Luna’s Press makes books laced with love for the children of El Salvador

S.F. publisher Holly Ayala’s bilingual children’s books celebrate region’s rich civilization

Holly Ayala has lived her entire life as a San Franciscan, but her heart belongs to the kids, los cipotes, of El Salvador.

“I want the Salvadoran children to be proud of who they are,” said Ayala, publisher of children’s books at Luna’s Press, and now one of its authors. “Their country is not bad, it’s beautiful.”

Ayala’s recently published bilingual book, “ABC El Salvador,” tells the story of Indigenous siblings, Xiomara and Kevin, who recount their favorite things, from the corn beverage atol to the tropical fruit zapote.

“People don’t realize we have ruins,” said Ayala of the small, coastal Central American country and its natural surroundings, where V stands for volcan, potentially active volcanoes.

El Salvador’s history of ancient civilizations, including the Maya, and its desirable cocoa and indigo plants, often are buried beneath modern-day headlines: U.S.–supported military governments, civil war and gang violence resulting in continued migration to the border. What happens when refugees arrive has been well documented: families are separated and children are held in cages.

“Shame on the U.S. for putting children who are seeking asylum and their daily bread, their rice and beans in jail,” said Ayala’s husband, Jorge Argueta, a poet and writer who splits time between San Francisco and San Salvador, where he founded Biblioteca de los Sueños (Library of Dreams) for children.

Distressed by the idea of imprisoned children and the trauma they endure, Luna’s Press held a poetry and prayer vigil at the Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery on 24th Street during Christmas week for children caught in the crossfire.

“It’s too easy to forget the border crisis,” said Ayala, noting as the world turns, so does the public’s attention toward other disturbing news stories.

Born in San Francisco to parents who immigrated from El Salvador, Ayala remembers her mom making friends with new arrivals to the Mission during the waves of Central American wars.

“In the ’70s they were from Nicaragua, in the ’80s from El Salvador,” she said.

“My mom was always political, always on the side of the oppressed. Even though she was a new immigrant, she loved to read books in English,” said Ayala.

With a library card at the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, Ayala fondly remembers reading with her siblings. “Caps for Sale,” “The Story About Ping” and the “Curious George” titles were among her early favorites. She soon graduated to the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it wasn’t until college that she discovered Latino authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende.

Ayala studied architectural design at City College of San Francisco, graduating with a degree in consumer and family studies and architectural interiors from San Francisco State. For years, publishing was not on her radar as she worked drafting roadways and waterways for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I got lucky and learned computer graphics,” she said, explaining how she went on to catalog production for Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn.

Ayala started designing chapbooks in the ’90s for Luna’s Press (named for Argueta’s daughter) and for Mission artists Alfonso Texidor and Silvia “MamaCoatl” Parra , though it wasn’t until after a poetry festival in El Salvador in 2010 that she thought to publish children’s titles.

“I noticed there were very few books reflective of Salvadoran culture,” she said. “We thought, let’s just try, and we did Jorge’s first book, ‘Olita y Manyula: The Big Birthday,’” the story of Olita, who attends an elephant’s birthday party at San Salvador’s Parque Zoológica Nacional (where the real Manyula lived to be 59 years old).

Then came “Telegrams to Heaven/Telegramas al Cielo: The Childhood of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero” by Rene Colato Laínez, concerning the life of El Salvador’s canonized defender of the poor. It was while discussing Argueta’s next book, over a meal of pupusas with award-winning illustrator Elizabeth Gómez, that Ayala’s ABC book was born.

“I wanted a woman author and thought, ‘Why not myself?’” she said. Gómez, with her own affinities with neighboring Honduras, was the perfect artist to render Salvadorans, Xiomara and Kevin.

“We have four books in the works,” said Ayala. “My 22-year-old niece in El Salvador is studying graphic design and marketing, and we’re connecting to more artists and authors there.”

Ayala, who normally visits El Salvador annually and has been reluctant to travel during the pandemic, noted, “My mom hasn’t seen her family there for two years.”

In San Francisco, Ayala reads with the little ones in her large extended family and has scheduled local classroom visits for the spring. She keeps Sunday hours at Luna’s Press storefront office in Bernal Heights, and mentors a student author in East Palo Alto where his school for immigrant children is supporting a book production project.

“He’s 12, Latino and wants to write a children’s book to make kids who are in the hospital laugh,” said Ayala. “I’ve told him to decide how many he wants to print, if it will be in color or black and white and what size. We’re going to make his book.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” More at www.denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan.

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