"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."


Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Gift of Gracias : The Legend of Altagracia

A Gift of Gracias : The Legend of Altagracia
Author: Julia Alvarez
Illustrator: Beatriz Vidal
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 0375824251

Julia Alvarez is the author of many wonderful books including, Before We Were Free, winner of the Pura Belpre Award. In A Gift of Gracias Ms. Alvarez pulls from the legends of her Native Dominican Republic to weave a magical, meaningful and completely charming story.

A Gift of Gracias is the story of María who loves on a finca where her family are trying unsuccessfully to grow olives. One day María’s father and Quisqueya, the Taino Indian that is part of the family bring home a basket of oranges as payment for work they had done in the city. As María’s father talks of moving his family to the city where there is work, María begins to cry into her bowl of orange pits. That night, she dreams of planting oranges on the barren land and of a beautiful woman wearing a robe of stars who says that her name is Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia.

The next morning, María tells her family of the dream and they all gather the orange seeds and begin planting them, saying gracias after each individual seed is placed into the waiting earth. In just a few short months, the trees are fully grown and give a bounteous harvest of oranges. As María’s father and Quisqueya prepare to take the oranges into the city to sell them, María asks her father to bring her an image of the Señora de la Altagracia. Her father searches but no one has such an image and he and Quisqueya head back to the finca. As Quisqueya sits in the night, he sees la Señora in the sky smiling at him. Stars fall and Quisqueya catches them with his blanket.

When they arrive home, it is far too dark to pick the oranges and Quisqueya opens his blanket where miraculously an image of the Altagracia appears glowing with light enough to illuminate the orchard.

This story reminded me so much of the stories I grew up hearing from my grandmother about Juan Diego, of his tilma santa and the Virgencita de Guadalupe or Tonantzin as the Mexica called her. Ms. Alvarez writes that the Taino Indians of the Dominican Republic’s name for their land was Quisqueya which means Mother Earth and that they saw their Madre Tierra in the image of Altagracia the same way we find our Tonantzin in the brown face of our Virgen de Guadalupe.

The illustrations are gorgeous and bright. Beatriz Vidal also illustrated A Library for Juana by Pat Mora as well as several others. Her greens and oranges capture the feeling of the orange orchard and she brings that color into every page bringing the oranges and nature to the forefront even in her illustrations of the interior of the house. You can almost smell and taste the fruit. My favorite illustration in the book is the one where María is crying and her tears look just like the orange seeds in the bowl.

My grandmother would have loved this story. She grew up in the orange orchards of Piru, California and she loved sitting on her patio telling me stories of saints as she pared orange peels into long curls that fell into her apron. She had a special love for the Virgencita in all her many facets and I’m sure she would have found the Altagracia very special.

This story is beautiful and moving. It reminds us to give thanks. It teaches of another face of our powerful and generous Madre Tierra and of how much we rely on her for our sustenance. It seems to me it is also a loving tribute by the author to her native land and shows also her love of nature and the earth. Gracias to Julia Alvarez and gracias to Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia for reminding me to be grateful, for bringing to mind yet another beautiful memory of my much missed and beloved grandmother Lupe.

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