La Frontera: My Journey with Papa (2018) is a much-needed bilingual children’s book that thoughtfully explores one family’s experience of immigration to the United States. Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva co-authored the text, which is based on Alva’s experience arriving in the United States with his father over thirty-years ago. Mexican illustrator Claudia Navarro’s beautifully detailed images help communicate the emotional significance of the story by carefully capturing expressions and gestures of characters. Importantly, La Frontera does not just make us feel; it also makes us think about immigration contextually by subtly introducing political and economic explanations for the actions and experiences of the characters.
The story, told in the first-person, maintains a sense of immediacy and encourages critically engaged empathy. It is at once intimate and deeply political. The narrator, Alfredo, reminisces about his childhood in central Mexico where his family lived for over a century. The men of the family picked pine nuts and were able to support everyone until Alfredo’s abuelo grew too old to make the required five-mile walk into the pine forest. At that point, Alfredo’s abuelo advised the boy’s father, Raymundo, to “find a new home” where there would be enough work for him to support his family, which consisted of three sons and an infant daughter. He also recommended that Alfredo accompany him on the journey.
Alfredo is sad at the thought of leaving. An image of smiling children complements the text: “I was hungry, yes, but I did not want life to change.” A simple but powerful assertion that leaving home is not a joyful decision but often a matter of survival.
The next day, Alfredo hears his father discuss exchanging money with men who call themselves “coyotes.” In the corresponding illustration a young boy hovers behind a wall, the reader can see what he does not, the back of a man in a chair and the shadow cast by him on the floor, that of a coyote.
Alfredo’s Tio Tomas throws a party for the travelers, and all the village comes to celebrate. The illustration depicts warmth, family, friends, community, the joy of food and music. This is contrasted when the page is turned, and we see Alfredo alone with his mother as the two share a sorrowful good-bye. Alfredo’s mother holds the small boy in her lap, a visual reminder of his youth that haunts the reader as the boy embarks on his journey.
In the next illustration father and son prepare to leave home. They wait for a bus that will take them to “Coyote.” Alfredo’s father’s eyebrows are drawn together in a resigned expression as Alfredo clings to his side. The journey includes hiding in tall grass, crossing the Mexico-US border in an inner tube, abandonment by Coyote, wandering around lost in the dark, sleeping on a bed of rocks, five days of walking while evading scorpions, chasing trains for water, and a host of other hard to believe, harder to live through, dangers and indignities that anyone would only volunteer to endure if the alternative made the risk worth it.
Although this a difficult journey, it is not without laughter and a feeling of security, since Alfredo is, after all, with his loving father, who envelopes him in paternal protection. The importance of family within the text provides a useful way into discussions about the current issue of parent-child separation at the Mexico-US border.
Finally, father and son make their way to a shack where they will meet a friend of Alfredo’s abuelo, Isidro. When Isidro pulls up to the shack there are Texas license plates on what Alfredo describes as “his safe, friendly truck.”
It turns out that the “Embassy” the pair has been journeying to was nothing more than “a collection of broken-down trailers and furniture that people had dumped in the woods behind a factory.” This becomes Alfredo’s home, and after being there for several weeks, Raymundo, enrolls him in school. When he goes on a school bus for the first time, leaving the relative security of his father’s side, Raymundo gives him a one-hundred-dollar bill and tells him to use it if he is ever brought back to the border and needs to get home from there. This reminds the reader that safety is precarious at best.
Several more weeks pass, Alfredo’s living situation has not changed, and he feels isolated at school where he doesn’t speak the language. The authors do a wonderful job garnering empathy and understanding for Alfredo. Some readers will identify with his situation, but for those who cannot, this text encourages deep emotional engagement and commitment. All the characters are well developed and given a range of feeling through the gorgeous illustrations.
Eventually, things begin to improve for Alfredo. His teacher invites a popular Spanish-speaking boy, Antonio, into Alfredo’s class. Once Antonio includes Alfredo other students follow and help him learn English. He reciprocates by helping them with math.
Although his life in Texas slowly improves, Alfredo misses his family terribly. However, at this point, in real time, some thirty-years ago, “President Reagan granted amnesty to millions of immigrants, which meant we could begin the long process of applying for citizenship.” In a political moment, far different from our own, a Republican president provided immigrants like Alfredo and his father a path to citizenship.
In the text, four years had passed, and father and son created a life in Texas. One day Raymundo picks his son up from school in his very own truck and surprises him with a trip to El Paso, a border city in Texas. Alfredo, apprehensive at first, remembers his trip from the border to his new home. In El Paso, the family is finally reunited, after years of sacrifice made to survive. The family embraces with all the affection they were unable to show for too many years. The text ends on this note of joy.
Back matter includes a summary of the US land-grab of Mexican land at the end of the 1848 Mexican-American war. Other information provides readers a politically aware understanding of the immigration process. Additionally, images of the family whose story is told appear, helping young readers understand the text as non-fiction.
I think this is one of the most important books one can add to a personal or public library in 2018. The struggle of immigrants is not just a news story; it is something many children experience, either through their own stories of migration, or through family members, or even classmates who, like Alfredo, may not know the language or cultural norms, may not come to school with a full belly or sleep in a cozy bed.
I read this with my three-year-old and he finds it very sad, but we can discuss that people come to the US from lots of places for lots of reasons. In a couple more years our conversation will gain depth and nuance. The ideal audience is probably 7 – 10-year-olds, however, because of the emotional and intellectual work the story encourages, I imagine it being put to good use in a classroom of older students. This is a very good and very important book.