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<< Back to İSi, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!

İSi, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!

El Paso Times

A lesson from laborers
Story of striking janitors inspires children's author

Diana Cohn's message in her new bilingual children's picture book, "Sí Se Puede/Yes We Can", is very basic. "This is a story every kid should know about, a story that really celebrates solidarity and collective action," Cohn said in a telephone interview from her home near San Francisco. Cohn, 43, a writer, activist and former schoolteacher, based the story on the Los Angeles janitors' strike in 2000.

"I was totally blown away by the courage of the janitors and how they left their jobs to go on strike and demand a wage that would pay them enough to take care of their families," she said.
The book -- superbly illustrated by Juárez native and Yale University-educated artist Francisco Delgado -- will be launched on Labor Day in California's San Fernando Valley. El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press will also give away 1,000 copies at a traditional Labor Day picnic in Los Angeles.
Cohn followed the Justice for Janitors Campaign conducted by the Service Employees International Union Local 1877. The book honors the 8,000 janitors who put down their mops and brooms and went on strike. The janitors, supported in the struggle by other workers, students and educators, elected officials and religious leaders, won a contract three weeks later.

"I was moved by the power of the strike," Cohn said. "No one should have to work full-time and not be able to make a living wage." The story revolves around Carlitos, a boy whose mother works nights as a janitor. His mother becomes a labor leader.

Cohn works in San Francisco for a national foundation that helps nonprofit groups with economic and environmental justice issues. She has taught in elementary school and trained high-school teachers. She first tried to publish the book through a large mainstream press, which was uncomfortable with the book's strong labor message and requested changes. A friend redirected Cohn to El Paso's Cinco Puntos, a small, independent press that made national headlines in 1999 for publishing a storybook written by the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. The family publisher attracted media attention when the National Endowment for the Arts abruptly withdrew part of its funding for publishing the book because of Marcos' leftist political leanings.

"It was clear this was a press willing to take risks," Cohn said. "I felt comfortable that I wouldn't have to compromise the message of the story." Chronicle Books published Cohn's first children's book, "Dream Carver." She is working on a third children's book.

Luis J. Rodríguez, an acclaimed author of books of poetry, children's literature, memoir, nonfiction and short stories, contributed an essay for "Sí Se Puede." Rodríguez writes about Los Angeles union activist Dolores Sánchez.

Like most other Cinco Puntos books for children, this selection's dust jacket contains a poster suitable for classroom use. Cohn writes children's books because of her classroom experience and fascination with the play between words and images. The activist in her appreciates the rebirth of the labor movement and its emphasis on helping working people.

"I wanted to contribute to multicultural literature, as a writer and teacher," Cohn said. "I hope this book raises the subject of working families and opens up discussion about what labor unions have done for this country."

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