Jorge Argueta knows firsthand about migration: He arrived in San Francisco 40 years ago in flight from the civil war in El Salvador. His latest book, “Caravan To The North: Misael’s Long Walk,” a novel in verse, was based on his talks with Salvadorans preparing to leave for the U.S. border last fall.
“I’m trying to be the voice of the immigrants, children, young people, the humble people who came in those caravans and are now stuck somewhere, or in the case of the children, are in jail,” said Argueta. “Their future is uncertain.”
Over the past decade, Argueta, who is a poet and award-winning children’s author, has been returning to his home country with more frequency and purpose: He’s built a library as well as the Manyula International Children’s Poetry Festival, now in its 10th year, welcoming Spanish-speaking poets.
“It’s been hard for me to become a published author,” said Argueta. “It’s not like I just clicked my fingers and it was done. But now I’m in a position where I can come and talk to you, I can go to a radio interview, and I can tell people El Salvador is not a violent place. It’s a beautiful place where people deserve a chance.”
Argueta is of Salvadoran and Pipal Nahua Indian descent. “We had indigenous roots and were very poor,” Argueta said. “I grew up in a small town with campesinos, and I also grew up in the city with working class people. I’ve seen both sides exploited.” Argueta spoke of people who lack education and health care. “People who didn’t have means of becoming a full bodied human being with all the beauty that one deserves because it was rough for them. But there is always a chance.”
For the last 40 years, Argueta has been writing, receiving recognition for his poetry and prose. But children’s literature, and the dreams it offers to young readers, is his passion.
“Everybody deserves a chance to dream they can become doctors, architects, teachers, writers, painters,” he said. “I understand the power that comes from knowledge, from reading. I understand there is a dream in our heart and mind that no one can take away from us, especially if it’s a dream to become something better without hurting others but by living a decent life,” he said.
Immediately after he met with the families gathered in the central square in San Salvador City, Plaza Divina Salvador del Mundo, readying themselves for the caravan to the US border last year, Argueta travelled to Mexico for a conference where parents from all over the world had come in search of missing family members.
“It was hard to take,” he said of the never ending grief experienced by the missing’s survivors.
“I thought, I’m going to write this book based on the experiences I heard from the people.”
In “Caravan to the North” (Groundwood Books), the character Misael Martínez begins his journey in San Salvador and heads on foot with his family toward Mexico City. Some in the caravan break off toward Arriaga to meet the train known as The Beast but Misael’s family presses on toward Tijuana. The boy likes Mexico, but longs to return home. Argueta writes,
so far away.
It feels like it’s
As as far away as
“I read in some newspapers El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world,” he said, though he disagrees. “El Salvador has never gone and thrown bombs in any country that I know of. El Salvador is a country that has suffered the consequences of militarism and the US putting together governments that serve their needs in that area.”
The gang violence from which the migrants are fleeing is a consequence of years of oppression and poverty.
“Imagine a child who never had a present, who has seen his parents and grandparents always be servants,” explained Argueta of the disparities. “This child will grow up with a lot of resentment. Those are the kids who become gang members.”
The children threatened by violence are the ones Argueta is attempting to reach with books at his Biblioteca de los Sueños, the Library of Dreams in San Salvador.
“The idea of building a library in a neighborhood where gangs live is to give children and young people the opportunity to learn through books that there is a huge world out there,” he said.
When he started his library in a little cottage surrounded by trees, there was work to be done to the property. “A guy came with his son, a 10 year old boy. I opened the door to a couple of thousand books, some in Spanish and others bilingual, about our culture, all over Latin America,” said Argueta. “No Superman or Spiderman, but books on indigenous and immigrant issues. The boy said, ‘What is this?’ A library. ‘Why?’ So you can read and learn. Look at any of them, I said, and left him there.” About an hour later, he came out and said “‘I read this book about volcanoes. Now I know how many volcanoes we have in El Salvador.’ He was very happy about it.”
Argueta’s homebase here is Luna’s Press Books, a storefront and publisher based in Bernal Heights. I have heard him read to children in both Spanish and English and have seen the connection he forges with his San Francisco audience.
“My job is to not only to write books but to put them into the hands of children,” said Argueta.
“I guess I’m a dreamer. They deserve a chance to see the light of the world.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a curator and reader at the annual Litquake Festival, now through October 19. A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.