¡Mira, Look!: Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre

Saludos todos! This week we are concluding our March theme of women and Women’s History Month with another great read. Last week I featured the Coleccion Antiprincesas, which provides readers with biographies of underrepresented and under-studied historical Latina heroines. This week, however, we are switching gears a bit, focusing more on the courage and determination of young girls in our everyday lives. The book for this week is Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre, written by Tom Luna and illustrated by Laura Alvarez. This wonderful story focuses on a young, female protagonist who has to learn how to navigate her complicated emotions in a difficult situation. Not only does this book show young readers how to cope with separation and heartache, it also counters stereotypes and challenges negative representations of women and girls by portraying a young girl whose empathy and emotional sensibility is not a flaw or a nuisance, but, ultimately, one of her greatest virtues.

This book tells the story of young Camila and her beloved abuelo, Felix, who lives far away in Veracruz, Mexico: “It had been two years since he left San Antonio to return home to Veracruz.” Camila reflects on the bittersweet memories of her grandfather playing his favorite guitar, the requinto, and how he would sing her lullabies when she was a little baby: “He had a deep beautiful voice and played the requinto with an almost angelic touch.” Although the plot following the female protagonist challenges typical, negative representations of women and girls, the character description of the grandfather also challenges expectations of men and boys. The grandfather is sensitive, artistic, loving and participates actively in caring for his grandchild, taking her on outings to the zoo and the park, to name a few, all the while singing or whistling tunes from Veracruz.

Although Camila misses her grandfather greatly, her parents say that they do not have enough money to afford a trip to Veracruz to visit him. However, one day, deciding to take matters into her own hands, young Camila hops on her bike determined to ride the 938 miles to Veracruz to see her dear grandfather: “‘I’m going to see Grandpa Felix in Veracruz,’ said Camila with a defiant stance.” As one would imagine, Camila’s mother quickly intervenes and tells her to come back home, that she can’t ride her bike all the way to Veracruz, but that one day they’ll have enough money saved up for a visit. Although Camila’s immediate solution to her grandfather’s absence is, of course, not one that I or parents and educators would likely recommend to their students, this scene does illustrate Camila’s determination and her willingness to try to solve her problem independently. This scene also serves as a contrast to Camila’s eventual, more reasonable solution to her feelings, showing readers Camila’s learning curve and her progress in figuring out both what her feelings are and what to do about them.

After her failed attempt at biking 938 miles to Veracruz, and her mother’s brief scolding, Camila decides that a more appropriate response might be to write a letter to her grandfather and ask him to be her pen pal. This solution is also one arrived at entirely by Camila herself, further emphasizing her independence and her ability to learn and navigate tough situations on her own: “She went into her room, pulled out her diary and decided then and there that she would write to her grandfather and ask him to write her back.” What I also particularly love about this scene is the mention of Camila’s journal-writing as a catalyst for her emotional development and decision-making. As an avid writer and “journaler” myself, I, too, have found this to be a very useful strategy in coping with tough situations, sorting out my thoughts and feelings, and figuring out how to proceed. Moreover, as the story continues in a somewhat epistolary format, composed of letters between Camila and her grandfather, teachers could conduct various lessons based on two forms of writing: first, letter-writing and the epistolary novel form, and, second, journal writing. As an exercise in writing and verbal expression, teachers could ask their students to write in a journal every day. Teachers could also conduct exercises in letter-writing and, especially for foreign language students, teach their students proper opening and closing statements, such as “Querido abuelo/ Dear grandpa.” This story is entirely bilingual, which is especially useful for comparing the letter-writing format between English and Spanish. In addition, the simplistic illustrations found within this book could also inspire students to create drawings of their own to accompany their journal entries or letters. As noted by a School Library Journal review, “Rough-hewn, heavily brushed paintings tracking Camila’s progress to adulthood and Grandpa’s to gray-haired old age accompany narrative passages of English over Spanish.” In this story, the prose is just as important as the illustrations in conveying the passing of time, and both Camila’s physical and emotional growth.

Towards the end of the story we see Camila grown up to be a young, 18-year-old woman. Her family still has not been able to save enough money to go to Veracruz, but Camila is determined to go nonetheless: “On the day Camila turned 18, she was in her room with photos of her grandfather all around. She was working now and saving her money. Her family never did go to Veracruz but Camila was saving to go on her own.” This scene again reinforces Camila’s agency and independence, her ability not only to work hard towards a self-determined goal, but also to eventually travel on her own.What I find especially powerful about this scene is the way in which it emphasizes “ambition” as not only working towards professional and academic goals, but also towards emotional and interpersonal goals. Oftentimes “emotional labor,” or the work that one puts into emotionally supporting others, is unconsciously expected of women while also being undervalued, unrecognized and unremunerated, in both the home and the workplace. This heartwarming scene emphasizes the hard work that Camila put into sustaining a relationship with her grandfather over the years, as well as her grandfather’s boundless joy and appreciation upon finally seeing her arrive in Veracruz (belated spoiler alert!).

All in all, this book is a wonderful resource for teaching a variety of subjects from writing and correspondence, to emotional development and maturity.  Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre challenges typical representations of gender roles through children’s literature, empowering both young girls and boys.

For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional resources:

Stay tuned to an introduction to our April themes and more great reads!

¡Hasta pronto!

Alice


Images Modified from Letters Forever/ Cartas para siempre: Pages 7, 9, 14, 15, 21

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