By Jeremy Paden, Spalding School of Writing Poetry Translation Faculty
His name is Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez. Propublica tells us Carlos was just sixteen years old when he died of the flu in a cell at a detention center in Weslaco, Texas in May 2019. He was from the Mayan highlands of Guatemala and the fourth minor to have died while in the custody of the Customs and Border Patrol Agency of the United States in 2019. He had followed his brother north, hoping that a new country would give him opportunities his own could not provide. The other children who have died in custody this year are also Guatemalan: the eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, the not-yet-three-year-old Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vázquez, and the sixteen-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez. In 2018, two minors died while in custody, both girls: Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, a ten-year-old El Salvadoran, and Jakelin Caal Maquín, a seven-year-old Guatemalan.
Deaths at detention centers, however, do not account for all the deaths of children at the border. The heart-wrenching photograph of the twenty-five-year-old father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his two-year-old daughter, Valeria Martínez Ávalos, washed up on the shore of the Río Grande in June 2019, shows us another cause of migrant death. Óscar Alberto had sold his motorcycle in El Salvador and borrowed money to bring his family north. Their hope was to claim asylum and start life in a place without gang violence. Valeria is not the only child to drown this year trying to swim the river. Though less frequent than drowning, children have also died of exposure in 2019. Exposure is the principal cause of adult death. Over the last several years, upwards of two hundreds migrant deaths have been recorded. Some people think these are numbers are low.
While it is true that the policies of the current administration have exacerbated things and exploited the ad hoc nature of how the government has handled the southern border, Valeria Luiselli’s recent essay, Tell Me How It Ends, notes that the spike in border crossings by minors predates 2016. Indeed, Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, a book about a seventeen-year-old Honduran who travels north to reunite with his mother whom he hadn’t seen since he was five, was published by Random House in 2006. It was based on her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles for the Los Angeles Times.
People leave their countries for multiple reasons. One of the difficulties of immigration policy (beyond American xenophobia) is that these reasons are ever changing. Another is that sometimes the cause is the result of the unintended consequences of the U.S. foreign policy. For example, in the wake of NAFTA, small subsistence farmers in rural Mexico could not compete with the influx of cheap U.S. grown corn, vegetables, and meat. This coincided with a downturn in the Mexican economy. As a result, in the 1990s large numbers of Mexicans crossed over for work. Undocumented Mexican immigration began to taper off as the Mexican economy developed and the middle-class became stronger and more stable. The recent rise in Honduran, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan immigration responds to different pressures, with different histories. It is a mix of climate change, years of war and drug induced violence, and destitute poverty.
Yet, the economics of immigration seem rather clear—quite contrary to the claims about job theft, depressed wages, and criminality—the immigrant community, Latinx immigrants included, are more entrepreneurial than well-established Whites of European descent. Not only this, criminality in those neighborhoods that immigrants move into decreases.
At the end of summer 2018, as the migrant caravan was headed north, Virginia Underwood, publisher at Shadelandhouse Modern Press, and I began conversations about collaborating on an illustrated book appropriate for both children and adults. Over the years, I’ve written a few blog posts and book review essays on Central America and migration for their blog and Virginia had recently read and been inspired by Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer. From these conversations Under the Ocelot Sun was born, a poem in which a mother tells her daughter why they have come north to the U.S.-Mexico border. The mother does so by telling stories that her own mother had told her about life in the mountains of Honduras before the family moved to the capital city, Tegucigalpa.
When I wrote the poem, I knew that I wanted it to be bilingual—which meant looking for some sort of form that would work in both languages and with the narrative. After some casting about, trying out prose and free verse and fourteeners, I settled on the ballad form, or romance in Spanish. Both English and Spanish have a ballad form arranged in quatrains. The English stanza alternates between a four-beat and a three-beat line, while Spanish, whose meter is syllabic rather than a play of stressed and unstressed syllables, is simply four eight-syllable lines. Both are old forms used for popular storytelling and song. Yet, because of play between the languages, I chose to follow the ballad form loosely.
While both English and Spanish are European languages that follow a subject-verb-object syntax and while both share certain poetic forms, for example the sonnet, there are enough differences between the languages that when following form closely these become magnified. The translator Margaret Sayers Peden notes that an eleven-syllable line (the traditional syllable count for a sonnet in Spanish) does not typically translate into a pentameter but into a tetrameter in English.
With the translation of the poem, I did two. One that followed the original English rather closely and one that I translated much more freely. I sent this freer version to a good friend of mine, Oswaldo Estrada, in March of 2019. He wrote back several days later and included his own rendering. He thought I’d made a mess of the poem. The Spanish version that ultimately made it is a mix his translation and my first version. And it was a good thing, Oswaldo really helped the Spanish sing.
Annelisa Hermosilla was the first person I thought about it, as Virginia, Stephanie Underwood (associate publisher at Shadelandhouse Modern Press) and I began to talk about illustrators. Annelisa, a graduate in studio art at Transylvania University, and I had collaborated in spring 2017 on a broadside to raise money for the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. Virginia was kind and bold enough to go with her. I say kind and bold because this will be Annelisa’s first illustrated book. Then again, this will be my first illustrated book, and also Shadelandhouse Modern Press’s first illustrated book.
Among the challenges we faced were the relationship between text and image and the pacing of the book. While the story touches on the history of Honduras, the problems with climate change, and the drug and gang violence in its major cities, the narrator is not giving a disquisition, but telling stories to a child. Among the things that Annelisa and I talked about were finding a way to pitch the pictures so that both adults and children would be interested and that we needed to find a way to stay true to the immigrant experience and honor the difficulty of the journey without being triggering.
The mythology of the book calls on Nahua and Mayan myths. In fact, most of Nahua mythology is an appropriation of earlier Mayan stories. Despite the fact that the many ethnic groups of Mexico and Central America share similar stories, it is important to note that Honduras is not Mexico. Mexico is not Guatemala. El Salvador should not be confused with Nicaragua. Each is their own country with their own history. Not all the First Peoples of these countries are descendants of the Maya—though many are. Even then, there are important distinctions among the various Mayan groups. Despite these differences, they share commonalities: corn, cacao, communal lives lived in villages. While focusing on Honduras and the modern history of Honduras, the mythology the poem uses pulls from things these nations share in common.
I wrote this in early December, well before March, and before news of the virus circulating in Hubei Province had received much coverage. At times, that world seems so distant and different from this one. The truth is, the problems of that world haven’t gone away. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has stemmed the tide of immigration, some reports even state it has reversed the flow, this country’s economy depends on Mexican and Central American laborers. In fact, U.S. agribusiness has relied on their labor since the early 20th century. No one eats in this country without the labor of undocumented workers. Construction and janitorial services also depend on their labor. Despite this reliance, undocumented Mesoamerican workers are demonized, and they have been since before the Mexican Repatriation campaigns of the early 1930s. Mesoamericans are portrayed as employment thieves and freeloaders who do unskilled manual labor. In reality, the job of a fruit and vegetable picker or a construction worker is highly skilled and specialized. This is not the place to outline how inconsistent and irrational our immigration policy is, nor is it the place to note all the ways in which our system has relied on Mesoamerican labor. Yet, I would be remiss not to say, the time for comprehensive immigration reform is well past. And it needs to be one that acknowledges our nation’s complicity with the problem, rather than one that simply continues to demonize the very people on whom our food depends.
I am deeply grateful to Annelisa for taking up such a large project. Her images are simply striking. I am also deeply grateful to Shadelandhouse Modern Press for taking a chance on this book, which will come out July 14, 2020. A portion of the proceeds will go to help El Futuro, a nonprofit outpatient clinic in North Carolina that provides comprehensive mental health and substance use services for Latino families in a bilingual environment of healing and hope.
Jeremy Paden teaches translation at Spalding MFA and is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Artist Fellowship.