Simple and Unassuming: Seeing Myself in the Story of a Bossy Rooster

You never know what it is about a book that an individual reader will connect with. It could be a character’s personality or interests. It could be the setting, a shared home. And sometimes it is something as simple and unassuming as an object. Let’s say, a box.

When my son was born in 2006, my best friend sent us a copy of Lucía M. González and Lulu Delacre’s The Bossy Gallito / El gallo de bodas. It is a retelling of a traditional Cuban folktale about, as the title indicates, a bossy rooster. On his way to his parrot friend’s wedding, the rooster is sidetracked by a couple of tasty-looking corn kernels. He knows he’ll dirty his beak if he eats the corn, but the kernels are hard to resist, so he eats them anyway. Then, knowing he can’t show up at the wedding with a muddy beak, he attempts to boss a series of animals and objects he encounters into cleaning him up. Or else.

Published in 1994, The Bossy Gallito has a prominent place in the history of the Pura Belpré Award. In 1996, the inaugural year of the award, it won honors in both the illustration and narrative categories, one of only a handful of books to do so. The Bossy Gallito also has a prominent place in my life as a reader. It is the first Pura Belpré book I remember reading (and possibly my introduction to the award), a good ten years after the dream of librarians Oralia Garza de Cortés and Sandra Ríos Balderrama — to honor books for young readers by and about the Latino experience — came to fruition.

By 2006, when my son was born, I had read a few novels written for adults that captured some of the essence of what it felt like, for me, to grow up in the United States as a child of immigrants. But The Bossy Gallito was the first book that visually reflected the unique world I’d known as a kid in Miami. That park, the one where the birds are playing dominos? That’s the park on Calle Ocho where my dad would spend hours playing dominos, too. But it’s the illustration of la cafetería, the close-up of the display case the rooster stands on top of while he tells the fire to burn the stick (who won’t hit the goat who won’t eat the grass who won’t clean his beak), that makes this book a favorite of mine.

Imagine a time, dear reader, when an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old, a couple of mosquito-bitten girls in chancletas, could go into a store and buy cigars. When I think about my childhood in Miami, this is one of the things I remember. Walking to the neighborhood supermarket with my older sister to pick up our dad’s Padrón número cuatro cigars. He would have us buy a couple at a time, for less than a dollar each. Padrón cigars came in a yellow box with a gold edge, an image of the island of Cuba on its lid. The island of Cuba was everywhere in Miami when I was a kid — in people’s hearts, in people’s minds, on the radio all day, every day, and, of course, on the lids of cigar boxes. I saw the image of the island so much that I can more easily recognize the shape of Cuba than the shape of most U.S. states.

In the same illustration in the book, near the Padrón boxes, are the white boxes of Moya cigars. It’s the kind of box in which my father sent my new pair of glasses when my old pair broke right before I left home for college. Some thirty years later, long after college and with a worse prescription than I left home with, I still have that Moya cigar box. Inside it are a few mementos — old photos and prayer cards from my father’s wake.

My heart swelled to see the illustration of the cigar boxes. It’s a small detail in a picture book filled with little details, but it made such an impression on me to see it decades after I had been a child, in a place that wasn’t Miami. How many times had I accompanied my sister to buy cigars, the three words Padrón número cuatro rolling off our tongues like they had always belonged together? Now, as an adult looking at the illustration of the cafetería scene, they still belonged together in my mind, like a muscle memory of language.

Here’s the thing about representation: sometimes it’s easy to convince yourself that details of your life, things that you’ve never seen anywhere else, are imagined. That how you live and what you know couldn’t possibly be things to share, because who would care? As a reader, I didn’t know this acknowledgment was something I was missing until I actually encountered it. I had been waiting for someone else to say, I know what that’s like too. I have lived that.

On 8th Street in Miami, there are roosters, both real and not, and the domino park where my dad played on weekends, and plenty of those familiar cafetería windows where you can buy cigars and order café con leche and pasteles de guayaba or croquetas. But you don’t even have to travel to Miami to see them, because they’re in the pages of a book. I saw those familiar sights in The Bossy Gallito, and it was affirming in the way these types of connections through small objects and details, simple and unassuming, can be for a reader. I never imagined in 2006, when I was reading The Bossy Gallito to my own four-month-old bossy gallito, that I would win a Pura Belpré honor twelve years later for a book that I hoped would offer the same kind of connection and affirmation: I have seen it with my own eyes. It is real, you are real.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Photos courtesy of Celia C. Pérez.

Celia C. Pérez
Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is the author of The First Rule of Punk (Viking), a 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book honoree and a Pura Belpré Author Honor book winner for narration, and Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers (Kokila/Penguin). When not writing about quirky kids who break rules, she works as a community college librarian in Chicago. She is a former co-chair of REFORMA's Children and Young Adult Services Committee and served on the 2014 Pura Belpré Award committee.

 

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