Monday, March 02, 2015

The La Bloga interview with Luis J. Rodriguez, the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and founding editor of Tia Chucha Press

Luis J. Rodriguez

By Daniel A. Olivas

Luis J. Rodriguez was born in El Paso, Texas in 1954, though his family lived in Ciudad Juarez. At the age two, Rodriguez’s family moved to Los Angeles where he grew up. As an adult, he moved around California and eventually lived in Chicago for 15 years, the same number of years he’s been back living in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez is an award-winning author of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He is perhaps best known for his 1993 memoir, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Rodriguez has noted that this book has sold almost half-a-million copies, and in some places is the most checked out—and the most stolen—book.

Rodriguez now has 15 books in poetry, children’s literature, the novel, short stories, and non-fiction. His last poetry book, My Nature is Hunger, won the 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Award. And his last memoir, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing, became a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

On October 9, 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodriguez as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles for a two-year term. In making the appointment, Mayor Garcetti observed, “Luis Rodriguez is an example of how powerful an impact literature can have on young lives, and as Poet Laureate, he will impact youth across Los Angeles. I have no doubt that Luis will run with this new role and take it to new heights.”

Rodriguez’s present wife, Trini, is his third and they have been together some 30 years. He has four children, five grandchildren, and a great-grandchild, with another one on the way.

Q: What do you want to accomplish as the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles?

A: I’m for poetry to become an everyday, every occasion thing. To me poetry is deep soul talk that utilizes sounds, images and words to powerfully express and impact our world. Most social language appears dishonest or exploitative, giving you news, advertisement, information, but largely inauthentic and unrevealing. Over the past thirty years, there has been an explosion of rap, slam poetry, open mics, and independent publishing that has brought blood and vitality to the periphery of our culture. The center of culture—with multi-billion industries in publishing, film, TV, and radio—appears hollow in comparison. Poet Laureates not only celebrate their cities, communities or countries, but also write poems that are timely as well as representative of our times—good, bad, and in-between.

I currently have plans to do readings and workshops in libraries, schools, festivals, conferences, and other venues throughout the vast and colorful Los Angeles metropolitan area. I also believe in the art of poetry, the rigorous discipline and practice to make language, story and ideas as compelling as possible. Here’s a recent sonnet I wrote that I hope maintains an adequate measure of gravitas, claritas and integritas (gravity, clarity and integrity) that all art should strive for:

A shadow hangs where my country should glow.
Despite glories shaped as skyscrapers or sound.
More wars, more prisons, less safe, still low.
Massive cities teeter on shifting ground.
Glittering lights, music tracks hide the craven.
TV, movies, books so we can forget.
Countless worn out, debt-laden & slaving;
Their soul-derived destinies unmet.

Give me NASCAR, lowriders, Hip Hop, the Blues.
Give me Crooklyn, cowboys, cool jazz, cholos.
Give me libraries, gardens of the muse.
Give me songs over sidewalks, mad solos.
            Big America improperly sized.
            Give me your true value, realized.

Q: Aside from being a poet yourself, you are also the founding editor of Tia Chucha Press, not in its 25th year, and co-founder/president of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. What is the interplay among these different roles?

A: I created Tia Chucha Press in 1989 to publish my first collection, Poems across the Pavement. This was when I lived in Chicago, which at the time was the birthplace of poetry slams. The book became a hit, which I sold out of the trunk of my car and while doing readings in bars, cafes, libraries, street corners, homeless shelters, prisons, Hip Hop and lowrider shows… you name it. Soon other Chicago poets wanted me to do their books. Why not? I had a great designer in Jane Brunette, of Menominee-German-French descent, who has designed our close to 60 books (of other poets, mind you) since then. In a couple of years, we obtained interest from poets across this great land.

I’ve published anyone whose manuscripts knocked me off my feet: African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Native Americans, Japanese Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Korean Americans, LGBT, and more. I moved back to Los Angeles in 2000, and a year later my wife Trini and I helped create a cultural café, bookstore, performance space, workshop center, and art gallery called Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural. Now we are a non-profit renamed Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, serving 15,000 people a year, and teaching writing, theater, music, dance, murals, and Mexica/Mayan cosmologies, among other arts. We also have the only bookstore for 500,000 people in my section of the City of Angels. By the way, I named both the press and center for my late “Tia Chucha” Maria De Jesus Rodriguez who was the creative (often called “crazy”) member of my family.

Q: How has poetry affected your life?

A: There are many ways to obtain knowledge, and I can vouch for most of them—study, stories, paying attention, being inventive, making mistakes, trying again. Poetry is a path to knowledge as well as of the imagination. In my case, when I was a teenage drug addict and gang member, books became my saving grace. Once I was briefly homeless, sleeping in abandoned cars, all-night movie theaters, vacant lots, along the Los Angeles River. My refuge then was the downtown L.A. public library. I loved the African American experience books of the 1960s—Malcolm X, Claude Brown, George Jackson. But also later of Puerto Ricans and Chicanos like Piri Thomas, Miguel Pinero, Ricardo Sanchez, Sandra Cisneros, and Victor Villasenor. I went back and studied classical American poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but also more contemporary poets like Haki Madubuti, Juan Felipe Herrera, Joy Harjo, William Stafford, Philip Levine, and many more. When my imagination grew to encompass the idea that I may be a poet, with books on the shelves, then this became the seed of an immense possibility. I let go of drugs and gangs by age 20; I went through 20 years of drinking after that, but I’ve now been clean and sober for almost 22 years. My writing, my poetry, proved to be medicine—a healing stone, a destiny. I’m blessed to have achieved what I’ve achieved. I’m a child born on the border, in El Paso, and for most of my life living in L.A., the San Francisco Bay Area, the “Inland Empire,” or Chicago I felt put down, dismissed, invisible. None of this stopped me in the end. I realized that my life like everyone else in my circumstances has value, meaning, direction. Poetry woke me up, and I’ve never let this go. 

Trini and Luis Rodriguez

Sunday, March 01, 2015

_The Tijuana Book of the Dead_: Interview with Luis Alberto Urrea

What a pleasure to have writer, Luis Alberto Urrea in the La Bloga house today!  Urrea is the author of 13 books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He has been a Pulitzer Prize Finalist (non-fiction), and an American Book Award and Lannan Literary Award recipient. 
Some of his best selling books are,  The Hummingbird’s Daughter, (historical fiction), and The Devil’s Highway.  In 2009, our own La Bloga writer, Olga Echeverría reviewed his book, Into the Beautiful North, another popular novel. His non-fiction works, Across the Wire:  Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border and Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life are poignant and gritty accounts of his coming-of-age in Tijuana.  Urrea has also been an important voice against the banning of books and of Mexican American studies in Arizona.  Here is a link to his poem "Hymn to Vatos Who Will Never Be in a Poem" that was read during the LibroTraficante caravan, a protest march that took place in 2012 to take banned books back to Arizona.  (Click here to listen to the poem.)

Urrea’s latest book is a collection of poetry entitled, The Tijuana Book of the Dead. He is currently on a book tour, but was kind enough to take time for an interview. I also want to give a "shout-out" to artist/photographer Art Meza (on twitter, find him at @Chicano-Soul) whose photo is on the cover of the book!

Amelia Montes: Gracias, Luis, for taking time out from your book tour.  How did this poetry collection, The Tijuana Book of the Dead come about?

Luis Alberto Urrea: The Tijuana Book of the Dead was about six books over the last ten years.  My life kept changing too fast for the poems to hold.  But then, the racist cabrones in the Tucson Unified School District started their bannings.  Oh, excuse me, their “book boxing.”  Sorry.  My rage boiled over and I got all Chicano.  It turned into 1971!  Ha ha.  The book was a cry from the heart.  An explosion.  The other million poems from the interim are moving into the new and selected collection I’m preparing. 

Amelia Montes:  How is this book of poetry different from Vatos or Ghost Sickness: A Book of Poems?

Luis Alberto Urrea:  “Vatos” is in it.  I never meant for “Vatos” to be a book.  It was always meant as the prayer at the end of the new book.  Remember, the poem is called, “Hymn to Vatos Who Will Never be in a Poem.”  If I had done that book, it would have been called “Hymn.”  Better that I didn’t!  Vatos was so much more marketable. 

As far as Ghost Sickness . . . one hopes the work evolves.  New voices, new melodies, new milieus. 

Amelia Montes:  You are most known for your fiction and non-fiction.  How does the writing of poetry sustain you differently from the other genres, or is it connected? 

Luis Alberto Urrea:  Poetry is the wellspring.  The secret source.  I have often said that The Hummingbird’s Daughter is really 25,000 haiku in a row.  It is more of a ritual for me, and you probably know all writing is a ritual for me.  Not a career at all. 

Amelia Montes:  Is there anything else you’d like to tell “La Bloga” readers?

Luis Alberto Urrea:  I just want to thank the “La Bloga” community for keeping our beautiful Raza vibrant and brilliant.  Our song, our story, our thought, our art, our soul, WEAR THE CABRONES DOWN. 

Amelia Montes:  Gracias Luis!  Check out Luis Alberto Urrea's website for details regarding his book tour, and his latest publications! (Click Here!)    

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Author Silvia Moreno-Garcia's strange ways

When I first learned that the Chicana spec lit author Silvia Moreno-Garcia lived and published in Canada, I wondered how Mexican she still was. I don't know much about the culture there, other than it's obviously far from Aztlán y la frontera. I read about anthologies she co-edited and about her awards: Sunburst Award, Cooper Short Fiction Competition winner, Manchester Fiction finalist. Then, I was more surprised that the setting for her full-length novel, Signal to Noise, was set even further south--in Mexico City--and described as "a literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City."

Here's what some of the literary Gatekeepers say about the book:
"It's very early in the year but I can already tell this is one of the Notable Reads of 2015." - Kirkus
"Moreno-Garcia has a solid and convincing prose style, robust and subtle in all the right places... a successful debut, and a very interesting book." -
“In a poignant, graceful coda, Moreno-Garcia brings the book full-circle, slyly subverting the expectations of a linear narrative and punctuating Meche's story with a hushed, lovely flourish. In many ways, Signal to Noise is a coming-of-age tale, but it's also the tale of what comes after — and what happens when forces beyond our control, magical or otherwise, are better left that way.” – NPR

So I read the book. It's more than a regular fantasy, and then again, it's not pure fantasy. To me, genre classifications don't do justice to a lot of our Latino writings. Even the term speculative, as in, speculative literature, is the Euro-Western worldview being imposed on what's only a half-Euro world, our Spanish half.

The witches and witchcraft in Moreno-Garcia's book would be called fantasy and speculative--or Daniel José Older's santería--even though we grew up in environments where the only speculation about witches was, who was a good or bad witch, and what they do next.

But Signal to Noise is about signal to noise (s:n), developed through literary paths of Silvia's making. For those who don't know, s:n is a tech/scientific term comparing what's understandable to what's interfering with that understanding. The less background "noise," the better. Like being in the middle of the recent Facebook exchange of insults about not reading White Male Hero Saves The World books, for a year. Too much racist, privilege-defense and male chauvinism make it difficult to find intelligible comments.

I understood and appreciated Moreno-Garcia's novel once I realized that the theme of s:n permeated the entire plot and subplots. Maybe I should say themes, plural. Here's the synopsis from her publisher, the imprint Solaris (Rebellion Publishing Ltd., England):
     "Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said, “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends -- Sebastian and Daniela -- and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love...
     "Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?"

Don't think this some regular time-travel story. Silvia beautifully develops the s:n themes through her character Meche (a great girl-name). The plot weaves between Meche's life as a teenager and the grown-up Meche returning to DF to help bury her father.

The s:n theme is also reflected in Meche's current life and her memories of her teen years. Back and forth, down those two currents, or paths, she will run through phases of coming of age, twice. And coming to terms with her BFFs, as teens and as adults, as well as her teen and her adult love of a boy and a man. Old magic that worked and new magic that may not. The s:n of the magical pitted against reality. The s:n between teen Meche and the boy Sebastian, attempting to find their "signals" by filtering out the "noise" of teen life, growing up in Mexico City.

These are my thoughts about what Silvia accomplished, which she may see differently. She gave us a novel that explores at least two ways--possibly more--of living and reliving a teen's life. The memoirs of an adult Meche judging her teen mistakes and successes, not only with dark magic, but also with the struggle of trying to find happiness in family life that reminded me of Melinda Palacio and Reyna Grande's books.

In that sense, Signal to Noise has a feel of memoir that I know girls will love. This also crosses into genre of "teen romance" with the teasing and flirting and obsessing about the hottest guy in school, the pledges and tortures of loyalty and love between girls and guys. Yes, there is some "love story."

Teen boys will see in Sebastian, their own attempts to create more signals to girls, rather than awkwardly stumbling over the "noise" they often produce from trying to discover their male emotions. Boys, just read a female version of what you're going through and you might learn quite a bit.

This is also a book for adults--the nostalgia, oldies music of rock, jazz, R&B and more. Adults will recognize and maybe regret identifying with how they fumbled with the "other" sex, through their own teen years. And later, how they might have returned to correct some of the stupid things they did.

How the strange magic works, I'll let you discover from your own reading. Of course it's about music, and witches, and witchcraft. That will turn dark, not like horror, but as mean as some of us might have acted had we had the power.

Don't expect a La Capital setting that an Anglo author might paint. There's not much of museum visits, boat rides down Chapultepec canals, or the tourist lens. This is a Mexico City that its residents live and love in, a mysterious place to a gringo americano, but it's simply a Home, like barrios we grew and grow up in. Abject realism, centered on the characters.

What I'd love to see from Moreno-Garcia are sequels or prequels of these characters and the city DF and the magic. I want Meche to visit and stay with her bruja abuela who's sent somewhere--I'm not spoiling it--and have the abuela mentor Meche's magical abilities. I want to know how the magic ties to Aztec or other indigenous cultures. Give me más, por favor.

For the sake of getting our Latino stories published, we're supposed to follow the constrictions of genre to be a "good fit," as it's called. Latinos writers are subordinated too often by the rules of the Euro-Western worldview. It's buenísimo that Moreno-Garcia didn't shoehorn her story into one genre. And instead, let her story flow thematically, in multiple streams across time, space and teen/adult emotions.

About Silvia Moreno-Garcia:
Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia’s first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, was released in 2013 and was a finalist for The Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her stories have also been collected in Love & Other Poisons.
She co-edited the anthologies Sword & Mythos, Historical Lovecraft, Future Lovecraft, Candle in the Attic Window and Fungi. Dead North and Fractured are solo anthologies. In 2011, She won the Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition (in the Emerging Writer category) and was a finalist for the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Es todo, of my "noise" today,
RudyG, a.k.a., Chicano fantasy author Rudy Ch. Garcia, known for sending his own mextasy signals

Friday, February 27, 2015

Better Late than Never: Eleven Ebooks for Bilingual Press

Melinda Palacio
Photo by Nell Campbell

Last month, I received news that my 2011 novel, Ocotillo Dreams, was now available as an ebook. I pestered Bilingual Press to make my title available at the time of publication. Four years ago, it wasn't standard for University Presses to automatically publish an electronic version in addition to a hardcover and paperback. My first experience with Arizona State University's Bilingual Press was with a short story in Latinos in Lotusland: an Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature in 2008. In 2008, editor and fellow Bloguero, Daniel Olivas, did not anticipate having an electronic version of the Latino literary anthology. As a contributor to Latinos in Lotusland, I'm happy to see that there is an ebook now available. Also, Lucrecia Guerrero's Tree of Sighs was on the list, as well as Stella Pope Duarte's Fragile Night, published in 1997. However, the winner for longest wait goes to Ron Arias, whose book, Road to Tamazunchale, was published in 1987 and predates electronic media technology. While I'm glad for these electronic titles, I'm still clinging to paper bound books and do not own a special device for reading electronic books. I have a few books on my cell phone, but I can't say I've read a title cover to cover. Before receiving the following email and announcement of the new 11 ebook titles, I stumbled on the electronic version of Ocotillo Dreams by accident. 
Ocotillo Dreams

Eleven Bilingual Press titles now available as ebooks

The Bilingual Press is pleased to announce that it has released 11 of its titles as ebooks. The titles are Stars Always Shine by Rick Rivera; Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, edited by Daniel A. Olivas; Tree of Sighs by Lucrecia Guerrero; Barefoot Heart and Corazón Descalzo by Elva Treviño Hart; Road to Tamazunchale by Ron Arias; Memories of Development by Edmundo Desnoes; Fragile Night by Stella Duarte Pope; Heart-Shaped Cookies by David Rice; Ocotillo Dreams by Melinda Palacio; and The Scoundrel and the Optimist by Maceo Montoya.
They are available through Amazon, Apple iTunes Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Overdrive.
The project to convert the titles to ebook formats was supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

***Here's An Early Announcement. Save the Date.***

April 18, 7pm

Because April is the ever busy National Poetry Month, I thought I'd give everyone a preview of this event, curated by Marisela Norte:

Cut Along The Line: An evening of readings in conjunction with The Big Read
Saturday, April 18 | 7:00pm (doors open at 6:30) at Craft and Folk Art Museum
A small reception with the poets will follow the evening's reading
In celebration of Luis Alberto Urrea's novel Into The Beautiful North, writer Marisela Norte brings together authors Luis AlfaroMelinda Palacio and Kenji Liu for a reading of poetry and prose on the immigrant imagination, erasing borders and the great divide. The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. More information can be found at
RSVP requested to

Thursday, February 26, 2015

2015 Tejas Star Reading List

The Tejas Star Reading List Task Force annually selects a recommended reading list of bilingual English/Spanish books or books written in Spanish from books published in the three years prior to the list being published. The list is prepared for use by children ages 5-12.

Caraballo, Samuel. (Illustrated by Shawn Costello). (2014). Estas manos: Manitas de mi familia/These Hands: My Family's Hands. Arte Público Press. Piñata Books. ISBN: 978-1558857957. Ages 5-9.

Elya, Susan Middleton. (Illustrated by Susan Guevara). (2014). Little Roja Riding Hood. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-0399247675. Ages 5-9.

Gil, Lydia. (2014) Cartas del cielo/Letters from Heaven.  Arte Público Press. Piñata Books. ISBN: 978-1558857988. Ages 8-12.

González, Maya Christina. Call Me Tree/Llámame árbol. Lee & Low Books. ISBN: 978-0892392940. Ages 5-9.

Kyle, Tracy. (Illustrated by Carolina Farías). (2014). Gazpacho for Nacho. Two Lions. ISBN: 978-1477817278. Ages 5-9.

Lacámara, Laura. (2014). Dalia's Wondrous Hair/El cabello maravilloso de Dalia. Arte Público Press. Piñata Books. ISBN: 978-1558857896. Ages 4-9.

Liniers, Ricardo.(2013). The Big Wet Balloon/El globo grande y mojado. (Spanish Edition). Toon Books. ISBN: 978-1935179405. Ages 4-8.

Lombana, Juan Pablo. (Illustrated by Zamie Casazola). (2014). Soccermania /Futbolmanía. Scholastic en Español. ISBN: 978-0545665162. Ages 6-11.

Lújan, Jorge. (Illustrated by Mandana Sadat). (2014). Moví la mano/I Moved My Hand. Groundwood Books. ISBN: 978-1554984855. Ages 2-6.

Mora, Pat. (Illustrated by Meilo So). (2014). Water Rolls, Water Rises/El agua rueda, el agua sube. CBP. ISBN: 978-0892393251. Ages 6-11.

Mora, Pat and Libby Martínez. (Illustrated by Amelia Lau Carling). (2014). ¡Bravo, Chico Canta! ¡Bravo! Groundwood Books. ISBN: 978-1554983438. Ages 4-7.

Morales, Yuyi. (Tim O’Meara-Photographer). (2014). Viva Frida. Roaring Book Press. ISBN: 978-1596436039. Ages 4-8.

Saldaña, René, Jr. (Illustrated by Carolyn Dee Flores). (2014). Dale, dale, dale: Una fiesta de números/Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers. Arte Público Press. Piñata Books. ISBN: 978-1558857827. Ages 4-8.

Stockdale, Susan. (2014). Stripes of All Types/Rayas de todas las tallas. Peachtree Publishers. ISBN: 978-1561457939. Ages 2-6.

Thong, Roseanne. (Illustrated by Sara Palacios). (2014). 'Twas Nochebuena. Viking Books for Young Readers. ISBN: 978-0670016341. Ages 4-7.

 Last updated February 24, 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I Lived on Butterfly Hill Wins the Pura Belpré Award Medal

The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosín is the winner of the Pura Belpré Author Award. The book was illustrated by Lee White and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division

The Pura Belpré Committee said: 
When warships appear, in “I Lived on Butterfly Hill,” Celeste’s idyllic life is shattered. As people disappear, Celeste’s parents go into hiding, and she is sent into exile. When she returns home, she works to reunite people she loves and to move her country forward. Lyrically written by acclaimed poet, Marjorie Agosín, this Chilean story offers a refreshing perspective on resiliency. 

Book Description

“With her poet’s eye, Marjorie Agosín gives this tale of exile and return an epic feel,” said Wadham. “Though she is a refugee, Celeste learns she belongs anywhere there are things she loves.” 

An eleven-year-old’s world is upended by political turmoil in this searing novel from an award-winning poet, based on true events in Chile.

Celeste Marconi is a dreamer. She lives peacefully among friends and neighbors and family in the idyllic town of Valparaiso, Chile—until the time comes when even Celeste, with her head in the clouds, can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships are spotted in the harbor and schoolmates disappear from class without a word. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.

The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy to be considered “subversive” and dangerous to Chile’s future. So Celeste’s parents—her educated, generous, kind parents—must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to America.

As Celeste adapts to her new life in Maine, she never stops dreaming of Chile. But even after democracy is restored to her home country, questions remain: Will her parents reemerge from hiding? Will she ever be truly safe again?

Accented with interior artwork, steeped in the history of Pinochet’s catastrophic takeover of Chile, and based on many true events, this multicultural ode to the power of revolution, words, and love is both indelibly brave and heartwrenchingly graceful.

Book Trailer