Thoughts on a Latina Author’s Journey

Today I am humbled to have Latina children’s book author Alma Flor Ada guest posting here  as part of the Día de los Niños, Día de los Libros Blog HopBefore having children, her name was foreign to me. After becoming a mom and making the decision to raise bilingual daughters, my family has uttered her name on a regular basis when we cuddle up to read one of the many books she has written or translated. She has made reading books in Spanish a joy for my family. Enjoy this beautiful piece on what inspired her many years ago and continues to do so today. 

latino children's literature

Migrant farm-working families became an important presence in my life, for the first time in 1973, while I helped organize a series of presentations at Mercy University in Detroit where I taught at the time.

I had no idea, as I stood with my children in a bitter cold Mid-West winter at the door of supermarkets in support of the lettuce boycott, how much I was to learn about their plight, how inspired I would be by the dignity in their life struggles.

While the families I met were from California I soon learned about the Michigan migrant camps. As I got to know families that had lost a common language of communication, because young children refused to speak Spanish, I found added strength to contribute to  the efforts for the passing of bilingual education laws in Massachusetts, in Michigan and Illinois.

After moving to California in 1976, it was but natural to look for opportunities to collaborate in Migrant Education situations. When Alfonso Anaya, who would later become my advisee in his doctoral studies at the University of San Francisco, agreed to sponsor a program on Literatura Infantil with migrant farm-working families in Pájaro Valley, my own life took an unexpected turning point.

For three years we met, monthly, at the high school library, a place both beautifully pleasant and non-threatening to the parents, always impressed by the large turn out of parents who had worked all day in the field.

During the first part of the meeting I introduced several picture books, as well as the hand-written books which children and families had produced during the previous month, and we dialogued about one of the issues the parents had requested. Then, the families broke in groups, facilitated by migrant teachers, to work with one of the books introduced, a different one in each group. After reading the book aloud, the parents would talk about following the Creative Reading process, and would see how the content could relate to their own lives and determine what decisions it inspired. They would also share how they could present the specific book to their own children.

As a final activity each group would make a list of topics they would like to see discussed the following month.

The “miracle,” as California Tomorrow called the success of these meetings, was not only on the constant presence of the parents, their interest in the books, and the numerous meaningful books they created, but also in their willingness to face and discuss openly the complexities of their own lives.

I would leave each meeting with a sense of awe. One night, while driving alone, late at night, since we had started the meeting after the parents returned home from the fields, I felt overcome by multiple thoughts –was the generosity I experienced, the profound sense of responsibility, the caring for family and friends, the result of working on the land, of the powerful labor whose product nourishes us all? To my amazement I began to see a story, as if projected on the windshield of the car… the story was as vivid as a film, even though I could only see it through abundant tears. When I arrived to my silent home, I hurriedly wrote it all down before succumbing to tiredness. The following morning I was sure I had had a vivid dream and only regretted not being able to remember.

What a surprise to find the written text of what would become The Gold Coin. A story of generosity and of redemption through the work of the land.

At the time I had several books published in Spain, in Peru, in Argentina. But under the encouragement of my daughter Rosalma, who suggested I had tapped in some sort of universal truth and insisted that I should try to get this book published in the US, I went on to collect rejections. It was 1990 and the letters I received said things like “this seems to have been written by a Hispanic” !!! or “American children would not be interested in a story like this” !!! or “the feelings behind this story are alien to this market.”

There were very few Latino editors at the time. Ana Cerro, a young assistant editor at Simon & Schuster was one of the few, and she recommended the publication of The Gold Coin.

What a joyful surprise that after winning the Christopher Award the story would indeed be included in all the reading series published in the several following years. And what a joy that today the presence of Latinos, both as readers and authors, receives some recognition even if far from what it deserves.

While the first, The Gold Coin was not the only text inspired by my continuous work with farm-working families in numerous districts.

Some of the poems I wrote after being in the fields became Gathering the Sun, magnificently illustrated by Simón Silva, who grew up in Calexico, among the carrot fields where his family worked. The book is dedicated to eight of my doctoral advisees, all of farm-working extraction.

In 1991 my ample poetry anthology Días y días de poesía was published with a  dedication to the children and parents of Pájaro Valley.

El vuelo de los colibríes (1995), which regrettably is yet to be published in English, is a story based on migrant experiences.

Imágenes del pasado co-authored with Isabel Campoy includes my essay Teatro campesino: ¡Qué florezca la luz! inspired in moments spent in San Juan Bautista.

In the biography series of Gateways to the Sun/Puertas al sol, Isabel and I chose to include biographies of César Chávez and of Luis Valdés.

Now, several years later, the farm-working experience reappears in the middle grades novel, Dancing Home, which I co-authored with my son Gabriel Zubizarreta. Once again, not as a conscious effort, but as a natural result of what has been a constant presence in my reflection and action.

The privilege of knowing and working with migrant farm working families and of learning alongside my doctoral students of farm working origin has been an enormous gift, and I continue to grow from it.

The Author

alma flor ada

Alma Flor Ada, Professor Emerita at the University of San Francisco, has devoted her life to advocacy for peace by promoting a pedagogy oriented to personal realization and social justice. A former Radcliffe Scholar at Harvard University and Fulbright Research Scholar she is an internationally renown speaker in issues of bilingualism and multicultural education.

Alma Flor is the author of numerous children’s books of poetry, narrative, folklore, personal memoirs and non fiction. Her books have received prestigious awards; among many: Christopher Medal (The Gold Coin), Pura Belpré Medal (Under the Royal Palms), Once Upon a World (Gathering the Sun), Parents’ Choice Honor (Dear Peter Rabbit), NCSS and CBC Notable Book (My Name is María Isabel), Junior Library Guild (Tales Our Abuelitas Told). She is also the author of a book of memoirs, Vivir en dos idiomas, two novels for adults, En clave de sol and A pesar del amor, and several professional books for educators, including A Magical Encounter: Latino Children’s Literature in the Classroom, as well as a wealth of educational materials. Her work, in collaboration with F. Isabel Campoy in promoting authorship in students, teachers, and parents is the content of their book Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Alma Flor Ada has been awarded the American Education Research Association [AERA] Hispanic Issues Award for Research in Elementary, Secondary and Postsecondary Education and the California Association for Bilingual Education [CABE] Life Long Award.

The Giveaway

L4LL has put together a wonderful collection of Latino children’s literature to be given to a school or public library. Many of the books were donated by the authors and illustrators participating in this blog hop. You can read a complete list of titles here on the L4LL website.

To enter your school library or local library in the giveaway, simply leave a comment below.

The deadline to enter is 11:59 EST, Monday, April 29th. The winner will be chosen using Random.org and announced on the L4LL website on April 30th, Día de los Niños, Día de los Libros, and will be contacted via email – so be sure to leave a valid email address in your comment! (If we have no way to contact you, we’ll have to choose someone else!)

By entering this giveaway, you agree to the Official Sweepstakes Rules (link to http://www.latinas4latinolit.org/p/blog-page_1366.html). No purchase required. Void where prohibited.

¡Buena suerte!

 

Did You Have A Childhood Pet?

Every Saturday in 2013 I’ll be sharing a post for the Mom Before Mom project. The goal is to tell the stories of life before motherhood, the stories which root the woman in every mother. So much of memory keeping is focused on capturing our children’s experience but what of our own? Who will capture the mother’s journey as a woman? Who will honor our journey if we don’t honor it first? Every week I’ll be answering a question, journaling my life stories. Read along or write along with the wonderful bloggers linking up every week.

mother's journey as a womanOriginal image by aussiegal via Flikr.

Prompt #9: Did you have a favorite pet? A crazy one? What were their names? Tell us a story about your animal companions or lack their of.

Chan-chan. My first dog, black shaggy haired love bug. He was more my grandfather’s than mine but what was his was mine. Chan-chan spent his days at work with my abuelo who owned a jewelry store. His wet, black nose would always peek out from beneath the counters. I spent many an evening standing on a kitchen chair next to my abuelo opening a can of dog food, carefully mashing it up into his bowl. I love that smell. Not so much because I think it dog food smells tasty, not at all, but because the scent reminds me of working alongside my grandfather to care for Chan-chan.

Years after Chan-chan died and I had gone through many other pets, I was reminiscing with my godmother about my beloved Chan-chan. She was perplexed. I explained to her about my gentle four legged pup from my early childhood. She laughed. Apparently, my dog’s name was Sunshine but my parents, in their rich accents, pronounced it chan-chan and so I was fooled, for a good portion of my life, into believing I had a dog named Chan-chan.

One afternoon after Sunshine passed away, I walked in the door from school to find my grandfather holding the collar of a lively golden beauty. I’m not sure what her mix was but she was long and tall with a beautiful face and the creamest cream colored coat. And this one was mine. I remember the excitement of picking her name. Her given name was buttons which just wouldn’t do. I lied on my stomach on my bed and on the couch and on the floor day dreaming names for her. I remember calling my abuelo up on the phone to ask if Gem was a good name. It didn’t fly. Somehow she became Cindy and it fit her perfectly with all her bounce and pep.

She was my buddy and the closest I got to a sibling as a kid. I talked to her for hours and pet her to my heart’s content. She hated to be left alone and tore the house apart when we left her for long periods of time. She’d pee all over the floor with excitement once we got home. She was with us for a good handful of years, if not  more. I adored her. She really was my best friend for a long time. Before I discovered diaries, I had my Cindy. She kept all my secrets and dreams and wonder.

Cindy suffered from seizures. It confused me and hurt my heart every time she had one. Just before I got to high school, it came to the point where a decision had to be made about whether or not to put her down. I left for school one day and when I returned my parents told me they’d put her down. They never talked about it with me. They never asked me about it. They just wanted to protect me and went ahead and did it anyway. I was shattered. It was the first time they hurt me. I didn’t talk to them for days.

In the interim, there was Spike, my godmother’s bulldog who was a big ball of bubbly. The most chill dog I ever did meet. And such an appetite for my mother’s Cuban food, no wonder he was such a butterball.

I love animals. I was blessed to grow up not just with dogs but also with a godmother who lived on a farm. She raised sheep and her neighbors raised cows. I spent a lot of time feeding sheep and goats, cleaning up cows for the 4-H fair. It was simple and beautiful. I was a city kid and it was a gift to connect with nature on her farm.

I never wanted to be a vet like so many kids dream. I’ve always just been a fan of having an animal companion. As a kid I always wanted a few dogs to call my own. I’m hoping that dream comes true one day.

Next week’s prompt: 3/16 What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you still harbor a desire to be that? When did you realize your dream was or wasn’t possible?


What Were Sick Days Like As A Kid?

Every Saturday Once a week in 2013 I’ll be sharing a post for the Mom Before Mom project. The goal is to tell the stories of life before motherhood, the stories which root the woman in every mother. So much of memory keeping is focused on capturing our children’s experience but what of our own? Who will capture the mother’s journey as a woman? Who will honor our journey if we don’t honor it first? Every week I’ll be answering a question, journaling my life stories. Read along or write along with the wonderful bloggers linking up every week.

mother's journey as a womanOriginal image by aussiegal via Flikr.

Prompt #8: Who took care of you when you were sick? How did you spend sick days? From soup to ointments to old wives tales, how did your family teach you to heal?

I didn’t get sick very often as a kid. I attribute it to two things. First, every morning my parents made me take vitamin C and cod liver oil pills. Every day I was expected to take them without question. When I wanted to understand why it was necessary to take something that made my burps taste like fish, I usually got one of two answers – because they’re good for you or because we said so. I wanted to not take them so badly but by nature I’m a people please-er so down the hatch they went. The other thing that kept me healthy most of the time is my parents ability to will away any sickness from getting near me. I’m not sure if this last bit is true or not but if you know my abuelo, then you know the man can move mountains just by thinking about it. So go with it.

For a healthy kid, though, I took lots of medicine. When I was really little, any cough or sneeze and my mother would rush off to fetch the children’s Tylenol tablets. She’d dissolve the dosage in a spoon with water. I liked the chalky sweet flavor and was a little heartbroken to outgrow the children’s Tylenol. As I got older, my mother fancied herself some kind of pharmacist. She always had the pharmacist give her an extract refill and our medicine cabinet was always full, particularly of the bright pink antibiotic. Cough, sneeze, fever, chills, over exhaustion, stomach bug, any ailment in my parent’s house could always be cured with something out of a medicine bottle.

On the rare occasion I did find myself under the weather and home from school, you’d find me in front of the television sprawled out on the couch. I was a glutton for daytime television.

The only ritual I hold dear is a prayer my mom would whisper over me at night. She’d come in if I wasn’t having an easy time sleeping, a fever usually, and she’d recite the prayer in a whisper and do the sign of the cross over me several times. I loved it. Her hushed voice, the grandeur of the sign of the cross, the darkness, not really knowing what she was saying. It seemed mystical and magical.  I have a copy of the poem tucked into our medicine cabinet for when my girls get sick.

That’s as romantic as my sick days get. My parents were all about take your medicine, quit your belly aching and get better. Tough love was their prescription to kick a cold to the curb. None of my wishy washy Whole Foods medicine cabinet healing crap-o-la. Either way, we alive and healthy so there’s something behind each of our kinds of wacky medicine.

Next week’s prompt: 3/9 Did you have a favorite pet? A crazy one? What were their names? Tell us a story about your animal companions or lack their of.


What Was Bedtime Like Growing Up?

Every Saturday in 2013 I’ll be sharing a post for the Mom Before Mom project. The goal is to tell the stories of life before motherhood, the stories which root the woman in every mother. So much of memory keeping is focused on capturing our children’s experience but what of our own? Who will capture the mother’s journey as a woman? Who will honor our journey if we don’t honor it first? Every week I’ll be answering a question, journaling my life stories. Read along or write along with the wonderful bloggers linking up every week.

mother's journey as a womanOriginal image by aussiegal via Flikr.

Prompt #7: Walk us through your bedtime routine as a kid. As a teen. Anything you still do now?

I don’t recall a bedtime routine but I do have a string of memories…

-Every night I’d kiss everyone good night. After pecks on the cheek, I’d climb into bed and turn on the TV. I don’t remember anyone checking up on me to make sure I was asleep or to turn the TV off. None of the strict bedtime rules of my own house now. When I got older, I read books until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I remember being so enraptured by a book that I’d fight sleep. My eyelids too heavy but  the story in my hands too good to put down. Sleep always came easy.

-Aside from the TV when I was very young, I always slept in silence. Until college when I got in the habit of falling asleep with music playing softly to lull me to sleep. It started when I got my own dorm room as a resident assistant. I realize it was a way to comfort myself. I’d never lived truly alone before and in some way the music made it feel less so. I still like to sleep with some kind of sound. Having grown up in the city, the silence of the suburbs irks me.

When I was a little girl, I remember getting scared in my room for no good reason other than it was huge and I was tiny and it was full of toys. Not just any toys but dolls, a My Buddy Doll, stuffed animals – lots of little fakes eyes watching me. I remember thinking they all came to life when I slept. Some days that thought was exciting to me. Others, it terrified me. To get to sleep, I’d cover my head under the blankets. Now, I can’t stand to have my head covered!

-I was a pretty neurotic kid, now that I think about it. I remember lying on my right side and getting freaked out that something was going to get me from behind me. So I’d turn over onto my left side only to worry about the same thing. My solution? Sleeping on my stomach. Why I didn’t consider something coming up behind  me, I’m not sure.

I stopped sleeping with a pillow in high school. YM or Seventeen ran an article that mentioned how sleeping without one was good for your back. I’m not sure of the science behind it but I tried it and never looked back.

-I loved scary movies and my grandfather didn’t really get the movie rating system. This means I saw a lot of scary and inappropriate movies when I was really young. Freddy Kreuger, anyone? On nights when we’d go to the movies to catch something scary, without fail I’d get into my mom’s bed. My mom isn’t a particularly affectionate or warm person but she always ushered me under the covers without complaint.

-I kept dream journals on and off. I’ve read some since and wow were they completely random. Brad Pitt, anyone? I had one recurring one for years. I was walking down the street and suddenly a group of people start chasing me. I run, turn the corner and go towards a house. Next thing I know, I’m in a room in the house looking out onto the street. The window is one giant piece of glass. I turn around and someone who was running after me before is behind me. That’s it. For years I had this dream and then one day I realized I hadn’t had it in years. Crazy how I still remember it.

-I almost forgot. Every night when I went to bed I’d kiss my grandfather goodnight. He always wished me off to sleep by saying, “Que suenes con los angelitos.” A direct translation would be “May you dream with angels”. It’s the Latino version of sweet dreams but also a little more – a blessing, a wish. I say it to my girls every night.

I’m a night owl. I love staying up late and don’t require much sleep. I’ve always been like this. I go to sleep because my body needs but truly because I love mornings. I love the freshness of a new day.

Prompts for the month of March:
3/2
Who took care of you when you were sick? How did you spend sick days? From soup to ointments to old wives tales, how did your family teach you to heal?
3/9
Did you have a favorite pet? A crazy one?What were their names? Tell us a story about your animal companions or lack their of. 
3/16
What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you still harbor a desire to be that? When did you realize your dream was or wasn’t possible?
3/23
How did you choose what to do after high school? Did anyone provide valuable advice which influenced your decision?
3/30
What was the first piece of music you couldn’t stop listening to? What was the first piece of music you bought?



This Writer’s Life

Where other people have music or art or coding or cooking, I have words and stories and writing. It’s how I’ve always been. Nose buried in a book, burning through pages in a journal, itching to read at stop lights. Words and stories consume me. Their release into the world, on paper or screen, is a deep, full belly exhale.

A lot of good all that passion did me when college came around. I wanted to be a writer. But I was unfocused and naive. I thought writing meant you worked for a newspaper or magazine or you wrote novels. The English major I saw listed just didn’t seem to be the right fit for the writing I wanted to do. And really, didn’t English majors just teach? And journalism, well. I didn’t want to be a journalist. I wanted to be a writer, you know with a room of my own and all.

What a fool.

I’m glad, though, for my writer’s journey. It took distance to bring me back to writing, time away from it. It took motherhood and staring into the eyes of my children to come face to face with my heart’s true desire, to bring me back to me. So here I am. Figuring out how to be a writer.

A few truths.
1. I want to write fiction.
2. I want to write other people’s stories. I want to interview them and be their voice.
3. I want to write to inspire people. I want to stir something in others.

There. That’s the truth of the writing I want to do. But then there’s the tricky reality of bills and responsibilities and realizing I’m not a trust fund baby who can disappear into a cabin in the woods to write. So how does a woman, a mother with young children underfoot, teeming with stories get them all written down in a day with only 24 hours? And more than the writing, how do I find a community of writers? How do I hone my craft? How do I get my writing into the eager hands of readers?

These questions likely would be easier for me to answer had I given English or journalism majors a shot. Instead, I’m figuring it out deep into the night after bedtime. Each night it’s  a choice – do the writing or the other work of being a writer today. It’s tricky. For me the writing comes easy. Well, as easy as it comes when you demand inspiration at the end of a long day. It’s the other work which challenges me most.

I could disappear into my writing for hours, if I had hours to myself  to write. Which I don’t, really. But, find writers to connect with, invest in improving my writing skills, pitch publications – all that jazz? It seems impossible in the wee hours of the night. While it overwhelms me I tackle it as Anne Lamott would say bird by bird. In recent years I’ve said I’m going to devote myself to writing more. Well and dandy, however, the writing alone will not magically find itself printed in a book or appear for willing to pay readers on their tablet. So this year I’m dedicated to doing the writing and doing all the work necessary to go along with it.

In no particular order –

  • I started the Mom Before Mom weekly writing prompt link up. It’s my “if you build it, they will come” project.
  • I’m exploring other writing prompt link ups. I’m not sure how often I’ll participate but really good ones are usually hosted on blogs with a strong following of writers, making them great places to discover kindred spirits. Check out some interesting ones here.
  • I’ve got my eye on a writing class coming up in March. I’ve even got a writer-ly friend who wants to go as well. Hoping.
  • And while I figure out the kind of classes and conferences and workshops which work best for me, I’m diving deep into some books on being a better writer. I kicked the year off with Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird and have Writing Down The Bones on deck.
  • I’m reading like a writer. I’m tucking away quotes from books to learn and be inspired. A writer’s reading journal, if you will.
  • I’ve got a running list of places to pitch and their submission guidelines. Year end goal: get published in a magazine. It won’t be Vanity Fair but a trade publication or local number will do, more than just fine. My secret hopeful year end goal might actually have double digits. I’m not saying.

Baby steps. Are you a mama and a writer? I want to know. What kind of writing do you want to do? What are you doing to make your writer dreams reality?