Atop the checkout counter at Wild Rumpus Books sits a small collection of Spanish, Portuguese and bilingual children’s books. The most popular is Señorita Mariposa, a rhyming picture book about a monarch butterfly’s 3,000-mile voyage “over mountains capped with snow to the deserts down below.”
If a customer at the Linden Hills shop purchases one of these “Books for Border Kids,” Wild Rumpus’ staff will mail it more than 1,100 miles southwest to an old adobe building in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that’s home to a bookstore owned by the novelist Denise Chávez.
At Casa Camino Real Bookstore, Chávez and her team of about 10 volunteer book stewards unpack donated books and prepare to distribute them to refugees who have fled violence or precarity in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil and who are now living in hospitality centers or tent cities in New Mexico, Texas and Juárez.
Many of the refugees, Chávez said, are traumatized by the time they’ve spent in ICE detention centers and tell her stories of the cold, squalid, cramped conditions they’ve endured. She’s met a man who said his Bible was confiscated by ICE and thrown into the trash. Another man, she said, reeked with “the smell of the defiled and the cursed” because he feared that if he showed his gangrenous leg to authorities, he would be separated from his family.
“ICE and Border Patrol strip them of everything — even if it’s a rosary,” she said. “A woman wept in my arms because her son’s birth blanket had been taken, which the grandmother had sent along with her and her son. Everything stripped away — clothing, shoelaces — everything taken away.”
Since the summer of 2018, Chávez said, she’s distributed approximately 20,000 books to adults, children and families through her “Libros Para el Viaje” — Books for the Journey — project, conducted with help from Peace Lutheran Church, the Border Servant Corps and the American Booksellers Association.
“I am here to represent those who have died in detention, in the heat, those who have drowned, been shot, beaten, raped,” Chávez said during a July protest held outside an ICE detention center in El Paso. “I am here to represent all who want to do something, don’t know what to do, don’t know where to begin. You are not alone. Look around you. We are family.”
Donations have poured in from across the country. A group of high school students from New Jersey rounded up 136 books; the poet Margaret Randall gave 110 boxes; a whole pallet of books arrived from Girón Books in Chicago.
The Books for Border Kids drive in the Twin Cities runs through the end of October, and nearly 400 picture and board books for children ages 2–8 have already been purchased. The drive was organized by a group of concerned local residents, including Joan Poritsky and Nancy Burke of Lynnhurst, in partnership with Wild Rumpus and the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul.
“We want to put books into kids’ hands and this is a community of kids who may not have access in the same way other kids do,” said Kristen Kavic, a manager at Wild Rumpus. “Our customer base has been very happy we’ve been doing this.”
Chávez made the case for the importance of giving books to refugees who lack more basic needs.
“We’re living in a horrific time, and what can a book do to help? A lot,” she said. “A book is knowledge, a book is hope. It is an awakening that allows us to understand that we are all one people. … Children hug me. I give them a book and a child will ask very politely, ‘Señora, es posible llevar dos libros?’ ‘Can I take two books? Can I take three books?’ I’ve never limited the amount of books.”
She does, however, impose restrictions on the type of books she’ll give to refugees. She refuses to hand out books involving violence, narcos or the murders of women in Juárez. She doesn’t want to share books “that reflect a darkness” and tries not to distribute books like The Hunger Games trilogy. (When she receives books she feels are inappropriate, she donates them to other humanitarian or educational organizations.)
“Why would I give someone Grisham translated when you can get Isabel Allende, Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, Luís Urrea — all sorts of authentic and real Latino writers?” she asked. “Maya Angelou in Spanish — that’s a treasure. We’re educating people about literature, art and culture.”
When she recruits her volunteer book stewards, Chávez asks them a simple question: “Are you willing to sing, to read a story, to laugh, to cry?”
“We appreciate those who come out of the shadows to participate fully with our families, whether it is blowing bubbles, sitting down to have pancakes and coffee, or talking in a circle about your life and dreams,” she has written in a list of “rules of engagement” for book stewards.
President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy has led Chávez to make more book distributions along the border, near the international bridge in El Paso and at hospitality centers in Juárez.
“Everyday the situation changes,” she said. “We might hear this afternoon that they’ve dumped people at the bus depot. And then we’re there and we take books.”
She said the one place she hasn’t been able to distribute is inside ICE detention centers.
“Nobody can get in there,” she said. “Our government doesn’t want people to see what is actually going on. The cruelty, the overcrowding, the lack of sanitation and food. So you’re never going to get a book in there.”
To donate new children’s books through the Books for Border Kids program, you can visit Wild Rumpus or Red Balloon or go to booksforborderkids.org. You can also mail new or gently used books of all genres directly to the Libros Para el Viaje project: Casa Camino Real, 314 S. Tornillo St., Las Cruces, NM, 88001. Monetary donations to nonprofits serving refugees are accepted at annunciationhouse.org/financial-donations and borderservantcorps.org/donate.