This collection of bilingual Spanish/English poems recounts the perilous journey undertaken by thousands of children from Central America who are leaving their homelands to seek out a better life in the United States.
This is the picture book that prompted me to explore more titles from El Salvador. Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds is a collection of poems based on the real-life experiences of thousands of children from Central America. As poet Jorge Argueta explains in his author’s note, the children are fleeing extreme poverty and fear of violence in their homelands in the hope that a better life awaits them in the United States.
The poems follow a natural progression as the children recount their journey, starting in Central America and moving overland to the US. The first-person narrative is a very powerful tool, drawing the reader into the story, and building empathy for the children’s plight.
It’s not an easy journey, as we can see from the book cover alone. The children set out with few belongings, with or without their parents, and walk great distances on foot. They travel on overcrowded migrant trains and sleep out on the desert sand; they risk falling into the hands of immigration services, traffickers or civilian patrols. As well as the physical hardships and human threats, Argueta draws attention to the emotional aspect of the journey. Throughout the collection, we see that the children are torn between their homeland and their destination.
“I feel like going home/to see my dad./He stayed behind crying./Stop crying, Dad./When I get to my mother, we will send you a kiss/”, recounts a child in “The Desert Sand”. The accompanying illustration by Alfonso Ruano, which you can see on the bottom half of the book cover above, intensifies the pathos of the situation: two young children lie sleeping on the desert sand, while their paid guide, the coyote, sits in the background, arms folded. In “Dream” a child drifts from the United States to Central America in his dreams after his safe arrival in Los Angeles.
The children are not just leaving behind their loved ones. In a series of lovely poems at the beginning of the collection, they evoke the familiar sights and sounds of the neighbourhoods they are leaving behind: a whistling dog, coconut popsicles, azacuanes birds that announce the seasons, and flowers burning bright on the flames trees. It isn’t until the next page, in “La Campanera Neighborhood” that we see the dangers lurking around the corner: the painted people with hard eyes. Gosh, it’s a terrifying illustration, the single staring eyes, the designs in black ink on the men’s heads and torsos, the blade, the menacing silence of their stance. This is the “fear of violence” Argueta was referring to in his author’s note, the gangs that the children are fleeing. This, and the prospect of joining family members and starting a new life in the US, is what motivates their journey.
Simply written and beautifully illustrated, We Are Like the Clouds/Somos como las nubes is a powerful read that evokes the physical and emotional challenges – and danger – faced by thousands of children fleeing Central America. The poems also pay tribute to their courage, resilience and hope, as they travel from their homelands to the United States.
Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Alfonso Ruano, translated by Elisa Amado (Groundwood Books, 2016) bilingual edition (Spanish/English)
Jorge Argueta is a poet and writer who has written many award-winning bilingual books for children. He also runs Luna’s Press and Bookstore in San Francisco, which specialises in multicultural bilingual children’s books. He spent most of his childhood in San Jacinto, El Salvador, before fleeing to the United States during the Salvadoran Civil War.
Alfonso Ruano is a Spanish-born illustrator. His work has garnered him many awards, including a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the UNESCO Tolerance Award and an Américas Award Commended title for The Composition by Antonio Skármeta, and selection as an USBBY Outstanding International Book for Tricycle (El triciclo) by Elisa Amado.
Elisa Amado is a Guatemalan-born author and translator. She has written a number of picture books, including Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead (Un barrilete para el Día de los Muertos), Cousins (Primas) and Tricycle (El triciclo), which is on the Américas Award Commended List and is a USBBY Outstanding International Book. She lives in Toronto.