Lost among the din of the immigration debate are the real-life experiences of children searching for an identity while dealing with uncertain futures.
Some one personally making the kids stories known and voices important is author Duncan Tonatiuh, whose book Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote; A Migrant’s Tale is the 2014 winner of the Tomás Rivera Mexican American children’s book award.
Raised in San Miguel de Allende by his Mexican mother and American father, Tonatiuh later moved stateside to finish high school and attend college. Today, the author-illustrator hasnt forgotten what its like to grow up north and south of the border.
I try to focus on the journey, on the separation, that people go through, Tonatiuh told VOXXI. Its fiction and a story with animals, but its an allegory of the journey that undocumented immigrants go through to reach the U.S. It can be read in two ways a coyote like the animal and also like a person who smuggles people.
Its a book that teachers, that librarians and parents have really responded to because its a book that they know reflects the reality of a lot of children in their schools and libraries.
Despite the acclaim and widespread acceptance of Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote; A Migrant’s Tale, there are those who have called the book both propaganda and inappropriate for kids.
Tonatiuh scoffs at the notion, instead pointing out some topics in his books may be complicated for very young children to understand but overall they can relate to the story or even see themselves in the narrative.
In fact, thats a major theme behind all of Tonatiuhs award-winning work beginning with 2010s Dear Primo; A Letter to My Cousin, where he examines the differences and similarities experienced growing up in Mexico and America.
His most recent effort is childrens picture book Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Familys Fight for Desegregation depicting the relatively unknown 1947 story of an American girl of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage kept out of a whites only California school.
I think kids are extremely smart, Tonatiuh said. When I visit a school to read my books, I feel they relate to some of the stories. In the case of Sylvia Mendez and Pancho Rabbit, they get the danger. They get the injustice. So I dont think its too complicated or sophisticated for them. My first job as an author and illustrator is to grab their attention and make sure they want to turn the page and read on. I think they do.
Speaking of his artistic talent, what makes Tonatiuhs work so unique is his embracing of ancient Mexican art, particularly that of the Mixtec codex.
I try to take on that tradition but then I kind of collage my illustrations digitally so theres all off these different textures going on, Tonatiuh said. It has this ancient naïve feel to it but it also has something more modern and contemporary.
When kids first see the books, they may not be used to it but they actually really enjoy them. Ive received drawings and thank you notes where theyll do drawings in that style, which thrills me that it helps preserve this tradition and gets them interested in this art that existed hundreds of years ago.
In case you missed it, keeping tradition and heritage alive is very important to Tonatiuh.
As far as the impact of his work, there was an experience last year that he said touched his soul and confirmed his mission.
I was invited to read Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote; A Migrant’s Tale at a book festival in Austin where a group of children introduced me, Tonatiuh said. They showed me this video they made, which was like a poem they wrote together about their own immigrant experiences.
Its very touching and powerful. It makes me very happy that my books have empowered them to tell their stories and to also know their stories and their voices are important. Thats one of the most rewarding experiences I had with the book.