In October 2018, the night before a caravan of fellow citizens planned to leave San Salvador for the United States, eminent author, poet, and humanitarian Jorge Argueta spoke with many of them who had gathered at the Plaza Divino Salvador del Mundo, a large public square in the city.
As someone who had fled El Salvador over 35 years ago, Argueta understood only too well why they had chosen to risk their lives and that of their children to undertake the arduous 2,500-mile journey. He listened to their stories, offered encouragement and support, and was no doubt profoundly moved by the hope they carried in their hearts: hope for a safe haven from gang violence, hope to escape the demoralizing cycle of poverty, hope for a chance to rebuild their lives with honest work, hope for better futures for their children, hope for kindness and compassion from the strangers they would meet along the way.
Inspired by these conversations, Argueta wrote a verse novel told in the voice of Misael Ramírez, a young asylum seeker who joined the caravan with his parents and brother Martín.
Caravan to the North: Misael’s Long Walk (Groundwood Books, 2019), is a realistic, heart-wrenching account of the physical and emotional hardships families like Misael’s endured as they left El Salvador with nothing more than a jacket and a small backpack of hopes and dreams to face the unknown.
Misael begins by introducing himself and describing how much he and his family love living in harmony with Mother Earth as they farm the land together. But since life in their village has become increasingly dangerous and threatening, they feel they have no choice but to join the caravan.
When they arrive at the Plaza, Misael sees hundreds of people from different parts of the country. Most are joining the caravan for the same basic reasons: violence, work, loss of hope. Their personal stories reveal desperation and deep sorrow at leaving a country they’ve loved all their lives.
A skinny curly-haired boy,
angry and sad, says,
“I sell fruit in the Central Market
but you can’t live on that here.
It hurts to see my parents.
They’re old now.
I want to help them out.
Got my high school degree
but now I can’t go on
with my studies.
I want to get my education and help
my parents, that’s why I’m leaving.
I came to join the caravan.
You can’t study here
On a good day
I make ten dollars selling tomatoes and onions.
My heart is always asking,
‘What are we gonna eat today?'”
Others say that traveling with the caravan is safer (“we help each other”). Parents are willing to sacrifice everything for their children, wanting them to have dreams and for those dreams to come true. Some of the young boys are optimistic: “We’re like birds looking for a new dawn.” Amid the adults who are weeping and praying are the littlest ones, whose innocence and trust despite distressful circumstances resound with poignancy.
A little girl running happily
around the plaza says,
“My daddy is bringing my stroller.
They say the North is really far
but my daddy is strong.
He’s going to push me
and play games with me
and with the north wind too.”
. . .
One little girl holds a doll.
She’s happy. She says,
“My doll Josefina and I
like to go to sleep watching the stars
while Mommy holds us in her arms.”
All will be well, as long as they can be with their parents.
The travelers set out before dawn, by bus, by truck, many more on foot. They pray for a safe journey.
Divine Savior of the World,
saint of all Salvadoreños,
help us on the road, guide us.
Take us away from here, make a miracle.
Carry us away from here, even though it hurts.
Help us to get far away,
far, far from El Salvador.
Misael takes one last look around the city and its landmarks, uncertain if he’ll ever return.
What I’m going to miss most about El Salvador
are the snow cones.
I think about the mangoes
and the marañones.
Ahhhhh and also the jocotes.
They taste so good.
As they reach the border to cross into Guatemala, Misael wishes he could turn back, but his papá looks forward, reassuring him of a better life once they reach the United States. Misael thinks about Christmas coming, of “the mamás who couldn’t come but sent their children.”
As they progress farther into Guatemala, Misael is heartened: they meet people who “greet us with smiles/and wave at us . . . They give us water and food . . . I wear my scapular/and a fist of courage in my heart./Nothing can stop us.”
They keep going, pressing on despite growing apprehension and exhaustion, until they finally reach Mexico City.
For over a week
We’ve ridden in trucks
We’ve slept in parks, in streets
and in shelters.
In some places
people are glad to see us, they help us.
In others they chase us away.
I don’t know where the North is.
It’s like they pull it away, or hide it.
I don’t care anymore.
I’d like to close my eyes
and be back at my house, in the yard.
In the caravan
I don’t know how many kilometers.
Some say thousands.
In caravan we’ve cried.
In caravan we’ve sung.
The cold is so cold.
but the buildings
are so pretty
and the tacos
are so delicious.
The ones I like best
are the fried pork tacos.
For a time, Misael and his family are content at the shelter. One man tells wonderful stories, another makes pupusas. Yet when it rains, Misael cannot help but long for what he longer has (“I watch the rain./In every drop/I see my friends,/my relatives,/the streets of my town”).
They even spend Christmas at the shelter and there are happy surprises — turkey, books, candy, little presents, piñatas. But these joys are tempered by another feeling.
Voices from the shelter
rise and fall.
Sometimes I feel sadness.
Sadness makes me sad.
Now I know, sadness
is like not seeing, not hearing.
It seems like everything stops,
even the air, even the North,
and your heart leaves you
sigh by sigh.
I’d better sing
and keep dreaming.
Finally it’s time to board the bus for Tijuana. It’s a long, long ride, but when they finally arrive, they are happy to see the bright lights of the city “that are beautiful like stars” despite the heavy rain. They settle into another shelter for the night, anticipating a restful sleep after a satisfying meal of beans, eggs, tortillas and bread. But in the middle of the night they are awakened by shouts, screams, and the terrible smell of tear gas — “Like we were at war,” says one lady from San Salvador, “that’s how the national guard attacked the student demonstrations.”
We’re not criminals, we’re migrants.
We just want to get to the North.
We want to work.
Misael hears that the North doesn’t want them.
What are we to do?
Where are we to go?
The next morning it is finally time to cross the border. It is what they’ve all been waiting for, the reason they’ve made this long, hard journey. Finally! Misael is anxious to get it over with. Then his new life can begin.
In the distance I see the wall.
It’s big, with barbed wire on top.
It has bars.
It looks like a huge jail.
But there are angry protesters, more tear gas, police, soldiers, more screaming and chaos as people run in every direction. Misael is “really, really, really scared.” He and his family run too.
Everyone is so tired. The border is closed. Does Tijuana want them? Can they find work there? Will they be allowed to enter the United States eventually?
His life in the balance, that night Misael finds hard won consolation in his dreams of returning to El Salvador.
And today, Argueta wonders what happened to Misael’s family and the thousands of other asylum seekers like them. Are they still waiting in Tijuana, waiting for their refugee status to be resolved? Are they working? Are they firm in their resolve that no obstacle is big enough to prevent them from entering the United States? Or have they returned to El Salvador?
Caravan to the North puts a human face on the dire and devastating challenges facing Central American migrants today. Through Argueta’s spare, emotionally telling verse, we hear the voices of these people in all their anguish, fear, and desperation. Yet we are also aware of their immense courage and determination, and the untold resiliency of the human spirit.
When we listen to Misael and the other young voices in the story, we’re reminded that even if you take away someone’s home, you cannot take away his dreams. There is untold power in the dreams of a young person; no enclosure can contain them, no wall can keep them away. Dreams = freedom.
In the final poem, we see that despite everything he’s endured, Misael is able to transcend the adversity of a harsh world and find strength and comfort in who he is and what he loves.
I fell asleep and I dreamed.
I dreamed I was flying.
I dreamed I was a song,
I dreamed I was a butterfly,
I dreamed I was a fish
and a wave.
the sweetest dream of all.
Instead of going to the North,
I went back to El Salvador.
Argueta has written poignantly about the migrant experience before, in his debut poetry picture book, A Movie in My Pillow/Una película en mi almohada (Children’s Book Press, 2001), and in the more recent Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds (Groundwood Books, 2016), winner of the 2017 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award. Caravan to the North addresses this subject in more depth and detail and reads with a sense of renewed urgency.
It’s simple and straightforward: if you are human, you cannot help but care. For young readers, especially, this timely, powerful novel will bring into startling focus an important issue contentiously debated in the news. Misael’s is a sad and difficult story to read, but it is told in an age appropriate manner that will resonate, inform, open eyes, and help build empathy. It is ultimately a book everyone, regardless of age, needs to read right now, as it counters the blatantly false narrative demonizing Central American immigrants.
As he has done so masterfully before, Argueta has written from a place of deep knowing and concern. Just like Misael, he has “the heart of a refugee and immigrant,” with an abiding love for his home country. He also has the heart of a poet, and he has given us the gift of this story.
God speed to our fellow humans who have every right to live, work, love, and thrive in peace and dignity.
CARAVAN TO THE NORTH: Misael’s Long Walk
written by Jorge Argueta
with illustrations by Manuel Monroy
translated from the original Spanish by Elizabeth Bell
published by Groundwood Books, October 2019
Novel-in-verse for ages 9+, 112 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note and a Caravan Route Map
*Starred Review* from Booklist
**The Spanish edition:
Caravana al Norte: La larga caminata de Misael (Groundwood Books, 2019)
📕 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 📗
The publisher is generously offering a brand new copy of Caravan to the North for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Wednesday, November 13, 2019. You may also enter by sending an email with “CARAVAN” in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
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*Interior spreads published by permission of the publisher, copyright © 2019 Manuel Monroy, published by Groundwood Books. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.