by Sam Juliano
For picture book lovers it is a dream come true. Renowned Cuban-American poet and novelist Margarita Engle and acclaimed Mexican-American muralist Rafael Lopez have collaborated on a work that has brought together the real-life aspirations of a mixed heritage Cuban girl trying to make it in a field dominated by males, with rapturous aesthetic beauty rarely conferred upon the form. Based on the indomitable Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a spirited young girl who refused to buckle under to the prevailing make chauvinism in vogue on the island nation nicknamed “Pearl of the Antilles.” Engle sets the stage early in establishing the sounds and images that leave an indelible mark on a child who develops the determination to break through oppressive traditions: She dreamed of pounding tall conga drums/tapping small bongo drums/and boom boom booming with long, loud sticks/on big, round, silvery moon-bright timbales. Engle likens her homeland to a place of glowing musical praxis (an “island of music” in the “city of drumbeats”, but one that resolutely held the door shut to female complicity. There was something about drum playing with its aggressive negotiation that seemed to cry out for male involvement, leaving the females to engage in the more “delicate” string instruments. Initially her aspirations were restricted to dreams and the everyday beckoning that drove her further to action: When she walked under wind-wavy palm trees in a flower-bright park/she heard the whir of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beats/the dancing tap of her own footsteps/and the comforting pat of her own heartbeat.
Nothing like hands-on exposure, and Millo was further taken on her path of redemption after attending a carnival and living out the at-home fantasies to achieve her inner purpose. At home the tables and chairs became her drums, and she became airborne: Her hands seemed to fly/As they rippled/rapped/and pounded all the rhythms of her drum dreams. Her seeming chance to break through with her sisters in a fledgling all-girls band was quickly dashed when her father enforced the island’s dogged adversity to female drummers, an act that again forced the drum dream girl to solitary reverie. Soon after, her father had second thoughts and enlisted his daughter with an experienced drummer to see if her talent was worth pursuing. The teacher was summarily enraptured and soon agreed that she was qualified to strut her stuff on bongo drums at a garden cafe – where everyone who heard her dream-bright music/sang and danced and decided/that girls should always be allowed to play drums/and both girls and boys should feel free to dream. (more…)