Friday, November 30, 2007


Manuel Ramos

Several bits and pieces this week: a pair of grand old maestros are still stirring the pot; an opportunity for maestros-to-be; readings and performances that will stir your soul; appearances by Our Lady of Guadalupe; y más.

Rudolfo Anaya's latest children's book The First Tortilla (University of New Mexico Press, 2007) has been chosen for the Land of Enchantment Book Award. Taos artist Amy Cordova is the illustrator for this popular book - check out her website.

The Land of Enchantment Award is a children's book award designed to encourage New Mexico youth to read books of high literary quality. The award is sponsored by the New Mexico Library Association and the New Mexico International Reading Association and includes master reading lists for children and young adults. Information about the award is available at

The First Tortilla is the story of a young Mexican girl who saves her village by making the first tortilla with the help of the Mountain Spirit.

Congratulations to Rudolfo Anaya on this award. There's more: Bless Me, Ultima is now being read nationwide as part of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read program; and the Albuquerque Museum Foundation named Anaya as its Notable New Mexican.

Another of the writing legends, Rolando Hinojosa, was awarded a Doctor of Letters degree from Texas A & M University in August. Hinojosa's recent publications include: The Forgotten War, So-Called, published by Veterans for Peace; Klail City Redux published by Puentes (Núm 5, Otoño 2007); Lone Star Sleuths (University of Texas Press, 2007) included Chapter One of Partners in Crime; and Texas Tech Press published his short story Death and Obedience in Nasario García's anthology Brujerías. As I recently mentioned here on La Bloga, Hinojosa also was presented the Bookend Award (with Dagoberto Gilb) at this year's Texas Book Festival.


November 30, 7:30 PM
Tattered Cover Book Store Historic LoDo
Denver's Deputy Mayor Guillermo Vidal will read from and sign his book Boxing for Cuba: An Immigrant's Story of Despair, Endurance & Redemption (Ghost Road Press, 2007). The book is described as "a poignant story of struggle, forgiveness, and the joy of returning home."

December 1, 6:00 PM (reception) 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM (main event)
The Laboratory of Art and Ideas
El Laboratorio continues its exciting series of writers reading and performing at the Lab in Belmar. Up next, Sheryl Luna will read from her award-winning book Pity the Drowned Horses (Notre Dame Press, 2005), followed by a performance by the always entertaining and enlightening storyteller Angel Vigil. $10 ($5 members). For more information call 303-934-1777.

December 8, 2:00 PM
Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue
Colorado author Lydia Gil, and local illustrator Hernán Sosa, will present their bilingual picture book Mimís Parranda/La Parranda de Mimí (Piñata Books, 2007). "Rich with Puerto Rican cultural traditions and complemented by vibrant illustrations, this beautiful story will have children ages 3-7 eagerly anticipating their own holiday traditions."

December 13, 2007 7:30 PM
Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue
John Nichols will read from and sign his new novel The Empanada Brotherhood (Chronicle, 2007). The publisher says, "It's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, when expatriates, artists, and colorful bums are kings. A tiny stand selling empanadas near the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets is the center of the action for the shy narrator, an aspiring writer just out of college. Charming and insightful, this deceptively simple novel is a tale told by a master. It is a wise coming-of-age story, full of joy and touched by heartbreak, that captures a special time and place with extraordinary empathy and humor."


The Crested Butte Writers announced the return of their writing contest for unpublished authors, The Sandy.

Categories & Final Round Judges
Romance --- Selina McLemore, Associate Editor, Grand Central (formerly Warner)
Mainstream Adult Fiction-Mollie Glick, Agent, Jean Naggar Literary Agency
Suspense/Thriller- Katie Gilligan, Associate Editor Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press
Fantasy/Science Fiction-Melissa Ann Singer, Sr. Editor, Tor
Children's & YA-Jennifer Rees, - Editor, Scholastic Books

Eligibility--All authors unpublished in novel length fiction.
Enter-- The first 20 pages and up to a 2 page synopsis, for a total page count of 22 pages.
Receipt date-February 17, 2008.
Fee--$30; Friends of Library members, fee= $20

Awards-- Winners announced at the awards luncheon, held Friday June 20, 2008.
1st place will receive $50 and a certificate, 2nd place will receive $25 and a certificate, and third place will receive a certificate.
More info here.


El Centro Su Teatro will present the original production, Á Colorado en una Noche de Navidad, To Colorado on a Christmas Night, featuring the music of Tish Hinojosa and written and directed by Anthony J. Garcia, December 13 – 23. Á Colorado is a theatrical celebration of the music of renowned singer/songwriter Tish Hinojosa. Su Teatro company actors will sing and reinterpret her songs, and Tish will join the cast for a one night only special performance on December 21.

Su Teatro developed Á Colorado as a part of its annual St. Cajetan’s Reunification Project. What is now known as the Auraria Higher Education Center was once a thriving Westside barrio, and the still standing but desanctified St. Cajetan’s church was the spiritual center of the neighborhood. Every holiday season, Su Teatro travels to Auraria to present a community based folk drama and symbolically return the neighborhood to the families it was taken from. Eugenia Rawls theater at the King Center, 877 Lawrence Way, December 13 – 23. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM with Saturday and Sunday 3:00 PM matinees.

Tickets are $18 general and $15 students/seniors. Special comadre group rates are available. For tickets and information call El Centro Su Teatro at (303) 296-0219 and visit and


The Denver Art Museum opens its door for free from December 12 through January 6, and invites everyone to check out the pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art galleries in the Museum's North Building, fourth level. Bilingual and family activities are promised. The event is billed as Our Lady of Guadalupe at the DAM, so expect a vision.

December 13 - Vino y Chocolate hosted by the Board of Directors of Adelante Mujer, Inc., 5:00 - 8:00 PM, Centro San Juan Diego, 2830 Lawrence St., Denver, CO. Support the Immigrant and Migrant Project of Bienestar Family Services of Centro San Juan Diego by bringing a gift of toys for children age's birth to 10 years. Indicate age and gender on children's gifts. RSVP - 303-297-8696.


Al fin -- I got the pleasant news that my short story, If We Had Been Dancing, has been selected by Stories on Stage to be performed by the Buntport Theatre for the Tales of Mystery and Suspense program (January 4 and 5, 2008). Other authors for that night include Edgar Allen Poe, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl, and Jack Ritchie. Heavy company.

The Stories on Stage annual holiday program is set for December 16 at the Stage Theater in the DCPA. Featured authors for Making Merry are Dylan Thomas, John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Ellis Parker Butler. Sounds good.

Whew -- it's late. Time for a cool one.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Spoken Word, Borders and Juan Felipe Herrera

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border:
Undocuments 1971-2007
by Juan Felipe Herrera
November 15, 2007

978-0-87286-462-7 $16.95

Congress debates immigration legislation, Americans grow more polarized in their opinions, and Juan Felipe Herrera provides a fresh and accessible perspective on this crucial human rights issue through this collection of his poetry, prose, and performance.

Catch the 187 Express!
Addressing immigration issues with dynamic innovation, the 187 Express tour launched on Nov. 15, 2007 at City Lights Books in San Francisco.

Herrera, frequently accompanied by guest artists, will present a mix of spoken word performances, music, and poetry throughout the Border States and up and down California.

Herrera has spent the last three and half decades assembling the collection found in 187 Reasons – at rallies, walkouts, under fire and on the run, in cafés, under helicopters and in the midst of thousands of marchers for civil rights and new immigration policies.

Raised in the fields of California in a family of migrant workers, Herrera has blended art and activism for over 30 years as a pioneer of the Chicano spoken word movement. Juan Felipe Herrera is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Author of 23 books, he is a community arts leader and a dynamic performer and actor.


Before you read the first piece in this collection, let me say a few words. This is badder and bolder than any of the Beats. (Yes, I even mean Howl by Ginsburg, Fast Speaking Woman by Waldman.....)

Herrera's work is part grito, part incantation. As a matter of fact, it is closer to the writing of María Sabina, la curandera. A legendary healer, she was the wellspring for a generation of Beat poets, who used her chants as inspiration and struggled to imitate their power.

It's lean, sinewy writing, without a wasted syllable. It lays bare the wounds of race and culture clash, sutures them back into wholeness with resolve, with defiance. It's an unblinking eye cast on where we triumph, where we stumble and fall. And make no mistake, those who make decisions, make policy, and sit in judgment have been served.

We're coming, we're here, and we won't be silent.

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border (Remix)

--Abutebaris modo subjunctivo denuo

Because Lou Dobbs has been misusing the subjunctive again

Because our suitcases are made with biodegradable maguey fibers

Because we still resemble La Malinche

Because multiplication is our favorite sport

Because we’ll dig a tunnel to Seattle

Because Mexico needs us to keep the peso from sinking

Because the Berlin Wall is on the way through Veracruz

Because we just learned we are Huichol

Because someone made our ID’s out of corn

Because our border thirst is insatiable

Because we’re on peyote & Coca-Cola & Banamex

Because it’s Indian land stolen from our mothers

Because we’re too emotional when it comes to our mothers

Because we’ve been doing it for over five hundred years already

Because it’s too easy to say “I am from here”

Because Latin American petrochemical juice flows first

Because what would we do in El Norte

Because Nahuatl, Mayan & Chicano will spread to Canada

Because Zedillo & Salinas & Fox are still on vacation

Because the World Bank needs our abuelita’s account

Because the CIA trains better with brown targets

Because our accent is unable to hide U.S. colonialism

Because what will the Hispanik MBAs do

Because our voice resembles La Llorona’s

Because we are still voting

Because the North is really South

Because we can read about it in an ethnic prison

Because Frida beat us to it

Because US & European Corporations would rather visit us first

Because environmental US industrial pollution suits our color

Because of a new form of Overnight Mayan Anarchy

Because there are enough farmworkers in California already

Because we’re meant to usher a post-modern gloom into Mexico

Because Nabisco, Exxon, & Union Carbide gave us Mal de Ojo

Because every nacho chip can morph into a Mexican Wrestler

Because it’s better to be rootless, unconscious, & rapeable

Because we’re destined to have the “Go Back to Mexico” Blues

Because of Pancho Villa’s hidden treasure in Chihuahua

Because of Bogart’s hidden treasure in the Sierra Madre

Because we need more murals honoring our Indian Past

Because we are really dark French Creoles in a Cantínflas costume

Because of this Aztec reflex to sacrifice ourselves

Because we couldn’t clean up hurricane Katrina

Because of this Spanish penchant to be polite and aggressive

Because we had a vision of Sor Juana in drag

Because we smell of Tamales soaked in Tequila

Because we got hooked listening to Indian Jazz in Chiapas

Because we’re still waiting to be cosmic

Because our passport says we’re out of date

Because our organ donor got lost in a Bingo game

Because we got to learn English first & get in line & pay a little fee

Because we’re understanding & appreciative of our Capitalist neighbors

Because our 500 year penance was not severe enough

Because we’re still running from La Migra

Because we’re still kissing the Pope’s hand

Because we’re still practicing to be Franciscan priests

Because they told us to sit & meditate & chant Nosotros Los Pobres

Because of the word “Revolución” & the words “Viva Zapata”

Because we rely more on brujas than lawyers

Because we never finished our Ph.D. in Total United Service

Because our identity got mixed up with passion

Because we have visions instead of televisions

Because our huaraches are made with Goodyear & Uniroyal

Because the pesticides on our skin are still glowing

Because it’s too easy to say “American Citizen” in cholo

Because you can’t shrink-wrap enchiladas

Because a Spy in Spanish sounds too much like “Es Pie” in English

Because our comadres are an International Political Party

Because we believe in The Big Chingazo Theory of the Universe

Because we’re still holding our breath in the Presidential Palace in Mexico City

Because every Mexican is a Living Theatre of Rebellion

Because Hollywood needs its subject matter in proper folkloric costume

Because the Grammys, Emmies, MTV & I-Tunes are finally out in Spanish

Because the Right is writing an epic poem of apology for our proper edification

Because the Alamo really is pronounced “Alamadre”

Because the Mayan concept of zero means “U.S. Out of Mexico”

Because the oldest Ceiba in Yucatán is prophetic

Because England is making plans

Because we can have Nicaragua, Honduras, & Panama anyway

Because 125 million Mexicans can be wrong

Because we’ll smuggle an earthquake into New York

Because we’ll organize like the Vietnamese in San José

Because we’ll organize like the Mixtecos in Fresno

Because East L.A. is sinking

Because the Christian Coalition doesn’t cater at César Chávez Parque

Because you can’t make mace out of beans

Because the computers can’t pronounce our names

Because the National Border Police are addicted to us

Because Africa will follow

Because we’re still dressed in black rebozos

Because we might sing a corrido at any moment

Because our land grants are still up for grabs

Because our tattoos are indecipherable

Because people are hanging milagros on the 2000 miles of border wire

Because we’re locked into Magical Realism

Because Mexican dependence is a form of higher learning

Because making chilaquiles leads to plastic explosives

Because a simple Spanish Fly can mutate into a raging Bird Flu

Because we eat too many carbohydrates

Because we gave enough blood at the Smithfield, Inc., slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC

Because a quinceañera will ruin the concept of American virginity

Because huevos rancheros are now being served at Taco Bell as Wavoritos

Because every Mexican grito undermines English intonation

Because the President has a Mexican maid

Because the Vice President has a Mexican maid

Because it’s Rosa López’s fault O.J. Simpson was guilty

Because Banda music will take over the White House

Because Aztec sexual aberrations are still in practice

Because our starvation & squalor isn’t as glamorous as Somalia’s

Because agribusiness will whack us anyway

Because the information superhighway is not for Chevy’s & Impalas

Because white men are paranoid of Frida’s mustache

Because the term “mariachi” comes from the word “cucarachi”

Because picking grapes is not a British tradition

Because they are still showing Zoot Suit in prisons

Because Richie Valens is alive in West Liberty, Iowa

Because ?[is this supposed to be a ?, or are we waiting for a name? I think I know, but thought I ought to ask, in case…] & the Mysterians cried 97 tears not 96

Because Hoosgow, Riata, Rodeo are Juzgado, Riata and Rodeo

Because Jackson Hole, Wyoming will blow as soon as we hit Oceanside

Because U.S. narco-business needs us in Nogales

Because the term “Mexican” comes from “Mexicanto”

Because Mexican queers [do you want to use this word? How about queers, a little more politically correct, though still problematic.] crossed already

Because Mexican lesbians wear Ben Davis pants & sombreros de palma to work

Because VFW halls aren’t built to serve cabeza con tripas

Because the National Guard are going international

Because we still bury our feria in the backyard

Because we don’t have international broncas for profit

Because we are in love with our sister Rigoberta Menchú

Because California is on the verge of becoming California

Because the PRI is a family affair

Because we may start a television series called No Chingues Conmigo

Because we are too sweet & obedient & confused & (still) [what about the brackets here? Should it be parenthesis?] full of rage

Because the CIA needs us in a Third World State of mind

Because brown is the color of the future

Because we turned Welfare into El Huero Felix

Because we know what the Jews have been through

Because we know what the Blacks have been through

Because the Irish became the San Patricio Corps at the Battle of Churubusco

Because of our taste for Yiddish gospel raps & tardeadas & salsa limericks

Because El Sistema Nos La Pela

Because you can take the boy outta Mexico but not outta the Boycott

Because the Truckers, Arkies and Okies enjoy our telenovelas

Because we’d rather shop at the flea market than Macy’s

Because pan dulce feels sexual, especially conchas & the elotes

Because we’ll Xerox tamales in order to survive

Because we’ll export salsa to Russia & call it “Pikushki”

Because cilantro aromas follow us wherever we go

Because we’ll unionize & sing De Colores

Because A Day Without a Mexican is a day away

Because we’re in touch with our Boriqua camaradas

Because we are the continental majority

Because we’ll build a sweat lodge in front of Bank of America

Because we should wait for further instructions from Televisa

Because 125 million Mexicanos are potential Chicanos

Because we’ll take over the Organic Foods Whole Foods’ business with a molcajete

Because 2000 miles of maquiladoras want to promote us

Because the next Olympics will commemorate the Mexico City massacre of 1968

Because there is an Aztec temple beneath our Nopales

Because we know how to pronounce all the Japanese corporations

Because the Comadre network is more accurate than CNN

Because the Death Squads are having a hard time with Caló

Because the mayor of San Diego likes salsa medium-picante

Because the Navy, Army, Marines like us topless in Tijuana

Because when we see red, white & blue we just see red

Because when we see the numbers 187 we still see red

Because we need to pay a little extra fee to the Border

Because Mexican Human Rights sounds too Mexican

Because Chrysler is putting out a lowrider

Because they found a lost Chicano tribe in Utah

Because harina white flour bag suits don’t cut it at graduation

Because we’ll switch from AT&T & MCI to Y-que, y-que

Because our hand signs aren’t registered

Because Freddy Fender wasn’t Baldomar Huerta’s real name

Because “lotto” is another Chicano word for “pronto”

Because we won’t nationalize a State of Immigrant Paranoia

Because the depression of the 30s was our fault

Because “xenophobia” is a politically correct term

Because we shoulda learned from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Because we shoulda listened to the Federal Immigration Laws of 1917, ’21, ’24 & ‘30

Because we lack a Nordic/ Teutonic approach

Because Executive Order 9066 of 1942 shudda had us too

Because Operation Wetback took care of us in the 50’s

Because Operation Clean Sweep picked up the loose ends in the 70s

Because one more operation will finish us off anyway

Because you can’t deport 12 million migrantes in a Greyhound bus

Because we got this thing about walking out of everything

Because we have a heart that sings rancheras and feet that polka

Gente: go to his website where there's more info and audio clips! And don't forget to BUY THE BOOK!

Lisa Alvarado

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On Writing for Children

Barbara Jean Hicks gave this wonderful speech at the 2007 Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers' Day conference. Now, she shares it with all the amigos of La Bloga. Visit Barbara at

What’s the Big Idea?
Tracking Down Your “So-What Factors”

I first heard the term “so-what factor” at a children’s writing conference in Seattle when I was just beginning to write for children. Cecile Goyette, a senior editor for Dial at the time and now an editorial director for Random House, told us that for her, the “so-what factor” of a story was key. If the story didn’t have one, no matter how well-written the manuscript, it didn’t work for her.
What is the “so-what factor”? When a reader closes a book, Ms. Goyette said, he or she needs some kind of “take-away”: a discovery, an insight, a feeling. Perhaps nothing more than a sense of wonder, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, a sense of discomfort. Something, ultimately, that makes the reader see the world in a different way. Whatever it is the reader takes away from the story is that story’s “so-what factor.” It bears a close relationship to the story’s theme.

Of all the advice I’ve heard from editors and writers over the years, this is the one that has stuck with me and been most helpful to me, both as a beginning writer and a not-so-beginning writer who still struggles with every new project.

For me, it works best to ponder my story’s “so-what factor” during the revision process, not before I start to write or even in the first few drafts. Why? I’ve discovered how easily a predetermined theme can trample a fragile story. And the story, after all, is the thing. I’m not an efficient writer. I not only don’t begin writing with a theme in mind, I don’t even begin with a plan. Instead, I might jot down a curious bit of dialogue, or a vivid description, or a word or phrase that amuses me. It's only after I've plunged into a project that I begin to find out what it's really about.

I don’t believe I ever truly choose the “so-what factor” in my stories. Instead, the theme reveals itself to me. It comes from that inarticulate place inside me that harbors my deepest feelings and beliefs; the creative process is the means of articulation. The act of writing teaches me what my story is, how it wants to be told, why it matters. Sometimes the deeper meaning of a story reveals itself to me clearly. Other times, I have to track it down.

Almost always when I’ve worked and worked on a story that won’t come together no matter how much effort I put into it, I find I’m having trouble because I don’t understand its “so-what factor.” At some point during the revision process I have to stop and ask myself three questions that help me track it down:

What is your story about?
Why does it matter?
What do you want your readers to take away?

These three basic questions clarify for me what my story means, or at least what I want it to mean! Until I can answer each of these questions in one simply stated sentence, I know my manuscript is less a story than it is an idea or merely an assemblage of scenes or information. I don’t yet understand it. I still have work to do.

An added benefit to having crisp, concise answers to these questions on hand is that they help sell manuscripts! Nothing shows an editor how much I understand my story than my ability (or lack thereof) to describe it succinctly. With a three sentence description guided by my three questions, I’m giving editors a basis for a clear answer, whether “yes” or “no,” when I ask, “Are you interested in seeing my manuscript?” If “no,” the editor’s time isn’t wasted on a story she doesn’t care about, and mine isn’t wasted on an editor who doesn’t care about my story. If “yes,” I send it off with hope in my heart, keeping my fingers crossed that the editor loves the execution as much as the idea.

I knew before I set pen to paper what my first children’s book was about. Stated in one sentence, Jitterbug Jam is the tale of a little monster who’s afraid of the scary boy hiding under his bed. In the first few drafts of the manuscript, there was nothing under the monster’s bed at all but a few dust bunnies. In later drafts the dust bunnies metamorphosed into real bunnies, more afraid of the monster than the monster was afraid of them. Not until after I started working at an urban elementary school in a multicultural, multilingual neighborhood did a boy appear under the bed—a boy who was neither frightful nor fearful, a boy who acted towards the monster in my story the way the kindergartners at school acted toward each other. Despite their many differences, they focused on their similarities. They worked together, ate together, played together. They were friends.

Only with the insight received from those kindergartners was I able to answer the second “so-what” question for Jitterbug Jam: “Why does it matter?” This question referred me to my deepest beliefs and values, and I was able to articulate in a single sentence my answer: my story mattered because it’s important to me that people face their fears about those who are different from themselves and attempt to understand them.

With that question answered, I was ready to address the third “so-what” question, what I wanted my readers to take away from their reading. Having discovered why the story mattered to me, I could state this, once again, in a single sentence: I wanted my readers to say to themselves, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, “If I face my fears about people who are different from me and look for common ground between us, good things can happen.”

Another of my books was inspired by an image of my tuxedo cat lounging on the rain-fed lawn of our Seattle home. I found the contrast of his black and white fur against the vivid green grass lovely and compelling. Again, the answer to the question “What is your story about?” was clear and easily stated from the start. I Like Black and White is a concept book celebrating all the wonderful things in the world that come in black and white.
I also knew immediately my answer to the question “Why does it matter?” I worked in an urban school with unusual neighbors: protected wetlands and a deciduous forest. We had partnerships with a number of environmental organizations, and our students received a hands-on education in the earth sciences as a result. I realized not all urban students were so lucky. This manuscript mattered because it’s important to me that children learn to appreciate and enjoy the diversity of the natural world.
After the initial idea came the gathering of images, the collecting of descriptive words, the search for relationships between the words, the composing of a poem: “Stinky, slinky, large and small...” But the poem didn’t satisfy until I included music, art and especially children in the mix. With my final stanza, “Music, dancing, feet...and hands,” I had the answer to the final “so-what” question: I wanted my readers to see that black and white, black OR white—all people are interesting and beautiful.

One last example: Over several years and through many revisions, I had no answers to any of my “so-what” questions for a manuscript I’d been working on about that same tuxedo cat. The story was variously titled “Me, Miguel,” “My Life As A Cat” and “Portrait of the Artist As A Young Cat.” After a number of attempts at writing Miguel’s story, I took a new approach. I realized from his scars, tattered ears and other telltale signs that he’d had many lifetimes of adventures before settling into life with us as a rather sedate house cat. I started to imagine the things he’d done and the things he must still dream of doing. The parallels to James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty came to mind. Miguel became Walter and the story found itself.

What was my story about? I could finally answer. The Secret Life of Walter Kitty, my most recently published picture book, is the story of an ordinary housecat with a BIG imagination. Why did it matter? As a woman who has imagined herself into a career that itself springs from the imagination, this answer was easy. It’s important to me that children understand they have the power to choose their future, that what they can dream, they can do. What did I want my readers to take away from this story? I wanted them to recognize that with big enough dreams and a place to nurture them, they could be the hero of their own story.

I’ll leave you with that. The children’s writing community in Southern California, and particularly our local chapters of the SCBWI, is a safe, supportive place to nurture your writing dreams. Write what you need to write, go to conferences and workshops, find a critique group, and focus and clarify the intent of your work by asking yourself with every manuscript those three important questions:

What is your story about?
Why does it matter?
What do you want your readers to take away?

Above all—Dream Big! In the words of a very famous man who spent his long and satisfying career bringing stories for children to life, “If you dream it, you can do it. This whole thing started with a dream and a mouse!”

Barbara Jean Hicks has worked more jobs than a leopard has spots, but the most enduring of her occupations is writing. The author of thirteen "grown-up" books and four children's books, including the award-winning Jitterbug Jam (FSG 2005) and her most recent release, The Secret Life of Walter Kitty (Knopf 2007), she also presents visiting author programs for schools and libraries. An aspiring artist, Barbara dreams of one day illustrating a picture book of her own.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Martí's onanism, Johnson's novel

Michael Sedano

The audience knew what Pete Seeger was going to sing. "José Martí was born in..." and the audience goes into wild applause. I was a high school kid hearing protest songs sung to a comfortable New York audience to raise money for the Freedom Riders. The song was a Spanish language poem, "Guantanamera", sung in awful accent by Seeger, joined in by the whole crowd on the recording who knew the words. I didn't.

I rushed to the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands to find the whole piece. Not available in 1962 or maybe it was 1963. A number of years passed before I was able finally to read the entire poem, but hadn't run into much Martí.

Thus, it was with a rekindling of an old passion when a book arrived out of the blue recently, Ismaelillo, the title, José Martí and Tyler Fisher's names on the cover. Wings Press has published "the first complete bilingual edition".

Enjoying a facing page volume like this, I sat eagerly to consume it, only to be confused then disappointed. I avoid cover blurbs and dustwrapper praise, seeking the artist's work itself to express whatever I can find. But reading the cover stuff proved unavoidable. So here is a collection of poems written by the young poet in exile, separated from his wife and son. A poet, the blurb says, "whose zeal and dedication helped not only to birth his own nation, but served and continues to serve as a model for revolutionaries throughout Latin America."

A touching dedication to that son, "Hijo: Espantado de todo, me refugio en ti." So far, so good. Then the first poem and my confusion arises. "Enano"? dwarf, I think. "Principe enano" translated as "Tiny Prince." Odd monarchistic allusion for a revolutionary, I think. Then I ask a couple of friends, what "enano" means to them. Dwarf, or a small statured person, they agree. But then one begins to read with more understanding than I such lines as "Venga mi caballero/Por esta senda!/ Entrese mi tirano/ Por esta cueva!" and so on. My friend says, "I may have a dirty mind, but this this is about his penis." Indeed it is. "My cavalier,/" the translation goes, "Come through this path!/ My tyrant, enter/ Through this cave!"

Dang, knife find thy sheath. What a disappointing revolucionario this guy has turned into. I shook off the discord of this interpretation but soon stumble across other problematic translations. I cannot recommend the right hand pages, but Martí's other work offers worthwhile reading, if one can get past his dwarf-sized member. Come to think on this, with the Unitedstatesian male's infatuation with "size matters", maybe there's something truly revolutionary in these works?

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke will keep a reader occupied for an extended period, if for no other reason than to work through its 614 pages. The novel recently won an award, so others think quite highly of it. I found it an involving story revolving around a couple of losers and one want-to-be larger than life character who doesn't quite achieve the stature the author has designed. In the end, Tree of Smoke is just a long novel, not a masterpiece that will rival the greats of war literature.

For a Vietnam novel, it lacks the urgency of Charley Trujillo's Dogs from Illusion, or Soldados, the literary quality of Alfredo Vea's Gods Go Begging or Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead.

Johnson plots three sets of lives. There are white trash brothers whose stories wind down into disaster, leaving the reader wondering why make such a big deal about such losers? The older brother is a sailor who goes AWOL fearing a shipmate, winds up back home in Phoenix an ex-con getting beaten up by his biker buddies. The other brother re-ups for a third tour in country, only to gang rape then murder a Vietnamese woman or child as a respite from the fear of an ambush. A sympathetic sergeant fixes things so he gets an Honorable Discharge and sent back to Phoenix where he earns a prison sentence for armed robbery.

Another story revolves around a hapless CIA agent and the Colonel, his uncle, the legend. Skip Houston's is the heart of the story, the two brothers window dressing to illustrate the universality of mindless bullshit that defines the CIA and US military adventures. Bad as the brothers' stories, Skip's is all the worse because he's used by both the uncle and the agency, a puppet dangling from a rope as his story ends meaninglessly, except to Kathy Jones.

Tree of Smoke is worth the time spent in its aimless story for its single sympathetic character. Kathy is a missionary widow whom the hapless spy runs into in the Philippines during a completely botched operation, then again in Vietnam. She is the only character to emerge whole, as it were, from the story.

At the very end of the story, Johnson pulls his most cynical line that makes me think I missed more than I read into the novel. Kathy has returned to North America in 1983. She's in St. Paul to speak at a fundraiser for Vietnamese orphans--a fashion show to maximize the incongruities of the novel. A planeload of orphans had crashed on takeoff from Saigon, killing hundreds but not Kathy and a girl whom Kathy recognizes as a child from that flight, then a Amerasian infant, now a middle-class teenie bopper.

In two-inch heels and a blue skirt and yellow T-shirt tight across her training bra, with lipstick and mascara, she looked like a little whore, arrogant and sullen, her auburn hair twisting in a wind that blew from the street through the alley and down the Mississippi. She opened her purse and found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Her cheeks pouched as she shielded the flame with her hand and lit a filter-tip cigarette. She exhaled and the breeze snatched the cloud from her mouth.

It's a masterful allusion to scenes and events that recur in the lives of the characters, like a mirror image reflected from mirror after mirror.

La Bloga welcomes guest columnists and encourages your responses to what you read here. Click here to email your interest in joining La Bloga as a guest, or leave a comment! See you next week.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Children's Books Celebrate Basics: Eating, Learning

Book Review

By Daniel Olivas

In 1991, Tom Low and Philip Lee founded Lee & Low Books to publish multicultural stories that children can identify with and enjoy.

Their press now has published more than 200 titles in hardcover, paperback, lift-the-flap and board-book formats. Its books have won many literary awards, plus critical praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Kirkus Reviews and Smithsonian Magazine. Many of its titles have been translated into Spanish.

Lee & Low Books now brings us two delightful new picture books that touch on very different joys of childhood: eating and learning.

In Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué rico! Americas' Sproutings ($16.95 hardcover) by Pat Mora, we are introduced to the wonderful foods grown in the Americas such as corn, chile, tomatoes, peanuts and papayas.

Mora, an El Paso native and award-winning author of more than 25 books, uses haiku to describe each food. For example, here's her paean to chocolate:

Fudge, cake, pie, cookies.
Brown magic melts on your tongue.
Happy, your eyes dance.

And with each haiku, Mora gives us a little historical background in a sidebar: "Chocolate is made from the seeds in the pods of the tropical cacao tree. The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, which means 'bitter water.' " Mora goes on to explain that the "pods were so highly prized, they were even used as money. Yes, money grew on trees!"

Mora's text is beautifully illustrated by Rafael López, who grew up in Mexico City and is strongly influenced by the Mexican muralists. His illustrations possess the rich colors and bold lines of a Diego Rivera or José Clemente Orozco mural. They are a perfect match for Mora's whimsical haiku.

The joy of learning despite living in extreme poverty is the poignant theme of Armando and the Blue Tarp School ($16.95 hardcover) by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson.

Based on events surrounding an actual school run by David Lynch, a former special education teacher from New York, this book tells us about a young boy named Armando who helps his father pick through the trash in a Tijuana city dump. Armando and his father salvage things to sell so that they can help put food on the table. This leaves little time for Armando to think about getting an education.

However, the previous summer, Armando spent time learning at Señor David's "blue tarp school" -- which, at first, confused the boy: "He thought schools had walls, floors, and roofs. But Señor David said a school could be anywhere -- even on a tarp in a colonia."

After a little pleading, Armando's father relents and allows his son to attend the blue tarp school again. Things seem to be going as well as they could, until a fire destroys the colonia's modest homes. This devastating incident brings a newspaper reporter out to cover the struggles of the colonia's inhabitants. One thing leads to another, and eventually a private donor supplies funds to build an actual school building for the colonia. Because this story is based on actual events (which are described in more detail at the end of the book), it is difficult for the reader not to be moved.

Armando and the Blue Tarp School is nicely illustrated by Hernán Sosa, who was born in Argentina and raised in Paraguay. Sosa now lives and works in Denver.

With these two new titles, Lee & Low Books continues to bring handsomely produced, meaningful multicultural literature to children. To learn more about the press, its submission guidelines, and contests, go online to

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

One last Thanksgiving thought

Chicano families come in all colors, sizes, shapes and tendencies. My own is scattered across Texas and the West, with my one daughter finishing school in Syracuse, NY. My wife's siblings and their families are usually who I spend holidays with. In some ways they're typical of the heights and breadth of where some Chicanos have "arrived" in this society, with successful careers and the accompanying foibles of American families.

Coming from a poorer background, I'm still amazed each year by the seeming opulence in their Xmas gift giving. NFL, Nike, Nikon, Macey's, and Bratz owe much of their bottom line to what appears under this family tree; there's no evidence of economic crises or recession to be found.

I wonder how many of them have multiple credit cards and how many of those are maxed out, how many have ARMs about to reset to usury levels, how many are too few paychecks close to bankruptcy. Worse, I wonder how many would take failures of the U.S. economy personally, and blame themselves for a layoff, cutback or an employer going under. At least like in many Chicano families, they have a tradition of harboring potentially homeless family members.

And as in many families, each year a prayer is uttered at the Thanksgiving meal, inevitably thanking God, Jesus and religion for their bounty. It always bothers me--not just as an unbeliever--that they relinquish their accomplishments to an institution that's historically profited from Chicano-Mexican faith, while they likewise endure the burdensome repercussions of that faith in the form of denying girls, even women, the right of choice.

Anyway, this year I penned the piece below, to read at the family dinner. I wasn't able to include something about the Iraq War, the volunteer soldiers whose lives, minds and bodies are being ruined at the same time millions of Iraqis pay the price of the U.S. invasion. Nor did I say anything about the millions, if not billions, of people who justifiably hate us for what we've allowed loose on the world.

I don't say these words were overwhelmingly well received, although several thanked me for them. I share them here as an after-Thanksgiving thought, in the hopes it'll inspire others to come up with their own, more appropriate, messages for holiday "prayers" in these times.

What Is Thanksgiving about?

When you're surrounded by delicious foods made by family and friends, it's tempting to think Thanksgiving is about stuffing your belly till it's ready to burst.

When you've got a good-paying job, it's easy to think Thanksgiving is about getting ready to spend way too much money on material things to overflow the space under the Xmas tree.

When you're sitting in a house that's warm and inviting, it's comfortable to think Thanksgiving is about being grateful for a fancy TV or new video game.

When you've got the cash to eat in restaurants and drink in bars whenever you want, it's simple to think Thanksgiving is about how special you are to deserve all of this.

And when you have a good car that gets you to work every day, it's exciting to think Thanksgiving is about wondering how soon you can get an even fancier new one.

I don't know if Thanksgiving is about being grateful we're not one of the hungry, unemployed, homeless, unlucky children or adults who have to walk the icy streets to school or work. It's probably not just about remembering those poor souls for one minute and feeling a little sorry for them.

Maybe Thanksgiving is about thanking our parents, wives, husbands and kids for giving us the sense to take care of our bodies, to keep ourselves from getting into debt and going into bankruptcy, to keep us from loving special things more than special people, to keep us from becoming addicts or drunks, and to keep ourselves safe on the road and in our daily lives. That way, we're here next year--safe, healthy, comfortable, and at peace--to give even more thanks for whatever Thanksgiving is about.

Rudy Ch. Garcia

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Guest writer: Tomas Rodolfo Gonzales

La Bloga welcomes Tomas Gonzales and translator Tom Tan Quete.

The Reunion

by Tomas Rodolfo Gonzales
Translated by Tom Tan Quete

The scene opens in a front room. A large couch faces the audience. (Middle: Stage right)

In front of the couch sits a low coffee table. Against the wall (stage left) facing the couch is a chest on which sits a bust of Van Gogh and an empty flower vase.

Behind the couch, situated on the wall where the audience can clearly see it, hangs a very large painting depicting Thanksgiving with pilgrims eating a celebratory meal. Indians are waiting on the Pilgrams bringing food to the table, etc.

The front door is located at the back of the stage, adjacent to the painting, (stage right)

While the audience is being seated, they will have a chance to see the set. When it is time to open, the lights dim and popular music plays for a few minutes, and then the lights slowly come on to full lighting, and the music dies down. Pause

Enter an energetic young woman (stage left) carrying a bouquet of flowers wrapped in paper. She is humming, admiring the flowers. She has a can of air freshener in her other hand.

The woman walks briskly to the couch and sits, placing the flowers and freshener on the coffee table. She is facing the audience and begins to unwrap the flowers.

The woman glances to where the vase sits, and walks to it. She picks it up and takes it to the coffee table. She arranges the flowers in the vase.

The doorbell rings (Three times, quick and mechanically) .

She freezes for a moment. Again the doorbell rings, three times.

She runs to put the vase on the chest, moving the flowers around with a final touch, and races back to the couch.

The woman picks up the paper and crumbles it into a ball and looks (excitedly) around the room. She picks up a cushion of the couch and puts the paper there. She sprays the room and throws the spray can under the other cushion. She bounces up and down on the cushion, gets up, walks to the door, pauses to straighten herself as the door bell rings three more times (Ring, ring, ring) and she opens the door and stands behind it. The door remains open.

Enter a man taking two exaggerated measured steps, kicking his feet way up, one, two, trooper style.

He is carrying a small paper bag in his right hand. He looks around for a moment, and the woman closes the door.

She: Hello!

(At that moment he hands her the bag, lets it go and it falls to the ground)

He: Oh Hell.

(They both stoop to retrieve it. Both rise slowly, one hand on the bag, staring into each others’ eyes)

She: I’ve been thinking about you.

(They kiss)

He: I’ve been thinking about you.

(They continue to stare)

She: (Catching herself) yes...come in.

He: (Questioning) Come in?........Yes.

He walks to the couch as she closes the door.

(He takes a seat, stage right. She follows and takes a seat on the couch and opens the bag. She produces an apple.)

She: You remembered.

He: I…….remembered.

(They laugh)

She: (wistfully) Do you remember how we used to play after

He: Do you remember? (Shakes head) How we used to play! (Reaches over and places his hand on her knee) After school.

She: (Stirring uncomfortably---He removes his hand, she puts down the apple) When we were young, were we really happy?

He: (Leaning back with arms behind his head—wistfully—nodding) We were really happy….. When we were young.

She: Were we really?

He: We really were.

She: (Absentmindedly) Oh?

He: Ho. You don’t recall?

She: Recall? Don’t you?

He: (Matter of factly) Why of course I do. (Questioningly) You don’t?

She: (Questioningly) Do I? (Adamantly) Of course!

(Questioningly) Why? ..... Don't you?

He: (Flatly) Aren’t you silly.

She: (Defensively) You aren't silly?

(Reaching for her knee, he says suggestively) Don’t fight…..

She: Fight! (Annoyed) Don’t! (She pulls away)

He: (Resolutely) After all these years...Why must we still
play games?

She: Why…we must play games…after all…..(Wondering)… still. Those years…

HE: (sensing he has gotten the advantage, he nudges closer)

Haven't they meant anything to you?

(She nods yes)

She: (Childishly) You too?

(He becomes uncomfortable, stares at his feet)

She: (Demandingly) They haven't meant anything, have they?

(Boyishly) They have.

She: (Taking the offensive) Like?

He: (Sheepishly) Like...(Looks away)..I was hoping…we could see …each other again.

She: (Outraged) Again! (She gets up, walks downstage) I see. Hoping we could…each other….again.

He: (Meekly) Again.

(Enter a woman carrying a tea pot, sugar bowl and cups on a tray. She is ebullient as she enters from stage left)

She: (Hearing the woman, walks behind the couch, and faces the audience) Mom (Gestures) Bob….Bob, Mom

He: (Introducingly) Bob.

Woman: (Trustingly) Mom.

He: (Pronouncement) Mom.

Woman: Bob. (She looks at her daughter questioning) Bob?

She: (nervously) Bob.

Woman: (Discoveringly) Uh huh!

She: (Denying) Huh uh!

He: (Unaware and smilingly extends hand) Hello!

Woman (Who was placing cups on table drops one) Oh hell! ….I’m glad to meet you, I’m sure. I heard so much about you.

He: (Surprised) Oh?

Woman: (Explainingly, gesturing) From Nan.

He: (Accusingly) I’ve heard so much about you too.

Woman: I’m sure.

He: (Expainingly) From Nan. (Laughs nervously)

Woman: (She is holding sugar bowl) I’m glad.

He: (Holds up two fingers) Two. (They sit, begin to drink tea)

She: Golly gee, I remember….he use to be such a nice guy….

Woman: (Agreement) Such a nice guy.

He: Yea…such a nice guy...

Woman: (Beginning to question) He used to be?

He: (In another space, he sits back smiling) Golly!

Woman: A nice guy?

He: (Approvingly) Such a nice guy.

She: (Voice quivering) He used!

He: (Beamingly) Gee!

Woman: (Outraged) I remember!

(Woman snatches up cups and pot, placing them on the tray-----she pauses)

Woman: You Golly Guy! (She storms out)

He: (Yelling after the woman) Wait, you don’t understand. I’ve changed. You don’t have to fear me anymore.

She: (Sobbing) I’ve heard it all before!

He: (Pleadingly) But not like this. I need to be understood!

She: Understood, hah! You’re all alike. First you hurt…. Then you hurt.

He: I didn't know. Honest...I didn’t know….

She: Didn’t know?

He: Honest!

(They look into each other’s eyes)

She: (Catching herself) I'm sorry, but I think you should go now.

He: Go now?

She: (Confidently) I’m sorry.

He: But I think you should…..

SHE: (cutting him off) Go now!

He: Yes. Say, when can we get together again?

(She smiles, looks away)

He: (Pleadingly) Can we?

She: (Cooly) Yes.

He: (Questioningly) Say when?

She: (Distantly) Again.

He: (Questioningly) Together?

SHE: (Determined) Yes.

HE: (He gets up to leave) I’m going.

(They walk to the door)

She: It’s been so long (She opens the door)

He: So long….It’s been

She: (Puts her finger over her lips cutting him off)

(He pulls her hands to his lips and kisses)

He walks out and she closes the door behind him. She leans on
the door wistfully and pauses, then walks to the back of the couch, facing the audience with both hands on the couch.

She looks around the theater. She realizes something and turns to the pilgrim picture, and takes it down, leaning it against the wall. She turns to the audience and says, No more games!

--- 30 ---

Tomas R. Gonzales began his artistic endeavors as a student at Cal State Los Angeles, where he wrote a short play for Teatro A LA Brava criticizing the Bakke Decision. There were not enough actors so he was drafted by the group to play the part of the judge, and consequently, he became an actor doing Chicano Teatro and Agi-Prop. He also wrote other plays for the group including The Money Cart and he was one of the authors of Desarollo Chicano, which played at the San Gabriel Auditorium in the mid 70's. He became a member of Teatro De La Gente of San Jose, and he toured extensively throughout the country from San Francisco to Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin. He performed in Mexico, at the Teatro Del Lago in Chapultepec Park and UNAM in Mexico City and in Cuernavaca. He completed a BA in Speech Communications from San Francisco State, where he also did a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Mr. Gonzales is a retired civil rights investigator, and his work investigates primarily issues related to civil and human rights. He is a student of Novel Roman and experimental theater craft.

Tom Tan Quete is the alter ego of Tomas R. Gonzales. Known for his love of the best añejo spirit blends, he was with Mr. Gonzales on all his travels. He translates from the inner most depths of his Chicano existence the subconscious texts of life experiences, from his earliest comprehension to the present. His name is a blend of Contemporary American, Ancient Asian and old world Mexican cultures.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Writing Without Teachers, What a Concept!

The basic philosophy of the book is that there is no ‘bad writing’ and that we have to give ourselves permission to write everything that is in our thoughts in order to get to the writing that has more focus and energy to it.

The first three sections of this book are set up to help anyone interested in writing to do just that. Section one is an explanation of how the freewriting exercises work. It's a simple method for generating writing by simply timing yourself for ten or twenty minutes, then writing as fast as you can without stopping. The key is to not think about what you're writing but to simply write. There are no rules to worry about. Grammar, spelling, syntax, logic are put on the back burner. You simply write what ever is on your mind as fast as you can until the time is up.

The reasoning behind this, according to Elbow, is that when we worry about whether we are doing it right we're in the process of editing and we don’t just edit out grammatical errors but also thoughts and feelings that could potentially enrich our writing. The writing time should be exclusively set aside for the the process of producing, an editing as a discrete function should only come later. Elbow suggests keeping a freewriting journal that consists of daily ten minute entries that he calls ‘mind samples. These ‘mind samples’ can then be combed over for ideas of what to further write about.

Here's more from Elbow himself:

"...look to see what words or passages seemed important -attracted energy or strength. Here is your cue what to write. Or think of a person, place, feeling, object, incident, or transaction that is important to you. Do one or two freewriting exercises while trying to hold it in mind. This procedure will suggest a subject and a direction."

In Chapter Two, Elbow describes the method he refers to as ‘Growing’. Using this model, I'd do a freewriting exercise on everything I know about a particular piece I'm working on for forty five minutes, writing everything that is in my head, without stopping. At the end of the forty five minutes I would then, for fifteen minutes re-read and extract the core of the writing: words, phrases, feelings, moods anything that ‘stuck its head out’ at me.

Then I'd jot down a summary of what all these essential things were telling me. Then, I'd do another forty five minute freewriting on this assertion, exploring whether I believed what came up or or not, but with the main focus being the same as in the first exercise, to write as fast as I could, and not edit myself.

When I was done, I would again sum up what I had just written and once again make an assertion about its main idea. For a third, and final forty five minutes, I would freewrite around this last assertion to explore any thing that might still be lurking in my mind. In the final hour I would again extract the essential elements and then do the task of editing what I had into a more coherent piece.

This has freed me up at some level from part of the anxiety I feel in initiating writing. Beginnings are always the hardest part, and like a lot of people, the panic at having to come up with words has left many a page and screen blank and left me feeling frustrated. The process of distilling and summarizing the underlying assumptions behind the writing has also strengthened my ownership of my own approach, my own aesthetic, and has helped me build a deeper gut-level confidence.

I’ve done a lot of freewriting in the past, but never explored it so deeply before. Most of my ‘finished’ writing has come from ‘internal cooking’, letting ideas percolate inside until some burst of inspiration caused me to sit and write them down and, many times, it’s a process of fits and starts. Elbow advocates the balance between external and internal 'cooking,' letting ideas and words intermingle to find new, richer ideas.