporate photography, scraps of textiles, and drawings made expressly for the book by children from the village of Saq Ja’.

In sum, Margarito’s Forest offers a tender glimpse into the life of a visionary, a courageous individual who followed his heart and acquired immense wisdom without the benefit of a formal education. Although the story makes clear the tragedy of Don Margarito’s death during the dirty war, it also demonstrates the enduring impact of his passionate devotion to the forest. Thanks to his daughter’s account—and to those who took pains to preserve it—his beautiful legacy lives on as the subject of this absorbing picture book.


According to the website for Hard Ball Press, Margarito’s Forest received the following distinctions: Most Inspirational Children’s Book by Latino Book Awards, a Commended Title in the 2017 Américas Award from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, and a Best Book of 2017 by the Bank Street College of Education.

The final pages of the book provide study questions for educators, librarians and parents. There is also a generous author’s note, detailing how the story came to his attention, and a section about the illustrator’s collaboration with the schoolchildren of Don Margarito’s village.

For those using this book with older readers, or for parents and educators who would like to be better prepared to answer young students’ questions, it may be important to engage with the role played by the U.S. in training Guatemala’s military, including in the notorious School of the Americas, a U.S.-backed training site that played a pivotal role in violent repression in Latin America. The commission report on the Guatemalan dirty war specifically identifies the U.S. as a source of extreme and abusive military techniques that had “significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation.”

For further reading on Latinx activists working to save the environment, see this article.

And don’t miss this post by Marianne Snow Campbell about reading kid lit as an ecocritic.

Finally, experience the beauty K’iche’ as spoken by a native speaker.


Latin@ Heroes of the Planet

by Lila Quintero Weaver

Views on Global WarmingFacts to contemplate and amaze: 1. A high percentage of Latin@s are persuaded that a connection exists between global warming and human activity. 2. A majority of Latin@s feel global warming carries an extreme or very serious potential to affect their lives.

According to the findings of a new poll conducted by The New York Times, in conjunction with Stanford University and Resources for the Future, an environmental research group, “Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to view global warming as a problem that affects them personally. It also found that they are more likely to support policies, such as taxes and regulations on greenhouse gas pollution, aimed at curbing it.”

Pew Research PollThe article in the New York Times acknowledges that these findings challenge stereotypes about Latin@s, as well as common assumptions that saving the environment is of concern mostly to white liberals.

So where are the books for kids that highlight this vigorous interest among Latin@s in saving the environment? My answer: they’re not easy to find and it sometimes means digging within tables of contents to discover a chapter or two featuring Latin@s.

Here are a handful of kids’ books sure to inspire a new generation of Latin@ planet saviors. Consider adding them to your Earth Day observations (April 22).


This nonfiction book for grades 4 and up celebrates the environmental triumphs achieved by a dozen unsung heroes of all ages located in various parts of the United States and Mexico. I’m giving it star billing because I feel it deserves wider attention. The environmental challenges the activists take on—from urban gardens to saving caribou—are as diverse as the heroes themselves. Of the twelve, three heroes are Latin@, two are Native American, two are African American, one is Asian American and the remaining four are white. Rohmer relates the story of each person’s activism in a short chapter illustrated with photos and art by Julie McLaughlin.

The determination, innovation and enterprising spirit shown by all twelve heroes is truly inspiring. Here is a brief recounting of one of their stories. Erica Fernandez is a young immigrant from Mexico who learns of plans by an Australian company to build a large processing station for liquefied natural gas near her new hometown in California. If the company’s plans go through, a large, potentially lethal gas line would run directly beneath her community. Using Spanish and broken English, Erica sets out to inform neighbors and elected officials about the grave risks. The outcry of the community eventually reaches the ears of the governor, who nixes plans for the gas line.

In addition to the stories already alluded to, you will also find:

  • A Hopi girl installing solar panels on her reservation
  • A teacher turning the protection of wetlands into a classroom project
  • A man designing a unique bio-digestive sewage-treatment system
  • A boy organizing the safe disposal of old electronics
  • A lucha libre warrior fighting to protect coastlines and waterways
  • A woman taking on the coal company responsible for destructive mountaintop removal in her West Virginia location
  • A Bronx resident turning the problem of construction-site trash into a cooperative business
  • A young woman inventing a device for purifying polluted water
  • A Louisiana woman pressuring an oil company to relocate an entire community victimized by toxic disposal

The quieter message of this book is thrilling to me: that anyone can make a difference to the health of our planet—people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and economic or educational levels.

Parrots PRPARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO, by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

This ingeniously illustrated picture book about a parrot species brought to the brink of extinction and the valiant efforts underway to rescue it, has received well-deserved acclaim. The story of Puerto Rico’s iguaca parrots demonstrates the vulnerability of all biological species, especially to the encroachment of human activity. Over the course of centuries, natural enemies preyed on the iguaca’s nests and hurricanes damaged their forest habitats, but it was humans who posed the biggest threat, primarily by trapping the birds and destroying their nesting sites. In 1968, when the iguaca population stood at less than thirty, Puerto Ricans jumped into action to save the birds. Thanks to their efforts, iguaca parrots’ numbers are on the rise again. An afterword provides further details on the Parrot Recovery Program.

SAVING BIRDS: HEROES AROUND THE WORLD, by Peter Salmansohn and Peter W. KressSaving Birds

This book teaches young readers about preservation efforts on behalf of endangered birds in six locations around the world. One chapter focuses on a Latin American bird of legend, the quetzal. Like many animals of exceptional beauty, the quetzal has been exploited and poached. Furthermore, its habitat in Central America’s cloud forests is under threat by human activity, including deforestation and fires. Two men employed by a natural reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, called El Triunfo, set out to address the educational gaps surrounding the quetzal. Using puppet shows and books, they have recruited the support of children in villages throughout the region, teaching them to prize the quetzal and its forest home.

LUZ MAKES A SPLASH, by Claudia Dávila

Luz Makes a SplashHow can young readers learn about something as abstract as water conservation? This graphic novel for elementary grades introduces wise water-usage in a kid-friendly package. It’s part of a two-book series called The Future According to Luz. The companion book is entitled Luz Sees the Light. Luz Makes a Splash is built around an eponymous character and a community of friends and family whose lives are affected in multiple ways by scorching temperatures and drought conditions. Gardens are drying up. So is a city park and Luz’s favorite spring-fed pond. It turns out that a nearby soft-drink company is tapping groundwater to manufacture its cola products, and this contributes to the pond’s receding water level. A group of citizens mobilizes to address the problem. Meanwhile, Luz learns about rain barrels and a natural system for filtering household water used for cooking and washing (gray water). One of the story’s characters converts his sod lawn into a rock garden built around indigenous plants capable of thriving in drought conditions.

The author-illustrator of Luz Makes a Splash is Chilean-Canadian. She has made her energetic, intelligent and community-minded main character a Latina. Ethnic identity doesn’t figure into the story, but what a nice way to counteract stereotypes of Latin@s.

This is a book with a message. Some readers will find fault with its didactic approach and the fact that the characters are not given a broader story, but taken as a teaching tool, it delivers solid information that can be used to launch explorations into drought, government-enforced water restrictions, and smart solutions for reducing water waste and keeping gardens green during low-water conditions.


The focus of this post is Latin@ activism for earth-friendly causes, but a growing number of works on the Latin@ kid lit bookshelf celebrate the planet.

final Silver People cover-1Margarita Engle can be counted on to inject nature, naturalists, biodiversity, and environmental conservation in nearly all her books and has received recognition for her stand on these issues. Recently, Green Earth Book Awards shortlisted Silver People for its 2015 honors. Congratulations, Margarita!






Two of Margarita’s 2015 releases embrace the wonders of nature.

Orangutanka   Sky Painter

For more Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections, check out these additional selections:

Animals Iguazy   River Loves Me      My Brother Needs a Boa   desert-is-my-mother

Need classroom resources related to the field of environmental activism?

Click here for information on The Américas Latino Eco Festival. Don’t overlook Mujeres de la Tierra, an inspiring group of activists located in California. 

Read about the amazing Xiuhtezcatl Martínez, a 14-year old champion of the planet!

For additional insights on the environmental heroes and projects featured in this post, check out these resources:

Omar Freilla is a New Yorker who appears in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s an article about his work.

Erica Fernanadez is another of the true-life characters in Heroes of the Environment. Here’s a video about her campaign for a cleaner environment:

As a follow up on Saving Birds, don’t miss this spectacular video of quetzals caring for their young.

And for young children, don’t forget Dora the Explorer’s cousin Diego, a passionate advocate for the environment!