Postcard from San Miguel: What borders mean to children


Art from Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

I was not a real Mexican, and I was not a real American.

Benjamin Alire Saenz

That’s how author Benjamin Alire Saenz recalled his feelings as a young boy growing up in Mesilla, New Mexico, and crossing weekly into Ciudad Juarez for flat-top haircuts. Staring at the giant flags fluttering over the bridge:

I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican one.

kentucky-clubSaenz is the author of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories winning a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Saenz chairs the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border” was the title of the powerful keynote address he delivered two nights ago at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. The visibly affected crowd quickly rose as one the second he finished the final sentence of the emotionally charged presentation. It was the topic on everyone’s lips the next morning as attendees flocked to the bookstore to purchase recordings to share with others.

Saenz’s talk was preceded by an introduction to Duncan Tonatiuh, the artist/author who designed the conference posters. Although Tonatiuh is young – he graduated from college in 2008 – he already has several award-winning books to his credit.

In an article in USA Today, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, labels Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale “propaganda.” But the author of the fable, in which the coyote stands in for those who smuggle immigrants into the United States from Mexico, believes he has created a bedtime story to which many children in North America can relate.

At the Writers’ Conference, Tonatiuh screened a short video made for him by a fourth-grade class in Austin, Texas.

Many a Kleenix was lifted up to dab away a tear.

It appears Tonatiuh’s book provides a key for teachers to encourage children of immigrants to open up and discuss their experiences.

Perhaps Pancho Rabbit serves as an even more valuable tool for helping children of American-born parents understand and empathize with the issues confronting some of their classmates.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Krikorian. Is that “propaganda?”

Update posted on March 19, 2014: Duncan Tonatiuh will be appearing from 11 to 11:30 a.m. in the Children’s Book Tent at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5.

‘So Doth a Little Polly,’ sayeth this Lamar


In June of 1920 I received the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Mathematics and Economics, a title which, coupled to the name of Lucius Mirabeau Lamar the Third, was of such resounding grandiloquence as to bring from the assembled students faculty and families (who else would be there in the boiling muggy Texas sun?) a burst of applause embracing, I knew well enough, a component of irony. It did sound good, as some of the movie false fronts look good, but there was mostly air behind it.

From Shards by Lucius M. Lamar, 1968

And this before Lucius M. Lamar, III, (1898-1978) added a law degree.

It is not surprising someone so willing to self-mock would choose a conscientiously pretentious name for the protagonist in a pride-before-the-fall, the-grass-is-always-greener, be-careful-what-you-wish-for fable, So Doth a Little Polly, woven for his five-year-old-niece and seven-year-old nephew.

Jesus Francisco de Assisi Sensontle.

This tale of a San Antonio mockingbird did not bow to monosyllabic rhyming words first-graders could read. No, it was a vocabulary-stretching story rippling with multiple layers of bicultural meaning and accompanying music ranging from “Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous” to Handel.

Sensontle, or Don Sensontle as he preferred to be called, wintered on Alamo Plaza, convinced he reigned over all other feathered creatures. He believed his singing so awe-inspiriting he was “astonished at his own virtuosity” (Notes in the margin recommend the accompaniment of a toy flute here.).

One day a sparrow, Cecil, asked if Sensontle had read the recent news from Austin in the paper:

“A gentleman never reads,” replied Sensontle with dignity, being innocent of that clerical accomplishment.

“Perhaps not,” went on Cecil, ignoring the implication….

The news Cecil the sparrow was trumpeting was that the mockingbird had been proclaimed the State Bird of Texas.

Pompous pride over this tribute soon led to a downturn in Sensontle’s popularity among the birds of the plaza (pompous chords followed by a fast march).

Frustrated, Sensontle flew to a home on Zarzamora Street to visit his caged cousin, Maria Ysabel Dolores Soledad Sensontle, “a handsome and engaging young fellow, whose somewhat effeminate name had been bestowed by his captors under a misapprehension as to his sex.”

Yearning for an easy life, Sensontle negotiated to change places with his cousin for a year.

youtube video posted by zxtkain

A year later Maria returns and perches on the branch of a fig tree near his former cage. Sensontle desperately pleads:

“Kindly release me.”

“Come,” said Maria, “your morals have improved at the expense of your manners. You should ask no labor of me until I have got my wind.”

“I ask nothing save the fulfillment of your promise, which is a sacred duty you should perform at once, tired or not. Be quick, let me out!”

“Patience, cousin, patience,” soothed Maria.

And then.

And that’s the problem.

Twelve dried, yellowed, longer-than-legal-sized typewritten pages.

The end of the story is missing, scattered somewhere amongst the shards left in the wake of closing the Mister’s parents’ household. Lost. Along with copies of other “children’s” works produced by Lucius, including “Hardboiled Harry.”

We are hoping the Mister’s great-uncle passed the stories down orally to his own children and are mailing “So Doth a Little Polly” to his daughter tomorrow.

Please. Let us know if Sensontle lived to fly freely lording over the Alamo once again….