Areli Morales Romero was born in Puebla, Mexico, but was raised in New York City. She is a DACA recipient, and Areli Is a Dreamer is her debut children's book. A graduate of CUNY-Brooklyn College with a bachelor's degree in childhood bilingual education, she currently works as a substitute teacher. One day, Areli hopes to have her own classroom, where she can teach children to value the power of storytelling and empower them to share their own stories. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
Luisa Uribe was awarded the Society of Illustrators Dilys Evans Founder's Award for The Vast Wonder of the World by Melina Mangal. She also illustrated Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, which received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, describing her work as dynamic. She lives in Bogotá, Colombia, with her partner and two cats.
Areli, your debut picture book paints such an honest portrayal of immigrants living between two worlds, never fully belonging to one. Can you tell us a bit about your own immigrant story that led you to write this beautiful book?
My older brother was born in the United States and my parents lived in NYC for a few years before I was born. Feeling homesick, they returned to Mexico and I was born in Puebla, Mexico in 1996. My parents often reminisced about the life they lived in the States - for them and for many immigrants the United States represents the land of opportunities. So, when I turned 2 years old, they embarked on the dangerous journey to NYC once again, only this time to settle down, save up money, and send for me and my brother. Their hope was that they could start a life in the United States to better provide for us, especially through quality education.
Although I didn't have my parents physically present for the beginning part of my childhood, my life in Mexico was filled with so much love, adventure, and culture. I developed a very close relationship with my Abuela and we continue to be very close. When I was 5 years old, we got the news that my brother Alex was moving to NYC to be with my parents; since he was a U.S citizen it was easy for him to move across the border. A year later, I embarked on a different journey with a family friend and became an undocumented immigrant at the age of six.
I want immigrant children to feel seen, know that they are not alone in their journey, and feel like they belong.
As a DACA recipient, you are such an inspiration to so many children around the country, particularly to undocumented children who struggle to find their place. What has this experience meant to you?
I became fully aware of my undocumented status at a very young age and was struck with fear when I realized that everything could be taken away at any moment if I spoke about my first home. For many years I kept my status a secret because I thought my silence would keep my family safe and united. At times, my childhood felt very lonely because I couldn't share my experience and couldn’t connect with others with similar experiences. I wrote this book so it could be a mirror for immigrant children so they can see themselves in my story and connect with others going through similar experiences. I want immigrant children to feel seen, know that they are not alone in their journey and feel like they belong.
Many of us left our home countries to seek a better life for ourselves and our families.
There is a very profound moment in your book about your character’s visit to Ellis Island and how she learns about the millions of immigrants that entered the United States in search of a brighter future. Was this based on real life experience?
Yes, the Ellis Island trip was based on real life experience. In fifth grade, my class visited Ellis Island for an immigration unit. Our class had been learning about the experiences of the millions of immigrants that entered the United States through Ellis Island and Angel Island. Standing on the historic island, I was reminded that I was not alone in my journey as a young immigrant. I realized that there were many immigrants before me that also encountered many similar hardships like learning a new language but were able to overcome them. I felt it was important to include my visit of Ellis Island in the book to show readers that undocumented immigrants are very much part of the American experience. Many of us left our home countries to seek a better life for ourselves and our families.
Are there any discussion questions, curriculum, videos, or other materials that would help readers engage with your picture books?
Some possible conversations to have with the book:
- Why do people leave their home countries to seek a home elsewhere?
- Who are Dreamers and DACA recipients?
- Documented and undocumented immigrants
- Importance of language: "undocumented immigrant" vs. "illegal alien"
- Creating a welcoming environment for new students
- Uplifting immigrant voices & taking action
Resources for parents/ families: https://www.adl.org/media/16577/download
Resource for educators: https://www.adl.org/media/16576/download
What do you find to be the most difficult part of creating children’s books today and what is the most rewarding?
Areli is a Dreamer is my very first children’s book and it was difficult to find the courage to break out of my silence and write this very personal story. For many years, I couldn’t share my story due to fear of separation and deportation. The most rewarding part of creating this book was collaborating with the marvelous Luisa Uribe. She is very talented and truly captured the beauty of my life in Mexico and my journey to a new home. I also enjoy connecting with readers. Many of them relate to my story because it deals with issues that transcend many generations.
Are you working on anything now?
Right now, I’m working on my career as a teacher!
What is your favorite childhood book?
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
In the first picture book written by a DACA Dreamer, Areli Morales tells her own powerful and vibrant immigration story. When Areli was just a baby, her mama and papa moved from Mexico to New York with her brother, Alex, to make a better life for the family--and when she was in kindergarten, they sent for her, too. Everything in New York was different. Gone were the Saturdays at Abuela's house, filled with cousins and sunshine. Instead, things were busy and fast and noisy. Areli's limited English came out wrong, and schoolmates accused her of being illegal. But with time, America became her home. And she saw it as a land of opportunity, where millions of immigrants who came before her paved their own paths. She knew she would, too. This is a moving story--one that resonates with millions of immigrants who make up the fabric of our country--about one girl living in two worlds, a girl whose DACA application was eventually approved and who is now living her American dream. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an immigration policy that has provided relief to thousands of undocumented children, referred to as "Dreamers," who came to the United States as children and call this country home.