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Posted on Nov 1, 2016 in Blog, Chile, Germany, International, Languages, Portugal

Know Your History

Know Your History

Regular visitors to this site may notice a new item on the menu bar for Translations. This new page lists the published and forthcoming children’s books that I’ve translated from Portuguese to English. I’m also translating a middle grade novel from Spanish to English but it’s not under contract yet.

The opening page of Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) shows the family fleeing the dictatorship in Portugal.

The opening page of Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) shows the family fleeing the dictatorship in Portugal. Illustration ©2015 by Yara Kono.

The middle grade novel and one of the picture books are historical fiction, portraying the experiences of refugees from dictatorships, in Cuba and Portugal respectively. One week away from the Presidential elections, people in the United States are on the cusp of choosing a right-wing authoritarian leader, a possibility created by the intervention — perhaps careless, but perhaps deliberate — of the director of the national police agency, the FBI. This unusual intervention, harking back to J. Edgar Hoover’s secret assistance to Thomas Dewey, who narrowly lost to Harry Truman in the 1948 election, is especially disturbing because of Donald Trump’s pledge to disarm African Americans via “stop and frisk” while making guns more available to everyone else, to target the Black Lives Matter movement, to ban Muslims from entering the country and harass those already here, to deport up to 11 million people who may be undocumented along with their families, and to use the power of the federal government to pursue his political enemies of all stripes. All of these measures require a highly developed police state designed to repress both citizens and residents who do not toe the line. The FBI director — whose innuendos of Hillary Clinton’s guilt in the handling of her emails at the State Department have tilted an election that previously was not even close — will likely be the same one to apply and oversee police state measures if she loses.

Hopefully, it will not come to that, and James Comey’s actions will have the same effectiveness that J. Edgar Hoover’s did 68 years ago. Unfortunately, while Hoover acted in secret, Comey’s move has played out in the court of public opinion. He has given energy to a European-style nationalist mass movement that tapped into the grievances of working-class whites but looked like it was starting to fizzle in the wake of Trump’s shady past and humiliation of “enemies” on the campaign trail, ranging from a former Miss Universe to a Muslim Gold Star family.


The cover of Gringolandia shows a pool used to torture prisoners in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, now part of a human rights museum in Santiago.

Most voters don’t remember the days of J. Edgar Hoover — his collaboration with Joseph McCarthy and others who persecuted suspected Communists in the early days of the Cold War and ruined the lives of many innocent people, or his hounding of civil rights leaders and his efforts to disrupt their struggle for racial justice in the 1950s and 1960s. And we certainly don’t know what it’s like to live under a true dictatorship. We tend to equate dictatorships with Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, but there are as many types of dictatorship as peoples that have suffered under them. Dictatorships come to power in multiple ways as well, from elections (Hitler, Italy under Mussolini) to civil wars (Spain under Franco) and intra-party machinations in one-party states (Stalin). In many cases, a military or political coup followed years of disrupted or ineffective government and a majority of the population at first welcomed the authoritarian rulers who promised to break the logjam. Two countries I’ve written about — Chile under General Augusto Pinochet and Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar — follow that pattern. By the time the people realized they’d lost their freedoms, it was too late. Pinochet ruled for 17 years. Salazar and his successor ruled for 48. There are also the hybrids, countries like Russia or Turkey today that have elections, but the autocrat always seems to win. And there are so-called democracies that exclude a large share of their population from the ballot, including South Africa under the white Nationalist government, which won every election from 1948 to 1990, and its principal inspiration, the southern United States under Jim Crow, which reigned from 1876 to the  various Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.  I expect that if Trump wins the election and turns into a dictator or institutionalizes rule by a single ultra-conservative-nationalist party, the United States will not see democracy again in my lifetime.

3ballsofwoolWith all the focus on STEM subjects — or STEAM if we add the arts — and Language Arts, it seems that history, and social studies in general, have been neglected. In preparing Common Core-aligned teachers guides for my own books and others, I have found fewer standards in comparison to other subjects. While Gringolandia does align with a 10th grade New York State unit on human rights, my teachers guide for its companion, Surviving Santiago, contains only Language Arts standards. When Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) comes out in February, I hope that it will find a home in social studies classes as well as in the language arts. Exploring the fate of a refugee family from Portugal that fails to find the freedom they sought in Communist Czechoslovakia, it’s a story of how people can resist oppression in small ways, how immigrants enrich their new land, and how one person’s small efforts can lead to big changes.



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