Guest Post: Author/Illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh's "Reflection" for the L4LL Día Blog Hop

Literacy improves lives, strengthening communities, neighborhoods, and the economy.

This is the mission of Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL), a social enterprise focused on raising literacy rates co-founded by my partner Monica Olivera and I. This mission bleeds through everything we do, including the second annual L4LL Día de los Niños, Día del Libro (Day of Children, Day of Books) blog hop featuring a different Latino author or illustrator on a different top Latina blog every day of April starting on the 6th. You can find the full schedule here.

Education is not just the great equalizer. For immigrants, it's the first rung on the ladder of upward mobility. This is not the platitude of some tree-hugging limo liberal. Rather, I am this declaration's living testimony--the daughter of Colombian immigrants, a retired educator and machinist, who came to America with little more than hopes and dreams of a better life for their children. They revere education as does this scholarship kid whose imagination and flights of fancy were nurtured by books.

Judy Blume.

Ernest Hemingway.

Miguel de Cervantes.

Gabriel García Márquez.

Sandra Cisneros.

Part of my literary canon, I continued on my path of education, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in literature from Yale.


But before you pat me on the back or say, your parents must be soooo proud, consider this:

I am the exception and not the rule.

Educational achievement and attainment continues to be an major issue in the Latino community. You don't have to read U.S. Census data to know that this isn't issue discrete to the Hispanic community. Our explosive growth everywhere in the country means we are the workforce and tax base of the future.

Latino educational shortcomings are not an Hispanic problem but a national emergency with our economic strength and global competitiveness bound to the performance of these Americans.

One powerful tool towards higher educational achievement and attainment is identification. Simply put, students who see themselves reflected in media, leadership roles, and books are likelier to succeed. Research and data prove this. But so does common sense:

We gravitate to those we know so that with confidence and security, our curiosity and ambition may take flight.

This is why L4LL's Día blog hop is so important. For a minute, we set aside the depressing statistics and celebrate the authors and illustrators who have been working, many independently and for decades such as Día founder Pat Mora, to literally write the Latino in America experience into the literary canon. This codification matters because it drives a stake into the ground affirming:

We belong.

We are here to stay.

As important, these stories and illustrations reach out from the page and warm a young Latino heart, pique her curiosity, and embrace his soul. Do not underestimate the transformative power of seeing someone who looks like him, names that may be in her family tree, a place he knows well such as the bodega, or someone she loves like abuela. Today it's Lulu Delacre. Tomorrow, The Iliad and quantum physics.

Which leads me to author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh who we are honored to host on The Wise Latina Club. I had the privilege of interviewing this award-winning author and illustrator in 2013 as part of our L4LL 2013 Remarkable Children's Literature of 2013 programming--a response to the lack of Hispanic authors/illustrators in the New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2013.

For the L4LL Día Blog Hop, we asked each guest writer to pen an essay or answer questions organized by the topic "Reflection." Duncan drew the two original illustrations that accompany this post. And in the following Q & A, the award-winner reflects on his journey as an author/illustrator published by a mainstream press, the inspiration he found in the ancient Mixtec codex to tell contemporary stories, and why he believes his young audience deserves to engage heavy topics such as immigration and inequality, straight up.


Q & A between Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D. and Award-winning Author and Illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh

(edited for space)

Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D., founding editor of The Wise Latina Club and co-founder of Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL): Born in Mexico and educated at Parsons School of Design, why have the ancient Mixtec codex been such a strong theme in your illustrations?

Duncan Tonatiuh: I’ve liked drawing since I was kid. When I was in elementary school, I liked Japanese anime and comic books and I would make up my own superheroes. In middle school, I liked the political cartoons I saw in newspapers. I would make cartoons of my classmates and teachers. When I was 16 years old I came to the U.S. I went to a very arts-oriented high school. I painted a lot and I liked artists like Egon Schiele and Van Gogh. Later on, I went to a design school in New York. The more time I spent in the U.S., the more I began to miss the things that were around me in Mexico. I became interested in Mexican art and in issues, like immigration, that affect people of Mexican origin on both sides of the border.

While I was at Parsons, I volunteered at a worker’s center called NMASS. There I met Sergio, an indigenous Mixteco who had left his village in southern Mexico and had come to New York to work as bus boy in a restaurant. Many of the Mexican immigrants in New York are Mixtecos. They work very hard and they are paid terribly. For my senior thesis, I decided I was going to make a short graphic novel about Sergio’s story. One of the first things I did was go to the library at Parsons and look up images of Mixtec artwork. I was delighted when I found images of the Mixtec codex from the 14th Century.

Growing up in Mexico I was familiar with Pre-Columbian art. I saw it in text books when I was a kid, or on codex like crafts at the market. I never really paid attention to those drawings though. But when I saw the Mixtec codex at the library that day I was drawn in. I admired the geometry, the design and the repetition of forms and colors. I decided I was going to make a modern day codex about Sergio’s story. I called it Journey of a Mixteco.

You can see images of that project on my website or on my blog.

The piece is not published yet, but hopefully it will be in the near future. I’ve drawn in a codex-like style since.

VH: Many writers and artists are "either/or." You are both a writer and illustrator. Have you always done both and why?

DT: I’ve liked both drawing and writing since I was a kid. I did not plan to become a children’s book author and illustrator though. The opportunity presented itself when a professor at Parsons saw my Journey of a Mixteco illustrations. She really liked what I was doing. She had illustrated some children’s books for Abrams and she introduced me to an editor she was friends with named Howard. Howard liked my illustrations. He told me that he would give me a call if he received a manuscript that suited my work. Most children’s books are written by one person and illustrated by a different person. I told him I liked writing too. I was taking illustration classes at Parsons, but also writing classes at Eugene Lang--both divisions of the New School University. He told me a few things about pictures books, like their usual page count, and gave me his email.

Some time later, while I was still working on my senior thesis, I had an idea for a picture book about two cousins, one that lived in a rural community in Mexico--like some of the kids I had grown up with in San Miguel de Allende--and one that lived in an urban center in the U.S.--like the kids that lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where I lived. I wrote the story and it eventually became my first book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin.

I’m extremely happy that I have become a children’s book author and illustrator. I get to write and draw about themes that I’m passionate about like art, history, and social justice. And I get to share my work with an audience. It's very rewarding. Picture books are a wonderful medium, perhaps the best one for someone that likes to both write and draw. I get to do both for my books and hopefully the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

VH: You are one of the few Latino authors publishing in a so-called mainstream publishing house. What are the pros and cons for this relationship versus, for example, pursuing self-publishing?

DT:  I think the advantage of working with a large publisher is that I can focus most of my energy on writing and illustrating. Abrams has a wonderful marketing team and they send my book out to reviewers, award committees, bloggers, etc. They take care of the business side and I can focus on the creative side, which is my strength. Making a book is a group effort and I think another advantage of working with a good company is that you have a good team. I really like Howard, the editor I’ve worked with at Abrams. He’s been an editor for many years and he has a lot of knowledge and experience. He has given me a lot of great advice and I think my books are stronger because I’ve worked with him.

I have not pursued self-publishing. I’m guessing one of the advantages is that you have more liberty. When you work with a company you have to get approval from different people: the editor has to approve the manuscript, the art director has to approve sketches and artwork, and the sales team has to approve the initial idea for the book and they have to believe they can sell it. I think that people that want to self-publish and want to be successful at it need to be good writers and/or illustrators, but also good at marketing and good businessmen to makes sure people find their book and buy it.

VH: You won the prestigious 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children's book award for Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale which was selected as an L4LL 2013 Remarkable Latino Children's Book. Tell us about the inspiration behind this book and winning this prize.

DT: I'm very proud of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. The book reads like a fable; kids tell me it reminds them of the Little Red Riding Hood and the Gingerbread Man. But the book is also an allegory of the dangerous journey undocumented immigrants go through to reach the U.S. Coyote refers to the animal, but it is also slang for a person that smuggles people between the U.S.-Mexico border. I like that I can read the book to 4 year olds. Little kids like the suspense in the story and I can also talk about the book with older kids, teenagers, and adults. Pancho Rabbit is a good tool for starting a discussion about immigration in the classroom.

Pancho Rabbit’s story is not my personal story, but the story of many of my friends and of people around me. I am dual citizen. My father is American and my mother is Mexican. I have two passports and I can enter and leave both Mexico and the United States as I please. The kids that I grew up with did not have that privilege. When they were 16 or 18, many of them left San Miguel to look for better opportunities in the U.S. They left to shingle roofs in California and bus tables in Texas. When they returned, often because they got deported, they would tell me about what they went through: walking in the desert and eating snake because they ran out of food, waiting days and days in some house for the coyote to show up. One of my neighbors did not make it and died of dehydration.

When I came to the U.S. I met a lot of people, like Sergio, who’ve had those experiences too and who had not seen their mother, or children in five, seven, or more years. They were scared to go back to their home countries and not be able to get back in the U.S. I think immigration comes in and out of the news cycle quite often. But when people in the media talk about it they usually talk about it in abstract terms. They talk about the economy and other statics. Or worse, they sensationalize the topic and equate immigrants with drug lords and terrorists. They rarely talk about the dangerous journey that people go through to reach the U.S. and the separation that exists between families.

I’m very happy that Pancho Rabbit has been well received and that kids, parents, teachers, and librarians support it even if it's about a controversial topic. The book won the Tomás Rivera Award this year and it received two honorable mentions from the Pura Belpré Award--one for the illustrations and one for the text. It is currently a finalist for the Children’s Choice Book of the Year Award. Kids that like the book can vote for it here. Teachers, librarians, parents, and book sellers can help kids vote using the group ballot option. Hopefully, if Pancho wins the award, more people will find out about it and will want to read it.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had with the book though, is when a group of 4th graders from Metz Elementary in Austin shared with me this video with a multi-voice poem they wrote about their own immigrant experiences. It's very touching and it makes me very proud that a book I made inspired them to tell their own stories. According to a Pew Research Center Report, there are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented children in the U.S. and an estimated 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants in U.S. schools, yet very few books reflect their reality.

VH: In your children's books, you don't shy away from "heavy" themes such as inequality and immigration. Why is it important for you to open this dialogue with young readers?

DT: I think kids are extremely intelligent. Sometimes we don’t give them the credit they deserve. I try to share with them things that I find important and interesting. Hopefully I do it in a manner that is accessible to them and that they can understand. I’ve visited many schools and public libraries since I wrote and illustrated my first book and young readers always have great questions and comments. They are engaged and interested in the topics I write about.

I think there are a lot of great books out there that are funny or that are tender and sweet. But that's not me and it's not what I’m good at. I try to make books about things that I’m passionate about--social justice, history, art. Making a book takes me at least 6 months, and if I’m going to spend all that time and energy on a project, it has to be about something I really care about.

When I visit a school or library, I try not to preach to kids, but rather talk with them and have a conversation. I hope that my books are not preachy either, but rather that they are entertaining, interesting, and that they open the kids' minds and eyes to topics I find important.

VH: What's next for Duncan Tonatiuh?

DT: I have a new picture book coming out this May. It is called Separate is Never Equal. It tells the story of Sylvia Mendez, a girl in the 40s of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who was not allowed to go to a “white’s only” public school in Westminster, California and instead had to go to an inferior “Mexican school.” In the 40s, segregation of Latinos was commonplace throughout the Southwest. The Mendez family went to court and fought so that all children could go to school together regardless of their race or background. The Mendez family won and in 1947 California was the first state to desegregate schools. Most people don’t know about this important piece of American history which paved the way for Brown versus Board of Education and the desegregation of schools in the entire nation.

I had the privilege to meet Sylvia Mendez while working on the book. She is a friendly and energetic lady. She travels often to visit schools and universities to talk about the case and what her family went through. In 2011 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama for all her accomplishments.

I’ve shown advanced copies of the book to students. They engage with the story and although it took place 70 years ago, many of them can relate to it. Even though legal segregation is no longer permitted in U.S. public schools, there is a great deal of segregation happening today. According to a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA it has increased in recent years. 43% of Latino students and 38% of African-American students attend schools where fewer then 10% of their classmates are white. Latino and African American children are twice as likely to be in a school where the majority of students are poor. Therefore their school is more likely to have fewer resources and less experienced teachers. I often see this inequality when I visit schools in different parts of the country.

What was your favorite books as a child and what did it inspire?