The cover art for Areli is a Dreamer by Mexican-American author Areli Morales and illustrated by Luisa Uribe features two cities – Mexico and New York with a young Areli straddling the border between the two. The art evokes the lived experience of immigrants who live in between two worlds, never fully belonging to one or the other. In the picture book — out June 8 — Morales tells her story of being a young girl growing up in Puebla, Mexico with her grandma and brother while her parents live in New York City. She eventually moves to New York as an undocumented immigrant experiencing the highs and lows of this new home. In the author’s note she sums up the crux of the book: “I was a child of two worlds — a Mexican citizen by birth but raised as an American.”
Living in the in-between means actively balancing two different cultures and for Morales retaining her Spanish is a way for her to stay connected to her Mexican heritage. “Language is a part of our identity”, she tells HipLatina, adding that she’s happy Spanish speakers can read the Spanish version of the book, Areli Es Una Dreamer. She shares that she hopes the book will inspire other undocumented kids to dream big, work hard, and feel empowered to share their story.
The colorful illustrations are beautifully paired with Morales’ words as she writes about eventually having to part with her grandma to make the move to New York. From her abuela’s modest home featuring pictures of her family hanging on the walls to Areli playing with chickens in the yard, the attention to details conveys the home life she experienced in Mexico in all its warm-hued natural glory. She is then thrust into an entirely new home and culture which Morales deftly describes in both its beauty and difficulties and Uribe illustrates in city landscapes and starry nights.
At one point Areli is talking with her mother about the kids at her new school teasing her for not speaking English and calling her “illegal.” Her mom explains that “illegal means against the law” to which Areli responds, “I’m not against the law!” Morales writes, “She did not want to break the law just by being who she was.” But as she slowly begins to acclimate, Areli begins to feel like New York is home as she learns English and enjoys trips on the F Train to Coney Island and watching the fireworks during the Fourth of July.
“I wanted to show both the hard and easy parts. It was difficult and traumatizing to be teased by my classmates, but I was very proud when I learned to count and write in English. I wanted to celebrate any accomplishment, whether big or small,” Morales says.
Morales was six when she made the move to New York and describes living as an undocumented immigrant as a “scary and unpredictable existence”. But with the introduction of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by President Barack Obama in 2012 her life changed and she was able to return to Mexico and graduated from Brooklyn College in 2018 with a degree in childhood bilingual education. She works as a substitute teacher and this is her debut book, also the first picture book by a DACA recipient. She’s sharing her story to shine a light on the undocumented community and defend a program that was constantly threatened during the Donald Trump presidency.
“I felt that I had the responsibility to write this because there are still millions of undocumented immigrants who do not have the privilege to share their own,” she says. “I hope my story can bring awareness to immigration issues and encourage people to support undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants have names, hopes, and dreams. We deserve to live in this country without fear.”
When Areli goes to Ellis Island on a class trip in 5th grade and learns about the more than 12 million immigrants that passed through on their way to America it’s a major eye-opener for her. The moment made her feel like she wasn’t alone and, while on the boat looking at the Statue of Liberty, she feels like she’s a part of something bigger, a nod to the ideals of the American Dream.
“Standing on that historic island, I was reminded that I was not alone in my journey as a young immigrant. So many immigrants came before me and encountered many hardships, but they were able to overcome them,” Morales shares. “I felt it was important to include my visit to Ellis Island in the book to show readers that immigration has always been part of the American experience. Many of us left our home countries to seek a better life.”
Areli feels a sense of hope and embodies a dreamer in the original sense of the word, believing anything is possible as she embraces New York as home. This intentionally hopeful ending to a story marked by struggles is one that Morales chose to include to inspire other undocumented immigrants like her. She recalls feeling a sense of pride and hope when Puerto Rican Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor became a Supreme Court justice and she too felt like Areli did at Ellis Island.
“I hope undocumented kids reading my story feel inspired to continue to work hard for their dreams. I want them to know that they are not alone in their journey and that so many people want to see them succeed,” she says, adding, “I also want children to take away a message of hope: we can overcome our challenges and push to achieve our dreams with the support of our loved ones.”