Wednesday, September 4, 2019

2019 Pura Belpré Aceptance Speech. ALA Washington DC.

Watsonville, California.
School windows open to the land
And the skies
Drawings of monarch butterflies
Fly through the hallways
I am there to read to the children

A teacher tells me “Esta escuela habla español”
That every child there
Is brought each morning
By their Spanish speaking familia migrante.
For a moment she smiles
But then she says
People are afraid

Last month
She continues
A little boy saw his father
Arrested by ICE

So days latter
A fire alarm goes off
At school
And even though there was no fire
The firefighters arrived
As they always do
In their blue uniforms and their badges

And what should have been
A moment of relief
Became a moment of terror
For a little child

Who could not be calmed
Could not be consoled
Could not be reassured
That blue uniforms
Are not there to catch you and
Take you away.  

At the end of last year, just days prior to receiving the news about Dreamers having been chosen to receive the Pura Belpré medal for illustration, I was in El Salvador with the hummingbird man, the poet Jorge Argueta. Jorge received me in his house in the neighborhood of San Jacinto, constructed of colored concrete with an earth patio that opens its view toward the Quezaltepec volcano, and right there, at the very back, nestled among trees, sits La Biblioteca de los Sueños, The Library of Dreams, that Jorge built with his own hands. The library is a single room where planks of wood attached to the wall hold a precious tesoro: a collection of some 3500 books that Jorge himself has brought in his suitcase every time he has returned from USA. And while not all of these books are in Spanish, much less in one of the indigenous languages spoken in Central America, the magic holds, because these are picture books, and you and I know where the main powers of picture books comes from, right?

Yet the most incredible thing is that the Library of Dreams even exists. It is there, nestled on the truce zone of two rival gangs; around the bend from the street guarded by stray dogs; in a neighborhood where children have been expelled from school because of their relatives’ gang affiliations. There, in this unlikely place is where the Library of Dreams exists, warm, luminous, and brimming with books to offer niñxs what is most likely the first and only children’s books they would see in their lives.

Twenty-five years ago I entered for the first time my own library of dreams--the place Borges referred to as what he imagined paradise must be like. My first paradise was the Ygnacio Valley Library in the city of Walnut Creek California. My son was a few months old.  I had just been given a temporary resident visa that allowed me to...feel lost in a country I had never imagined would become my own. At that time there were a huge number of things I hadn't imagined. For instance I had never, never imagined that a place like the library I had in front of me existed. I hadn’t imagined that in a library books could be taken off the shelves and read freely without somebody stopping you from messing with them. I hadn’t imagined that in such place a new mother, who didn’t understand English and was afraid to speak, and her newborn baby could be welcome. I hadn’t imagined that in a library could be a special place called the children’s books section, because I had never imagined in the first place that a piece of humanity was dedicated to creating books for children that were more beautiful than I could ever dream of!

In Mexico my friend Alma works in what is called acompañamiento, a most difficult job. It consists of giving companionship and support to families, but mostly women, who have had a son, a daughter, a partner, a close loved one who has been disappeared by the government. When I asked Alma one day how does she do it to stay sane amongst so much pain and irreparable tragedy, she smiled and responded, “He sobrevivido por mi capacidad de imaginar.” “I have survived because of my capacity to imagine.”

What is imagination? Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Let yourself fall inside you, a little deeper, and a little more. You are at a forest, look at your feet; you stand at the beginning of a luminous, vibrant, beautiful and strong path. The path is mysterious, you don’t know where it would take you, but nevertheless, the path calls you and you want to take it. Do it! Some would say imagination is this vibrant path of energy our mind takes. Most of us here rely doing our job in the belief that the books we make take readers through this path, where imagination becomes so powerful that a book can even change a child’s life. And we might be right! Because when the mind of a reader moves through the path of imagination, their body will follow. Imagination creates reality.

But while we can declare that our capacity to imagine is infinite, it is also true that there are things we cannot imagine if we do not have the context, the experience, or the language to capture the feeling into reality.

When I started finding at the library a world that had never occurred to me, at the Western Addition Library, and then at the Mission Library of San Francisco , there was one more thing my mind could have never imagined to be true, and it was this: One day, I took a book from the shelves and this book was like no other. And although I might never be able to remember what book this was, what I will never forget is that in the pages of this book a child, brown just like the child I had been or like my son; who spoke Spanish too, the only language I knew, was the protagonist. Here was a “real” book, hardcover, shiny papers, library wrappings and stickers, amazing illustrations, words and all, which proved that people like my son and I could also be the heroes of stories! Not only that, but the name of the author told me something else that was undreamable to me: a Latinx person could be the writer of a book that lived on the shelves of the public library. I don’t remember the title of this book that gave me this never imagined reality, but when I peel the layers of my memory, one after another, the name that comes to my mouth is Calling the Doves/ El Canto de las Palomas, written by Juan Felipe Herrera and Illustrated by Ellis Simmons.

When you hear the names of books like El Canto de las Palomas, you feel the emotions too, don’t you? If you have been as fortunate as I have been, you have also received the light from authors like Juan Felipe Herrera, Jorge Argueta, Susan Guevara, Gloria Anzaldúa, Gary Soto, Alma Flor Ada, Francisco Jiménez, Sandra Cisneros, and many more. They might have been your companions too in this path of recognizing that you too are part of books and stories. And you probably loved their work because their books are much more than entertaining stories and artful images; in fact their job is to tell you the truth, like some 25 years ago I had never heard either, that we, brown people, Spanish speaking gente, people born in other countries, migrants with dreams cannot only be the ones who clean the floors of the library, but we are the patrons, the readers, and we can be the librarians, and the editors, and we can be the authors and the heroes of our life stories as we are too the shapers of unimagined possibilities.

There has been much reference to this time as a golden era of Children’s books where diversity and own voices are pointing toward a new way of creating literature. And it might look like we are on our way, but the truth is that we have just put our feet at the beginning of a never before walked path. Our steps will be guided by our capacity to imagine and then make true a world of children’s books for what we don’t have a reference yet; where we replace the normalized voices of superiority and discrimination with critical, historical, and inclusive voices of possibilities.

I am most grateful to the Pura Belpre committee for choosing Dreamers as representative of the work they had always fought for, to lift the voices of those who are usually not heard and usually not seen, or that when we are seen we are deformed and dehumanized. Their recognition humbles me, because I am aware of the responsibility in having Dreamers become a thread in the much needed embroidering of a just literature for children, one that could become so strong that could never, ever, be represented in a single book, but could only grow from the strength of our collective voices.

I am also grateful to Neal Porter, my editor, and Charlotte Sheedy, my agent, for being this incredible team who kept insisting that a story like Dreamers had a place in the world of books, even when I myself thought my story was devoid of great adventures to be of interest to readers. They and the unstoppable team of Holiday House reminded me constantly that any person who has migrated has a story worth telling. My son Kelly, my journey companion, my learning mate, my teacher since he was a baby, his little hand holding mine constantly while we run to catch a bus, or when I felt lost in places and him always saying, “we can do it, Mama.” His little hand also letting mine go to find his own way through this suspicious, improbable, unbelievable, surprising, unimaginable new world an immigrant like me had never imagined existed. Kelly is the most amazing gift I brought with me when I crossed the border into this country, and he is the true meaning of Amor, Love, Amor.

Last year I toured bringing Dreamers to readers, and while I was freely crossing from México to the USA and back, I learned, along with our nation, of the caging of children at the border and the separation of families asking for asylum. My stomach churned. Here I was, celebrating in a book the opportunity and the hands that had extended towards me and my son when we came to the USA, while at the border many families were and are being tortured in punishment for aspiring entry to a more luminous future for themselves and their families. I heard author Reyna Grande say the other day that the policies of the USA create immigrants in our countries of birth, only to punish people when they dare to come.

And so, here we are, dreaming that out work and our books could help us imagine and thus create a world freed from violence and oppression. And perhaps we can do it. Together. Because the way I understand the power of books has all to do with imagination. When a child journeys through the path of a book, what they live in there becomes real. The wants, the struggles, the emotions, the triumphs, the hopes become all true. In the same manner, when a child’s existence is denied, made invisible, caricatured, denigrated, rejected, erased from the pages of a book, they become victims of what we authors, illustrators, editors, booksellers, teachers, librarians, critics have created for them. Despite what many of us would prefer to believe, violence and oppression are not just something children imagine. Our books might be pieces of fiction if we decide them to be, but for children violence is real. “Don’t even dream about it”, oppression shouts, “The dream is not for you.”

When I was making Dreamers I learned about animales migrantes. And I was so impressed with animal migratory patterns that I covered Dreamers with kaleidoscopes of Monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies, such delicate insects, are one of the most amazing migratory animals in the world, and their migration is an incredible story of survival. After monarchs have spent the cold months of the year in México, they give birth to a generation of butterflies that will fly north in search of milkweeds and a place to thrive. These butterflies will live for about a month, allowing them to reach the southern part of the USA. There they will rest and reproduce. They will also die. But the newborn generation of monarchs will fly again, this time arriving beyond the central part of the USA, where they will reproduce into a new generation of monarchs that will replace the tired butterflies. The newborn monarchs will take flight again; this time they will reach their destination in Canada, where they will rest, feed, and give birth to the last generation of monarchs to be part of this great migration. I was amazed when I learned how this last batch of butterflies is not like the others. They are born super monarchs, butterflies that will live up to eight and nine months. This last generation will return to México for the winter in one single trip. Don’t you find this fantastic too? I am sure you have super monarchs in your life. Look at our niñxs. Look at the minors caged inside perreras. Look at children crying for their parents. Look at the brown children going to school hoping that when they get home their parents will still be there to receive them. These super monarch children have not been brought here to take or steal the American Dream. They are the Dream.

Cascabel del horizonte
Nos llamaste a otra tierra
A cruzar ríos y el monte
Y el desierto que nos lleva
Hacia los United States
Pa cruzarnos la frontera

Ay como rezumba y suena
Cascabelito migrante
Que si la bestia no embiste
Llegaremos Dios mediante.

No cruzamos por quitarles
Venimos a trabajar
Darle escuela a los chiquitos
Y a encontrar un nuevo hogar
Donde podamos cuidarlos
Como no se pudo allá.

Ay solita ay soledad
Compañera del camino
Llegamos en caravana
Por que sola hay más peligro

Los papeles que trajimos
Son del sol y de la luna
Que pregunten a la tierra
Para ver si hay algunas
De las que llaman razones
Pa quitarnos las criaturas

Huye, huye animalito
Que nos quieren agarrar
Y aunque a mi me deportaran
Ni aun así te he de soltar

Criaturita majestuosa
Te trajimos a crecer
No habrá jaula pa tus sueños
Aunque te quieran vencer
Como si a las mariposas
Las pudieran detener

Cascabel cascabelito
Juntos vamos a llegar
Mas si acaso nos separan
Yo te volvere a encontrar.

~Yuyi Morales