Whether a picture book or a novel, most printed stories are divided into manageable pages and chapters that help us better grapple with their narratives. Real life, on the other hand, is messier — more like watching a never-ending, unedited filmstrip.
Migrant, a bilingual children’s book by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro, captures that reality. Published by Abrams, it appropriates the vertical, accordion-bound form of a pre-Colombian codex to tell of a Central American family’s freight train journey to the United States. “We rode in a truck to the train tracks and waited there,” the young narrator explains. “When the train appeared, it scared us; it huffed and puffed like an animal.” The language is simple but rhythmic, a guiding companion to Martínez Pedro’s sprawling black-and-white illustration, which stretches from the boy’s rural village through Mexico to the wild, concrete jungle of Los Angeles, where he ends up.
The illustrator writes in the afterward that Migrant’s theme is “very dear” to him; he himself once illegally immigrated to the US. He now lives in Xalitla, one of the few Mexican villages where they still make amate, the paper on which he drew the book’s illustration. Before the colonial era, Mesoamericans milled it from fig tree bark to create their codices, until the Spanish burned and banned them (acts that Bishop Diego de Landa noted “caused [the Maya] much affliction”). Today, folk artists in the state of Guerrero (home to Xalitla) spend the dry season, when they can’t work the land, nurturing the old craft. The amate paper becomes a historically meaningful backdrop for their intricate pen-and-ink scenes of community life.
Migrant‘s beauty rests in the fact that it uses this centuries-old art form to promote empathy. Learning about another culture can be a way to break through misunderstanding and see our common humanity; in the case of child migrants, the book indirectly links the current crisis to colonial-era subjugation, which destroyed Mesoamerican society and enslaved its inhabitants, opening an economic rift that still exists today. While Migrant can easily be appreciated by adults, it’s also a thoughtful vehicle through which young readers can grapple with the news they may hear on television, over the radio, or at the dinner table. Most of all, it’s a creative work of activism.
“We wish to tell and to question this collective story that makes children defenseless and almost nonexistent to their own country and to the new one where they hope to find work,” write Mateo and Martínez Pedro of the 50,000 children who make the journey alone to the US every year. “When they migrate, the children cannot themselves prove their name, nor can they request documents to do so; many times they cannot even manage to find out what their real age is. For this reason we have created this book: to demand these children’s right to exist.”
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