Monday, October 22, 2007


Francisco Aragón directs Letras Latinas at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Among the initiatives on the horizon in 2008 are: Latino Poetry Review, an online journal that will publish prose on poetry, and the Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship, a brand new partnership with the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota. To keep up with Letras Latinas news visit its blog, Letras Latinas Blog.

Aragón kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and answer a few questions about Letras Latinas:

Who founded Letras Latinas and what is its purpose?

When I joined the staff of the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at the University of Notre Dame, its primary focus was the social sciences. The field I wanted to impact was Latino literature, especially poetry. So I set out to develop initiatives that would support Latino writers. The first two were the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and Poetas y Pintores: Artists Conversing with Verse. As I conceived of, and implemented more projects, I came up with a name for the ILS’ literary program. Its mission statement is as follows:

Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies, seeks to enhance the visibility, appreciation and study of Latino literature both on and off the campus of the University of Notre Dame. We are particularly interested in projects that identify and support emerging Latino/a writers. Letras Latinas actively seeks collaboration with individuals and organizations in order to more effectively carry out its mission.

Letra Latinas is issuing a special edition poetry chapbook, Braille for the Heart by Robert Vasquez, to help raise funds. How did the idea of using a chapbook for fundraising purposes evolve?

Around 2004 I officially brought Momotombo Press — a small press I founded in 2000 — to Notre Dame. Long before the fundraising idea surfaced, I’d had in mind to publish a chapbook of Robert Vasquez’s poetry. The project sat on the back burner for a couple of years. And then the fundraising angle occurred to me: About a year ago, I was lucky to secure a generous pledge from a private donor for Letras Latinas: he agreed to match all the money I could raise in 2007 (up to $25,000) in order to start the Letras Latinas Endowment. On the one hand, I knew that I would be soliciting donations from individuals (starting with the co-founders of Momotombo Press). These would be contributions that would often start at $100. But I wanted to figure out a way to get support from individuals naturally sympathetic with Letras Latinas’ mission (like readers of La Bloga, for example), but on a more modest scale. So I thought: Momotombo Press will publish a special limited edition (300) chapbook of Robert Vasquez’s work in order to raise funds for this good cause.

What was Robert Vasquez’s reaction when approached about using his poetry for fundraising?

Well, the private donor who pledged the matching gift guided me. You see, the Letras Latinas initiative that caught his attention and which will be the first beneficiary of the Letras Latinas Endowment is one, I believe, that most people can easily get behind the Letras Latinas Young Writers Initiative. Let me explain: the poet Allison Joseph directs something called Young Writer’s Workshop that caters to high school students and takes place in the summer at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago is a dual language school that caters primarily to the Mexican community in Pilsen. Allison had mentioned to me that Cristo Rey students who often wanted to attend her workshop couldn’t afford the tuition. So Letras Latinas, even before the private donor stepped forward with his offer, decided that providing scholarships to carefully selected creative writers at Cristo Rey was very much consistent with its mission. It was the initiative that most attracted my private donor. When I spoke to Robert Vasquez about it, as well as my idea of using his chapbook to raise money for it, he expressed full support. In fact, Robert Vasquez is one of Momotombo Press’ original co-founders. My hope is that people reading this interview will share his view and consider purchasing Braille for the Heart.

How may Braille for the Heart be purchased? How much does it cost?

Momotombo Press is a very modest operation. We don’t have, for example, a Pay Pal situation set up, or anything that would allow for an online purchase with a credit card. So getting Braille for the Heart will require a fairly banal operation: sending me a check (made out to “University of Notre Dame”) and a snail mail address. But before I say how much Braille for the Heart costs, I would like to stress that anyone who purchases this chapbook in 2007 will have their money matched, dollar for dollar, by my private donor.

The price, which includes shipping, is $35. Checks should be sent to me at the ILS office in Washington, D.C.:

Francisco Aragón
Institute for Latino Studies/Notre Dame
1608 Rhode Island Ave. Suite 348
Washington D.C. 20036

Are book readings scheduled?

So far, the only reading scheduled is on March 28, 2008, at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA, where Robert teaches. I will be joining him. But it occurs to me that perhaps there might be a way to produce a podcast and make it available on the internet.

Do you have a favorite poem from the chapbook?

It would be hard for me to single out one, but the poem that closes the volume and from which the chapbook gets its name is one of my favorites. I love the way it takes on music as a subject and its masterful use of the tercet. It’s called “The Woodrow Childs Blues” and it originally appeared in a special supplement of Notre Dame Review edited by Orlando Menes. It goes like this:

"The Woodrow Childs Blues"

for the Woodman

Tractor or trumpet, the bumpy staccato
of the Woodman’s blues summons you,
a familiar song of heat that coils

within earth and flesh, the old grammar
of longing. Your portrait’s canvas
must issue Missouri field smoke

and the slow burn of saxophones.
A believer, you let Blind Man Lemon
take you elsewhere with his night-long

notes and his curlicues of groans.
Even now, in vineyard rows
or scuffed hallways, your shadow

sways as the hour swells, your graceful
hum ascending and then set adrift.
Music is Braille for the heart.

Do you envision publishing other chapbooks to raise funds for Letras Latinas?

In many ways, this fundraiser is an experiment. Whether or not Letras Latinas ever attempts this in the future will depend on what kind of results Braille for the Heart yields. Having said that, I will say this: buying any Momotombo Press title is a big help. So even if there are people reading this interview who can’t afford to purchase Braille for the Heart at $35, they might consider visiting Momotombo Press’ website and purchasing one of our other titles. The proceeds from the sale of the chapbooks helps to support two very worthy causes. Finally, I cannot end these comments without underscoring another aspect of this particular Momotombo Press title that was very special, and that was counting on the collaboration of poets Diana Marie Delgado, who wrote a wonderful introduction, and Eduardo C. Corral, who provided the blurb on the back. One of the things I might venture to say about how Robert Vasquez’s work is perceived in the Chicano/Latino poetry community is that his work is especially valued among those younger poets who are looking for newer models, newer ways of writing Chicano/Latino poetry.

Thank you for spending time with La Bloga.

◙ If you missed yesterday’s guest post by Gregg Barrios, you missed a great interview with Junot Díaz as well as a book review of his new novel. But it’s not too late…click here to enjoy.

◙ 17TH ANNUAL PEN OAKLAND-JOSEPHINE MILES NATIONAL LITERARY AWARDS ANNOUNCED: PEN Oakland, A Bay Area Chapter of the International Organization of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists was founded in 1989 to address multicultural issues, and educate the public as to the nature of multicultural work. These award-winning authors address the diversity and uniqueness of American culture, and represent the new voices of American literature. The late Josephine Miles, in whose honor the awards are presented, was a highly regarded poet, critic, and professor of English at the University of California in Berkeley.

The awards and reception will be held on Saturday, December 8th from 2-5 p.m. at the Rockridge Branch Library, located at 5366 College Avenue from 2-5 PM. Well-known and emerging Bay Area and international authors will be honored for excellence in multicultural literature at the 17th Annual PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles National Literary Awards. A reception will be held after the awards. During the program, winners will be presented with a plaque and asked to read selections from their work. This event is free to the public. For more information, please call (510) 228-6775.

The award winning books include two that are of particular interest to La Bloga's readers:

Samba Dreamers (Novel) by Kathleen de Azevedo (University of Arizona Press)

Enriqueta Vasquez and the Chicano Movement: Writings from El Grito del Norte (Essays) by Lorena Oropeza and Dionne Espinoza, editors (Arte Público Press)

Congratulations to all the winners!

◙ Over at AmoXcalli, there’s a fascinating interview with Ana Castillo whose most recent novel is The Guardians (Random House).

◙ Over at the Los Angeles Times, Agustin Gurza profiles my favorite DJ, Raul Campos, host of KCRW’s Nocturna. After recounting the end of Campos’s stint as a club DJ, Gurza notes:

Today, Campos is still playing music he hopes will move the masses, but he's doing it behind a microphone as one of the few Latino DJs on English-language radio in L.A. As host of "Nocturna," a nightly show on KCRW, where he was groomed by respected music director Nic Harcourt, Campos has begun to amass both audience and influence, reaching an average of 80,000 listeners per week in a time slot (10 p.m. to midnight) typically dead for public radio. The shift from noisy nightclubs to an isolated broadcast studio hasn't been easy. For starters, Campos can no longer get the high of watching his listeners react. And he had to learn to modulate his playlist, rather than blasting non-stop dance music that "didn't translate as well as I hoped over the airwaves."

Campos is one of the main reasons I am a subscriber to KCRW. Check him out. As I’ve mentioned before, Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times. E-mail him at with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you, Daniel, for the opportunity to share with readers Letras Latinas' special fundraising campaign through the poetry of Robert Vasquez.

The URL to Letras Latinas' web page is:

Also, the Letras Latinas blog is now called just that:
Letras Latinas Blog.

Thanks again,