"I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec-like) emerging, a weaving pattern, thin here, thick there . . . This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage...now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will." – Gloria Anzaldua.
English 380A, Winter 2011
Professor Deborah Miranda

Friday, January 28, 2011

Talk of the Nation interview with Sandra Cisneros: Redefining Chicana/o Literature


(You can listen to this talk at Cisneros Interview online)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington - yes, Washington. The plane never got off the ground from the airport last night. I'd hoped to be in San Antonio today, at the studios of KSTX, Texas Public Radio, to meet poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, who wrote about the house she grew up in: "small and red, with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen, you have to push hard to get in. The house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bathroom, a bedroom, Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny."

"The House on Mango Street" became a classic and made Cisneros a pioneer, perhaps the best-known female Mexican-American writer.

David Rice grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and focuses his stories on the people and towns he's known all his life. Both writers provide Chicanos an opportunity to recognize themselves in the pages of books that address the highs and lows of both belonging and not belonging.

Today, Sandra Cisneros and author David Rice. Later, the mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro.

But first, Mexican-Americans, we want to hear from you. Where do you see your life reflected accurately? What books or movies or TV shows? Tell us. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sandra Cisneros joins us from the studios of member station KSTX.
And nice to have you with us today.

Ms. SANDRA CISNEROS (Author, "The House on Mango Street"): Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And it's been almost 30 years since "The House on Mango Street." Do you think Esperanza's experience would be different now?

Ms. CISNEROS: Oh, I think the situation's gotten worse for Esperanza, I'm sorry to say.

CONAN: Worse. And how do you say that?

Ms. CISNEROS: I say that because, you know, when I wrote that book, I wrote it from someplace, a very optimistic young women in her early 20s, hoping things would get better in the United States for people of Mexican descent. But, you know, I could never dream what would happen post-9/11 and with the community being under siege as it is right now with Mexican people really being vilified at this time of American history.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so Esperanza, of course, means hope in Spanish. Might you have chosen a different name for your character?

Ms. CISNEROS: Yeah, I still am filled with hope. I'm 56 now, and I have a different kind of view of the world, but I'm still optimistic and filled with hope, or I wouldn't be here today.

CONAN: And you now live in San Antonio. You grew up in Chicago. Tell us a little bit about the differences between those two places.

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, you know, I grew up where you could get on a bus and hear someone speaking, you know, Russian and someone speaking Spanish and someone with a twang from the Appalachia - I mean, all these different languages and dialects going on.

And I just assumed that the whole world was very global in that sense, that, you know, communities might not get along, but they had to live with each other, like it or not.

And, you know, it's so different coming here to San Antonio, where it's predominately - the majority of people that live here have Spanish language as an inherited language. Maybe they are not that proficient, or some are. And, you know, so you see the Spanish language in more public spaces, on advertising, and you hear it in the next booth at the restaurant.

And even the people who aren't of Mexican origin know a little bit of Spanish or know quite a good deal about the culture, just from generations of living here. Because, obviously, this was Mexico before it was the United States.

CONAN: I want to ask you the same question we're asking our callers today: Are there places where - other than your own books, of course - you recognize your experience and people like you, in books and movies on TV?

Ms. CISNEROS: Are you asking me?

CONAN: Yeah.
Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I think I wrote "House" precisely because I wanted to give my truth, my version. At the time that I wrote "House," in the - around the end of the '70s and the early '80s, I was reading Chicano literature written by men. And a lot of the literature that was coming to me was written by people in the Southwest.

I didn't have the urban experience. If I read about the urban experience of Latinos, it might be the Nuyorican experience. And I felt that it was a very different world than mine, especially a different reality written by men. And I wanted to write about the woman's point of view of living in the barrio.
There seemed to be a glorification of the barrio by the men, and I felt that there was issues in the barrio that I wanted to bring to light, that I needed to bring to light - not only for my own story, but I was a high school teacher. I was a very powerless highs school teacher at an alternative high school, and the girls I was teaching, their stories resonated with me to such a degree that I had to do something so I could fall asleep at night.
And I started weaving their stories into a neighborhood I remembered from my past, and that's how "House" came about. I truly wanted to tell the stories of these young women and my point of view as a woman, too.

CONAN: Also with us from the studios of KSTX in San Antonio is David Rice, a Chicano writer and filmmaker based in Austin. He's the author of "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco."
Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. DAVID RICE (Author and Filmmaker): Thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you the same question we just put to Sandra Cisneros: Are there books, movies - you're a moviemaker and a writer, too, so we'll exclude yours for just a moment - that bring the people you know to life?

Mr. RICE: When I was a kid, there was no, that I read, Mexican-American literature or Chicano literature. And so I didn't know it existed until I was 23 years old. I'm 46 now. And I was in a plane on Southwest Airlines, flying, and I read an in-flight magazine that had Rolando Smith-Hinojosa's story about a snowman down in - down in the valley in Mercedes, Texas, where I'm close to.
And so that's the first time I saw that a Mexican-American could write a story about his or her home. And the Rio Grande Valley where I'm from, head count is only 2,000 people. It's a very small town 18 miles from the border. And so it was very rural.
And when I read that story, I realized, hey, you know, I could write about my home. And my home does have validation. Where I'm from is important.
And so that's what gotten me started writing that first story, and then, of course, reading other books. I read Sandra's books. I read Duguel's(ph) books, Gary Soto, Rudolfo Anaya, a bunch of other writers.
And then I realized: Hey, anyone can write, you know, and just had to sit down and do it.

CONAN: Well, not anybody could write as well as you do. But that's another issue completely. As you talk about it, though, I know you spend time going back to the Rio Grande Valley to teach kids in high school, to work with them, about how to write and how to tell stories about their own lives.

Mr. RICE: Well, you know, to be honest, I'm bored with my stories. And I'm bored with Sandra's stories, and I'm bored with Dago's(ph) stories. I'm bored with Mexican-American literature right now.
And I think that the new writers are coming up, and we have to - and I know Sandra goes to schools, a lot of them. I go to a lot of schools. And we're - we want kids to write their stories. We want them to realize that their family's important, that their culture's important. And they're out there.
You know, they - and we go to schools and talk to these kids, they get excited. And the best thing to hear from a kid is to tell me: You know what? Your story's boring. I don't like it. And I go, really? That's great. I think that's - you know what? Let's hear your story.
And so I'm excited about these schools, you know, producing writers, and that's why I visit these schools, because I'm looking for these writers, and they're out there.
They're - we're in San Antonio, Texas, right now. They're all around us. They're all over Texas. And so while Sandra's right, we are right now having a tough time as Mexican-Americans in this country, we also have a real moment of showing that we have value - not just in our hard work, but in our storytelling.

CONAN: Sandra, would you agree?

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I think it's a time where we're not having those opportunities to tell our story. What David is very optimistic about, but not telling you the truth that, you know, he's one, one person. I'm just one person that can go out to the schools, and the demand and requests from the schools is enormous.
There aren't enough of us published to go out. And the ones that are publishes are not getting distributed. So it's a difficult task. I feel it every day, that pull of the requests that come to me because the need is so great in the schools, especially since, recently, our Texas Board, you know, removed a lot of us from social studies. A lot of us are getting removed from textbooks. You know, and this is a community that you and I, David, we do this for free when we have time and aren't exhausted, and it never ends. So we need those other writers, but it's a difficult time.
We have a high dropout rate. We have young teens getting pregnant. You know, our communities are just hemorrhaging, and you and I are just a little Band-Aid on a corpus that is dying.
So we really need to create more writers. I try to do that at this stage in my life by working with professional writers who serve community. I do that with the Macondo Foundation. I bring together writers of all colors.
And there are so many of us who have been doing this our whole lives, because there isn't money for us to go out to the schools. There hasn't been money for a long time.
There hasn't been programs of poetry in the schools since maybe I was - you know, 25 years ago. And if it wasn't for money like the NEA, I would still be teaching in a high school writing "House on Mango Street" on Saturdays and during my vacation. If I hadn't gotten that NEA grant, I wouldn't have finished that book that now is required reading throughout universities, high schools and middle schools.
So I think that, you know, you're overly optimistic. I think it's a difficult, difficult time for publishing, period. It's difficult for writers of color. You and I do everything we can to go out to the schools. We work with younger writers.
I know you've been very, very generous. But we do it all, you know, like the Peace Corps. Nobody even knows we're doing this. The president doesn't know we're doing it, and maybe Mayor Julian doesn't know we do this. We do it on our own.
And, you know, we get a lot of good karma, but it's very difficult for us to finish our work when we're out there as the foot soldiers. So I think it's important for us to - just like me, you know, I was helped by other writers. I help the younger writers.
There were older writers that helped me. There were grants available that are extinct or are going to be shortly extinct, and we have to help that next generation because, like you said, the stories are out there, but
who's going to open the doors? You and I - people who love those writers.

CONAN: David Rice, you cockeyed optimist, you.
(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICE: Well, you know - you know, look. We can go on for hours about this, and Sandra's right. Because in the State of Texas, like in Arizona, there is an outright attack to eliminate Chicano studies, you know, from universities and from classrooms. And we're not in the canon.
So when you go to a high school, teachers often have to sneak in my book to be taught and Sandra's books or Dago's books, and the teacher themselves have to make this effort to bring the book to the classroom.
So it's not sanctioned by the State of Texas, nor by the school boards. So, yes, there is...

Ms. CISNEROS: Maybe one writer here or there, but, you know...

Mr. RICE: Si, uno, dos. Yeah, one or two. For the most part...

Ms. CISNEROS: But for the most part, we're the illegal aliens of American letters.

Mr. RICE: Well, in the classroom, for sure.

Ms. CISNEROS: Yes, absolutely, especially in communities where we need to be the most, like here in the Southwest.

Mr. RICE: Yes, no, I completely agree.

CONAN: David Rice and Sandra Cisneros, both Chicano writers. They're with us from San Antonio today in the studios of KSTX, Texas Public Radio. We want to hear from Mexican-Americans in our audience. Where do you see people you know, people like you reflected in literature, in books and movies, on TV shows? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today in partnership with KSTX, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, and we're talking about the Chicano voice in the books we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, and we're talking with two people who help tell those stories.
Sandra Cisneros's books include - in addition to "The House on Mango Street" -"Loose Woman," "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," and others. David Rice is a writer and filmmaker. His books include "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco."
Mexican-Americans in the audience, we want to hear from you. Where do you see your life reflected accurately? Books, movies, TV? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go to Corina(ph), Corina with us, calling from Tucson.

CORINA (Caller): Yes, hello. I just wanted to share, it was very powerful for me to hear, to just come across this particular show. I love your show and especially a show of this subject.
Growing in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I'm 41 years old, I remember distinctly the power seeing the show "Que Pasa USA" on PBS, because for me, it was the first time I saw people who looked like me.
And mind you, they weren't speaking the same kind of Spanish or English, with the usage or the cadence that I used growing up in Las Cruces, but it was so powerful to see people like me and say, hey, you know, I could relate to that.
And it just filled me with a sense of pride that to this day, you know, it remains with me.
Now, of course, we have George Lopez, and we have so many other shows, and I think there is, there's such a dearth of our stories out there, and I'm glad that this show is being broadcast, because we do, we need to get a fire lit under all of our youth, Latinos, Chicano, Mexican-American, what you might call us, and share our stories.

CONAN: David Rice, did you grow up with "Que Pasa USA"?

Mr. RICE: I grew up with "Caros Lindas"(ph), and "Caros Lindas" was a program that was out of Keller U, PBS in Austin, Texas, and was shown in the Valley, and she's right.
When I was a kid and I saw that, when I saw a Mexican-American's brown skin on television, it really, it changed my perception, because I said, wow, we can be on TV. We can do this.
And so, you know, going back to this idea of going to schools, you know, we visit all these schools and talk to kids, and we never know. We just don't know. Sandra and I don't know, none of us know, what kid is going to take off. We just don't know. But if we don't go to those schools and put on those programs on television that show Mexican-Americans in a positive light, it won't happen.

Ms. CISNEROS: You know, I'm going to have to interject. I'm older than you and I have to say I wrote my books in a place of real powerlessness. But now that I'm in my 50s, those students come up to me now, and they say: I read your book when I was in middle school, and my counselor told me, you know, I wasn't college material; I'm finishing my degree at UCLA.
I have those young women and young men that come up to me now, and they always are with tears in their eyes. And so I cry too, because, you know, that just goes to show you the power of art. And when you make it with your corazon, and when you don't have your ego, your fixed agenda, and you just get out of the way and you do it with light and with love for other people (Spanish spoken) it always comes out good, any work that we do for others with love.
And so I know that art makes change, and those artists that don't know that, they need to go out in the community and volunteer and do some really hard work. Roll up your sleeves.
Maybe the NEAs ought to be given to people who do community work or to(ph) artists willing to community work, and maybe everybody would be happy about the arts going out because they really are an investment.
And I can tell you, I want to give a testimony and an amen, you know, that I have lived long enough and am blessed in my lifetime to see those very many young people, many, come up to me that say this book changed their life.
ONAN: Corina, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CORINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Guillermo, Guillermo with us from Oakland.

GUILLERMO (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say congratulations (technical difficulties). My teacher, when I came to this country, my teacher taught us how to learn English with your book and how to write, how to speak, also helped us to graduate.

CONAN: You're talking about "The House on Mango Street"?

GUILLERMO: Pardon me?

CONAN: You're talking about "The House on Mango Street"?

GUILLERMO: Correct. And I have to say that it encouraged me, give me more hope. It is a way that you can move forward to make your dreams come true. So it helped us (technical difficulties) graduate as a landscape architect and I start my own company. And here I am. (Spanish spoken)

Ms. CISNEROS: Bravo, bravo. That's a beautiful testimonial. I love to hear these stories.

CONAN: Guillermo, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you.

GUILLERMO: Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting. Sandra Cisneros, I know you've written about how, I guess unconsciously, some of the patterns of - the vocal patterns and the verbal patterns in you books replicate Spanish. I think it might be easier for people, Spanish-speaking people, to help learn them - teach them to speak English by reading your books.

Ms. CISNEROS: Yes, it's helped quite a few people. And it's also a big hit not just here in the United States but in China and in Germany and in - even in Iran. You know, so many different cultures have been reading the book, and I just think anytime we do any work that we do with our corazon, that we do with our heart, you know, we just stand back.
I'm just - had no idea it was going to have that kind of impact globally, and I'm so happy because I feel especially powerless right now at this time in history. I'm looking for my direction. David, you and I know how much work is needed out there, and we're always looking to see how can we be of service, how can we help these communities that are so polarized right now in the United States come to some place that they can hear each other?
I think art is that opportunity for communities that are frightened to come together and to be inside each other's skin.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is - let's go next to Mario(ph), Mario with us from San Antonio.

MARIO (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARIO: My name's Mario Cervantes(ph). Thank you for taking my call. Hi, Sandra. I met you. I go to Our Lady of the Lake University. And I met you I think twice or two times. I'm a dyslexic writer. I write. I've been writing since I was in middle school. And seeing George Lopez on TV has inspired me a lot because he's dyslexic, and it encouraged me to chase after my dreams.
And Cisneros's books have also encouraged me to chase after my dreams and never stop believing in myself.
CONAN: And...

Ms. CISNEROS: That's wonderful.

CONAN: That's - congratulations, Mario, and who do you read, other than the guests we've got in the studio there?

MARIO: I read other books like (unintelligible) I'm really a poem writer. So I read a lot of poems, more than books.

CONAN: Okay, all right. Thanks very much for the call. And continued good luck.
MARIO: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Laura(ph) in Austin: I publish Latinas Magazine, the first digital magazine made by and for young Latinas. How powerful figures like David Rice and Sandra Cisneros are to those girls, whose voice is probably least heard in the U.S.
The kids are hungry to talk about their culture. We need these forums, and we teach these kids about how to be that voice.
And I wonder, David Rice, new kinds of forums - you were talking about the difficulties of getting published
earlier, are - does the Web provide new opportunities?

RICE: Well, yeah. Well, that's a good question. Well, yes, it does, of course, right. The blogs and what have you and the short-story contests, and you can have your own book online, with classmates of your school.
But, you know, the thing is to get these kids to write. You know, there was a poster some years ago with Hemingway sitting on a beach, and he's reading a book. And it says: Get caught reading.
And I always say to kids: Get caught writing. You know, start writing because, yes, you know, Sandra's right. We have limited access to publishing houses. There's a few out there, but we need more.
But these kids have to start writing. They have to start really reading and writing. And yes, they'll form their own magazines and their own blocks. Latinas Magazine, by the way, is a very good publication.
And so, yeah, but you've got to create your own format. You've got to create your own chat books. And then you begin from there. So while there might be some blockades, you know, put there on purpose or not, to keep Mexican-American kids from writing their stories, we have to keep on insisting that they write their stories, because we can then overcome the blockade.

Ms. CISNEROS: You know, David, the whole process of reading and writing, it's like, you know, when you fall in love. I always want young people to fall in love with a book, and it's so hard for the teachers. They have to teach for testing. And there isn't, like, opportunities for young people to get in contact with our books. When I was a small press book, it was a very difficult for readers to find me or to find our books.
And I think that the whole process of reading and writing, it's like falling in love. You've got to go out there where people will hang out when you want to fall in love, and you've got to go out there and hang out with the books, go to the library.
And, you know, you have to also feel comfortable about picking up a book and finding one where you see yourself. That's why it's so important for us to support the up-and-coming writers so that we can have a variety of stories and voices.
You're right, I can't tell everybody's story. You don't tell my story, I don't tell yours. We need other writers publishing alongside with us. And young people need to see themselves in the story, imagine that they can speak and tell a story that is acceptable because most of them feel as if they are not articulate, that the lives they're leading aren't interesting, that they are not valuable.
And what I found when I was working with high school dropouts is that they were great oral storytellers but they were intimidated by the page. And it's about people like you and me that go into those schools and transfer that energy of speaking a tale and getting it on paper and giving them permission to tell it the way they talk it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Andrea, Andrea with us from Davis, California.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. The only person that I feel I still connect with is the work of America Ferrera. She is a movie producer and, of course, did "Ugly Betty."
ONAN: Mm-hmm.

ANDREA: Literature-wise, I grew up reading Sandra Cisneros. I - my dad is from Mexico and he raised me to connect with that culture of mine through Chicano literature. But since I've been in my 20s, I don't feel that connection anymore to literature. I don't feel my stories. I don't see the people that I recognize or my story even as someone who's grown up in primarily a white culture in Illinois. My story isn't out there, but I still can reach back through the work of Sandra and Rudolfo Anaya and connect through that.

CONAN: Is there - are they places you go to look for those stories? Or - you know, obviously, we expect, to some degree, the media to bring them to us, but we can be proactive as well.

ANDREA: I've tried every once in a while. But I keep seeing the same - there's a lot of, you know, border literature that I find. But as someone who didn't live there, I grew up around South Dakota and Minnesota. That's not something that I know very well. So I don't see - most Chicano literature kind of steps around that. I haven't seen a really - a growth in the past decade that I've been trying to connect with that literature. I just haven't been able to find it.

CONAN: Well, David Rice says...

Ms. CISNEROS: Okay, the books are there, but it's a matter of the distribution. A lot of the writers like Belinda Acosta, who comes from Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places, the Chicano writers from the Midwest have anthologies. But they're usually efforts that are created by the writers themselves, and that's always an issue of distribution.

ANDREA: Yeah. Well, I look forward to looking for that.

CONAN: Thanks very...

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I'll try to mention it on my Web page.

CONAN: Okay.

ANDREA: Wonderful. I'll look it up. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Andrea, thanks very much for the phone call. This is an email from Nicole in San Antonio. I am not Mexican-American. I am Arab-American. And I want to stress the importance of writers like Sandra Cisneros in paving the way for other brown writers. The Mexican community, in general, has paved the way for other minorities in the United States. So another testimonial there.
Sandra Cisneros is our guest. She's a Chicano writer based in San Antonio. The books include "The House on Mango Street," "Caramelo," "Hairs/Pelitos," "Loose Woman," "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" and others. David Rice, he's based in Austin, Texas now, author of "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco." They're both with us at KSTX in San Antonio.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Gene(ph). Gene with us from Fresno.

GENE (Caller): Hello, everyone. I love your work. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. My question to you as an educator and as a Chicano is what particular works do you read right now who are actually - fiction or non-fiction who are addressing the idea of all the discrimination that's going on towards Hispanics in the United States?

CONAN: David Rice, I wonder if you'd start with that.

Mr. RICE: There's a really good short story by Langston Hughes who's African-American. And he wrote a story called "One Friday Morning." It's really, really pretty powerful, and it's about a young woman who wins an art contest. And she's not sure whether she won it because she's an artist or because she has -because she's black. So that story really, to me, you know, really jumps out at telling kids that, you know, you can win no matter what your skin color is. And whenever that story - and I taught high school for a while. And I had 35 stories that I would use, and that was one of them. And then Gary Soto's story, "Being Mean," was another one that I used.
But because you got to start - when you work with kids, you just can't throw stories at them. There has to be a certain way of difficulty, like start with this story, then this story, then you build up and you build up and you build up.
And so Langston Hughes' "One Friday Morning" is, you know, a three-page story but really touched a lot of issues and - to me, that story can be used in almost any classroom. And then from there, you jump on to Chicano lit or whatever else. But I like the story a lot.

GENE: Yeah. One particular comment: I noticed that several of the works that I'm using in some of my classes are from Japanese-Americans who experienced, you know, the discrimination in the 1940s when they were imprisoned in the United States and their families. So I think much of the same thing is going on in this country right now, when we have whole families who are being taken back to Mexico and their children are being left here. And that's incredibly unfortunate and, you know, horrific. But if I could hear Sandra's response.

Ms. CISNEROS: Well, there is lots of writers that I like. I'm been rereading stories of Christopher Isherwood, "The Berlin Stories," because to me what he's writing about reminds me too much what's happening in the United States because we're in a state of fear. Communities are in a state of fear. And rereading "The Berlin Stories" is haunting for me because I hope we're not going to go in the direction that Germany went to in the '30s.
So I read lots of people globally. I am in love with many, many different kinds of writers. I have a Web page where I name the writers that I'm looking at. And sometimes, they're Chicano writers and sometimes they're not, because I think it's a global issue that we're talking about. So we're looking for writers globally that are also writing about similar situations.
I'm very fond of the work of San Antonio writer John Phillip Santos. Denise Chavez has also written beautiful books about the experiences in New Mexico. Julia Alvarez, who's a Dominicana, Juan Felipe Herrera, the poet. And I'm a big, big fan of the writing of Louis Rodriguez from East L.A. And he writes extraordinarily beautiful stories about situations of the Mexicans that are -is very current. There are just so many.
And, unfortunately, most people don't find it at their bookstore. And unless you know the title, you don't know when you go online where to look for these writers. So I think it's important for David and myself, you know, to put those lists on our Web page so that we can say, these are the writers we recommend and help your independent bookstore by ordering it from your local independents so they don't go under. They're the ones that supported me when I was a chapbook writer in a small press. And they're the ones I want to support now.

CONAN: We'll end with this email from Linda(ph) in San Antonio. Mexican-American female, where I saw myself on TV and sums up my experience, the best mirror of my life from the film, "Selena," where Edward J. Olmos, who plays the father, is driving the bus and speaking with Selena. He says, in paraphrase, it's hard to be a Mexican-American. You have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans in Mexico, and more American than the Americans. It's exhausting.
So we'll end with that. Sandra Cisneros, thank you so much for your time to day.
Ms. CISNEROS: Thank you.

 CONAN: Sandra Cisneros joined us from KSTX in San Antonio. And thanks as well to David Rice, who was also there. David, appreciate your time today.

Mr. RICE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up next: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. He is young, said to be on the radar in Washington - like many other mayors, faces some difficult challenges, talk about the budget.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


This is a fascinating interview with Anaya about his book; he gives it some context from his own childhood, what the writing process required, how he found a publisher at a time when Chicano writers were not being published.

In this clip, Anaya speaks mostly about his book Albuquerque, but also about the themes and archetypes of Chicano/a life that he tries to articulate in all of his writing.

Bless Me Ultima - the Film!  Don't know if this project is still ongoing, but I would love to see it.

Bless Me Ultima - BANNED IN MODESTO!  Yes, it has profanity.  Yes, it questions the Catholic Church.  But is it "too much" for high school students to handle??


An acclaimed Chicano writer, Rudolfo Anaya has become best known for his award- winning novels, such as Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Tortuga (1979), and Alburquerque (1992). Anaya, who taught at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for nineteen years before retiring in 1993, has also published epic poems, short stories, nonfiction, plays, and children's books. He has been credited as a leader in the Latino literary community for his ground-breaking style and his success in writing stories that capture the essence of the Chicano experience.

Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in the small town of Pastura, New Mexico, to Martín and Rafaelita (Mares) Anaya. Anaya's father, who came from a family of cattle workers and sheepherders, was a vaquero, a horseman who worked on the ranches surrounding Pastura, and his mother came from a family of poor farmers, who were devote Catholics. Anaya, who was the fifth of seven children, saw his parents as the two halves of his life — the wildness and uncertainty of the windswept plains of east central New Mexico and the stable domesticity of farm life. Soon after he was born Anaya's family moved to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where Anaya spent the next fourteen years. Later, his writings would be filled with images and memories of the people who affected his childhood. His fiction draws heavily on the superstitions and myths of the Mexican-American culture that commingled with the traditions of the Roman Catholic faith. In the community's rich storytelling tradition, legend and history were blended together to create stories filled with mystery and revelation.

Anaya spent his childhood on the llano, the plains, roaming the countryside with his friends, hunting, and fishing and swimming in the Pecos River. He was taught the catechism in Spanish, often asking the priest and his older sisters difficult questions about their faith. Spanish was spoken in the home, and Anaya was not introduced to English until he went to school. Despite the shock of changing languages, Anaya was motivated by his mother, who held education in high regard, to excel at his studies. For Anaya, life was filled with unanswered questions, but he knew that he had a place within the very mystery that belied his understanding.

Life in the small, close-knit community of Santa Rosa gave Anaya a sense of security and belonging that was torn from him when his family moved to Albuquerque in 1952. In Albuquerque Anaya was introduced to a cultural and ethnic diversity he had not previously experienced, as well as the painful reality of racism and prejudice aimed at Latinos. Nonetheless, Anaya's teenage years were in many ways typical. He played football and baseball, and spent a significant amount of time with his friends discussing cars, girls, and music. In school he maintained good grades and avoided the troubles and dangers of gang life.

When he was sixteen, while swimming in an irrigation ditch with friends, Anaya suffered a diving accident that changed the course of his adolescence. Diving into the ditch, Anaya broke two vertebrae in his neck and nearly died. His convalescence was long and painful, but after spending the summer in the hospital, Anaya, fiercely determined to return to his active lifestyle, eventually recovered from his injuries. The experience produced in the teenage boy a passion for life and an appreciation for the ability of adversity to either destroy or reshape one's existence.

After graduating from Albuquerque High School in 1956, Anaya attended a business school, intending to become an accountant. When his studies proved unfulfilling, he enrolled in the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. If the move to Albuquerque as a young teenager had rocked Anaya's world, university life sent him into a full-fledged identity crisis. He was a Mexican American in a social and academic setting dominated by a culture that was not his own. He found his classes devoid of relevance to his history or culture. Also, English was still his second language, and he often used speech patterns that were considered wrong by his English-speaking classmates and professors. He felt different, isolated, and alienated, with no mentors to guide or support him.

Anaya's own questions of his place in the world as a Latino, coupled with the traditional angst of moving into adulthood and the emotional pain caused by a recently failed relationship with a girl, pushed him to write as a cathartic exercise. Much of these early writings he later destroyed. Also a freshman English class sparked his interest in literature, and he began to read poetry and novels. Despite his growing love for reading, Anaya continued to lament the absence of any authors who could serve as mentors for his unique Mexican-American experience. In 1963 Anaya graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. He took a teaching position in a small New Mexico town and continued to practice his writing everyday. In 1966 he married Patricia Lawless, who supported her husband's desire to write and served as his editor.

During the 1960s, Anaya taught junior high and high school during the day and worked on his writing after school and in the evenings, struggling to find his literary voice. Although he conjured up images of his past, he found that he was writing in a style foreign to that past. The words and the characters would not mix. Then Anaya had something of a mystical experience that pushed him toward the development of his own unique Mexican-American style. As he labored over his writing one night, he turned to see an elderly woman dressed in black standing in his room. This vision spurred the writer into action and a story began to flow from his pen, inspiring his first novel, Bless Me, Ultima. The old woman in black he had seen that night became Ultima, a healer who helps the story's main character find his way in a coming-of-age story.

Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Juan Marez y Luna, a six-year- old boy growing up in rural New Mexico during World War II. Antonio is befriended by Ultima, a kindly curandera, healer, who has come to stay with Antonio's family. Through Ultima, Antonio discovers the mysteries of the plains surrounding him and learns how to use its plants for medicinal purposes. But when Ultima heals Antonio's uncle from curses placed on him by a family of witches, Tenorio Trementina, the witches' father, declares war against Ultima. Much of the drama of the novel grows from the conflict between Ultima and Trementina, which plays out as a struggle between good and evil.

Another theme of the book is Antonio's struggle to understand his place in the world. Like Anaya's own history, the boy is pulled between his father's wandering life of a vaquero and his mother's harmonic, grounded existence with the earth itself. He also contemplates his future — as a priest, as his mother desires, or as a scholar, as Ultima predicts. And, he questions the validity of his Catholic faith that seems helpless against pain and suffering while Ultima's magic heals. His struggles are exemplified in his discovery of a golden carp in the river, which as told in local folklore is a god. To simply suppose the carp may share divinity with God becomes a question of meaning that feels to Antonio like a betrayal of his mother's faith, yet it is a question he cannot help but ask.

Although Bless Me, Ultima would receive wide acclaim upon its publication, Anaya faced serious struggles in finding a publisher who would accept his manuscript, which incorporated both English and Spanish words. Sending inquiries out to numerous publishers, he received back a rejection from all of them, most often because his writing was too Latino in style and language. "It was extremely hard," Anaya told Publisher's Weekly, "I sent the book to dozens of trade publishers over a couple of years and found no interest at all. The mainstream publishers weren't taking anything Chicano and we had nowhere to go. For us, living in a bilingual world, it was very normal to allow Spanish into a story written in English — it's a process that reflects our spoken language — but [in approaching mainstream publishers] I was always called on it. Without the small academic, ethnic, and university presses, we'd never have gotten our work published."

Finally, Anaya happened on an advertisement from Quinto Sol Publications, a small press in California, inviting authors to submit manuscripts. He sent in Bless Me, Ultima and Quinto Sol quickly agreed to publish it. Bless Me, Ultima became a reality in 1972, seven years after Anaya had first begun writing the novel. Critics responded enthusiastically to the book, noting that it provided a new, refreshing offering to Chicano literature, and it was awarded the Premio Quinto Sol Award for the best Chicano novel of 1972. The new author would find fame among Chicano readers and scholars.

With his new-found acclaim, Anaya secured a faculty position at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where he remained as teacher and adviser until he retired in 1993. He published his second novel, Heart of Aztlan, in 1976. The novel tells the story of the Chavez family, who is forced to moved from their family farm to the barrios of Albuquerque. Heart of Aztlán is a political novel that focuses on the struggles of a displaced family. While the father attempts to fight the oppressive forces that surround him, his children succumb to the temptations of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and the family is torn apart. Although it won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book award, Heart of Aztlan was not as well received as Bless Me, Ultima. Tortuga, Anaya's third novel, published in 1979, completed a loosely tied trilogy that focused on the Chicano experience over several generations. Tortuga is set in a sanitarium for terminally ill teenagers. The main character is a teenage boy who lies in the hospital in a full body cast, partially paralyzed and unable to move. He is nicknamed Tortuga, which means Turtle in Spanish, because of his cast. In despair, he tries to kill himself, but through the wisdom of another boy who is terminally ill, Tortuga learns to accept and appreciate his life. The book was well received and was considered by some critics to be Anaya's most complete and accomplished work.

Following the completion of Tortuga, Anaya branched out, experimenting with writing plays, short stories, poems, documentaries and travel journals, and children's stories. His short stories were collected as The Silence of Llano, 1982. A Chicano in China, 1986 was a nonfiction account of Anaya's travels to China. The Legend of La Llorona 1984 and Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl, 1987 were both retellings of traditional Mexican folk stories, and The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexican Christmas Story, 1985, was Anaya's first children's story. In 1985 he published an epic poem, The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas. Anaya also served as an editor for numerous publications, as well as a translator and contributor to other Chicano works.

In 1992 Anaya published Alburquerque (the original spelling of the city's name), the first in a new series of linked novels. The second novel, the highly praised murder mystery Zia Summer, followed in 1995. Rio Grande Fall was released in 1996, and the final installment of the loosely linked quartet was Shaman Winter, published in 1999. Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert, published in 1996 was yet another departure in style for Anaya. The story, which employed allegory to tell a mythical story, was panned by critics, one of Anaya's few missteps during his thirty years of writing. In 2000 Anaya wrote another epic poem, this time aimed at middle and high school students. Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez celebrated the life and struggles of the famed Chicano labor leader. The dust jacket and author notes provided factual details, and the poem moved the reader between grief and hope of a rallying cry for action.

Following his retirement from teaching in 1993, Anaya has devoted his time to his writing and traveling. Like his mother before him, Anaya has remained tied to the land and in 2002 lived with his wife in Albuquerque, and like his father, he has satisfied his desire to wander by traveling extensively throughout South and Central America. Anaya, who spends several hours a day writing, told Publisher's Weekly, "What I've wanted to do is compose the Chicano worldview — the synthesis that shows our true mestizo identity — and clarify it for my community and myself. Writing for me is a way of knowledge, and what I find illuminates my life."

Personal Information

Born October 30, 1937, in Pastura, New Mexico; son of Martín and Rafaelita (Mares) Anaya; married Patricia Lawless, July 21, 1966 Education: Attended Browning Business School, 1956-58; Univ. of NM, B.A., English, 1963; M.A., English, 1968; M.A., guidance and counseling, 1972. Memberships: Modern Language Asson of America; American Assn of University Professors; Natl Council of Teachers of English; Trinity Forum; Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, vp, 1974-80; Rio Grande Writers Assn, founder and first president; La Academia Society; La Compania de Teatro de Albuquerque; Multi-Ethnic Literary Assn; Before Columbus Foundation; Santa Fe Writers Co-op; Sigma Delta Pi, honorary member. Addresses: Office — 5324 Canada Vista NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120.


Premio Quinto Sol literary award, for Bless Me, Ultima, 1970; NM Governor's Public Service Award, 1978, 1980; Natil Chicano Council on Higher Education fellowship, 1978-79; NEA fellowships, 1979, 1980; Before Columbus American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, for Tortuga, 1980; NM Governor's Award for Excellence and Achievement in Literature, 1980; literature award, Delta Kappa Gamma, NM chapter, 1981; D.H.L., Univ. of Albuquerque, 1981; Corp. for Public Broadcasting script development award, for "Rosa Linda," 1982; Award for Achievement in Chicano Literature, Hispanic Caucus of Teachers of English, 1983; Kellogg Foundation fellowship, 1983-85; D.H.L., Marycrest Coll., 1984; Mexican Medal of Friendship, Mexican Consulate of Albuquerque, 1986; PEN-West Fiction Award, 1992, for Alburquerque.



Albuquerque Public Schools, teacher, 1963-70; Univ. of Albuquerque, director of counseling, 1971-73; Univ. of NM, associate professor, 1974-88; professor of English, 1988-93; professor emeritus, 1993-



Selected writings

  • Bless Me, Ultima, Quinto Sol, 1972.
  • Heart of Aztlan, Justa, 1976.
  • Tortuga, Justa, 1979.
  • The Legend of La Llorona, Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol, 1984.
  • A Chicano in China, University of New Mexico Press, 1986.
  • Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl, University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
  • Alburquerque, Warner Books, 1995.
  • Zia Summer, Warner Books, 1995.
  • Rio Grande Fall, Warner Books, 1996.
  • Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert, Warner Books, 1996.
  • Rio Grande Fall, Warner Books, 1996.
  • Shaman Winter, Warner Books, 1999.
  • The Silence of Llano, Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol, 1982.
  • The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas, Arte Publico Press, 1985.
  • The Farolitos of Christmas, Hyperion, 1995.
  • The Anaya Reader, Warner Books, 1995.
  • Farolitos for Abuelo, Hyperion, 1998.
  • Elegy on the Death of Cesar Chavez, Cinco Puntos Press, 2000.
  • Anaya's manuscript collection is located at Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Further Readings

  • Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volumes 7-26, Gale Research, 1992-99.
  • Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press, 2001.
  • Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 82: Chicano Writers, First Series, Gale Research, 1989.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 206: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, First Series, Gale Research, 1999.
  • Melus, Fall, 1984; Summer, 1999.
  • Publisher's Weekly, May 25, 1992; March 21, 1994; April 10, 1995; June 5, 1995; September 18, 1995; January 1, 1996; July 29, 1996; September 27, 1999; October 11, 1999; November 20, 2000.
  • World Literature Today, Spring, 1996; Fall, 1996.
  • American Decades CD-ROM, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
  • Contemporary Authors Online, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC

Source Citation

Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 2. Gale, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2004.