From the separation of families to the caging of children at the border, the Trump administration has become distinctly known for its brutal, xenophobic and militarized response to migration from Central America.
But for scholar, professor and children’s author Dr. Oriel María Siu, there is a deeper understanding of this country’s legacy of government sponsored family separation.
“Deportations definitely did not start with Obama, and much less with Trump,” Dr. Siu told El Tecolote from her home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “The act of forcibly removing and separating non-white families, making people of color deportable, dates back to the very birth of the United States.”
Dr. Siu saw this first hand in 2011, when the father of her one-year-old niece was deported, leaving her to grow up fatherless during her most formative years. Through the thick glass of the California detention center, Dr. Siu’s niece saw her father for the last time. By the end of his term in early 2017, Obama had deported 3 million people.
The pain of this personal deportation—along with becoming a mother herself in 2013—motivated Dr. Siu to write “Rebeldita la Alegre en el País de los Ogros” (Rebeldita the Fearless in Ogreland, Izote Press, 2020), a Spanish-language children’s book that explores the issues of family separation, migration and deportation, all through the lens of a child.
“The idea for a child character that does not stay quiet when facing injustice, one that understands and knows the history of Occupied America and its borders,” Dr. Siu said. “And a character that understands the joy and power of collectivity, rebelliousness, and her own ancestral history of resistance and survival, was born out of the thousands of children I saw out on the streets when we protested Obama’s 3 million deportations, and out of a need to expose this long enduring history of family separation in the United States.”
The story follows protagonist Rebeldita, a curious, hopeful and humorous little Central American girl of indigenous and African descent who migrates and lives in a land ruled by Ogres (an obvious metaphor for the United States). While in the company of her friends and family, Rebeldita lives in constant fear of the Ogres, who exploit and incarcerate anyone who isn’t an Ogre—even children.
One day, Rebeldita’s friend Florecita tells her that the Ogres deported her father, leading Rebeldita and her friends to hatch a plan to defeat the Ogres and destroy their predatory system of family separation once and for all.
The daughter of a Chinese-Nicaraguan father and a Pipil Salvadoran mother, Dr. Siu was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and migrated to Los Angeles in 1997. When she gave birth to her daughter Suletu—who wrote many of the fun rhymes in the book—in Seattle, Washington in 2013, Dr. Siu noticed the erasure of children of color from books when she and Suletu would visit the library.
“I had difficulty finding books that did not center white children and their lived experiences…[that] empowered children of color, and moved away from shallow celebrations of diversity, and instead, interrupted white supremacy,” Dr. Siu said. “So, another reason why I started writing the Rebeldita series is because I decided then, I needed to write the books I wanted my daughter to read.”
The book is wonderfully illustrated by Dr. Siu’s sister—the muralist Alicia María Siu—whose art reflects the diversity that exists in what we know today as Latin America. Rather than being ashamed of the African and Indigenous roots that are present in many of our communities, Alicia embraces them through her art and portrayal of children in the book.
“If you take a careful look at Rebeldita, you will notice the Lenca scarf that she carries with her everywhere she goes, around her neck. With it, she expresses, embraces, and honors her indigenous roots, and those of the Americas,” Dr. Siu said. “She is also clearly of African descent. Rebeldita is a child born out of the realities of Occupied America. She is Black and Brown survival and resistance in this continent. She knows her past and brings herself to change the present, while making sure to make herself visible and heard.”
“She is a life-affirming border smasher who believes in justice and the right of all children—and their parents—to live in joy,” Dr. Siu said. “And I’ve created every single one of her qualities, intentionally.”
The English translation, written by Matthew Byrne, will be available in January 2021. And the second book in the Rebeldita series is expected to publish in July 2021. For that book, Dr. Siu will explore the prohibited history of the “first Ogre to arrive in the Americas, ¡Cristóbal Cologro!” (aka Christopher Columbus).
Of all that she has accomplished in her academic and literary career, for Dr. Siu nothing compares to what she has accomplished in bringing Rebeldita to life.
“Writing for my daughter, and all children of color of the Americas, has since become the most important thing I can ever do with my remaining time on this planet,” Dr. Siu said. “No other writing, in my view, can ever come close in importance. No academic publication—and I have published extensively within academia—has ever felt more imperative, or vital, than writing for my daughter and the children of the Americas.”
To the fellow parents who are raising children whose histories have historically been erased from children’s literature, please consider buying this book. It’s a worthy read, and makes for a nice Christmas present. Purchase it directly from Izote Press.