Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

by Margarita Engle

Newbery Honor winner Margarita Engle tells the story of the creation of the Panama Canal in this powerful YA historical novel in verse.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544668706
  • ISBN-10: 0544668707
  • Pages: 272
  • Publication Date: 03/29/2016
  • Carton Quantity: 24

About the book

In 1914, 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.

About the author
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


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.


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