Reading Roundup: 10 Books About Indigenous Peoples of Latin America

Nov 2015 Indigenous Peoples

¡Buenos días!

I hope everyone is having a great Thanksgiving! The Reading Roundup I’ve created this month involves books about Indigenous peoples of Latin America. With all of the stereotyped Pilgrims and Indians floating around, I hope that these books can be of use in the classroom for depicting a more accurate view of Native peoples and cultures in the Americas. I personally enjoyed reading and writing about these books, and I hope you enjoy them too!


Talking With Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrations by Lucía Angela Pérez
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996268
Age Level: 5-8
Pipíl Nahua

An Américas Award Commended Title

Raw, honest and powerful, these moving bilingual poems by noted Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta explore a young native boy’s connection to Mother Earth and how he is healed from the terrible wounds of racism he has endured. Tetl has learned from his grandmother about the spirituality of his ancestors, about how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. This helps him move from doubt and fear, created by the taunts of other children, to self-acceptance and a discovery of his love for nature.

Mountains, wind, corn and stones all speak to Tetl, almost seeming to vibrate with life. He feels deep roots in them and, through them, he learns to speak and sing. They reveal his Nahuatl self and he realizes that he is special, beautiful and sacred. These gripping poems have something to teach us all, perhaps especially those who have been either intentionally or casually cruel or racist, as well as those who have been the victims of racism.

Our thoughts:
In this book, Argueta shows the power of words and their ability to heal emotional wounds. His colorful descriptions of nature pair perfectly with the bright, yet soft illustrations by Lucía Angelea Pérez. Jorge Argueta is his own character in this book, making the book and its takes on racism very real and personal. Moreover, the translations to English are beautifully written. Lorraine wrote a post on this book that is worth checking out, and Keira wrote a Mira, Look! post about Jorge Argueta. Other bilingual books by Argueta do a wonderful job of accurately depicting indigenous children in the modern world, such as Xochitl and the Flowers/Xóchitl, La niña de las flores and Alfredito Flies home/Alfredito regresa volando a su casa.

The Girl from Chimel
Written by Rigoberta Menchú with Dante Liano
Illustrations by Domi
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996664
Age Level: 9
Quiché Maya

An American Library Association Notable Books List selection

Nobel Peace Prize winner and noted Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum brings the world of her childhood vividly alive in The Girl from Chimel.

Before the thirty-six year war in Guatemala, despite the hardships the Maya people had endured since the time of the Conquest, life in their highland villages had a beauty and integrity that were changed forever by the conflict and brutal genocide that were to come. Menchú’s stories of her grandparents and parents, of the natural world that surrounded her as a young girl, and her retelling of the stories that she was told present a rich, humorous and engaging picture of that lost world.

Marvelous illustrations by Domi draw on the Maya landscape and the rich visual vocabulary that can be found in the weavings and crafts for which the Maya are world-renowned.

My Thoughts:
This book tells the beautiful story of life in a small Guatemalan Quiché town before the country’s civil war. The story is filled with Domi’s colorful illustrations, which illuminate the natural beauty of the town where Rigoberta grew up. Rigoberta grows up secure, happy and according to her family’s Quiché Maya ways of living. The story is autobiographical, told by the Indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú. Rigoberta Menchú, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and important figure in contemporary Guatemala. She suffered the hardships of Indigenous genocide during the Guatemalan Civil War, losing her mother, father and brother. This book’s healing nature shows the beauty of Menchú’s town and Quiché Maya ways of life. Menchú  and Domi also paired to write The Honey Jar and The Secret Legacy, beautiful sequels to this book. De Colores wrote a blog post reviewing all three books, in case you’re interested in learning more.

Light Foot/Pies Ligeros
Written by Natalia Toledo
Translations by Elisa Amado
Illustrations by Francisco Toledo
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888997890
Age Level: 6-12

Once upon a time people and animals kept on having baby after baby, and the world grew more and more crowded. Death decided to solve this problem by challenging everyone to a jump-rope contest that she, being immortal, was sure to win. One by one, Toad, Monkey, Coyote, Rabbit and Alligator succumbed to her dare. But then along came Grasshopper with his ingenious tricks.

This book features the work of Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s most famous contemporary Indigenous artists, who did a series of engravings of Death — a dominant figure in Mexican culture — skipping with animals, which feature largely in Zapotec culture.

My Thoughts:
I personally loved reading this book. The translations into English are meaningfully written, making the poetry rhyme in both languages. The Spanish language of this book is quite particular to Zapotec Mexico, making it more connected to the culture of the story it tells. Furthermore, the animals in the story are all important animals in Zapotec culture. In the story, we see death as a necessity, rather than something horrific. Without death, our world would be overly populated. Furthermore, the theme of death introduces a circular concept to the readers’ minds. The paintings that accompany the words in the story are equally as important as the text. They are varied yet cohesive, and are also dreamlike – perfect for elaborating the intangible concept of death. Furthermore, Francisco and Natalia Toledo, father and daughter, are very well respected in Zapotec society, and it is a treat for children to be exposed to such wonderful artists.

Written by Antonio Ramírez
Illustrations by Domi
Published by Groundwood Books
ISBN: 9780888996114
Age Level: 5-8

Napí is a young Mazateca girl who lives with her family in a little village on the bank of a river in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. Each afternoon the family sits beneath the shade of a huge ceiba tree and listens to the grandfather’s stories. As Napí listens, dreamily, the afternoons take on different colors in her imagination – orange, purple, violet and green. She finds nighttime along the river just as beautiful as the trees fill with white herons settling on their branches. The ceiba tree sends Napí dreams every night, and in her favorite one, she becomes a heron, gliding freely along the river.

Domi’s vibrant palette and magical illustrations are a perfect complement to this imaginative story.

My Thoughts:
This is a beautiful story, and the colorful illustrations really bring it to life. Ramírez prioritizes nature by writing about the wind, the river, wildlife, and the colors of the earth at different times of day. When we see the faraway image of the village and all of its colors, the houses blend in with nature, symbolizing the harmonious relationship that the Napí people have with the natural world. This wonderful book is available in both English and Spanish. It is also followed up by Napí va a la montaña/Napi Goes to the Mountain, and Napí funda un pueblo/Napí Makes a Village. The De Colores website has a review of all three books that is worth checking out.

Kusikiy: A Child from Taquile, Peru
Written and Illustrated by Mercedes Cecilia
Published by Keepers of Wisdom and Peace Books
ISBN: 9780984407989
Age Level: All Ages

Kusikiy: A Child from Taquile, Peru, by author and illustrator Mercedes Cecilia, is a unique story that draws us into the kaleidoscopic and mysterious world of a Peruvian child. Kusikiy lives in the Andes Mountains of Peru in a small island in Lake Titikaka. In this wise and peaceful community, Kusikiy’s father cultivates potatoes and quinoa. His mother, like her mother and grandmother, weaves intricate traditional designs into her textiles to keep a record of important events. Children will identify with Kusikiy’s love for family and his concerns for the effects of climate changes on Mother Earth, as well as with his desire to be of help to his town.

When the Llama Constellation is missing from the sky, Kusikiy flies with Condor to the highest snowed peak to ask the APU, the Guardian Spirit of the Mountain for his help. Kusikiy enjoys his adventures and learns from his great grandparents the sacredness of the Great Glaciers and the traditional ways of giving thanks to Mother Earth. The town rejoices with a festival when they see the stars of the Llama Constellation returning to the sky.

Author/illustrator Mercedes Cecilia has created a myth following in the tradition of her Peruvian ancestors; a myth that treasures the universal values of love, family, community and caring for the Earth.

My Thoughts:
I really enjoyed reading this book. It is a good representation of Andean Quechua culture, and takes place on the sacred Lake Titicaca. One of my favorite parts of this book is the representation of how the stars dictate ceremonial and seasonal practices on land. In this case, it is the Llama Constellation that dictates when the rains will come, signaling for celebrations of the earth’s fertility. At the end of the book, Mercedes Cecilia writes about Quechua epistemology, or ways of knowing for understanding the world around us. Even when writing about the lake, Cecilia draws the Quechua diamond-shaped weaving symbol for lake, or qocha, below the text. In the year 2012 I visited Taquile Island with my family, and one thing to keep in mind while reading this book is the fact that it does not touch on the ways that life has changed over the years; it focuses more on tradition. Today on Taquile Island, while traditional ways are upheld, tourism has become very important. Many people on the island make a living from giving tours or selling woven creations to tourists. Mobility on Lake Titicaca is also rather easy today, making it possible to travel to the city of Puno for different necessities. Much of the youth is moving to other Peruvian cities, while the elders continue living on the islands. Nevertheless, tradition is still maintained. This book is beautifully written and illustrated, and it teaches us a lot about traditional Quechua culture and ways of life. On the Kusikiy website you can learn more and see some of the book’s pages.

Journey of Dreams
Written by Marge Pellegrino
Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
ISBN: 9781845079642
Age Level: 11-14
Quiché Maya

Helicopters slash through the air like machetes, soldiers patrol the roads hunting down guerrillas…for the peaceful highlanders of Guatemala, life has become a nightmare. Tomasa’s mother has to go into hiding with her eldest son, and, when they see their house razed to the ground and the villagers massacred, Tomasa, Manuelito and baby María set off with Papá on a perilous journey north to find Mamá and Carlos.

This is Tomasa’s story of how her family survives the Guatemalan army ‘scorched earth’ campaign, and how Papá’s storytelling keeps them going on their search for refuge in the United States.

Our Thoughts:
We can learn a lot from this book, as it touches on so many issues; from the Guatemalan Civil War, to Mayan struggle, to immigration, to the importance of unity and love, Journey of Dreams is a wonderful way to begin thought-provoking conversation in the classroom. Not to mention that it’s beautifully written. It has a helpful glossary in the back for the Spanish and Quiché words used. Katrina wrote a review about this book, where she highlights our Educator’s Guide for using it in the classroom.

The Story of Colors/La Historia de los Colores
Written by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Illustrations by Domitilia Domínguez
Published by Cinco Puntos Press
ISBN: 9780938317715
Age Level: 9-12

Well, one day old man Antonio is walking in the mountainous jungle of Chiapas with his friend Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos when he sees a macaw bird, its feathers blessed with each and every color, like a rainbow. The bird reminds the old man of a story that he thinks that his friend Marcos should know. It’s the story of how the gods found all the colors in the world. Antonio sits down on the ground and begins: Once upon a time, of course, the world was just black and white with gray in between. Black and white and gray? The gods were understandably bored and angry, so they went looking for other colors to brighten the world for the people.

This wonderful folktale reveals some of the down-to-earth wisdom of the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas. At the same time, it provides us with a fresh perspective on the struggles of the people there. They fight to conserve their culture and a vision of the world which they see as flowering with holiness, a holiness that cannot be measured in dollars or defined by politics.

Our Thoughts:
We have many reasons to support this book, however, we are still waiting to receive our own copy to review it more in detail. From the reviews we’ve read so far, we have gathered that this bilingual book introduces and reaffirms different ways of thinking to children, making it clear that all perspectives should be respected, and that Indigenous perspectives in particular should carry weight. One thing to keep in mind is that the book does mention love-making, however, the reviews depict it as natural, familiar and delicate. The book was written by the Zapatista rebel Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, and it initially underwent threats of censorship when the National Endowment for the Arts grant was cancelled by its chair, William Ivey, due to fear of the elimination of the NEA itself by Congressional Republicans. The De Colores site explains the situation well on its page. Nevertheless, the book was published, and afterwards Cinco Puntos Press published another book by Subcomandante Marcos titled Questions & Swords: Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution.

Written by Ann Cameron
Published by Laurel Leaf
Age Level: 12 and up

She was little and quick and pretty. Her mother nicknamed her Colibrí, Spanish for “Hummingbird.” At age four she was kidnapped, torn from her parents on a crowded bus in Guatemala City. Since then she’s traveled with “Uncle,” the ex-soldier and wandering beggar who has renamed her Rosa. Uncle has always told Rosa that he searched for her parents but had no success. There’s almost no chance Rosa will ever find them, but Rosa still remembers and longs for them.

When she was young, Uncle consulted fortune-tellers who told him that Rosa would bring him luck – a treasure big enough to last him all his life. So he’s kept her with him. Together, they have traveled from town to town in the highlands of Guatemala, scraping out a living, hoping to find the treasure. Eight years have passed, and Rosa has turned twelve. No treasure has been found, and Uncle has almost given up hope. When he turns angry and desperate, danger threatens Rosa from all side, but especially from Uncle himself.

Our Thoughts:
Colibrí is a beautiful book that follows Colibrí, a young Mayan woman, through adolescence, making it easy for kids to connect with the narrative. It tells about the difficulties of growing up, and also gives us a better comprehension of the difficulties that children face in contemporary times. In addition, it gives us insight into Indigenous struggles in Guatemala. This book is available in Spanish and English, and Katrina wrote a review about it, where she links to our thorough Teacher’s Guide for the classroom.

Sculpted Stones/Piedras Labradas
Written by Victor Montejo
Published by Curbstone Books
ISBN: 9781880684146
Age Level: 12 and up

The poems in Montejo’s Sculpted Stones give lyric expression to the feelings of exile and to the (sometimes comic) difficulties of living in a foreign culture. Throughout this book, Montejo extols the values of the Maya culture and denounces the Guatemalan government’s attempts to destroy the Indian society. At times with tenderness, at times with humor, at times with scathing irony, Montejo examines nature, politics, and recorded history to get at the truths of the present and the past.

My Thoughts:
In these beautiful poems, Victor Montejo confronts the genocide that his Mayan people faced during the Guatemalan Civil War. The Mayan people in Guatemala continue to be afflicted by the horrors they have had to endure, and colonialism and racism persist. Through his book of poetry, which is available in both Spanish and English, Montejo gives courage to his people. Montejo’s home village in Guatemala suffered a massacre, and since then he has fled to the United States, where he works as a university professor and activist for Indigenous peoples, especially Mayas. Montejo has also written Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables, and Popol Vuh, all of which are highly recommended by the excellent reviewers at the De Colores blog.

The Queen of Water
Written by Laura Resau & María Virginia Farinangoía
Published by Ember
ISBN: 0375859632
Age Level: 12 and up

Born in an Andean village in Ecuador, Virginia lives with her large family in a small, earthen-walled dwelling. In her village of indígenas, it is not uncommon to work in the fields all day, even as a child, or to be called a longa tonta—stupid Indian—by members of the ruling class of mestizos, or Spanish descendants. When seven-year-old Virginia is taken from her village to be a servant to a mestizo couple, she has no idea what the future holds.

In this poignant novel based on a true story, acclaimed author Laura Resau has collaborated with María Virginia Farinango to recount one girl’s unforgettable journey to self-discovery. Virginia’s story will speak to anyone who has ever struggled to find his or her place in the world. It will make you laugh and cry, and ultimately, it will fill you with hope.

Our Thoughts:
The Queen of Water is a beautiful story that gives us insight into the inequalities against Indigenous people in Ecuador that persist today. The fact that it is based on a true story, and co-authored accordingly, makes it even more impactful. Katrina posted a review of this book, and we also have a detailed Educator’s Guide that would be great to use.


2 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: 10 Books About Indigenous Peoples of Latin America

  1. Pingback: Reading Roundup: 10 Latino Children’s Books Celebrating the Natural World | Vamos a Leer

  2. Pingback: ¡Mira, Look!: The Princess and the Warrior | Vamos a Leer

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