Before We Were Free

Every other Sunday morning, I reunite with 7 junior high students at the neighborhood school in Santiago Atitlan.  I could write an entire essay about how these seven students are exceptional, pushing the boundaries of social and cultural norms, dreaming big, and vibrantly confident, but that would be a post for a different blog on young,  emerging leaders in rural Guatemala.

The teen reading group has been meeting for two years now, and the participants self selected  themselves to meet twice monthly and use books as a tool to explore culture, current events, history,  literature and their own personal stories via books.

Recently we finished reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez and I was impressed and inspired, yet not surprised by the conversation generated by our circle.

Guatemala’s current President, Jimmy Morales, who has been in office for 1.5 years, has recently been under scrutiny by national and international organizations.   Just three years ago, former President Otto Perez resigned after national protests and he was subsequently arrested.  He was accused of fraud.

Hence, when a group of teens is encouraged to explore the theme of freedom, especially in the light of corruption, conversation becomes thought provoking, genuine and real.  As we compared the current stories of Guatemalans to those living in Alvarez’ book in The Dominican Republic under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the 5o’s and 6o’s  we we able to identify similarities and differences.  Most intriguing was our conversation about civil disobedience…when do we feel compelled to break rules in order to obtain personal freedom or the freedom of a group of people?

I do not know how the next weeks will transpire in Guatemala.  There is talk of planned protests and social media is overloaded with criticism of the current state of affairs.  However, I do know that the 7 teens in our reading circle are confident, critical thinkers, and leaders who, even at a young age, are capable of generating ideas about what’s just, on a personal and political level.  They are also aware of the power of their own voices, and sometimes, during periods of conflict, our voices  become the strongest resistance.

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Julia Alverez

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

In Before We Were Free, we meet 12 year old Anita de Torre in the year 1960, in the Dominican Republic.  We quickly learn that many of Anita’s extended family members have emigrated to the United States and that her Uncle Toni has been missing for some time after displaying opposition to the dictatorship of Trujillo.  Through the eyes of a young girl, we witness the fear, hope and struggles that are a constant presence for those living through a time of political unrest, all the while confronting the day to day of adolescence.

What I love:

  • Alvarez educates the reader about the history of the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo Dictatorship and Las Mariposas.
  • Before We Were Free is a true “coming of age story.”
  • Before We Were Free is less intense than Alvarez’s adult novels such as In the Time of The Butterflies, but equally as impactful.
  • What’s not to love about a strong, young, curious, female main character!

Themes: freedom, adolescence, war

Discussion:

  • In your own words, describe freedom.  How do you know that you are free?  Or lacking freedom?
  • Throughout the book,  Anita keeps a diary where she can record her thoughts, when she unable to speak them.  Do you keep a diary?  Why or why  not?
  • Can you remember a time in history or currently when a group of people or an individual has fought for freedom?  When? Why?  Where?  What happened?

Connections:

  • Research a recipe from the Dominican Republic such as Tostones (fried plantains) and prepare them for your friends and family.photo-1
  • In Before We Were Free, we learn that the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961,  was ruled by dictatorship, or a government in which  power is controlled by one person or a small group of people.  What kind of government exists in your country?  Explain how the government of your country functions.
  • In the book, Anita refers to “The Butterflies/Las Mariposas.”  Investigate and learn about the Butterfly Sisters and the important roles they played in the history of the Dominican Republic.28d0b5fa2cd600a0c24eb27f03710b61

 

The Jungle

I am back home in Guatemala, land of eternal spring, after spending a month of summer in California.  I’ve lived abroad now for more years than I have spent in my country of origin, and I continue to be fascinated by my observations as I come and go, traveling  between countries.  For me, global travel has become something of an art.  I can pack  for myself and my family with little stress the day before our departure, I have learned to quiet the internal critic that longs to compare lifestyles here and there, and the nerves of a potential passport left behind or the crises of a forgotten bathing suit are virtually non-existent.  I suppose the art of travel is somewhat zen, be here now, at it’s finest, and I take great pleasure in the practice of gracefully transitioning in new places.  This said, even after all these years, I relish my first days back in Guatemala, when I feel as if I have been given a new lens to see my ordinary world with.  Suddenly, the lush green of the banana tree leaves seems a little brighter.  The magenta  petals of the buganvilia on the foot path to my house radiate color.  The huipiles (traditional embroidered blouses) that the women wear in my village appear more extraordinary in their texture and design.  

In the 1960s,at a time when few foreigners traveled to the deep rainforests of Central America,  children’s book  writer and illustrator Helen Borten journeyed to Guatemala as a single woman, with the intention of learning about the jungles close to the equator and sharing her story with children.  Many of her books are celebrated for her focus on the senses and The Jungle, is no exception.   Just this year, Enchanted Lion Books reprinted The Jungle which was originally published in 1968.  While I don’t live in the jungle, I do live on the shores of  mystical Lake Atitlan, in a village surrounded by 3 ancient volcanos.   No matter how many times I come and go, I cherish the lens of  perspective that travel provides me.  

If you are craving a glimpse of Guatemala, I recommend that you delve into Borten’s  The Jungle, rich in both words and images, where you will indulge in the vitality of the senses uncovered in the rainforest.

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  Helen Borten

Illustrator:  Helen Borten

Genre:  children’s literature

In Helen Borten’s The Jungle, we slip into the natural world of a dense rainforest.  We learn of the flora and fauna who inhabit different layers of the jungle and witness the wonders of wildlife  as one simple day passes in nature.  Borten uses a mixed media approach to illustration, combining block print with collage to create striking images in earth tones of life in the forrest.  She crafts delicate prose that transport the reader to the heart of the jungle.

What I love:

  • Borten’s layered,  mixed media illustrations will enchant both young and old readers.
  • The book has a dreamy essence, as if you could shut your eyes and transport yourself to an forest still untouched by human influences.

Themes: rainforest life, food chain, day and night, habitat

Discussion:

  • What animals did we read about in the story?  What animal did you find most unusual?  Why?
  • What does morning look like in the rainforest?  Afternoon?  Evening?
  • What animals live at the tops of the trees of the rainforest?  And what animals live below the trees, low on the ground?

Connections:

  • Imagine that you are a scientist on an expedition in the Guatemalan rainforest.  Write or draw a short page of “notes” of your observations.
  • Experiment with natural prints in the style of Helen Borten.  Use found objects in nature such as fruits, leaves and sticks to stamp on paper.  LeafPrints_mainpic
  • Using different textures of paper, make a mural of the rainforest which shows the different caps of vegetation in the jungle.  c6d81583d21dce445b1cf134e11956f1

Islandborn

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Junot Diaz

Illustrator: Leo Espinosa

Genre:  children’s literature

I have always been intrigued by stories of origin and fascinated by the power of memory.  My daughters were born in Guatemala, and I am from the United States.  My husband is Belgian, but he was born in Brazil and grew up in Britain.  Children are innately curious and I encourage my kids to ask questions about my childhood, their father’s childhood and the journeys of their grandparents.     

In Junot Diaz’s first children’s book Islandborn, we meet Lola, an inquisitive, young, and creative girl who attends a school with many students who have immigrated from different countries.  When Lola’s teacher, Ms. Obi, asks her students to draw a picture of their country of origin, Lola is perplexed.  She left “the island” as a young child and her memories of her birth country are fuzzy and difficult to recall.  Ms. Obi recommends that Lola talks with family and friends to recollect memories of “the island,” and that’s exactly what she does.  We meet neighbors, friends, and family who share insight to life, both the beauty and struggles, of the Dominican Republic and with the aid of illustrations by Leo Espinosa, we enter the collective memory of Lola and her community.

What I love:

  • The main character, Lola, is bright, curious, loving and represents cultural diveristy.
  • Island born  is a story that both children and adults will enjoy and find meaningful.
  • The artwork by Espinosa is wildly colorful and imaginative.
  • Juno Diaz simultaneously wrote Islandborn in Spanish.  The Spanish edition is Lola.

Themes: memory, origin, family history, immigration

Discussion:

  • Lola attends a school with many children from different countries.  Are there children from different countries at your school?  Where are they from?
  • What are some of the memories that Lola collects about the Dominican Republic?  Are all of the memories happy?  What does the monster represent?
  • Lola learns of foods that are celebrated in the Dominican Republic that her friends celebrate and remember like sweet mangos and crunchy empanadas.  Imagine that you are an adult.  What foods do you think that you will remember from your childhood?

Connections:

  • The Dominican Republic is celebrated for music and Caribbean beats.  Collect music from the DR and dance your heart out like the characters in Islandborn.
  • In the style of Lola, make a picture or collage  that represent your country of origin.
  • Interview a parent or grandparent about their childhood memories.  Prepare a few questions before you interview them that you would like to explore.

The Wheels on the Bus

If you have traveled to Guatemala, you’ll know that the buses “camionetas,” are colorful, lively, bumpy, loud and a journey within a journey.  You have the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, share stories of the day, watch life from the bus window, listen to Spanish music from the 80s, eat fresh sliced mango, and share a seat with a chicken or a dog.  Vamanos!

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  The Amador Family

Illustrator: Melanie Williamson

Genre:  Children’s literature

Join a Guatemalan family on an exciting bus ride through their town with a fresh new perspective on a classic children’s song.

What I love:

  • The book includes facts about Guatemalan life at the end of the story.
  • The book comes with a CD of the song so that children can sing along.
  • Ilustrations are playful and colorful.

Themes:

Transportation, family, journey, community

Discussion:

  • What modes of transportation exist in your community?
  • If you were on a bus in your town, what sites would you see from the window?
  • Who do you like to travel with? Why?

Connections:

  • Make a map (draw or create with recycled materials) of your town and include notable landmarks on it.
  • Learn a few new words in Spanish, one of the many languages of Guatemala (autobus=bus, ninos=children, ciudad=city, madre=mother, padre=father).
  • Make tortillas, a traditional food from Guatemala, or just pretend to with playdough.

Recipe (8 tortillas):

1 cup of masa (corn flour)

2/3 cup water

1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix ingredients, separate into 8 balls, flatten, cook on stovetop, eat, enjoy!

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Caminar

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  Skila Browne

Genre:  juvenile fiction/ prose

Travel to rural Guatemala in 1981 and meet young Carlos who asks the innocent questions about war and conflict as he strives to understand the underlying currents that are dividing his village and country.

What I love:

  • Browne creates an approachable novel for juvenile readers and uses flowing prose to share her story.
  • A coming of age story that teens can connect with.

Themes: responsibility, maturity, survival, loss, war

Discussion:

  • What do you know about war? What does war look like to you?
  • What animal represents Carlos’ nawhal (animal spirit)? What animal would you like to have as your nawhal?
  • Have you ever wished that you were “grown up”? Why?

Connections:

  • Investigate the country of Guatemala and the Maya culture.
  • Write a poem about your own home as Carlos did in his poem “My home.”
  • Santiago Luc is a storyteller in his village. Do you know someone in your life that has stories to tell? Interview the person and write down one of the stories you’re told.

 

 

 

The Only Road

 

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  Alexandra Diaz

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Twelve-year-old Jaime makes the treacherous and life-changing journey from his home in Guatemala to live with his older brother in the United States. When Jaime’s cousin Miguel is murdered in gang violence, his family fears that he will be next. There’s only one choice: accompanied by his cousin Angela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in New Mexico. Inspired by true events, The Only Road is an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better life.

What I love:

  • An honest story, made to be “heard” by a younger audience.
  • Moments of kindness, generosity and friendship are found even in extreme hardship.
  • The reader quickly connects and identifies with many of the characters in the story.

Themes:  immigration, courage, survival, hardship

Discussion:

  • What do Jaime and Angela take with them in their backpacks? If you had to leave your home with nothing but a backpack, what would you bring with you?
  • Describe the role that art plays in Jaime’s life. How does art help him survive the journey to United States? Do you have something in your life that is similar to Jaime’s love of art?
  • On Jaime and Angela’s journey, they meet many people who are trying to immigrate to the United States. What are some of the reasons that people have for leaving their homes and risking the dangerous journey across the border?
  • Jaime and Angela meet several people who help them along their journey. Describe the individuals who help them. What do you think motivates each of their helpers?

Connections:

  • Using the novel as a guide, create a map of Jaime and Angela’s journey.
  • On Jaime and Angela’s journey they meet people from other Latin American countries, like El Salvador and Mexico. The parents of author Alexandra Diaz immigrated from Cuba. Choose a Latin American country to research and prepare a report about the culture, geography, government, and history of the country you chose.
  • Jaime’s love and talent for art is a source of solace and survival. He shares a last name with the famous Latin American artist, Diego Rivera. Research the art of Rivera and/or his wife Frida Kahlo. What are your favorite things about their art? Try to create your own art in the style of either artist.