Interview of Juliana Aragón Fatula by Xánath Caraza
Juliana Aragón Fatula’s, three books of poetry are Crazy Chicana in Catholic City (2nd edition), Red Canyon Falling on Churches, winner of the High Plains Book Award for Poetry 2016, (Conundrum Press), and a chapbook, The Road I Ride Bleeds (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press). She has been anthologized as a poet in Open Windows III, El Tecolote, Trance, and broadcast on Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters. She teaches writing workshops for Bridging Borders and Writers in the Schools and believes in the power of education to change lives. She is currently writing a mystery, The Colorado Sisters.
Who is Juliana?
That’s heavy. My mind goes crazy thinking of answers, but the truth is I’m a small-town girl, raised in a large family, very poor, but not as poor as my ancestors. My paternal great-grandfather was a Navajo sheep herder in Villa Nueva, New Mexico in a village outside of Santa Fe. My maternal Navajo great-grandfather was sold to the Gomez family in Alamosa, Colorado for food and a horse when he was four-years-old.
I was raised a Mexican-Americana, Mestiza, Mexica, Aztec in Southern Colorado. In the seventies, I marched with the Denver Brown Berets and heard the civil rights organizer, Corky Gonzales, speak as a political activist. I claimed the label Chicana, Xicana, Xicanx. I honor my indigenous roots, my mestizaje, my culture and history. I write about living between two worlds.
My beginning as a poet. I embrace my mestizaje and spirituality as a true American, indigenous. I remember where I come from. What’s the dicho, “How can we know where we’re going, until we know where we’ve been?”
I drove to Villa Nueva, New Mexico to gather stones and put my feet in the Pecos Rio. I met locals and heard their stories. I entered the church where my great-grandparents were married and my father baptized in 1917.
My father’s homeland, like mine in Southern Colorado; has the same trees, soil, grasses, herbal medicine, religion, language, culture. He landed in Tortilla Flats. My second book, Red Canyon Falling on Churches, comes from those cuentos, those stories, poemas. Born forty years apart: 1917 and 1957, we were both brown skinned, brown eyed, brown hair, mestizo nose, Navajo and Mexicano culture and language, religion and spirituality. My DNA is indigenous to this land.
I grew up with ten kids and one bike. We had to share. Growing up in Southern Colorado with grandparents from Villa Nueva, New Mexico and Alamosa, Colorado in el valle, I inherited brown skin, my last name, Aragón, my Spanglish, my culture and myths.
We never crossed the border, the border crossed us. My father migrated to Colorado from New Mexico when he was ten and went to work; he had brothers and sisters depending on him. My grandparents died very young and my father raised his siblings. He was a loved father figure. My mother was the strongest and most generous woman I ever knew. She grew up next to the river and rail road tracks in a shack with dirt floors. My parents taught me to give back to my community.
How do you define yourself as a poet?
I define myself as a confessional poet and as a member of the Macondo Foundation I follow the mission statement: a community of poets, novelists, journalists, performance artists, and creative writers of all genres whose work is socially engaged. Their work and talents are part of a large task of community building and under-served communities through their writing.
I write about my truth, nature, addiction, creation stories with tricksters and desert creatures. I aim to make my audience laugh, cry, and dream. The first decade as a writer was an experiment. Now that I'm 'seasoned,' I teach writing workshops, write blogs on writing, conduct literary interviews, and review my favorite books. I feel like it's ok to call myself a writer now.
As a child, who first introduced you to reading? Who guided you through your first readings?
I was introduced to reading by my older sister, Irena. She was ten years older than me and since our family was so large, she was given the responsibility to watch over me. She took me to the library for my books. I never imagined someday I would be a writer. My sister has been my guardian angel for my entire life. Even now she sends me blessings from heaven. I often wonder what her life could have been like if she had the same choices I had.
I was the first in my family to graduate college. She would have been incredibly proud of me as would my parents. They believed in me even when I lacked confidence in myself; they knew I had special talents and power to change things with an education. There’s nothing more powerful than an educated Chicana. I am Chicana Woman, hear me as I raise some hell.
How did you first become a poet?
I was born a poet. I have a very twisted sense of humor and sometimes strangers think I’m sonsa, but it’s just an act. I’m always acting. I’m odd. I’m mysterious. I’m curious. I’m telepathic. I’m psychic and psycho. Ja ja aja ja. I crack myself up when I get on a roll. I’m ridiculous and irreverent and righteous and rotten and refined and riddled with guilt. But my writing; my poems are my salvation. They are my medicine. I’ve been healed with the power of words.
My path has always been about beauty and truth. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but, I didn’t write poetry until I was fifty. Ten years ago, I enrolled at Colorado State University-Pueblo, to become a Language Arts teacher in my hometown. I chose creative writing as my minor and began my introduction to Ethnic Literature. I read poetry by the icons, Sandra Cisneros, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Maya Angelou and many others, but it was the poems written by Chicanas that inspired me to write about my culture, language, and heritage. I grew in four years of Chicanx Literature, Ethnic Studies, Shakespeare, Creative Writing: Drama, Poetry, Fiction, and Non-Fiction Nature Writing.
Where were your first poems written?
If I’m honest they were written when I was in junior high school. I didn’t know how funny I used to be until my best prima/soul sister gave me the notes I passed to her every day in the halls at school. I was hilarious. It was like getting in a time machine and going back to my teens. I was wild and unconcerned about what anyone said about me. I wore what I wanted, I walked where I wanted to go, and I said what I wanted to say. I was the character from Crazy Chicana in Catholic City. I wrote in my journal every day. I was a young woman in love with being in love. I kept all the letters from my loved ones and when I read them now, I always cry tears of joy at the memories of them in my heart. I’ve been very blessed.
My first poems were published in the literary magazine at CSU-Pueblo, The Hungry Eye, and on the webpage for CSU Pueblo’s Hispanic Cultural Experience: A Collection of Poetry, Essays, and Short Stories from Pueblo, Colorado. These poems began as performance pieces for the Denver Indian Thespians and El Centro Su Teatro in 1992. Those stories morphed into poems.
When did you start to publish? And, what impact did seeing your first publications have on you?
I published in literary magazines in college, won poetry contests, and published several poems in anthologies. Several of those poems were later published in my first book of poetry, Crazy Chicana in Catholic City. My first book of poems was published because of an independent study course I took with my mentor, David Keplinger. Never did I imagine the publisher would send me a contract and publish my manuscript, but I gained confidence with each publication and grew to be a prolific writer.
My first book arrived on my doorstep; I realized how much hard work I put into it and how taking risks had proved successful. I decided to write my second manuscript, Red Canyon Falling on Churches. My publisher, Caleb Seeling and editor, Sonya Unrein, at Conundrum Press in Denver promoted my books, arranged readings, and gave me a voice. Being published changed my perception of myself and gave me courage to help other beginning writers. It gave me the incentive to teach writing workshops to at-risk-youth, like the Bridging Borders Workshops I teach in Pueblo.
Do you have any favorite poems by other authors? Or stanzas? Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/those stanzas?
Maya Angelou inspired me with “Phenomenal Woman.” One of my favorite verses:
Now you understand/Just why my head’s not bowed. /I don’t shout or jump about/Or have to talk real loud. /When you see, me passing, /It ought to make you proud.
“And Still I Rise”, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and her quote is engrained in my head, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
An essay written by Gloria Anzaldúa, “Linguistic Terrorism” awoke in me a rebellious voice. “...We are your linguistic nightmare, your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestizaje, the subject of your bruja. Because we speak with tongues of fire we are culturally crucified. Racial1y, cultural1y, and linguistically somas huerfanos - we speak an orphan tongue.
“Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a bastard language. And because we internalize how our language has been used against us by the dominant culture, we use our language differences against each other.”
Shakespeare changed the way I write, “We know what we are, but know not what we might be.” And Sherman Alexie inspired me to interject humor into my writing. “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”
A letter I received from Sandra Cisneros last year after she read my second book, Red Canyon Falling on Churches, changed my life in small and big ways; she wrote to me, “…Think what light you are transmitting to others as you walk your own path. A lantern leading others on their path. This is sacred work. May you always be this light. Abrazos.” Sandra. I cried when I read that line. She moved me. I changed. I grew. She inspired me to work with other writers.
I was invited to join The Stiletto Gang, a group of women writers on a mission to bring mystery, romance, humor, and high heels to the world; and Women Who Write the Rockies, literary women writing in the shadow of the Rockies: a community of like-minded women sharing news, readings, publications, and reviews. I’m learning from these women how to write for an internet audience on these websites. I’m enjoying the blog experience and reaching a new group of readers who might not otherwise ever know my work.
What is a day of creative writing like for you? Where do you write? How often?
It’s midnight and I’m in my kitchen writing, listening to Bob Marley. My muse refuses to let me sleep during full moons. It’s a red moon tonight. I’ve tried staying in bed but I toss and toss until I get up and go to work.
My writing space: I love writing in hotel rooms, coffee shops, in my back yard, in the wilderness in my twenty-four-foot camper. My husband, Vince, and I go camping in the Colorado wilderness with our Border Collie, Big Bad Baby Boy Bear. My husband hikes with Bear and gives me my space to write or read.
I write in my back yard under the grape arbor, and my sun/moon room are also favorites spots. I have my Chicana Garden with fruit trees, ivy and wood vine climbing the fences. The backyard is filled with birdhouses, bird baths, bird feeders. The wind blows the twenty-five chimes for each year we’ve been married, and birds sing along. It’s a magical place. Colorado fresh air and sunshine, even on winter days. I make a fire in the woodstove, heat up the porch, brew some chai, read a book, and watch the snow fall.
If I'm real lucky, I escape to the mountains and the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. Up there, no phones, cell service, television, nosy neighbors or worries. I write, read, nap, eat, sleep, wander through fields of wildflowers. Watch the fish jump in the lake. And I write and write and write and write. I’m hypnotized. I fall into a pattern of waking and writing and writing until I can't keep my eyes open every night. I feel like a writer. I feel productive. I feel fierce.
When do you know when a poem is ready to be read?
I always read my work out loud. Sometimes I record it and listen to it playback several times. I ask friends if I can try a poem out on them for their reaction. I read their body language. Sometimes it’s positive feedback, sometimes, not so much. If I hear the poem and it sounds like music, if it has the power to move someone to laugh or cry, if it makes me want to perform it on stage in front of an audience, I know in my heart it’s ready.
Could you describe your activities as poet?
I won the High Plains Book Award for poetry, 2016, in Billings Montana. My husband and I drove to Montana with an invitation as a finalist. I met some great poets and writers and fell in love with Billings. If I hadn’t won the prize, I still would have come out a winner because of the experience. It elevated me to a new high. The feedback from the judges allowed me to accept that I am an award-winning poet.
I had just had knee replacement surgery; however, I didn’t let that stop me from attending and when I won, I dropped my cane and danced up on stage like a lunatic. The audience laughed at my enthusiasm and cheered for my first win as a published poet.
It gave me confidence to submit a third manuscript, a memoir of poems: Gathering Momentum. It’s unpublished but I’m proud to have finished it; it was the most difficult thing I ever wrote. I included my Mother’s recipes so they would never be forgotten. I’m preserving my family’s histories.
I love performing and maybe that’s why I didn’t begin writing until I was in my fifties. I was having too much fun being on stage. My writing began as a performance artist. I wrote short cuentos about my family. Some sad, some funny, some tragic, some hopeful. I never felt like a poet. I felt like a storyteller.
In the nineties, I worked with El Centro Su Teatro in Denver, Colorado. I learned the tradition of taking the word to the people. I became very active in the Chicano community. Su Teatro organized and attended protests carrying picket signs; Justice for Janitors, Amnesty International, and of course the United Farm Workers. We sang protest songs; they had Aztec dancers in full regalia. One time we drove from Denver to Pueblo, Colorado and joined the American Indian Movement to protest Columbus Day.
In 1995, I joined the Latin Locomotions, Sherry Coca Candelaria and Manuel Roybal, Sr. from Su Teatro. We traveled to the Persian Gulf to perform for the troops. We toured five weeks and entertained in Sicily, the Azores, Diego Garcia, and the United Arab Emirates. It was my first time out of the country. I dreamed of traveling all my life and now I was being loaded on cargo planes and flying across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. The Department of Defense paid me to sing, dance, and tell stories for Hispanic Awareness in the Military.
What’s something that helped to shape your outlook to life?
The good and bad experiences molded me in to a strong, independent, out-spoken woman who is fearless. I’ve faced hard times and remained a survivor, never a victim. As a teenager, I was headed for prison or death. I was loud, rebellious, a tomboy; many of my closest friends I grew up with are dead from their lifestyle choices.
I chose to have a baby at fifteen, drop out of high-school, go to work and thanks to Planned Parenthood, I raised my son as a single parent and had pre-natal healthcare. My son is in his early forties; I turn sixty this year. Having access to healthcare through Planned Parenthood changed me. It shaped my future.
With an education, I became independent with a job and a steady income. I worked for many decades in Denver and climbed the corporate ladder. I was not corporate material. I’m a performance artist. I wanted more than a job and a desk. I never gave up on that dream. I made it happen. Pure will power.
I returned to school and graduated from Colorado State University – Pueblo in 2008 and became an educated Chicana. My son claims I should have a Ph.D. because I’ve been going to school his entire life. That’s not a fact; but it is true. Not an alternative fact, but a truth. I love learning and I am a lifelong learner. I love teaching and I teach my students to love learning.
My son gave me a purpose and made me rock steady. I became focused and escaped the cycle of poverty. My husband would say, “We’re poor, but we have love and kindness in us.” We’ve both been sober for twenty-seven years. We support each other; we are best friends.
Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist?
I’m extremely proud of my activism with at-risk-teens. I’ve taught hundreds of students in Southern Colorado through the Writers in the Schools Program with Colorado Humanities. Some are in high school and college now. I remain close with many of them through social media. Gotta love Facebook, que no? Sometimes they ask me for advice. They lovingly call me, Mama Fatula. I don’t have grandchildren, so I gave all the love inside me to my students. Many of them hugged me every day. I listened to them. Some of them needed more than a teacher. I mentored many students who bravely walked out of the closet and into the sunshine as proud members of the LGBTQ community. I’m so proud of them. I’m proud of the students who invited me to their high school graduation. They’re in college now; they are the future of this country. They changed me. They taught me more than I taught them.
I tell my students about my first protest. I led the first-sit in to protest the school’s policy of forbidding the female students to wear blue jeans. In 1852, Emma Snodgrass was arrested for wearing pants. Women protested until women were allowed to wear pants. When I tell my students this they are shocked.
In 1972, my fellow female students protested to wear blue jeans instead of pantsuits. I lead the female students and they followed me; I didn’t know then I was leading. Today, I understand the power of being able to express myself and communicate my reality through spoken word.
What project/s are you working on that you would like to share?
I’m a storyteller; and a very good listener. I’m writing my first murder mystery because I love a challenge. I’ve been writing The Colorado Sisters for the last year. I wanted to see what else there was inside my head. Turns out there’s plenty. But getting up every day and making something out of nothing takes dedication, work, and talent. I learned that you can’t write a book, if you don’t sit down and write.
I’m creative and weave stories and characters like a movie inside my head. I love writing dialogue and using humor in my writing to curb the edge of the murder, the nitty gritty of the story, the dark secrets we all have, the criminal element of detective work, and finally the investigative work can’t be just evidence, testimony, and undercover work; there must be balance with the characters’ lives because in real life, we have up and down days and have funny things happen all around us, if we pay attention.
What advice do you have for other poets?
My good friend, Manuel, always says, “Everywhere you go; there you are.” Never forget that bit of wisdom. It might save your life someday. Surround yourself with smart, talented, generous people like Manuel, who have a social conscience and are activists. My writing gives me a voice and a medium to reach people. It’s the same for my writer friends. Read lots of books and write lots of poems and then read books about writing poems and write poems and read books written by poets you admire and then write more poems.
One piece of advice, don’t ever change your voice or your truth to make someone else happy. Don’t change a word if you feel it is your truth. You’re not writing for you parents, siblings, partner, children. Write for yourself and write the kind of poems you want to read. And attend lots of book readings, writing conferences and writing workshops, and network with everyone you meet. Keep those connections current through social media. Share your story with new writers and encourage them to write from the heart not the head.
Remember you can’t please everyone; and not everyone will like you, or your poems. But for those who do appreciate your writing, you tell them how much their feedback feeds your soul. You meet your readers and audience and share your stories about how you became a writer. You teach poetry writing workshops to others and encourage young and old to write, write, write.
What else would you like to share?
I have fears: I’m afraid of drowning. I’m scared of la Llorona and el Cucuy, I’m afraid of the future under a misogynist, xenophobic, racist, President and cabinet. I’m frightened by the racism that exists in our country. And finally, I’m afraid of Climate Change and the future of our Mother Earth. However, I have faith in the young people; I have faith, and like Maya Angelou sings, “And still I rise.”