By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.
MY TWO CENTS: Upon learning that her mother has been detained at the border, Esmeralda Sinfronteras transforms into a superhero to rescue her mother from ICE. She uses the power of cilantro to grow taller than a house, with hair longer than a bus, and skin so green it could have only come from cilantro. Super Cilantro Girl flies to the border, climbs the dark and dreary detention center to her mother’s window, and simply picks her up and puts her in her pocket and they fly home. The ICE agents are so mesmerized by the power of cilantro that they do not notice or prevent Super Cilantro Girl from rescuing her mother. The next morning, Esmeralda makes a huge discovery about her and her mother.
Author Juan Felipe Herrera and illustrator Honorario Robledo Tapia have created a magnificent children’s book about the transformative power of imagination. Esmeralda is emblematic of the many children who have been separated from their families due to unjust and xenophobic immigration laws. Herrera and Tapia go beyond common debates about immigration to give a face and a voice to the children impacted. Esmeralda gains the power and courage she needs to confront ICE from the environment around her. Her grandmother and the land serve as vessels for alternative knowledge that guide Esmeralda through her journey. Furthermore, Herrera’s and Tapia’s reclamation of the color green juxtaposes Esmeralda’s power with the cultural and social power of the “green card.” In Esmeralda’s imagination, her power is much stronger than anything ICE or a green card could ever have.
There are several ways to read race, gender, and class into this story in order to come up with a thorough analysis of how immigration impacts Latina/o children and their families. What I appreciate most about Herrera’s children’s book is that hope and empowerment are central to the narrative. Giving Esmeralda superpowers reveals the possibility for change that manifests from a child’s imagination. Super Cilantro Girl encourages children to dream, hope, and fight for their rights even if it means going against an entire state apparatus like ICE.
TEACHING TIPS: Super Cilantro Girl can be taught thematically by focusing on issues of (im)migration. The story’s emphasis on alternative healing methods is resonant of Gloria Anzaldua’s Prietita and the Ghost Woman and Friends from the Other Side. All three texts pay particular attention to holistic healing methods that include using nature as a resource. This is especially important because it allows the children protagonists to gain empowerment from their environments—much in the same way that Esmeralda finds power in cilantro.
Focusing on the superhero theme presents an opportunity to connect art activities with reading. Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World prompted the creation of Niño masks to accompany the story—something similar can be done with Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl. The relationship between social justice and superheroes in this story can be addressed by asking students to draw and imagine their own superhero. Students can imagine what a superhero in or from their community might look like or students can find inspiration from their community to create a superhero. Xavier Garza’s Charro Claus and the Tejas Kid is another excellent example of a child protagonist using his culture and community to be heroic.
There are several Latino kid’s books that focus on lucha libre that will pair wonderfully with Super Cilantro Girl. Lucha libre connects superhero-like characters with fantasy and reality and that can generate a powerful conversation about superheroes in our communities and culture as well as how children and youth can be their own heroes. Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World and Xavier Garza’s Lucha Libre: The Man in the Silver Mask are a few examples that tell stories about children and luchadores.
Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.