Monday, June 18, 2012

An interview with Dr. Carlos Cortés regarding his memoir, “Rose Hill” (Heyday Books)

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside.  Since 1990 he has served on the summer faculty of the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education, since 1995 has served on the faculty of the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, and since 1999 has been an adjunct faculty member of the Federal Executive Institute.

His most recent book is his autobiography, Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time (Heyday Books, 2012), which traces his upbringing in Kansas City, MO, as the son of a Mexican father and Jewish mother.  Other books include The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity and The Making -- and Remaking -- of a Multiculturalist, published by Teachers College Press.

Cortés is general editor of the forthcoming Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia (Sage, 2012), Scholar-in-Residence with Univision Communications, and Creative/Cultural Advisor for Nickelodeon's Peabody-award-winning children's television series, "Dora the Explorer," and its sequel, "Go, Diego, Go!," for which he received the 2009 NAACP Image Award.  He also travels the country performing his one-person autobiographical play, A Conversation with Alana: One Boy's Multicultural Rite of Passage, while he co-wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, We Are Not Alone: Tomás Rivera -- A Musical Narrative, which premiered in 2011.

A consultant to many government agencies, school systems, universities, mass media, private businesses, and other organizations, Cortés has lectured widely throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia on the implications of diversity for education, government, private business, and the mass media.

Dr. Cortés kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga to discuss his new memoir, Rose Hill.

DANIEL OLIVAS: When did you decide to write the story of your parents and their intermarriage? 

CARLOS CORTÉS: About ten or twelve years ago, at the request of my daughter Alana, I began writing family sketches -- mini-bios, recollections, anecdotes, memorable incidents –- in the form of letters to her.  Later I assembled them in rough chronological form and filled in narrative gaps.  Before I realized it, I had written a sprawling, disjointed 600-page combination family history and autobiography.

At first this was just for the family.  But as I began to test the waters by reading excerpts to others, the enthusiastic reactions convinced me that I should try turning it into a book.

A theatre director came to one of my readings and, afterward, suggested that I adapt it into a one-man play.  I did and the play, “A Conversation with Alana: One Boy’s Multicultural Rite of Passage,” which I now perform all over the country, has become quite popular, particularly at conferences and universities.  More than 120 performances to date.

Performing the play and holding post-performance discussions with audiences helped clarify that intermarriage and its impact on me provided the narrative drive of my story.  When I went back to the manuscript, I transformed it from a sprawling 600 pages to a tight 225 pages by focusing on that core narrative of ethnic, religious, class, and linguistic crossfire.

DO: As a historian, did you have difficulty with a subject matter that was so close to your heart and where you played a role?

CC: I suppose it might be more dramatic if I said that writing about my family was difficult for me.  But that’s not true.  In fact, telling my story was liberating.  The story became more meaningful as I performed, wrote, and discussed it with others, including audiences at the play. 

My major challenge was the issue of personal privacy.  What things should I omit, if including them would cross the line into unduly exposing other people’s lives, particularly when it wasn’t essential to the narrative?  

DO: Why did you name your book, Rose Hill, after the place where your parents were buried?  Did you have another title in mind before choosing this one?

CC: At first I called it Letters to Alana because I wrote the sketches as letters to my daughter.  But when I began to shape it into a book, this seemed too much like a gimmick.

I ultimately ended up with Rose Hill because the cemetery played such a dramatic role in our family’s life both as a source of intercultural conflict and as a magnet for reconciliation and redemption.  In the play, my mother’s burial at Rose Hill is a climax.  On top of that, the title gives off an aura of mystery, beautifully represented by the fabulous cover that my publisher came up with.

DO: Were there any big surprises as you researched your parents’ history?  Anything you wished you hadn’t learned?

CC: I didn’t really “research” my folks’ history.  Most of it came from my own memory, challenged by observations from friends and other family members.  Probably the biggest surprise was when my wife, Laurel, accidentally came across my folks’ love letters, which neither my brother nor I knew anything about.

It may sound strange, but I got to know my parents and grandparents better as I wrote and rewrote and performed.  So I may have learned more from writing than from research per se. 

There’s really nothing I wished I hadn’t learned, although I must admit those love letters brought a touch of sadness, because they  revealed my folks’ dreams that were never fulfilled.   

DO: What was the reaction of your family when you let them know you were writing this book?  What has been their reaction with the finished product?  Did you receive any strong objections?  Any strong lobbying efforts?

CC: At first they seemed somewhat dubious that anyone would want to publish a book about our family or that many people would be interested in reading it.  There were also privacy concerns and, quite naturally, concerns about how the family might appear in print.  But nobody really objected.  The only one who has talked to me about the book since its publication is my brother, Gary, and he seemed happy with it.  In fact, he broached the idea of writing a sequel, telling the story from his perspective.  

DO: Your parents seemed bigger than life, two people with big hearts, big egos, big tempers, and big dreams?  These temperaments seemed to make the intermarriage that much more difficult even taking into account the time and place.  Agree?

CC: You’ve nailed it.  Their natures and personalities clashed in all kinds of ways.  The multiple dimensions of their intermarriage –- ethnicity, religion, class, language -- served to heighten the conflict.  And maybe those factors helped shape their personalities.  I don’t know exactly what they were like before they met.  But the structure of society back then, particularly the culture of racial and religious bigotry and segregation, was poised against them.  Their personalities made a tough situation more combustible.  

DO: Your parents had a secret agreement to divide you and your younger brother, Gary, between the two of them so that you were raised more Mexican and Gary was raised more Jewish.  This seems like a recipe for disaster.  Thoughts?

CC: Readers and audiences at the play have widely varying responses to that decision.  In fact, during the play, there is often a gasp when I tell about it.  Admittedly it was a strange and maybe radical compromise, but I think it may have been their best option for attempting to save their marriage and trying to remove Gary and me from the family battlefield.  Both Gary and I respect their intentions.   

DO: Do you have any words of advice for parents whose children are about to marry someone from a different religion or culture?

CC: Respect difference.  Talk honestly about it.  Try to understand alternate perspectives.  Don’t insist that your own beliefs and concerns are the only ones worth considering.

Encourage your children to talk honestly with their spouses-to-be about those differences, including the way they’re planning to raise their children.  And when their kids come along, grandparents should support the importance of the grandchildren embracing the totality of their backgrounds.  Don’t pressure them to reject part of their heritage.  Let them be whole.


Anonymous said...

This memoir sounds really interesting. I can't wait to read it.

Nancy Reil Riojas said...

Daniel, thank you for this interview! Dr. Cortes' memoir sounds so fascinating that I just bought it. Can't wait to read it. Sincerely, Nancy Reil Riojas, Author

Nancy Reil Riojas said...

Daniel, thank you for this interview with Dr. Cortes. His memoir sounds so fascinating that I just bought it. Can't wait to read it. Sincerely, Nancy Reil Riojas, Author