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'I Am La Chiva:' A South Florida children’s author takes you on a ride through Colombia

The cover of I Am La Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes
Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House
The cover of I Am La Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes

During the first 14 years of Karol Hernández’s life in Colombia, her parents owned and operated a small market out of their garage in the mountainous city of Pereira, located in the foothills of the Andes.

Now at age 39, Hernández can’t help but look back at how those early years in her native country and in her parent’s mini-market formed who she is today.

“Like many businesses are in other countries, and just by virtue of being there in my afternoons and weekends, I got to know my community,” said Hernández.

And it wasn’t just becoming familiar with what products her neighbors were coming in to buy, like Doña Nancy buying cheese for her “arepas.” She got to know people at a personal level.

“You got to know when somebody was celebrating or somebody was struggling,” Hernández said. “People just kind of came together to overcome challenges and to celebrate the wins of individuals.”

This very notion of a community coming together is the plot of Hernández’ debut children’s picture book, ‘I Am La Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes.’ It will be available in English and Spanish, with the English version on sale, beginning July 9.

The Spanish language version, ‘¡Me llamo la Chiva!: El colorido bus de los Andes,’ will hit bookstands on Aug. 27.

With rhyming text and vibrant illustrations, the book is about a bus in the Andes that picks up riders of all ages as it heads for the “mercádo. There’s some trouble on the way there, and everyone needs to work together to solve the problem.

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It’s being compared to other well-known children’s books like The Little Blue Truck and The Little Engine That Could, as the story is told through the eyes of La Chivathe bus.

Chivas, which translates to goat, are vital for transportation in rural Colombia and beyond. The multi-colored buses have been used for more than a hundred years to transport people, goods and even livestock.

“When they were first used in the rugged mountains, they didn't have a proper horn, so they had, I think it's called a klaxon, and it sounds like ‘baah’, like a chiva,” said Hernández.

The buses are not exclusive to Colombia. They’re used across Latin America, with some countries referring to them as bús escalera, or ladder buses, because of ladders located on the back of the vehicles — giving access to the roof for extra seating and storage.

Chiva buses are a symbol of Colombian culture, especially its rural parts, but they are also part of Hernández’ personal memories of her home country.

The buses, with people sitting closely together as they get to their destinations, brought people together — physically, but also figuratively, and Hernández knew a chiva bus could exemplify that sense of community that she grew up with.

“My very first audience in this story was my son,” said Hernández. “It was important to share with him that … a principle that I learned early on in my life in my community was that we work together for the common good and also, I wanted to communicate love for one's land and one's people.”

Karol Hernández, author of children's picture book I Am La Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes
Courtesy of Karol Hernández
Karol Hernández, author of children's picture book I Am La Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes

The idea for ‘I Am La Chiva’

Hernández, who lives in West Palm Beach with her husband and three children, reconnected with some of her hobbies when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

That meant the marketing professional picked up a camera again.

“One day I'm taking a picture of a little chiva bus on this table my dad had made for me. And my son… who was three years old at the time, came into the frame,” said Hernández. “And he said ‘oh, I love your little school bus.’ And I was like ‘oh my God, that is not a school bus.’”

She realized it was an opportunity to share more about Colombian culture with her son. So Hernández went on the hunt for a picture book, but she couldn’t find any that were age-appropriate.

“So I wrote a story and it was meant to be just something that I would give to him, and in that process, I found myself transported back to my childhood,” said Hernández.

That story eventually became I am La Chiva, and Hernández worked with an entire Colombian and Colombian-American team to bring it to life. Including the book’s illustrator, Lorena Alvarez Gómez, who’s based in Bogotá.

This was important to Hernández in order to curate a book that was representative of their experience. It might even remind you of Disney's Encanto, as the movie’s setting is similar to where the book’s story takes place.

“I think you just kind of have to see those places to know how to bring the details that Lorena brought into her illustrations,” said Hernández.

We see these details on La Chiva, with her bright blue, purple, pink and orange intricate patterns and exterior.

There’s also cultural details in the text, like the mention of warm arepas and empanadas — as well as the playing and singing of Vallenato, a folk music genre from Colombia.

Hernández’s children were there for every step of the book-making process, but it only clicked to them that chiva buses were real when they traveled to Colombia in 2021, seeing one in person for the first time.

All three of them screamed in excitement when they spotted the bus, yelling “they’re real!” Hernández said it was an emotional moment for her.

“When I started writing the story, I literally closed my eyes and started writing down what I saw,” said Hernández. “I realized that the story is told through the perspective of the bus. I am the bus.”

“Everything that she was describing is what I saw when I closed my eyes. It's a little play on words with who actually La Chiva is. That's me.”

Karol Hernández will read from her new book at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Saturday, July 20.

WHAT: Storytime with Karol Hernández, reading "I Am Law Chiva!: The Colorful Bus of the Andes"
WHEN: Saturday, July 20 starting at 12 p.m.
WHERE: Books & Books in Coral Gables, 265 Aragon Ave Coral Gables, FL 33134

Sherrilyn Cabrera is WLRN's PM newscast and digital producer.
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