Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Poetry Makers - Jorge Argueta

While looking for bilingual poetry books I came across A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada, written by Jorge Argueta and illustrated by Elizabeth Gómez. I read the introduction and fell in love. I knew this was just the book to help children and their teachers develop empathy for new students struggling to adjust to a new life, language, and culture in a strange and unfamiliar home. Here is how it opens.
I was born near San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. My house stood on the edge of the San Jacinto hill. It was a humble house with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. When it rained it was beautiful to hear the drops dancing on the tine roof. All around grew fruit trees. Parakeets and other multicolored birds arrived in the mornings to eat and sing.

Surrounded by all this beauty, I didn't realize how poor most of us were. We were yearning for change, but a few powerful people in our country didn't want change. The result was a bloody civil war. From 1980 to 1990, more than half a million of us fled to the United States. Today, there are flourishing Salvadoran communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities.

These poems are based on my life when I first came to this country. How much I missed my homeland! How fortunate I was to be alive in San Francisco! These poems are my memories, my dreams--the movies in my pillow. I dedicate them to all the children from El Salvador--and to children everywhere--with the hope that we may all have a beautiful tomorrow.
Before I talk about Jorge's poems, let's learn a bit more about him.

How did you get started writing poetry?
Jorge: At a very young age I experienced the beauty of words, my first poems were love and nature poems. I started writing poetry in El Salvador.

I used poetry as a tool to denounce El Salvador injustices. Poetry came to me in a very simple way, in a spiritual way, by the way of my family, Mother Earth, relatives, friends.

Who/what made you want to write?
Jorge: The love I feel for Mother Earth, the love for my family, and culture, the love for language, for words.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Jorge: I believe every poet, every writer want to write a children book. I had always felt that writing poetry and stories for children is like finishing that game I never finished, because I left my country so abruptly.

I believe every poet has a child on his/her, in many occasions I have felt as if I was robe from my childhood, I was forced to leave El Salvador. Writing children’s books is like to continue playing that game I never ended.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Jorge: No, I don’ t have any formal training except the one from nature:
I find a teacher in the birds, wind, clouds, ocean, the way people talk and interact. (human interactions) I come from one of the oldest tradition of communication: oral tradition, at my house we were always telling stories. I believe part of my life as a writer started as a listener being a good listener play an important role in my life as a writer.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Jorge: I write collections of poetry or stories that have to do with my indigenous-latino culture. I write in the mornings, afternoon or any time, I write anywhere, for me writing is fun and also hard work, I am very fortunate, I am the kind of person that never given up.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Jorge: I love to talk about my culture, for example my lattes book Bean Soup, A Cooking Poem/ Sopa de Frijoles, Un poema para cocinar. While writing this poem I had the opportunity to remember my house in El Salvador, through food memories I had the opportunity to be a child again with all my family and friends, I think what is the most fun in any writing is the thoughts that take me, take us, places….

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Jorge: I enjoy them all.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Jorge: Presently I am writing poetry cook books for children (cooking poems). Also I just finished a story about a latino girl who loves to recycle.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Jorge: Maria Luisa Perez, my grand mother, Pablo Neruda/Rosario Castellanos, Garcia Lorca, Walt Whitman

Your favorite place to write?

Jorge: Anywhere

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Jorge: Never give up, your poems and stories are waiting.

In reading A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada, I found it easy to imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of a new home. Jorge's poems are so vivid that readers are magically transported to the places he describes. Here are two of my favorites, in both English and Spanish.

Wonders of the City
Here in the city there are
wonders everywhere

Here mangoes
come in cans

In El Salvador
they grew on trees

Here chickens come
in plastic bags

Over there
they slept beside me
Las maravillas de la ciudad
Aquí en esta ciudad
todo es maravilloso

Aquí los mangos
vienen enlatados

En El Salvador
crecían en árboles

Aquí las gallinas vienen
en bolsas de plástico

Allá se dormían
junto a mí

Language of the Birds
I used to speak
only Spanish

Now I can speak
English too

And in my dreams
I speak Nahuatl

the language
my grandma says

her people
--the Pipiles--

from the birds

The Pipiles are an indigenous people of El Salvador who speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
Lengua de páraros
Antes sólo podía
hablar español

Ahora tambíen
puedo hablar inglés

Y en sueños
hablo en náhuatl

la lengua
que mi abuelita dice

su gente
--los pipiles--

de los pájaros

Los Pipiles son un pueblo indigena de El Salvador que habla náhuatl, la lengua de los aztecas.

A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada was Jorge's first book for children. Published in 2001, it went on to win the Américas Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. To see examples of the artwork and read some additional poems, you can preview the book at the International Children's Digital Library.

Where A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada allows readers to experience San Francisco through Jorge's eyes, Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con madre tierra: Poems/Poemas allows them to experience the depth of Jorge's roots in El Slavador and his strong connection to the people and the land. The bilingual poems in the book cover a range of topics, with some so emotional that they aren't particularly easy to read, but read them we must. Here's an example.

"Cracked-foot Indian,"
my schoolmates used to call me
and laugh at my bare feet.

"Cracked-foot Indian,"
they used to call me
and I would stare at my rough feet
with hometown dirt under my nails.

"Flea-bitten Indian,"
they would call me
and pull on my hair
long and dark as the night.

"Indian called down from the hill
by the beat of a drum,"
they would tease me
and while the teacher
wrote on the blackboard, they would hit my back.

"Little red Indian, where did you put your
        feathers and arrows?"
my schoolmates would chant
as they beat softly on their mouths with their hands,
singing woo woo woo like movie Indians.

"Stinky Indian"
they would call me
and in my chest my heart would boil
like a volcano getting ready to explode.
Here is one of my favorite poems from the book.
The Corn

The corn's spirit
becomes delicious and happy
when we plant its tiny seeds
in Mother Earth.

After four days
the corn sprouts.
At first it is like a little worm
stretching, searching for the sun's light.

Later a leaf is born
from the stem
thin as a thread
sweet and green like a caress.

The plant keeps growing and growing
till from its center comes an ear of corn
a bearded child
laughing with all its teeth.

When I finally eat it
in tortillas
or tamales or atol
I start to smile like the corn.
Jorge's newest book is Bean Soup, A Cooking Poem/ Sopa de Frijoles, Un poema para cocinar, a recipe written in free verse for "una sabrosa sopita de frijoles," or "yummy bean soup." Here is an excerpt.
Now, at last,
Everything is ready.
Heat the tortillas,
Take out the deep bowls
And the spoons.
Decorate the table
With flowers and smiles
Call your mother and your father
Your brothers and your sister
And eat up
The loving, lovely
Bean soup
Ahora si
Ya todo está listo
Calienta las tortillas
Saca los platos hondos
Y las cucharas
Adorna to mesa
Con flores y sonrisas
Llama a tu mamá y papá
A tus hermanos y hermana
Y a comer se ha dicho
Sopa de amor
de frijolitos
In addition to his poetry books, Jorge has written several picture books. To learn more about Jorge and his work, visit these sites.
Jorge completed this interview between visits to El Salvador. I am most grateful to him for this generous gift of his time. Thank you Jorge for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Jorge Argueta. All rights reserved.


  1. "Laughing with all its teeth..." Corn will make me laugh now! I love that poem. And I love the quote (and the thought) about our "poems and stories waiting for us." Beautiful.

  2. I've been using Movie In My Pillow for years with my ESOL kids. Great one--thanks so much.

  3. What a full love of life shines through these poems. How lovely.