Mother-and-son writing team Alma Flor Ada and Gabriel Zubizarreta explore what living within the gentle grip of two cultures might mean to young girls in their collaboration, Dancing Home.
Fifth grader Margarita struggles to fit in with her peers in California despite their teasing. When her cousin Lupe, who doesn't speak English, comes from Mexico to live with Margarita's family, fitting in becomes even harder.
Through friendship and self-discovery, both girls find joy in and learn to celebrate both their heritage and their new identities. Here Ada and Zubizarreta offer their views on immigration, collaboration and the importance of family everywhere.
Read more about children crossing borders in fiction.
Why is important for young readers to read about subjects like immigration?
Alma Flor Ada: It's such an important issue in my life and in the lives of the people around me. My grandfather, he was 14 when he stole away on a ship. He was an illegal immigrant. It's one thing to hear the romantic story of a grandfather who came to Cuba and another thing to put that stamp of “undocumented” on him.
This man became educated, he was successful; so many immigrants have done that. Look at the things we appreciate and admire in the people who, in a way, broke the law. Everyone we think of as heroic are people who did not accept what was legal at the time—Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. Parks, the fathers of the nation. I want children to think.
Gabriel Zubizarreta: The immigration topic is somewhat controversial, as are most political topics in today's society. Topics such as these have become divisive and pitted Americans against one another. Unfortunately there are real people's lives caught up in the middle of the political power play, and there is real harm occurring to the country. We aim to put a human face to the dilemma and give a voice to those caught in the middle.
Why did you include the poem "To Margarita" in your novel?
AFA: This is a poem that has been very meaningful in my life. First of all it's a very famous poem, very popular. Every child in Latin America at one point or another learns to memorize this poem. It actually revolutionized Spanish poetry by bringing in color and sound and smell in very rich way. It's been part of my life forever. This was crucial to the story—I wanted to show that sometimes children are not aware of the cultural richness that is their heritage. Here you have a girl called Margarita, and she has no idea that one of the most important poems in the Spanish language has her name in the title.
Children continually deny their heritage. Just a few months ago I was working on an after-school project in L.A., getting kids to write their own books. There was a beautiful book written by a boy: It said something like, “My name is José, I like my name very much, this is the name of my father, this is the name of my grandfather. But now I'm just calling myself Joey because when I say José people laugh at me.” It's wonderful when people change their name as an act of volition, but to give up something that is meaningful to you because you don't want to be mocked, that is so sad.
You have two main story lines in the book—one about the two cousins who grow to be friends and another about Lupe's father. Why include the story of Lupe's father?
AFA: There needed to be a reason why this girl is coming to the U.S. If she'd had a mother and a father, why would she be raised by an aunt? So there was that, but also, the issue of immigrants worries me a great deal. One of the hardships that happens many times is men come by themselves, and it's very hard for them to live alone. They have no way of bringing their family and have to create a second family. That is not uncommon at all. Everyone is free, but poverty and oppression can bring about situations that otherwise people would not have contemplated. I wanted that message to be there.
What was your collaboration process like?
AFA: Well, it was really an extraordinary experience. We did not set out to do this as a collaboration. I had an original version of this book, a much shorter version, and gave Gabriel [Zubizarreta] the manuscript, and he was very gentle in the way he approached me.
The more we got into it, though, we realized we'd entered a true co-authorship. Gabriel is a businessman, but he's someone who pays a lot of attention to life and to people. What the book did for us on a personal level—it made us talk about many things. Sometimes when things are happening it's not easy to talk about it, but as time passes we can look back—in this case the book was a wonderful vehicle. Gabriel came out of this project with real-life advice for everyone—write a book with your mother, write a book with your daughters.
GZ: The story involves family relationships, and we have lived many parts of the book in our own lives. Often our perspectives of the same event are different, and we try to bring that to our book. Our relationship of mother and son has been challenged and ultimately strengthened by the book. It is not easy to co-author, to work with a parent/child team and work across generations. That said, it was a wonderful experience.