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San Antonio Express News

Book utilizes symbols to teach basics of Spanish

A is for apple. Scratch that. Armadillo.

That's pronounced ar-ma-dee-yo in a set of vibrant books that use Mexican folk art to teach basic concepts of Spanish.

The first book, AbeCedarios, published in 2007 by Cinco Puntos Press, focuses on the alphabet. Each letter is represented by an animal carved and painted by the Jiménez family of Oaxaca. In the process, English speakers can learn, for example, that P is for penguin, or el pingüino.

The small, independent El Paso-based press has just published the second book in the series. (A third will focus on colors.) Opuestos, which means opposites, builds on what we learned in the first book, teaching simple terms that are, well, as different as night and day.

For "day," or día, a spotted dog, perhaps a Dalmatian, sits up and begs for a treat, basking in a bright yellow background. Across the page, a black coyote croons in the dark of "night," or noche.
The imaginative figures for Opuestos were carved from the wood of the flowering jacaranda tree and painted with natural dyes by artists Quirino and Martín Santiago from the village of La Unión Tejalapan in the state of Oaxaca.

"The books are aimed at three audiences: kids, people interested in folk art and educators," says Opuestos author Cynthia Weill, who wrote Abecedarios with K.B. Basseches. "I want a teacher to be able to use the books not only for concepts but also to educate about Mexican culture.

"I am also hoping that these books bring recognition to the artisans and Oaxaca's amazing folk arts. Handicrafts are an important livelihood for families in the poorest state in Mexico."

Ironically, the artists Weill has worked with on the books didn't always get the concept initially, pointing out a basic cultural divide.

"When I was working on AbeCedarios' and finally had all of the pieces photographed, I laid them out on the ground to show the entire Jiménez family," Weill says. "(Carvers) Moises and Armando were completely confused. They said, 'We thought this was a book about us.' After a long discussion I realized that they had never owned any children's books. As children, stories were passed through the oral tradition. They never understood until the end of the project what we were doing. It explained a lot."

Generally, says Weill, an educator and art historian who has lived in Asia, Europe and Latin America, the relationship between artist and author required routine maintenance.

"The relationship takes a lot of patience on both sides," she says. "Ready-made pieces are never quite what I am looking for, so all work is commissioned. Intercultural issues and just general misunderstanding do affect things.

"Often the figures they gave me were too large, or the wrong color, or the piece was beautiful but was too sophisticated artistically for a young child to appreciate. Our senses of time conflicted, naturally, being American I wanted everything as soon as possible and the artisans had a different internal clock. To my total chagrin my work would be set aside to complete another order or sometimes even 'accidentally' sold.

"It could be a little frustrating. Still I loved every minute of working with the artisans. Hopefully, they felt the same way about me."

For a full interview with Opuestos author Cynthia Weill, visit Express-News book editor Steve Bennett's "Fine Print" book blog at
- By Steve Bennett - Express-News, August 23, 2009 

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