Today Keira and I are on our way to Washington D.C. for the Américas Award Ceremony and Teacher Workshop! In light of this, it seemed like the perfect week to highlight Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, one of last year’s América’s Award Honorable Mentions. I’ve been dying to share more about the book and the curriculum materials we created for the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, and as the book fits so nicely with our September themes, I couldn’t imagine better timing.
In this allegorical picture book, a young rabbit named Pancho eagerly awaits his papa’s return. Papa Rabbit traveled north two years ago to find work in the great carrot and lettuce fields to earn money for his family. When Papa does not return, Pancho sets out to find him. He packs Papa’s favorite meal—mole, rice and beans, a heap of warm tortillas, and a jug of aguamiel—and heads north. He meets a coyote, who offers to help Pancho in exchange for some of Papa’s food. They travel together until the food is gone and the coyote decides he is still hungry . . . for Pancho! Duncan Tonatiuh brings to light the hardship and struggles faced by thousands of families who seek to make better lives for themselves and their children by illegally crossing the border.
During September, we’re featuring retellings of traditional and familiar stories and books that look immigration through the eyes of children. These themes provide a way to highlight and discuss resources that help us honor and understand Latin American cultural influences throughout the hemisphere. As you’ll see in the discussion below, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is a book that does all of these things. This is one of those rare books that has value for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. As Tonatiuh mentions in his Author’s Note in the book, it can be read on two levels, both as a fable and as an allegory. As a fable, it’s accessible to young readers, while as an allegory, it’s appropriate for older readers who can analyze and discuss the multiple layers and the sociopolitical message of the tale.
Tonatiuh demonstrates just how powerful a retelling can be. With animals as the main characters, the fable-like nature of the tale allows students to engage with the migrant story both intellectually and emotionally, while at the same time separating it from its often emotionally charged and politically biased presentation in the media. Interestingly, taking the human face away from the story seems to allow the reader to engage more fully with the reality of immigration. It takes the conversation away from the abstract, and focuses instead on the real experience of the migrant. Through simple and clear language and illustrations, Tonatiuh conveys a great deal of emotion without becoming melodramatic.
Immigration is a complex issue, yet media portrayal is often overly-simplified and at times one-sided. Immigrants are dehumanized and described as illegals or aliens. Broad stroke generalizations suggest that the majority are violent criminals, drug dealers, or terrorists. It is within this context that Tonatiuh’s story is powerful, offering a counter narrative to this depiction. His book provides a bridge that allows students to delve into the complexity of the issue, really looking at all the factors that contribute to the need for people to leave their homes and travel to a new country, no matter the risk. In Tonatiuh’s TEDTAlk he explains how his own experience with immigrants of Mixtec heritage provided the inspiration for adapting the ancient codices in his modern illustrations. These illustrations create the opportunity to discuss both Mixtec history and art as a medium for social justice. Yet, the opportunities to discuss the notion of retellings goes beyond the immigration counternarrative Tonatiuh provides. His book also functions as a contemporary version of both an ancient Meso-American fable and a trickster tale.
When we think about Hispanic Heritage Month as a means to celebrate the cultural influence of Latin America throughout the hemisphere, we see why books like this one are so important. There is increasing pressure for publishers, schools, and libraries to provide more diverse literature for our students because all students deserve to see themselves reflecting in empowering ways in literature and all students should be culturally competent with an understanding of the diverse cultures, experiences, and realities that make up our world. In 2008 there were 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants in U.S. schools. With this in mind it’s quite clear why we need a book that depicts the reality of immigration. Those students deserve books that tell their story, and their classmates need books to help them understand that story.
We hope that you will read the book for yourself and share your thoughts with us. For those of you who are teachers, we hope you will find the educator’s guide a helpful tool for exploring all of these ideas with your students.