Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Debbie, have you seen JUAN PABLO AND THE BUTTERFLIES by JJ Flowers?

Eds. note: August 10, 2017--see excerpts of Beverly Slapin's review


Today, a reader asked me about Juan Pablo and the Butterflies, by JJ Flowers. Out this year (2017) from Simon and Schuster, today's question rings a bell. I think someone asked about it before. Anyway--here's the description:

After facing a vicious drug cartel in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly sanctuary, Juan Pablo and his best friend Rocio risk everything and try to escape the cartel’s henchmen—determined to pursue them at all costs—by following the butterflies’ migration all the way to California.

I did a quick look-inside and see three passages with the word "Indian" in them. Here is the first one:

The text is this: "Following his abuela's suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee in the forest just beyond the meadow." This tepee is a secret. There, Juan Pablo and Rocio play imaginary games... like Indians. Rocio plays "the chief" and Juan Pablo plays "the brave. Like many of you, I'm wondering if kids in Mexico play Indian in the way that kids in the US do.

In the second passage, Juan Pablo and Rocio are on "an old Indian path." He thinks that Indians lived there after the Aztecs and before the Spaniards. I wonder who he's thinking the "Indians" were, exactly? There's a lot of Native nations in California... still there... not gone...

There's one more passage... about an "old Indian" prediction about spider webs.

If I get a copy of the book, I'll be back with a review. If you've got it and want to say a bit about it, please submit a comment.


  1. A lot of Mexican people I know look at Indians in Mexico as though they're illiterate country folk and make lots of jokes. There is a novella that airs in the U.S. on one of the more prominent stations with "Indians" as very dark people who speak Spanish poorly or with a lower class accent. This is in the present. My dark skinned Mexican friends say they have zero interest in finding out about their ancient indigenous roots because they say it's not who they are. In fact, some feel a stronger connection to white Spaniards than indigineous pre Columbian Mexico. They often feel like Indians in the U.S. are phony for not living an "authentic" lifestyle and for not speaking indigenous languages daily. They understand that there was forced assimilation but think it's not a big deal because it's what Mexico and the Spaniards did too and that Mexico still does it which for some is viewed positively. Lots of restaurants and taquerias in my community use "Indio" in their name. Lots of my friends use the word "Indio" as an insult for dark skinned Mexicans and for Mexicans with bad grammar. My community in Chicago is listed as over 80% Latino/Hispanic in the census so this is an issue that comes up very often. I find it strange because I see indigenous faces but people who mock Indians and are more proud of their colonial heritage, and in fact, are excited to visit Spain. One friend even said they don't want "Indio" looking children which was of concern due to his fiancé's darker skin tone. People don't discuss very often how working class Latinos look at race in general, themselves, and their ancestry. Another friend took the ancestry test and is 70% Native American and was initially embarrassed and then said they don't feel any way about it. They said they were disappointed by the results.

  2. I read Chapter 1 online, and am waiting to receive the book and write a full review. In the meantime, These notes are broken up into several comments, and I hope they're helpful. (


    The story’s located in Mexico, and all the characters are Mexican. It’s written in English, so the implication is that everyone speaks Spanish. No one code-switches in the way that bilingual people do. Yet, Flowers inserts some Spanish words(such as “sí, sí” instead of “yes” or “loco” instead of “crazy”), or translates a Spanish word into English (such as “finito, done”), or has Abuela telling Juan Pablo: “This is your journey, your transformación.”

    While it’s appropriate to use Spanish for honorifics, such as “abuela,” or “curandera,” or names of words that might be lost in translation, the only term in English for Juan Pablo’s abuela is not “grandma,” but “old lady” and “old woman,” both of which are derogatory.


    Juan Pablo’s abuela is the local curandera. She’s an Indian woman and a practitioner of traditional medicine, something that requires training that may have begun when she was very young. (Flowers doesn’t mention any of this.)

    “His abuela was both a real doctor and the local curandera. The old ways had been passed down to her and after absorbing this ancient wisdom, she had gone on to attend Mexico City’s medical school. She had wanted to make sure she knew every aspect of healing.”

    Abuela appears to have shamanistic powers as well. She’s an all-in-one spiritual phenom, singularly embodying not only a whole culture’s metaphysics, but also bits of of other cultures—a mishmash of mythology and mysticism that Flowers invented.

    “Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away.”

    Despite all of Abuela’s talents, she’s helpless because she doesn’t know of any medicine or magic that would save her community from the terrible plague of the drug traffickers. Abuela is a healer. It’s not a curandera’s job to stop corruption and lead the people in rising up and taking back their village. Many curanderas are gifted, but this thread is major cultural appropriation.


    The story takes place in the tiny village of El Rosario, in the State of Michoacán, next to the winter nesting grounds of millions of monarch butterflies. While butterflies have a place in Mexican literature (see Guadalupe García McCall’s beautiful SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS, Lee & Low, 2012,, the butterflies’ pretended cultural context here is appropriative. For instance, rather than instructing Juan Pablo and Rocio to follow the North Star in their escape, Abuela advises them to follow the butterflies’ migration pattern, a deliberate plot line of the book.

    There’s at least one other El Rosario in Mexico, located in the State of Sinaloa, the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, an international drug trafficking, organized crime syndicate that’s considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Does the author not know that El Rosario is the name of where the Sinaloa Cartel lives?


    “Bandito” is a Mexican-Spanish word for a thief or robber who steals property, someone who lives outside the law. During the Mexican Revolution, the ruling classes and the press referred to the revolutionaries as “banditos,” and in 1967, Frito-Lay created a stereotypical “Frito Bandito” to sell their chips.

    Here, Flowers conflates the term “banditos” with the drug traffickers, whom she refers to as “narco-traffickers,” which is not a thing. The cartels are drug traffickers or, in Spanish, narcotraficantes. They’re more than “Mexican bad guys” who happen to “appear” in poor Mexican towns and villages.

    Besides selling drugs, they recruit and bribe the local “leaders,” including mayors, judges, sheriffs, cops, and priests; and they murder—in the most vicious and gruesome ways possible—journalists and teachers and students who dare to challenge them. For everyone else, the choices are limited: stay and fight (and be likely to be tortured and murdered), flee to the US (and risk being arrested and sent back), or join the local narcotraficantes. (For an accurate picture of how the narcotraficantes wreak havoc in Mexican towns, see Phillippe Diederich’s excellent PLAYING FOR THE DEVIL’S FIRE (Cinco Puntos Press,2016,


    In at least two places, Flowers gets the basic geography wrong: “Milkweed fed the butterflies on their perilous journey from El Rosario to the great lands of North America.” And, “[e]very year, fewer of the colorful winged creatures returned to El Rosario, and this year, in alarmingly diminished numbers, they had left for North America early.” When refugees from Mexico flee to El Norte, they’re going to “the north.” Mexico is on North America.


    When Juan Pablo and Rocio were children: “Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee [sic] in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee [sic] became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave…” Since most Mexicans have a Mestizo heritage—they’re “Indians.” I can’t imagine why Juan Pablo’s abuela would encourage the Indian children to “play Indian.” And, how would kids in a tiny Mexican village know about—and want to enact—stereotypical Plains Indians?


    There are many mistakes in the Spanish: “Last week, a large black, red, and white banner sporting a menacing el diablo with sinister eyes and a leering grin…” (The English translation would be “a menacing the devil.”) “[Y]ou…don’t know what you’ve done…persona estúpida…” (“Estúpida or “estúpido” means “stupid person.”) “He shook his head furiously, motioning for Juan Pablo to vamoose…” (“Vamoose” is an English corruption of the Spanish word, “vamos” or “vamanos,” let’s go. It’s out of place here, or anywhere else.) My guess is that Flowers used Google Translate, which also contains these errors.


    In a comment to an interviewer (Adventures in YA Publishing, 6/30/17), Flowers said that she wrote JUAN PABLO & THE BUTTERFLIES in two months. Besides showing sloppy research, her often decontextualized writing contains a plethora of mixed metaphors and over-the-top exaggerations. A few examples:

    “The delicate beings clustered so thick on the trees, it was not uncommon for branches to break off, sending thousands of orange and black butterflies into the air with a cacophony of sound and color.”

    “Just like ill-fated animals’ heads on a trophy hunter’s wall, no girl had willingly parted with her braids.”

    “The boss man Carlos wore a creepy smile, as if the smirk came with murderous thoughts….The man’s face spelled the word mean. Not a normal mean, but the kind of mean that was for no reason.”


    Questions the author ignores: What are the political and economic roles of the US government in the Mexican drug trade? What are the political and economic roles of the Mexican government in the Mexican drug trade? What are the political and economic roles of the Mexican and American people on both sides of the border who buy and sell illicit drugs?

    Flowers’ simplistic, formulaic, poorly conceived and abysmally written story disappears the realities behind the narcotraficantes and all those institutions that support them. In JUAN PABLO & THE BUTTERFLIES, the narcotraficantes are just a gang of “banditos.” They’re the “Mexican bad guys” who just happen to invade a small Mexican village and take over. And, of course, it’s up to Juan Pablo, singlehandedly, to stop them.

  5. Hi, Debbie. We posted the DE COLORES review of JUAN PABLO & THE BUTTERFLIES yesterday. Here's the URL:



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