This graphic novella comes in a box. I didn’t understand why until I pulled it out. When you do, you discover the book unfolds like a scroll, and continues all along one side and then along the reverse side.
“You don’t know our names but you’ve seen us. In this country we build houses, we harvest crops, we cook, we clean, and we raise children. Some people want to kick us out and some act like we don’t exist, but we are here, compañeros. We may not have documents, but we all have a story and we all have a name. This is my story. I am Juan.”
Juan is fictional but his story is representative of others in his situation.
The book is made in the accordion-fold form of Mixtec codices from the 14th century. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from southern Mexico. As Tonatiuh relates in an interview, some of the people he met at the worker’s center in New York City where he volunteered were Mixtec, and their experiences inspired Tonatiuh’s book.
As Juan’s story unfolds (literally), we learn that Juan, who grew up in a small Mixteco village in Mexico, travelled to the U.S. when he was 18 to find work. He moved in with his uncle and cousins, and finally got a job in a New York restaurant.
He met his future wife there, and she helped him learn Spanish (he spoke Mixteco) and English. He also met a Chinese waitress who asked him to come with her to a workers’ center where they were discussing efforts to improve conditions at their jobs.
Many of the immigrants felt fear, because they were illegal: if they complained about their treatment, their bosses could have them deported. The people at Juan’s workplace agreed to stick together: if they all made the demands, the boss could not get rid of everyone! But the boss still tried to punish Juan for his leadership by cutting his hours, and thus, his pay.
Juan and the rest of the workers protested, and when it made the newspapers, the boss offered Juan thousands of dollars to drop the case:
“But I said no. I wasn’t fighting for only me. I was fighting for everyone in the restaurant.”
Eventually, they settled out of court.
Juan started volunteering at the workers’ center to share what he learned with others there. Some of the fights for better treatment were successful, and some not. But Juan maintained:
“We need laws that protect ALL workers. You may not know our names, but we are here. We work hard. We pay our bills. We pay taxes. Papers or no papers, we have our dignity and we deserve to be treated fairly.”
In an Author’s Note at the end, Tonatiuh writes:
“Many people in the United States are hostile toward undocumented immigrants. These immigrants are seen as criminals who need to be kicked out or stopped from entering this country. But the undocumented are an important part of the workforce. They are a source of cheap labor, performing work many Americans will not do.”
And in fact, in spite of repeated falsehoods promulgated by the Trump Administration, statistics do not bear out the accusation that illegal immigrants commit crimes disproportionately.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, for instance:
“Neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have much lower rates of crime and violence than comparable nonimmigrant neighborhoods. Foreign-born men age 18-39 are incarcerated at one-fourth the rate of native-born American men of the same age.”
And immigrants do, like Juan in this book, pay taxes. They are not just getting a “free ride.” History professor Aviva Chomsky, in her book They Take Our Jobs! And Twenty Other Myths About Immigration, cites studies attesting that “Immigrants, legal and illegal, are more likely to pay taxes than they are to use public services.”
Tonatiuh also offers evidence about how difficult it is for the undocumented to stand up against unscrupulous bosses, lest the bosses retaliate and have them deported. In fact, he reports, “43 percent of workers who dared to complain or tried to organize were threatened, suspended, or had their hours cut.”
Tonatiuh, who is an award-winning illustrator, creates gorgeous folkloric art work that juxtaposes indigenous style with modern characters and settings. He also uses the pictures to enlarge upon the text.
Evaluation: Tonatiuh has crafted a beautiful testament to hard-working immigrants who want a fair shake for the work they do, and an opportunity to build lives in the [at one time at any rate] “land of opportunity.” Prior to the current administration, the U.S. policy was “charity toward all, malice toward none.” Now, according to the false narrative purveyed by President Trump, “Our country is full.” There is no more room, he mistakenly claims, among other lies about immigration.
The suggested age range for this book is 8 and up; it provides a wonderful way to approach the debate about immigration. The message, while multi-faceted, is delivered simply and effectively. In addition, the choice of art style lends itself to a discussion of the role of communication by media as well as through media.
Published by Abrams, 2018