Tuesday, August 16, 2011

El Gallito, the Moya Cigar Box and Me

A few months after my son was born, my dear friend Jenna sent me a book titled The Bossy Gallito / El Gallo de Bodas. Written in both Spanish and English it is Lucia M. Gonzalez's retelling of a traditional Cuban tale about a little glutton of a rooster who dirties his beak on his way to his uncle's wedding and then commands a number of animals and objects to do his bidding so that he can make it to the wedding on time.

It's a fun tale to read, especially in Spanish because of the tongue twisting and multiple meanings of the words:

El gallito se detuvo y penso:
--Pico o no pico?
Si pico me ensucio el pico
y no podre ir a la boda
de mi tio Perico.
Sin pensarlo dos veces
pico y se ensucio el pico.

I used to read this to E when he was a baby, and then it was tucked away in his bookshelf until this past weekend when I pulled it out and read it to him again. He likes it a lot, and I've been reading it to him everyday since. Sometimes just in English or just in Spanish, and sometimes in both languages.

While I like the tale, it's the illustrations that truly bring me joy. I am in love with those illustrations by Lulu Delacre because they all picture the gallito walking down the streets of Little Havana in Miami (the artist based her illustrations on hundred of photos she took in Little Havana). All the rich details make my heart swell as I think of my childhood home--the little cafetera on the title page; the birds playing dominoes in the park (my father played dominoes in the park every weekend); the cases of pasteles; the steam rising from the flamingo's coffee cup as he stands at the counter of a cafeteria; the palm trees and shopping carts full of coconuts; the Goya can tied to the back of the wedding party's car. Oh, but the one that gets to me most is the one of the cigar boxes and packages in the display case of a cafeteria counter. There I see the package for Padron, the brand my dad smoked (Padron numero 4), and the Moya cigar boxes.

Shortly before I left home for college (to a small town a six hour drive north of Miami) my glasses broke. I arrived at college with broken glasses. They were hideous enough without the addition of the tape holding them together so that my blind-as-a-bat self could function until my new pair arrived. When my dad sent my new pair of glasses, they arrived in my dorm mailbox tucked inside a Moya cigar box. I have held onto this box for almost twenty years. In it are random little keepsakes: graduation tassles; old family photos; the hospital identification bracelet from when I was born; my high school class ring; a bottle of silvery blue nail polish I wore on my wedding day (my something blue); and my father's obituary.

Leo Politi

Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street (Leo Politi, 1946) Politi, a resident of Los Angeles, paid tribute to the city's ethnic neighborhoods in many of his books for children. In this 1947 Caldecott Honor book, the reader sees Los Angeles through the eyes of young Pedro and his grandfather, the older man remarking on the changes he's witnessed as the area transitions from small town to big city. In both his words and images, Politi conveys his deep appreciation for Mexican and Mexican-American culture. A large colorful market scene depicts the flavors, colors, traditions and folk arts of Mexico.The first few pages are a sort of tour of Olvera Street. Pedro shows readers the puestos, the little shops, the food, the artisans (in a double page color illustration of a blacksmith, a sandal maker, a glass blower, a candle maker, a pot maker and a silversmith) and the treats that line Olvera Street.

In Pedro, Politi introduces readers to the holiday Posada tradition that begins with a procession of "pilgrims"--including Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay--and ends with children breaking a pinata. Because Pedro is known to have a lovely voice, he is selected to be an angel that will lead the Posada. As with some of Politi's other books the parental figure is a grandparent, in this case Pedro's grandfather.

What is especially interesting is that all the residents of Olvera Street are dressed in what appears to be more traditional (and kind of stereotypical) Mexican clothes--sombreros, huaraches, long skirts and shawls or sarapes. Is that really what Mexicans and Mexican-Americans looked like in Los Angeles in the 1940s? Or perhaps it's Politi's way of emphasizing the cultural roots of this community? I've searched for photos of Mexicans / Mexican Americans in the Library of Congress' American Memory site and a number come up that were taken during the Great Depression (including a few by Dorothea Lange), none which show Mexican Americans dressed any differently than, I'm guessing, the average White or African-American person of that period. Which is interesting to me because I've been thinking a lot about how much Latino children's books (books that feature Latinos) are very limited to being specifically about some aspect of a cultural group or the Spanish language. It's very rare to see a brown face in a book for children where that character isn't representative of something Latino. And while I think it's great that there are more and more books for children featuring Latino characters, I'm still bothered by the absence of books in which a brown child is doing things a child of any race in the U.S. would do, s/he just happens to be brown. You know, no blatant sign following the child announcing I'm BROWN! It seems like this approach to writing about brown children hasn't changed in sixty-some years, and it makes me ask the question: is that the only way books with little brown faces see the light of day?