Tuesday, June 21, 2016


THE POWER OF STORY:  The Jaguar’s Children

We hear too much about “building walls” and “improving border security” and not enough about the walls of privilege and power that make the risks of leaving home the lesser of dangers.   Behind the stats on “illegal aliens” are the alienating conditions of poverty, violence, and powerlessness that seem more the stuff of movies or social science data than of real lives.  That’s where we need stories.

Those of us who live in states that border Mexico hear the stories from our immigrant friends and neighbors who have crossed borders from El Salvador and Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico, to build their lives here in Houston, the most diverse city in the US.   We know the mom who hovered in the bathtub with her babies while insurgents and government goon squads left the street in front of her home in El Salvador strewn with the bodies of her neighbors. We know the auto mechanic who had to flee his country when warring factions began raiding central garages to commandeer trucks, his workplace likely their next target.   A friend now with a leading hotel chain who as a middle schooler served as his family’s translator at his little sister’s parent-teacher conferences and at their negotiations to buy their first house.    In Houston, when we hear “border,” we hear our neighbors and their stories.

But even if you don’t have the advantage of living near the US-Mexico border, you can bring your students into this dynamic space thanks to wonderful authors I’ve been discovering and sharing with everyone I meet for the way their unforgettable characters and the power of their prose to pull us into new understandings of “border.”

One of my latest finds is John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children, a book I’ll probably re-read this summer just for the writing. The first time through I was holding my breath wanting the mystery to be solved, our narrator to be rescued – wanting everything to turn out all right.  A happy ending for Hector was far from assured: he and friend César are sealed up in a water tank truck that is to take them to a warehouse across the border where a metal worker will free them and a dozen others who have paid extra for this vehicle guaranteed to fool la migra.

The perils of heat, cruel and untrustworthy coyotes, and fear of discovery by la migra set the tone for a predictable story of the dangers of border crossing.   But nothing in this story is predictable:  why do Hector and César want so desperately to cross to el norte?  why is the ancient symbol of the jaguar a recurring motif linking Hector to his abuelos, his home lands, his destiny?  and how did GMO’s get into a story about ruthless coyotes and the Arizona dessert?

And what about that cell phone?  How many “bars” does Hector need to be heard?  Your students will immediately relate to the frustration of dropped calls and messages that don’t get through.    “Structure” and “voice” as literary devices become familiar – and credible transports into this suspenseful tale.

Linda  Christensen, teacher and author of the “border” curricula in Rethinking Schools’ The Line Between Us, explains building lessons “that teach literary skills embedded in larger world issues.”    The Jaguar’s Children could be a study in the use of water, and water imagery, as the motif linking expectations for the journey: each person’s litre of water for what is planned as a brief trip,  a capful of water as temptation – a choice between survival or betrayal, the irony of being trapped in a water tanker truck fearing thirst as your death, Hector’s dreams of water and watermelons and water spirits and his abuelo and the corn.

Yes, the corn!  Sacred to the ancient peoples of Oaxaca, tempting to corporate profiteers.  César is not a day laborer hoping for work in the fields al norte.  We learn he is a scientist, a scientist on the run from the federales – there must be a new Willie Nelson song here somewhere.  Your students can compose the corrida!

Get to your nearest library or independent bookstore and grab a copy of The Jaguar’s Children, then email your school’s librarian to order the copies that will take your students into the convergence of “border” forces ancient and new, personal and political, communal and corporate.

See upcoming posts for more titles you and your students will want to read together.

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