Raúl Gonzalez, better known to young readers by his pen name, Raúl the Third, grew up between his hometown of El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez, where his mother’s family lived. Whenever his father, Raúl the Second, would leave town on door-to-door sales trips, the young Raúl’s mother would take the children across the Rio Grande to visit the Mercado Cuauhtémoc, a sprawling market where various maternal aunts, uncles, and grandparents all worked. Each relative ran a different market booth, selling everything from tacos and piñatas to candy, good-luck candles, and velvet paintings.

For young Raúl, crossing the border was an early experience of stepping into a half-familiar world full of vibrant possibility.  “As you walk into Juárez, you immediately know you’re in a completely different place,” he says. “The sounds, the smells, the size of the of the sidewalk curbs—everything transforms. As a young artist, it was very visually stimulating.”

Those strong, colorful impressions of binational childhood today form the foundation of Raúl’s popular World of ¡Vamos! series of children’s books. A revelation since ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market first arrived in bookstores in 2019, Raúl has published nine titles in just four years since, with a tenth on the way in September. The books offer kids and their parents an inviting, whimsical, and upbeat reflection of border life, rooted in a zany sense of fronterizo cool. Key anthropomorphic characters include a huge, short-tempered rooster named Kooky Dooky; world-champion luchador El Toro; Ranita, a tiny, Norteño-singing frog celebrity; and, in the lead role, Little Lobo, a kerchiefed, sweet-natured wolf who spends his days making deliveries to friends.

“Little Lobo, let’s be honest, is a substitute for me,” admits the 46-year-old Raúl. “My work is really just a reflection of the life that I led back in the late seventies and early eighties in El Paso and Juárez.”

Originally pitched as “Richard Scarry on the border,” the ¡Vamos! books are dense with working-class, casually bilingual animals leading intersecting lives: operating food trucks, selling wares at the market, dancing or feeding birds by the plaza fountain, and so forth, crisscrossing the busy border metropolis in composite scenes—until everyone comes together to watch their local heroes do battle in the wrestling ring. Each new title expands Raúl’s world a bit further, drawing out new characters. Along the way, he has found a fan base of preschoolers, early readers, and their parents, as well as critical acclaim from outlets like the New York Times, which made his ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge! a Best Illustrated Children’s Books selection, and Good Housekeeping, which included his Mi Party, Mi Fiesta in its Best Kids’ Books 2022. A TV adaptation is in development with Sony Pictures Television Kids.

A page from ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market.
¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market. Courtesy of HarperCollins
A page from ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market.
¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market. Courtesy of HarperCollins

How did the son of an immigrant mom and a door-to-door salesman from Ysleta with “holes in his shoes,” as Raúl remembers it, grow up to become a key shaper of the next generation’s visual imagination of border life?

Raúl’s path to becoming an artist began with frequent childhood trips to the library, but it really took off, he says, with the discovery of his “favorite art museum in El Paso”—a West Side 7-Eleven, with its ever-changing inventory of comic books. The young Raúl became “obsessed” with comics, picking up lessons in genre and storytelling along the way. He also copied the artwork at home with Bic ballpoint pens, still his illustrator’s weapon of choice.

Before long, Raúl was creating his own characters and zines. Many background presences from the World of ¡Vamos! have lived in Raúl’s head for decades, like the slapstick janitorial duo Mal Burro and Peeky Pequeño, characters he created as a teenager. Much of the depth and richness of the books can be attributed to Raúl’s lifelong gestation of its subject matter and supporting cast. “When I became an adult, and I started to want to make my own cartoon universes, I knew that the life that I’d lived in the border town of El Paso and Juárez was just a well of inspiration that I could dip into for the rest of my life,” he says.

Raúl’s first book, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, is a tour of his childhood memories at the Mercado Cuauhtémoc, albeit with anthropomorphic goats, rabbits, and houseflies standing in for his extended family members. The sequel, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, grew out of a hand-lettered word drawing he made of all his favorite foods that his mother and aunt would cook, or that he’d buy from food stalls and carts as a kid. Next in the main series came ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge, a story of getting stuck in border traffic that will be familiar to anyone from El Paso. This September, Raúl will release ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Read, based on his childhood memories of visiting his neighborhood public library.

For all his focus on El Paso and the border, Raúl hasn’t actually lived in the region for two decades. He followed Elaine Bay, his hometown girlfriend, and now wife and colorist for the World of ¡Vamos!, to snowy Massachusetts for graduate school. They’ve since built a family there with thirteen-year-old Raúl the Fourth, though they return to El Paso to visit family. With the knowledge of the author’s many years living away from the border, it’s tempting for a reader to interpret his books as an artistic nostalgia trip, a fantastical world built to help Raúl reconnect with the bright colors and sharp flavors of home. Raúl admits that nostalgia is part of his inspiration, but he insists that his aims with ¡Vamos! go far beyond the personal.

“When I was a young kid growing up, it was difficult, if not outright impossible, to head to the bookstore or library and pick a book off the shelf that represented the town that I grew up in and in a positive light, or in a fun way,” he says. “I always dreamed of finding a way to represent mi cultura and my border town in a way that would make little kids and their parents proud of who they are and where they’re from.”

A parallel ambition for the series is to facilitate the transmission of that culture to the next generation, especially in the context of assimilation. “I wanted to create a series that would be an opening for parents to have discussions about little things about their own personal histories,” Raúl adds. “A little detail might create a memory that they could then share with a child, giving the child insight about where their parents and grandparents are from.” Such sense-memory details range from Mexican-style sweets like banderas de coco and sugar skulls to distinctive artisan crafts like jarros de barro and hand-carved wooden masks.

Today, Raúl says that some of his proudest moments come when he visits schools and meets immigrant kids learning English as a second language who get a kick out of helping their classmates pronounce the Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text of the ¡Vamos! books. For example, when Kooky Dooky finally loses his patience with the bridge traffic, he explodes with a typical mix of reinforcing phrases that introduce basic Spanish vocabulary: “QUE PASA! WHAT’S HAPPENING? WE HAVE BEEN ON THIS BRIDGE FOR HOURS! TENGO HAMBRE! I AM HUNGRY!” Luckily for Kooky, his tantrum causes the taco, elote, and churro vendors to turn on their ovens.

Raúl emphasizes that he mixes English and Spanish in his dialogue for the simple reason that real people on the border speak both languages. But he also appreciates the side effects of valorizing both languages equally in print.  “It gives these kids a sense of pride in the language that they speak, as opposed to a sense of shame,” he says. “That’s something that was prevalent when my dad was a kid; for instance, when he would get in trouble for speaking in Spanish or pronouncing his name correctly.”

The tone of the ¡Vamos! books is curious and open-minded, and it deftly maneuvers the minefield of border politics. One could read ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge! as critical of the effect of enhanced border enforcement on local communities. The book tells the story of a crowd of animals in cars and trucks crossing the border to go to La Celebración on the other side, but the bridge is so backed up that they never make it over the river. Instead, everyone contributes to making their own party on the bridge, with music, live wrestling, food, and fireworks. The message is a gentle one: You can throw a wrench in cross-border commerce and family visits, but you’ll never keep the culture down.

Only once, in the spin-off book El Toro & Friends: Training Day, does Raúl seem to offer a more direct political comment. To become Champion of the World, El Toro must train to fight a rival luchador named The Wall, a hulking figure made of bricks and mortar. El Toro wins the match, but in a wide-angle illustration of their audience, it’s easy to spot a pinkish-orange pig with a blond comb-over, highly reminiscent of our forty-fifth president, cheering for The Wall.

Raúl insists that his intent with this storyline was to celebrate border culture, explaining that he was inspired to draw The Wall because he thought it fit with the true tradition of lucha libre wrestling. “They create these shows where the bad guy is the Border Patrol agent, or the rich guy,” he says. “I think there’s something very exciting about watching somebody large be toppled.”

The rest of the world of ¡Vamos!, on the other hand, is populated by unpretentious, hardworking animal folk, much like the inhabitants of the aforementioned Scarry’s famous Busytown book series. El Toro, the people’s champion, is an exception, but even he needs help from his friends in fighting laziness and getting out of bed for training. To Raúl, the masked purple bull is a tribute to all the local heroes of his border youth. He name-checks the singer Juan Gabriel, a pop icon for juarenses and the whole Latin world, and the novelist Cormac McCarthy, whom Raúl the Second would point out to his son as they waited in line for movies at the old Park Cinema. “When I was a kid, I always loved knowing that there were celebrities around me, people who had come from my hometown and had risen to the top,” he says.

There’s no mistaking the fact that Raúl the Third is now himself beginning to rise to the level of local champion and hero, even if he now lives thousands of miles away. His career as an illustrator is red-hot—in addition to the ¡Vamos! series, he has illustrated several books for other authors, including Cathy Camper’s Lowriders series and the Stuntboy series from National Book Award finalist Jason Reynolds, as well as contributing to the SpongeBob SquarePants comics. He has twice won the Pura Belpré Award for best illustrator of a Latino children’s book. With Hollywood now knocking, the sky is the limit.

But the deeper payoff comes when Raúl returns to El Paso, as he did just a few weeks ago, to share his books with kids in the local school system, and gets the chance to show children who share his background a vision of their world that is transformed and suffused with adventure and possibility.

“It’s just so much fun to read the books to the kids, because they laugh, they shout, they tell me stories about things that they’re looking at, and they always freak out when I speak to them in Spanish,” he says. “Cuándo hablo español, se sienten bién orgulloso. To me, that’s amazing, and I feel that it’s because there are probably not too many opportunities where they get to meet an author/illustrator who looks like me. The other day, some kid told me I looked like his tío.”