David Bowles is the author of many books for young readers that center Mexican Americans in the borderlands, including the award-winning They Call Me Güero and the 13th Street series. Bowles currently lives in Donna, Tex., and teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Erika Meza is the illustrator of Balloons for Papa; born in Mexico, she now resides in Nottingham, England. In Bowles’s debut picture book, My Two Border Towns, illustrated by Meza, a boy and his father take a trip to The Other Side/El Otro Lado, spending time with family and friends. We asked the collaborators to discuss their creative process, and their personal connections to this transnational community.
David Bowles: Hey, Erika! It’s weird to chat when we’re in such different time zones, heh.
Erika Meza: I know. Especially being aware that everything is being recorded, haha :D
And clearly every emoji too.
Bowles: I’m hoping that illustrating a book about the border helped you with any homesickness you feel being so far from Mexico and the borderlands.
Meza: It seriously did. I found myself coming up with ideas for it in the U.K., in the middle of a pandemic—and then painting it all in Dublin. But hey, since there was a Mexican restaurant nearby, at the end it was pretty much like being transported back home. Particularly when the text was bringing to painful life the longing for tacos! You did a tremendous job, man.
Bowles: Aw, thanks! I’m hoping that kids who are from the frontera but who live elsewhere will be reminded of the beauty and wonder of their homeland—and that kids who are here will smile to see themselves represented—while people outside the borderlands (who may have a negative impression of the area because of the news and political grandstanding) will find themselves wishing they lived here (or at least finding a new appreciation for why we do).
Meza: That is spot on. And you’re touching on two elements that I kept in my head throughout the whole process. First, a lot of my friends in school were terrified (I’m not exaggerating) when I told them we were moving to the border. I was 16, and they were convinced this was the end of my life—and yet I found a community that was so open and so diverse, that I was actually freer than I had ever been to be myself.... I *had* to make sure it was represented.
The other thing: how on earth did you manage to keep the balance between the authentic and the general? I’ve been longing to ask you, specifically, about the use of language. The Spanglish we know as *the* border language can be confusing for people who aren’t used to it, and a book needs to be understood by anyone...and yet you masterfully wield it throughout!
Bowles: Part of that comes from teaching bilingual Latinx literature (and reading a lot of it, heh). There’s a great book, Multicultural Literature for Latino Bilingual Children, with chapters that explore the ways in which Spanish is deployed effectively or not in picture books (and elsewhere). Striking a balance is definitely tough, because on one end of the spectrum there’s tokenism, just sprinkling Spanish in randomly, and on the other end is hyper-realism, which as you intimate would be confusing for non-bilingual (and even some bilingual) kids. But reading lots of great examples of authentic but pared-down code-switching/translanguaging has helped me greatly. I always ask myself, “Can this passage both be understood by non-bilingual kids and make bilingual kids feel represented linguistically?” Our editor, Joanna Cárdenas, was a huge help in fine-tuning that balance, by the way.
Meza: Yeah, on that front I need to send a massive thank you to the team. Both Joanna and Jasmin Rubero, our art director, were perfect, and knew exactly what we were referencing throughout. Working with them made me aware of the shortcuts I had learned to take when drawing for other publishers. I’d unconsciously sanitize some aspects of what I was drawing, and then I’d be surprised (yet delighted) when they’d write back and ask for me to make it more the way it actually is. Specifically, I don’t know if any other team would’ve allowed me to do what I did when our characters reached the border bridge.
Your text asked for the car to get parked, if I recall correctly. And I figured my mom, while queuing to cross the border, would’ve not parked, but just sent me out into the traffic since the cars are moving painfully slow anyway—so I was soooo nervous about the sketch. I sent a paragraph-long explanation of what the boy was doing... then Joanna and Jasmin just went, “Perfect. Let’s go with that.” I was in awe.
Bowles: I love that anecdote! Yes, in reality, while you can pull a car closer to the pedestrian walkway, you can’t actually “park” on most international bridges (though when you’re sitting in line for three hours, it feels like you’re parked for most of the time, hahaha). We literally see people constantly getting out of their cars, wandering down to another person’s vehicle to say “hi,” buying water or snacks from vendors (on the Mexican half), getting fed up and heading down the pedestrian walkway (leaving the driver by themself... lots of older couples fighting in line, I bet, heh). But for outsiders, that’s got to seem super dangerous (though it really isn’t at all). That kind of support for telling the real story of people in this transnational community is what made Kokila the right fit for this book, I think.
Part of that real story (in that it tells the capital-t Truth about our region) is showing how border kids have to grapple with situations that parents elsewhere deliberately shield their children from, like the refugee crisis. My own children (now grown) and the students in our local schools are deeply aware of immigration issues, the wall, refugees, etc. So depicting that reality in a way that echoes their young perception of injustice and makes it easier for parents everywhere to broach the subject with little kids was really important to me. It requires a deft hand, and our team understood that well.
Your art was key in making that happen! How did you approach that twist toward the end when the story shifts to the refugees?
Meza: Ha—I must admit that you gave me the key. Very early on, on the second spread, the text made reference to “the sound of cumbias.” The line was dropped in one of the edits, I think, but it allowed me to think of both sides of the border as colors, as music. And the third act, when we reach the refugees, needed to retain the warmth and the vibrancy of the Mexican ”song” I was painting, but change into a much more “cinematic” tune. And so, I started to think in terms of a movie, if that makes sense. I wanted there to be a sort of big reveal. I focused back on the kid, made sure to show him full-length but not where he was going... until I had the big spread showing the refugee camp. If one looks back, one realizes the bridge has been kept in the background for a few images hinting at its importance. I wanted it to remain friendly, but to be fairly real, because you had managed to keep it that way in the text! (Yet another compliment I’ve been wanting to throw at you—otra flor!).
Bowles: Thanks! I loved that cinematic approach, and the fact that you didn’t go the desultory, depressing route (which was a big temptation I had to fight against). Because I wanted this book to primarily celebrate the joy and beauty of being a kid from a transnational community, I was nervous about how the third act might undercut that light happiness. But my descriptions were informed by my own experience meeting refugees along the bridge and getting to know them. Bit by bit I learned of their indomitable spirit and refusal to be broken by the journey they were making to a better life for their children. Since they retained an essential positive outlook on their lives despite all they’d gone through, it was easier to depict them for young readers, if that makes sense. Everyone here knows it’s an injustice to make them camp out in Mexico, but border folks are nothing if not patient. Governments and policies “controlling” our region change quite often, and we’ve learned to wait out the bad times.
Meza: That is so true; in a way, it took for me to be removed from the border (when I moved to Europe) to be able to fully appreciate the resilience that comes with the territory. Times may be bad, the dollar may get more expensive, and yet you still have an overall attitude of finding joy in everything and anything. Anything becomes a joke, everything becomes a reason to celebrate or tease or be playful... it is contagious, and you catch it as soon as you land in the place. Which, I reckon, explains why this book *had* to be a celebration, even though we are dealing with such stark subjects. But that makes it perfect for a picture book!
Bowles: Totally. That’s why your metaphor of music that threads through both sides of the border is so apt. Things are bad? Fire up the grill, put some cumbias on, and invite the extended family over! Music, fellowship, just human warmth—that’s what gets us through anything. Comunidad. Familia. And I think we put that across well in My Two Border Towns.
Meza: That, and “Ando Bien Pedo” by Los Recoditos. I fired up that tune every morning in Dublin to get the work day started in the right mood.
Bowles: HAHAHA! Perfect. Hey, you talk about the perspective that comes from being removed from the border. I’m intrigued by the notion that a certain distance is necessary to write about or illustrate something that is otherwise really close to our hearts. The more time I spend away from the border (at our house in Oaxaca, on the road for book tours, etc.), the more I appreciate what I have here, the better I’m able to fully grasp the specialness of this place. I remember being 19 and wanting to “irme a la fregada,” to flee from what I then perceived as a backwater no-man’s land. But here I am 32 years later, more in love with it than ever.
Meza: That’s it. I was constantly trying to be somewhere else. I think the border brings with it a feeling of being in limbo, of being in transit—and when you’re not really going anywhere, you feel like you should be. It is such a complicated creature—and it is not until you are actually away from it that you can really see the special beauty in the raw, blunt nature of the place. At the moment, my family is looking at moving out and going somewhere else in Mexico... and I feel like I will still need to religiously visit, as if on pilgrimage, if only to see how different (and how very much the same) it is each time I go. It is home!
Bowles: Yup! Now that our kids are grown, my wife and I have been discussing selling this house we built and have lived in for 25 years. The place we’re considering moving to? El Paso. We just can’t leave the border completely behind. It’s too much a part of who we are and how we live our lives.
My hope is that you and I, with this book, will transmit even just a fraction of the way we feel about that transnational lifestyle to a larger readership. I want people to stop imagining the border to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland where cartels roam like mutants in the Mad Max movies. We’ve been managing ourselves wonderfully for several hundred years, long before this was part of the U.S., and it sure would be nice to be trusted to take care of those who need care. Our time-worn, durable systems for accommodating newcomers can handle the load—if the demagoguery and hate speech would just stop.
Meza: Indeed. Hopefully, little by little, we can start reclaiming the narrative and, by telling our own stories, maybe start defining our identity in our own terms more and more. Although granted, I expect that it will never stop being complex nor multi-layered... it is the border, after all :)
Bowles: Así es. And one of the greatest gifts it’s given me has been the chance to go on this journey with you, amiga. Thanks so much for being my partner on this book! What a ride, huh?
Meza: Thanks to you, for writing it and for believing I could bring it to life. Y, ¡lo que nos falta! :D
Bowles: Hopefully we’ll get on the other side of this pandemic and present somewhere together. I owe you tacos and several beers!
Meza: I will hold you to that ;)
Bowles: In the meantime, I’ll see you virtually soon. Cuídate mucho.
Meza: ¡Y tú! Abrazos grandes, and speak soon!
Bowles: Hasta pronto. BYE! :D
My Two Border Towns by David Bowles, illus. by Erika Meza. Kokila, $17.99 Sept. 14 ISBN 978-0-593-11104-8