Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young "silver people" whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544109223

  • ISBN-10: 0544109228

  • Pages: 192

  • Price: $8.99

  • Publication Date: 03/25/2014

  • Carton Quantity: 1

  • Age(s): 12,13,14,15,16

  • Grade(s): 7-12

  • Reading Level:

    • Lexile Reading Level NC1310L

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet and novelist whose work has been published in many countries. Her many acclaimed books include Silver People, The Lightning Dreamer, The Wild Book, and The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book. She is a several-time winner of the Pura Belpré and Américas awards, as well as other prestigious honors. She lives with her husband in Northern California. For more information, visit
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  • reviews

    Winner of the 2015 Américas Award 

    A Jane Addams Award Honor Book 

    Green Earth Book Awards Honor Book 


    * "A masterful command of language and space. . . Engle blends the voices of her fictional characters, historical figures, and even the forest into a dynamic coming-of-age story not only of young adults but also of a blustering and arrogant United States." 

    VOYA, 5Q 5P M J S 


    * "Engle's extraordinary book is a tour de force of verisimilitude and beautifully realized verse that brings to empathetic life the silver people." 

    Booklist, starred review 


    "As always, Engle's poetry captures with sympathetic wonder and delicate beauty the plight of these disenfranchised voices; here in particular she highlights the natural beauty and love that Mateo, Anita, and Henry find and cling to in the midst of their back- and heart-breaking labor." 

    The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 


    "In melodic verses, Engle offers the voices of three [Panama Canal] workers…Taken together, they provide an illuminating picture of the ecological sacrifices and human costs behind a historical feat generally depicted as a triumph." 

    Horn Book Magazine 


    "This richly developed novel is an excellent addition to any collection. In this compelling story, Engle paints a picture of an often [over]-looked area and highlights the struggles of the people and the arrogance of the Americans." 

    School Library Journal 


    A Junior Library Guild Selection 

    Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year 

    An NCTE Notable Book in the English Language Arts 

    ALSC Notable Books in the Social Sciences 

    CCBC Choice Fiction for Young Adults 

    CCBC Global Reading list 

    Best Multicultural Books, Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature 


  • excerpts

    MATEO from the island of Cuba


    Fear is a fierce wind

    that sends me reeling

    down to the seashore,

    where I beg for work,

    any work at all,

    any escape

    to carry me far

    from my father’s

    furious fists.



    Lobster trapper.

    I’m willing to take any job

    that floats me away

    from home.

    I am not an ordinary war orphan.

    Papi is alive, but the family part

    of his mind

    is deeply wounded.

    He drinks so much rum

    that he believes I am

    his enemy—a Spaniard

    from the country

    that lost the war

    and left so many

    of its soldiers


    Spanish veterans

    flock the seashore, begging

    for the same jobs that lure me.

    I’m only fourteen, but I’m strong

    for a starving boy.

    So I shove and curse

    along with the crowd

    of muscular men, all of us

    equally eager to reach

    a fast-talking americano

    Panamá Canal recruiter

    who promises food, houses,

    and money,

    so much money . . .

    The recruiter shouts and pounds

    his fists in the air.

    His foreign accent

    makes the words sound powerful

    as he describes a wild jungle

    where men who are hired

    will dig the Eighth Wonder

    of the World.

    He says the canal is a challenge

    worthy of Hercules,

    a task for giants,

    not ordinary men,

    but when he unrolls a map,

    Panamá is barely

    a sliver.

    How can such a narrow

    bridge of land

    be so important?

    After the confusing map,

    there are pamphlets with pictures

    of tidy houses, the orderly dining rooms

    offering comforting details

    that catch my eye.

    Lacy curtains and tablecloths,

    flowers in vases,

    plates heaped with food . . .

    So much food.

    Barriga llena, corazón contento.

    Full belly, happy heart.

    That’s what Mami used to say,

    before cholera claimed

    her happiness

    and mine.

    With the flair of a magician,

    the recruiter tosses two sun-shiny coins

    up and down in his hand,

    until the gold

    American dollars

    ring out like church bells

    or kettledrums in a parade.

    Those musical coins lure me

    deeper into the crowd of pushing,

    rushing, desperate, job-hungry strangers,

    but as soon as I reach for the recruiter’s

    paper and pen, ready to sign my name

    on a contract, the blond man glares

    at my green eyes, brown face,

    and curly hair, as if struggling

    to figure out who I am.

    No cubanos, he shouts. No islanders,

    just pure Spanish,

    semi-blanco, semi-white—

    European. Civilized.

    His words make no sense.

    Isn’t semi-white the same

    as semi-dark?

    So I start telling lies.

    I let my skin fib.

    I point out that my father

    is blondish and my mother

    was the tan of toasted wheat,

    her hair long and silky,

    her eyes as blue-green

    as the sea,

    just like mine.

    Then I invent an imaginary village

    in Spain, for my birthplace,

    and I give my age

    as twenty,

    and I show off

    my muscles,

    pretending to feel

    brave . . .

    By the time I board

    a dragon-smoky

    Panamá Craze steamship,

    I’ve already told so many lies

    that my conscience feels

    as hollow

    as my belly.

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544109223

  • ISBN-10: 0544109228

  • Pages: 192

  • Price: $8.99

  • Publication Date: 03/25/2014

  • Carton Quantity: 1

  • Age(s): 12,13,14,15,16

  • Grade(s): 7-12

  • Reading Level:

    • Lexile Reading Level NC1310L