Inside a sliver of upper Mission Street, Salvadoran writer Jorge Argueta and his wife, Holly Ayala, have staked out a large literary dream, publishing and selling bilingual poetry books for children.
“It’s a little niche with a big heart,” says Argueta of Luna’s Press & Bookstore at 3790 Mission Street near Richland, where on Saturday they will celebrate the launch of Argueta’s latest book, Salsa, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Salsa is the fifth book in Argueta’s delightful series on food, which takes children on bilingual eating and reading adventures from rice pudding to tortillas. Along the way, readers learn the history of the molcajete, or mortar, watch tomatoes become bongos and garlic cloves trumpets, and find that chilies make us feel as if we are “dancing among rainbows and stars.”
In an earlier book, Guacamole, children are instructed to plant the seeds from the limes and avocado, “so that more avocados will grow, more lime trees, more colors, more flavors.” And in Tamalitos, the smell of corn makes us fly.
The books are journeys that accomplish what Argueta says is most important: “to promote reading and writing.”
“Behind the simplicity of the book is the history of who we are, and our children can be proud of that,” he says.
Why children’s books? “Because to me, it is like finishing a game I never finished playing as a child in El Salvador,” says Argueta, who immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago in the midst of his country’s civil war. “The stories and poems I write remind me of who I am, where I come from. I am a Native American man from El Salvador, I am a Pipil-Nahua Indian.”
He is also a poet who has published 16 books for children and five for adults, winning awards and readers along the way. Argueta and his wife also organize annual Flor y Canto poetry festivals for children in El Salvador and San Francisco. The one here will happen next this September during Hispanic heritage month, and the one in El Salvador will take place in November of next year.
Argueta approaches his country’s history with ingenuity. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was slain in 1980 by the right as he said mass in San Salvador, is remembered in an upcoming book by René Colato Laínez not as the fiery leader he became, but as a young boy who wrote letters to God. That book, Telegramas al Cielo, or Telegrams to Heaven, will be published soon.
And the endurance and migration of Salvadorans is evoked not through the civil war, but in the story of Manyula, an elephant that lived at the San Salvador zoo from 1955 until she died at 59 in 2010.
Much beloved in El Salvador, Manyula is remembered in the story of an American-born child of Salvadoran immigrants (inspired by Argueta’s wife) who returns home and is taken to a birthday party that ends up being for the elephant.
Manyula, like Salvadorans, says Arugeuta, as he slowly flips through an early copy of the beautifully illustrated tale, survived earthquakes and a revolution.
The country, he said, “made her happy,” and in return, she offered Salvadorans an escape and a wonder to behold.
Such stories, Arugueta hopes, will get many young readers and parents from the Mission to hike south up Mission Street. “When people think of the community, they think of 24th Street, but it has many parts.”
It does, and one of those special places – where parents anxious to have their children become bilingual will want to visit – is that niche at 3790 Mission St. near Richland.