This collection of bilingual Spanish/English poems recounted by Tetl, a young Pipil Nahua Indian, tell of his close bond with Mother Earth and the taunts he suffers because of his indigenous heritage.
I couldn’t resist slipping a second collection of poems by Jorge Argueta into this leg of the Planet Picture Book journey! And this one is beautifully illustrated, too, by Texan-born artist Lucía Angela Pérez.
Talking with Mother Earth is written in both Spanish and English, with the poems featured either across a double spread, or side-by-side on a single page. They are sprinkled with words in Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken mainly in central Mexico, and also in El Salvador and the US. Narrated in the first person by Tetl, a young Pipil Nahua Indian, the book is a powerful read focussing on his close bond with Mother Earth. The connection is particularly obvious in ‘Four Directions’: “The east is in my belly/where I feel the sun/like a heart warming me/every morning.” In the accompanying illustration, Lucía Angela Pérez shows a young boy with long dark hair and winged feet sitting on the cardinal point of a compass-like sculpture, gazing up at a fiery yellow and orange sun. It is one of many glorious spreads in a jewel-like palette showing Tetl interacting with nature.
The poems also speak more broadly of the Pipil Nahua Indian people’s deep relationship with the earth. In ‘The Fire’, Tetl recounts that his grandparents visit him in the dancing flames. In ‘The Stones’, he refers to the sacred stones as his people’s grandfathers and grandmothers, and that they talk with their voices. The theme of elders, specifically a grandmother, crops up throughout the collection. We learn that Tetl’s grandmother named him; she is the one who taught him to whistle like the birds so he never feels alone; and she has real pride in the Nahuatl language. Although this collection is not billed as autobiographical, Jorge Tetl Argueta (note the middle name) is clearly drawing on his personal experience to inform his writing. After a little digging around, I discovered that his grandmother (in real life) was a Pipil Nahua Indian healer, who spoke Nahuatl better than Spanish. Here’s the link.
It is not until the third poem of the collection that tension creeps into the narrative: “Sometimes I feel like yelling/from my toes to my head./Yes, I am a Pipil Nahua Indian.” We discover that our young narrator is a target for others because of his indigenous heritage. Later on, in ‘Indian’, Jorge Argueta expands on this theme, spelling out the racist taunts directed at Tetl by his schoolmates: “Cracked-foot Indian”, “Flea-bitten Indian”, “Stinky Indian”, and the physical abuse that accompanies their words. This poem – not an easy read – provides a vivid portrayal of racism in a school environment: the group vs. the individual, the cruel words and actions, and the impact they have.
Thank goodness for Mother Earth who reassures Tetl that he is “as beautiful as the wind” and that everything she has is for him, to ensure his happiness. Tetl finds comfort, strength and resolution in his connection to nature – in his feathered fan, in birdsong, in the corn that grows, in the fire and water.
Talking with Mother Earth is a must read! As well as exploring the important topic of racism, this collection of bilingual poems offers beautiful glimpses into the unique connection between Pipil Nahua Indians and the earth, experienced through the eyes of a child.
Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Lucía Angela Pérez (Groundwood Books, 2006) bilingual edition (Spanish/English)
Jorge Argueta is a poet and writer who has written many award-winning bilingual books for children. He is a native Salvadoran and Pipil Nahua Indian, who spent most of his childhood in San Jacinto, El Salvador, before fleeing to the United States during the Salvadoran Civil War.
Lucía Angela Pérez is an artist who has illustrated a number of children’s books. She grew up in an artistic family in Texas – her late mother Gloria Osuna Pérez was a painter who also ran her own pottery business.