Artist Luis Garay is the author/illustrator of The Long Road and the illustrator of Alfredito Flies Home. He was born in Nicaragua and lived in Costa Rica before emigrating to Canada in 1988; he now lives in Mexico. For a more complete biography/bibliography, and to see examples of Luis' beautiful artwork, visit our Gallery.
More than a decade ago I had the opportunity to write and illustrate a children’s book called The Long Road, which tells the somewhat difficult and demanding story of a child José and his mother, living very happily in a small town somewhere in Latin America until civil war breaks out and they are forced to flee to another country. After many days and nights hiding from soldiers and sleeping in different, uncomfortable places, always traveling north, they finally arrive in Canada. Eventually, after they’ve been there a while, José and his mother realize they can be as happy in Canada as they were in their own country.
On a personal level, to have worked on this book was a kind of release, and at the same time it was an excellent experience, helping me to grow as a person. I also felt a sense of commitment to all those families who had shared some of their difficult experiences along the way.
As an artist, I feel very honored to have had the responsibility of revealing a share of my roots to other cultures, and depicting them in the best way I possibly can. For me, this could not be better than through the story of a child like José.
I would describe The Long Road as an intercultural book: it reflects the natural emotions pertaining to feeling, as well as being, foreign, such as problems of adapting and feeling caught between two worlds. Books like this are very important: they help us to reach a better understanding of all those children who, for whatever reason, have had to leave the countries where they were born to settle in places where the language, customs and environment are different. One of the reasons behind creating this kind of book is to make resources available for a truly pluralist and intercultural education: for young people to gain insight into what it means to be newly arrived in a country – and for those who are themselves newly arrived, to find some sense of release through reading someone else’s similar experiences, even if they are fictional.
The truth is, these are not easy situations to take on board because they require understanding and tolerance from local people. It is very important to ask: Why do people seek refugee status? Why do people have to emigrate? I am certain that most of them do not want to leave their homes, their families and their local customs. According to statistics (UN, 2009), the total number of people who live in a country different to the land of their birth is about 214 million: that represents just 3% of the world’s population. I believe this confirms what I have just said. I would say that the best way to understand why people have to emigrate is to look back at History. That is where we can find the real reasons behind migration.
Over many years of travelling to different places, I have had the opportunity to meet people who, like José, have had to make a home for themselves in another country, and it has been interesting to observe how some of them question their identity. This is understandable because they have absorbed the culture of the new place where they are living now. On the other hand, for some there is family “back home” so they will always have ties to the place where they came from. At the end of the day, a kind of synthesis has to take place – newcomers have to adapt to life in a new and often very different situation. This is very complex, but it is also a great opportunity to learn about different cultures and helps to open minds to new perspectives beyond only knowing one way of living.
Then there is Xenophobia. To a certain extent, it is understandable that people are afraid of those who come to supposedly invade their space, although immigrants also contribute to the economical and socio-cultural development of the recipient country. This is why books about immigrant children, and especially those seeking refugee status, are important: they show a great commitment to the people who emigrate no matter where.
I would urge all those who, like me, have been in a similar situation to write and/or illustrate those experiences: but they also need to be aware of the importance of the multicultural aspects by seeking to depict what we have in common and not allowing difference to be divisive.
Children´s books about refugees need images: illustration is essential for young people (and indeed older readers, including us adults) to gain insight into the diversity of cultural roots they encompass.
As an illustrator, I have to say that illustrating stories that reflect the refugee experience requires a certain level of commitment because you certainly don’t approach a project involving this aspect of contemporary life just for fun. This kind of topic gives the artist the chance to expose his or her own cultural perspective. And indeed, any incoming artist can enrich their new environment by bringing with them their own vision. It is not necessary to imitate the style of local artists, this could be a mistake - wherever we are, we need to be true to ourselves as that is the only way we can be considered as true artists.
Anyone in the world is free to ask what contribution we Latin Americans have made to Art. It is true that most Latin American art is derived from Western art, but socially and emotionally it is undeniably an individual genre. A good example of this is Mexican Muralism, whose exponents, such as Diego Rivera, had the vision to show the reality of their country to the whole world.
After several years of working as an illustrator, I am more aware that it is necessary to promote themes about my cultural heritage in order to help other people to understand our roots: especially kids, and most especially immigrants and refugees, who sooner or later are going to question their parents about their origins. In order to work on this kind of topic, an author/illustrator needs to demonstrate certain qualities, such as dedication, discipline and above all, integrity. They also need to carry out research and be well-informed; and for an artist to do a good job, it is not enough to be able to paint etc. The only way his/her art will have credibility is if its foundations are well-informed.
I would love to motivate a whole new generation of fine artists and illustrators, particularly any who live in exile, not to be afraid of expressing their own ideas, because every person in this world has the right to do so. Art is evolutionary; no movement is better than another.
All this makes me think that the challenge for illustration in this as yet young century is for it to start to stand alone rather than as a complement of text, which so often requires translation if it is to cross boundaries – both of language and age. For Art is universal. Communicating through image can provide a reliable means of conveying a child’s perspective; and illustration is a vehicle for children to look beyond what they see on the printed page. And so I would like to end with this thought, intended for all those who are starting a new life no matter where: “The capacity to adapt is an expression of intelligence”.
Posted August 2010