My Life in the United States ~ by René Colato Laínez
Part 2 of 3 (Read Part 1 “The War in El Salvador” here)
For Christmas of 1984, my mother sent me a new pair of shoes from the United States. I still remember my father’s words, “These are good gringos shoes. These are very good shoes for the trip to the United States.”
On February 17 1985, my father and I left El Salvador. Two days later, we arrived in Mexico City. Then, we were stuck in Mexico City for almost two months. We could not continue our journey because Mexican immigration took all the money from my father. It wasn’t until April that my mother sent us more money for our trip. During my journey, my father and I crossed three countries and climbed the mountains from Tijuana to the United States. But we made it to Los Angeles. My shoes were not new anymore. They had holes everywhere. One shoe was missing the sole.
There are certain moments that mark your like forever. My journey and my new life in the United States as a new immigrant created a big impact in me and in my writing. In my book, My Shoes and I, I tell the story of my journey and in my other books I write about the new immigrant child in the United States. Most of my books are based in my life and some are autobiographical just like René Has Two Last Names/René tiene dos apellidos and I Am René, the Boy/ Soy René, el niño.
I experienced the silent period and many culture shocks. In El Salvador René is a boy’s name. I could not believe it that in the United States my beautiful name was a girl’s name, Renee. Children not only laughed because I had a girl’s name but also because I had two last names, “Your name is longer than an anaconda” “You have a long dinosaur’s name.”
I was able to adapt to the new country. I studied really hard and graduated with honors from high school. Then, I went to college and became a teacher. But I did not have legal papers yet. My mother became a resident thanks to the amnesty program. She applied for my papers but it was 1993 and I had not received my green card. I started to work as a teacher because I got a work permit. For two years, I received letters from LAUSD, “We need to have evidence of your legal status. Your work permit will expire soon.” But finally in 1995, I received the famous immigration letter. Yes! I had an appointment to get my green card. It was not green after all. It was pink!
The ideas to write many of my books are born in the classroom. One day, a first grader told me, “I want to write a letter to my mamá. She is in Guatemala and I miss her so much.” That night I wrote a story named Waiting for Papá/ Esperando a Papá and it became my first published book. This book is based on my life. I wrote about the war in El Salvador and my feelings when my parents were away from me. I added the situation of a boy waiting for his father in the United States. Just like in the case of my first grader who was waiting for his mother.
A few years ago, one of my kinder students was crying because her father was deported to Mexico. Soon all my students told me that they knew someone who was deported too. This was my inspiration to write From North to South/ Del norte al sur. In my book, Jose’s mother is deported to Tijuana and now he and his father travel from north to south, San Diego to Tijuana, to visit her in her new home, Casa Madre Assunta, a shelter for deported women and children.
I got the idea to write the The Tooth Fairy Meets El Raton Perez when I heard my next-door teacher screaming and ready to go to the office. One boy told her that a mouse took his tooth the night before and that he loves that mouse because he visited his house often. There were five children living in the same house. “This child lives among mice and rats. I need to call social service,” she said to me. She did not go to the office after I told her about that special mouse. It was El Ratón Pérez, the tooth mouse collector in Latin America and Spain. In Spanish speaking countries there is not a tooth fairy. There is a Mouse, El Ratón Pérez.
My ex-students usually come back to visit me when they are in high school or college. Many of them have lost their Spanish skills by this time. I want to instill in these students and my future students the importance of being bilingual. This was my inspiration to write Playing Lotería/ El juego de la lotería. In this book a boy practiced his Spanish in Mexico while he played lotería with his grandmother.
I will continue to write more books but my goal will be always be the same, to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future.
René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran award-winning author of many multicultural children’s books including The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez, From North to South, René Has Two Last Names, I Am René, the Boy, Playing Lotería and My Shoes and I. He is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. René is “the teacher full of stories” at Fernangeles Elementary School. In his books, you can find culture, fun and hope for the future. Visit him at www.renecolatolainez.com and read our 2006 interview with him here.
We are thrilled to have René join us as PaperTigers’ Global Voices Guest Blogger for the month of July. Part 1 of his series “The War in El Salvador” was posted here while Part 3 will be posted here on the blog on July 25th.