Lighting the Candle: Labyrinth

I came to the U.S. when I was a teenager. As I spent more time away from Mexico, where I grew up, I began to feel a little lost. I missed the food, the music, and the traditions. One of my high school teachers noticed this and loaned me a copy of The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. The book talks about how different historical events, like the conquest and the revolution, have shaped the personality of the Mexican people. It analyzes cultural expressions like the Day of the Dead and Mexicans’ devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

The book fascinated me. After I read it, I wanted to learn more about Mexican culture and art. I became interested in issues such as immigration and segregation that affect people of Mexican origin in the U.S. That passion continued and grew after I graduated from high school and went to art school. In my various classes I found ways to connect my assignments to my Mexican background. My senior project was a short graphic novel about an undocumented Mixtec worker in New York. The drawings I made were inspired by the pre-Columbian codices of Mexico.

Soon after I finished college, I was able to publish my first picture book, Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin. Making books for young readers has been my career for more than ten years now. The interest in Mexican and Mexican American culture and art that began for me as a teenager after I read The Labyrinth of Solitude continues to be the focus of the writing and images I create. It is a maze I am still exploring.

Over the last decade I have visited many schools in different parts of the U.S. Oftentimes those schools have a large Mexican American and Latinx population. I have come to learn that many children are navigating their own labyrinths. Young people can at times feel lost, as I did. They can feel pulled, like they are a part of two different cultures but do not belong fully to either. Hopefully my books can be an encouraging light as they find their way through their own mazes.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here. Illustration (c) 2021 by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh received the 2012 Belpré Award for illustration for Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (Abrams), and has received eight honors. He is the author-illustrator of Game of Freedom (Abrams, 2023). Upcoming books are ¡Fiesta!: A Festival of Colors (Abrams Appleseed) and La princesa y el guerrero (Abrams).

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