Category Archives: Latin America

The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding

The Latin American folktale called “The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding” has been a big hit in my second grade classroom. My students love doing Readers Theater, so when the author, Alma Flor Ada, who retold this tale so nicely, commented on my post last week and suggested we turn this story into a play, my students were very excited and full of ideas.

Searching online, I found a Readers Theater script that was perfect for my second graders, written by Jacklyn Moore. My students chose their parts and decided that they wanted to draw their character to hold up as a hand puppet as they performed.

Our project was interrupted by Valentine’s Day and then by Mid-Winter Break, but the students finally finished their puppets and are practicing their parts. Our rehearsals have gone well, their expression and fluency are improving with each reading of the script, and the students are excited to perform this week for our 5th grade buddies.

This has been a wonderful reading project! I was thrilled to have Alma Flor Ada leave comments on my posts, and it was equally exciting for the students to have contact with a real “author friend.” These are the kinds of magical moments that help turn children into passionate readers, and bring such joy to this job.

Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real

A few weeks ago, Susan (bloggin’ ’bout books) tagged me for a Meme in which I was to grab the nearest book, turn to page 123, find the 5th sentence, and copy out the next 3 sentences. The book sitting within reach was Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, and the three sentences found for the meme give you a glimpse of the powerful stories in this beautiful collection.

Turning to the woman, Don Alcibiades added, “There’s one bullet left. It’s enough for you,” and he left.
The ambiguous mask on her face was unchanged.

I checked this book out from the library 6 weeks ago to read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons Challenge, with my focus on books and stories by Latin American authors. What a perfect book for my challenge! The short stories are written by very talented writers from many different Latin American countries.

My favorite story was Knight, Death and the Devil, written by Vlady Kociancich, and translated by Alberto Manguel. It’s a story of a knight returning home from the crusades during the Middle Ages only to find that the plague has also arrived, and everything is chaos and death. The images and ideas in this story show how powerful short stories can be.

Vlady Kociancich is Argentine and was a student of Jorge Luis Borges. She has written three novels and has published at least two collections of short stories. I’m particularly interested in her now and would like to read her novel, The Last Days of William Shakespeare, which is not about William Shakespeare, but about culture versus politics in an unnamed Latin American country.

I fell in love with the painting on the cover of this book by Francesca Rota-Loiseau, an Ecuadorian artist. (Click here to see more of her artwork.) I enjoyed reading all the stories included in this Modern Library volume, which was edited by Celia Correas de Zapata and included an introduction by Isabel Allende. I also appreciated the author and translator biographies in the back of the book. I’ve already renewed the book twice, not because it’s taking me a long time to read it, but because I don’t want to let it go. Guess it’s time to order a copy for my own library!

Synchronicity

I love to experience synchronicity! It happened today, and has left me contemplating the loveliness of life and the interconnectedness of everything…

So what happened today? Yesterday, I wrote a post about two lovely books/memoirs I just finished reading, both written by Alma Flor AdaWhere the Flame Trees Bloom, and Under the Royal Palms. Today, I was thrilled to discover that she had somehow found my post and had written a comment on my blog, thanking me for my “kind words” about her books. I read her comments during my lunch break, and when my students came back in from recess, I shared with them my excitement that this author I so respect would take the time to write to me about her books. My second graders listened and asked a few questions, and agreed that it was a “pretty cool” thing that happened.

But then…while my students were busy working on a math assignment, I pulled out our reading textbook to prepare for tomorrow’s reading lesson. Being new to this grade level this year, I’m not familiar with the stories in the basal reader, and I hadn’t looked ahead to see what story was next. When I opened the book, I was completely amazed to discover that the story my students will read tomorrow is called “The Rooster Who Went to His Uncle’s Wedding: A Latin American Folktale,” retold by Alma Flor Ada! It’s one of her grandmother’s stories, a delightful tale, and my students will be reading it knowing that their teacher and the author share a passion for reading and writing and remembering. Isn’t that awesome?

Where the Flame Trees Bloom

Where the Flame Trees Bloom, by Alma Flor Ada, is a lovely memoir of growing up in Cuba. A second volume is called Under the Royal Palms. She wrote these books for young people as a series of vignettes that tell about her family, her town, and her experiences growing up on the outskirts of a Cuban town called Camagüey. “My grandmother and one of my uncles were great storytellers. And every night, at bedtime, my father told me stories he invented to explain to me all that he knew about the history of the world. With all these storytellers around me, it is not a surprise that I like to tell stories.” And the stories she shares are beautifully told.

The very first story in Where the Flame Trees Bloom is my favorite, although I enjoyed each one. It is called “The Teacher,” and recounts a poignant experience in the life of her grandmother. In the telling of this story, she captures a spontaneous teaching moment that reveals the heart of the teacher (her grandmother) and the ultimate purpose of teaching. I was very moved by this story and the way she told it. Here’s an excerpt from it that was printed on the back cover of the book:

“Look,” continued my grandmother, as she pointed to the road that bordered the farm. There the students saw a solitary man walking. “Look at that old man. He is walking by us. In a few minutes he will be gone forever, and we will never have known who he is, where he is going, what may be important in his life.” 

The students watched the man, who by then was quite close. He was very thin and a coarse guayabera hung loosely over his bent frame. His face, in the shade of a straw hat, was weathered and wrinkled.

“Well,” said my grandmother, “do we let him go away, forever unknown, or do you want to ask him if there is anything we can do for him?”

These beautifully written little books would be a lovely way to introduce young people to the genre of memoirs. Both books are well worth reading for adults as well as for children.

Here is some information on Alma Flor Ada written by Jack Zipes:

Alma Flor Ada, (1938– ), Cuban‐American writer and professor, who has been a pioneer in the development of multicultural and bilingual books for children and has written the important study A Magical Encounter: Spanish‐Language Children’s Literature in the Classroom (1994). Ada writes her own texts in Spanish and English as well as translating and adapting folk tales that emphasize the themes of cooperation, trust, and liberty. Among her important books in Spanish and English are El enanito de la bared (The Wall’s Dwarf, 1974), La gallinata costurera (The Little Hen Who Enjoyed Sewing, 1974), La gallinata roja (The Little Red Hen, 1989), La tataranieta de Cucarachita Martina (The Great‐Great Granddaughter of the Little Cockroach Martina, 1993), and Mediopollito (Half‐Chicken, 1995). Dear Peter Rabbit, (1994), a unique montage of fairy tales and fables in the form of letters, won the Parents’ Choice Honor. The Malachite Palace (1998), one of Ada’s original fairy tales, recounts the adventures of a sequestered princess who is not allowed to play with the common people until she is liberated by a tiny bird.

I read and enjoyed these two books together for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons reading challenge, and I highly recommend them.

My Invented Country: A Memoir

In the introduction to her book, My Invented Country: A Memoir, Isabel Allende explained that by “some blood-chilling coincidence–historic Karma,” she had experienced two life-changing September 11ths. Her world changed the first time on September 11, 1973, the day of the military coup in her beloved Chile, and on that day she lost a country. After living in exile in various locations, Allende now makes her home in the United States. She has struggled since that day in 1973 to redefine herself: “…if someone had asked me where I’m from, I would have answered, without much thought, Nowhere; or, Latin America, or, maybe, In my heart I’m Chilean. Today, however, I say I’m an American...” For many years, she felt like an outsider in this country until the tragedy of September 11, 2001, an event that unified all Americans in grief. It was then she realized that in that shared grief she had gained a country.

This book is a fascinating exploration of memory and nostalgia. It is a courageous and honest account of her struggles to come to terms with the loss of her country, and it chronicles her growth and development as a person and as a writer.

I write because I need to remember and overcome. It is from memory and a sense of loss that the passion to create emerges. Every book is an act of love, an offering that I prepare with great care, hoping that it will be well received.” 

She shares her deep love and nostalgia for her lost country and culture in her descriptions and reminiscences of the politics, food, manners, myths, and customs of Chile. I learned a great deal about the character of the country and the culture of the people from her stories. But she explains that the Chile of her memory is “an invented country…

…From the instant I crossed the cordillera of the Andes one rainy winter morning, I unconsciously began the process of inventing a country… 

…Through the intervening years, I lived with my eyes turned south, listening to the news, waiting for the moment I could go back, as I selected my memories, altered some events, exaggerated or ignored others, refined my emotions, and so gradually constructed the imaginary country in which I have sunk my roots…”

It became clear to me, as I read this book, that Allende had finally reached a point in her life where she could stop briefly and look back over her shoulder at the pathway she has walked since 1973, and really understand each turn and obstacle along the way. She has made peace with the enormous losses she has suffered, and finds joy in her writing and her family. She is “proud of being bicultural.” … “I have tried to keep my language, my traditions, my sense of honour and my roots alive and vibrant. You don’t have to give up all the good things, just keep adding all the good things that this country can offer you.”

She poignantly shared with her readers the understandings she has come to about herself, and explains the importance of writing in her life:

…My heart isn’t divided, it has merely grown larger. I can live and write anywhere. Every book contributes to the completion of that “country inside my head,” as my grandchildren call it. In the slow practice of writing, I have fought with my demons and obsessions, I have explored the corner of memory, I have dredged up stories and people from oblivion, I have stolen others’ lives, and from all this raw material I have constructed a land that I call my country. That is where I come from… 

I loved the fact that she would share so much of her “life-processing” with me, and I admired her emotional honesty, as well as her resilience and optimism. This is a hopeful book and a poignant look at the life of an artist.This was the third book I’ve read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons reading challenge, with my focus on Hispanic/Latin American authors, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Far Away and Long Ago

Allá Lejos y Hace Tiempo 

W. H. Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841 to American parents. He spent his early childhood on an estancia called “Los Veinte-cinco Ombues” (the Twenty-five Ombu Trees”) outside of Buenos Aires, and it was there he began to develop a passion for the flora and fauna of the Argentine pampas. And it was those early experiences with the natural world that shaped the boy into the much respected naturalist, ornithologist, “defender of nature” and gifted writer. When he was 77 years old, he wrote a memoir of his childhood, Far Away and Long Ago. That memoir, which I just read for Melissa’s Expanding Horizons book challenge, has touched my heart.

I know that I am partial to all things Argentine because of the year I spent there as an exchange student. But this book is so beautifully written, I would have loved it anyway. It is written with a grace and sensitivity that his colleague, Joseph Conrad, envied.

In this book, his memories become stories that carry you along as he paints vivid pictures in your mind of the landscapes, the wildlife, the people and the experiences of a young boy discovering his world — the boy on his horse, completely free to explore the beauty of the pampas from early morning until dusk. He spent hours observing the birds, and although his brothers would sometimes tease him, they respected his unique abilities at such a young age.

He was also a great observer of the humans around him and included tales about the neighbors, the gauchos that worked the estancias, the schoolmasters that came and went. There are stories of his escapades with his brothers, including one that told of a mock knife fight they had when his older brother wanted to practice the self-defense lessons given him by a local gaucho. Hudson was wounded during that “fight,” but won the respect of his older brother by not telling on him.

His boyhood ended suddenly, he explains, at age 15, when he became ill with Typhus, followed shortly afterwards by a serious bout with Rheumatic Fever which damaged his heart. The doctors told him he would not live very long, and facing the loss of everything he loved sent him into a period of dark despair. In the chapter “A Darkened Life,” he describes poignantly this crisis and his painful transition from the joyous innocence of his boyhood into manhood. When he recovered, and was able to finally assess maturely what he had lost and gained from those traumatic changes to his health, and also realized that he could live 20, 30, 40 more years, he rejoiced:

…That was the life I desired–the life the heart can conceive–the earth life. When I hear people say they have not found the world and life so agreeable or interesting as to be in love with it, or that they look with equanimity to its end, I am apt to think they have never been properly alive, nor seen with clear vision the world they think so meanly of, or anything in it–not a blade of grass. Only I know that mine is an exceptional case, that the visible world is to me more beautiful and interesting than to most persons, that the delight I experienced in my communings with nature did not pass away, leaving nothing but a recollection of vanished happiness to intensify a present plan. The happiness was never lost, but, owing to that faculty I have spoken of, had a cumulative effect on the mind and was mine again, so that in my worst times, when I was compelled to exist shut out from nature in London for long periods, sick and poor and friendless, I could yet always feel that it was infinitely better to be than not to be. 

Today, the Argentine home where Hudson was born has become a museum and a beautiful ecological park. One of my favorite passages from the books gives you a strong sense of that time and place, and a lovingly tender memory of his mother:

All that I remember of my early life at this place comes between the ages of three or four and five; a period which, to the eye of memory, appears like a wide plain blurred over with a low-lying mist, with here and there a group of trees, a house, a hill, or other large object, standing out in the clear air with marvelous distinctness. The picture that most often presents itself is of the cattle coming home in the evening; the green quiet plain extending away from the gate to the horizon; the western sky flushed with sunset hues, and the herd of four or five hundred cattle trotting homewards with loud lowings and bellowings, raising a great cloud of dust with their hoofs, while behind gallop the herdsmen urging them on with wild cries. Another picture is of my mother at the close of the day, when we children, after our supper of bread and milk, join in a last grand frolic on the green before the house. I see her sitting out of doors watching our sport with a smile, her book lying in her lap, and the last rays of the setting sun shining on her face. 

Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection

It’s not quite January, but I couldn’t resist starting my Expanding Horizons Challenge a few days early. I am so happy to have a little time to read during this much needed “Winter Break” from school, so I was delighted when this book of folktales, that I had put on hold at the library quite awhile ago, came in just before Christmas. And this was the perfect first book to read for my challenge focus on Hispanic/Latin American books and authors.

Tales Our Abuelitas Told is a lovely collection of Hispanic folktales from many different cultures, written/retold by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada. Abuelitas is an endearment in Spanish for “grandmothers,” and these tales, full of life lessons, are told with the loving care of our grandmothers.

These stories have journeyed far — over mountains, deserts, and oceans — carried by wind, passed on to us by our ancestors. Now they have found their way to you.
A sly fox, a bird of a thousand colors, a magical set of bagpipes, and an audacious young girl … A mixture of popular tales and literary lore, this anthology celebrates Hispanic culture and its many roots — Indigenous, African, Hebrew, and Spanish.
 

In the introduction to the book, the authors explain the history of Hispanic folklore, which I found fascinating. Twelve tales are retold and beautifully illustrated, each one ending with a brief explanation of the different versions of the story and the authors’ connections to it. My favorite was “The Happy Man’s Tunic,” a story brought to Spain most likely by the Arabs. In the story, a caliph was too busy to spend time with his kind and loving son. When his son became ill, the caliph consulted many physicians. But when none of them could find the right cure, and he despaired, an old woman came to him and told him that all his son needed to get well was to wear the tunic of a man who is truly happy. The search was on, and a young shepherd was finally found who proved to be a truly happy man. The problem was…he didn’t own a tunic! It’s a fun story with an important message, but I won’t give it away here.

The authors also included a fun list of traditional beginnings and endings to stories told in Spanish, side by side with their English-language equivalents:

Había una vez… Once upon a time…

En los tiempos e la abuela… In Grandmother’s time…

Hace mucho tiempo… A long time ago…

...y colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado. …and, my many-colored feathered friend, now the story has found an end.

It’s exciting to find a book of folktales that is done so nicely. This is a lovely book, beautifully written and illustrated, and it would be a great addition to a family’s collection of folktales, and a wonderful book to use as a teaching tool in school for any age group.

Expanding My Horizons: Reading Choices


Last week I joined Melissa’s (Book Nut) new reading challenge focusing on multicultural reading, Expanding Horizons. The category I’ve chosen is books by Hispanic/Latin American authors, and I’ve finalized my pool of books. Because of my passion for children’s literature, I’ve included books for young people as well as for adults in my list of want-to-reads. The challenge commitment is to read 4 books from this category, but I may end up reading more than that, as you can see by the list of books I’m interested in! This challenge runs from January through April, 2008, and I can’t wait for it to start!

  1. 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
  2. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (Dominican Republic/USA)
  3. My Invented Country, by Isabel Allende (Chile)
  4. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, by Jose Hernandez (Argentina)
  5. Where the Flame Trees Bloom, and Under the Royal Palms: A Childhood in Cuba, by Alma Flor Ada (Cuba)
  6. Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan (USA)
  7. Far Away and Long Ago: A Childhood in Argentina, by W. H. Hudson (Argentina)
  8. Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection, by F. Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada
  9. Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas Zapata

Expanding Horizons: A New Challenge


I completed one reading challenge this week so it must be time to take on another! Melissa, at Book Nut, is hosting one called the “Expanding Horizons Challenge,” and it encourages multicultural reading.

It will run January through April of 2008, and the purpose is to read works by authors of ethnicities other than your own. The focus is on the nationality of the author rather than the characters. The books can be fiction or nonfiction, adult or YA, and can cross over to as many other challenges as you want.

There are two ways to approach this challenge. Either read four books by authors in one of the six categories (you can read more than one category, but you must read four books; not two books in one category and two in another) OR read six books, one from each of the six categories. The categories are:

  1. African/African-American
  2. Asian/Asian-American (This is not just East Asia–China, Korea and Japan–but also Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, and the Central Asian-“Stans.”)
  3. Hispanic/Latin American
  4. Indian/Indian/American (Again, books by Indian authors, not books by white authors with settings in India.)
  5. Middle Easter (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Turkey…)
  6. Native Peoples (can include Native American, Inuit, Polynesian-Maori, Samoan, etc.–Siberian natives and Australian Aborigines.)

I’ve decided to focus my challenge on Hispanic/Latin American literature, both adult and young adult. Some of the authors in my pool at the moment are:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
Alma Flor Ada (Cuba)
Julia Alvarez (USA)
Sandra Cisneros (Dominican Republic)
Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)
Isabel Allende (Chile)
Pam Munoz Ryan (USA)
Octavio Paz (Mexico)
Pablo Neruda‘s poetry (Chile)

I’m looking forward to this challenge and will choose my 4 specific books as it gets closer to the January start time.

Che

Forty years ago today, when I was living in Argentina as an exchange student, I wrote a letter home about the death of Che Guevara. The news filled the Argentine newspapers and was the talk everywhere I went.

Nobody knows for sure if he’s really dead or not, I wrote. Last Sunday, October 8th, a number of “guerrillas” were killed in one of the many Bolivian battles. This battle took place in the southern part of Bolivia, in the province of Santa Cruz, near a small village named Vallegrande. Among the dead, the Bolivian government presumed, was Che Guevara. 

Growing up in the 60’s, we had all heard of “Che.” But because of the year I spent in Argentina, and being there when he died, I felt a special connection to him, and the story of his life and death is still fascinating to me. I didn’t understand or have enough information at that time to make a judgment about him–whether he was the mass murderer some claimed or an heroic revolutionary according to others. And I don’t know where to find the truth about him even today. Which sources or which versions of his story can I trust? In the last few years government documents have been declassified, many books and articles have been published about Che, and the controversy still rages.

I just know that I have always viewed him as a person rather than as an icon. I have preferred to read his own writings rather than biographies of him written by various people. I read The Motorcycle Diaries a few years ago and was captivated again by his youth and idealism. It transported me back to my own youthful idealism as an exchange student in 1967. I loved reading about his journey and his expanding awareness of the complex world of Latin America. And I felt that he spoke directly to me when he described the impact of his journey through South America:

“The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil again. The person who reorganizes and polishes them, me, is no longer, at least I’m not the person I once was. All this wandering around “Our America with a capital A” has changed me more than I thought.” 

Che will be forever 39…”his face captured in eternal youth.” And I will always be fascinated by this charismatic and enigmatic Argentine.