Monday, November 05, 2018

An interview with Daniel Acosta Regarding His Young Adult Novel, “The Iron River”

By Daniel A. Olivas

Daniel Acosta was born in Monterey Park, California, and grew up in Iron River’s Sangra neighborhood, across the street from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks until his teens. After graduation from San Gabriel Mission Grammar School, he spent his high school years in Compton, California, at the Catholic Claretian Junior Seminary.

Acosta left the seminary in 1965 and enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, where he graduated from Cal State with a B.A. in English in 1969. In 1970, he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Three years later, Acosta began teaching English at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, California. He taught for 34 years before retiring in 2007.

Acosta is the father of four and lives with his wife Linda in Rosemead, California. The Iron River (Cinco Puntos Press) is Acosta’s first novel which he calls “a labor of love” for his “family, friends, and neighborhood.”

The Iron River is a deeply affecting, richly rendered meditation on Mexican-American life in Southern California of the late 1950s. Daniel Acosta has created a literary world that brings to full relief violence, social injustice, and bigotry through the eyes of young people. This beautiful, compelling book should be required reading in schools across the country.

Daniel Acosta

Your novel is set in Los Angeles circa 1958 just a few years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation and a few years before the Chicano activism of the 1960s. Why did you choose that year for your narrative?

I suppose I subscribe to the writer’s adage to write what you know. In 1958, I myself was on the cusp of teenagery living in a Mexican-American neighborhood on a street bordering the railroad tracks. Lo these many years since, I decided to look back at the fifties, a decade too often portrayed only nostalgically through the eyes of an adolescent. My memory of those years is that they were fraught with danger either real or imagined: the atomic bomb, the Korean war, the cold war, divorce, drug addiction and alcoholism, domestic violence.

Looking back, I seem to feel that racial minorities—me included—were nothing more than background scenery for the world of white people. We were invisible unless we got in their way. The children of 1958 watched their United States-born mothers and fathers strive to acculturate and demonstrate their citizenship and patriotism in two wars, only to be confined to barrios when their sacrifices were no longer needed. By the late fifties, negro rhythm and blues songs were being covered by the likes of Pat Boone, et al. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision disallowing de jure school segregation, de facto housing segregation continued until much later, and not just in the South. It was not a world in which I felt welcome in 1958. Some of the children of 1958 Sangra became the Chicano activist of the late 1960-70s.

Your main character, Manny Maldonado Jr., is a moody, introspective 12-year-old boy who suffers nightmares that trigger bedwetting. Can you talk a little about your development of this character and why you chose him to be the center of your novel?

Manny’s bedwetting is only one of his life’s mysteries. There are others throughout the novel that mystify him: the comings and goings of tramps on boxcars and at his grandmother’s door, the news of his uncle Rudy’s imminent arrival announced by a tecato weeks before the formal letter of notification, a racist cop’s cruelty, his cousin Cruz’s harsh mistreatment of him, his father’s seeming rejection of his own brother. These life mysteries are new to Manny as he reaches the age of awareness of a world outside of himself that is not in his control. And he struggles to find places—islands of safety—as he navigates this world of adults where children do not matter much. Also, Huckleberry Finn is probably my all-time favorite literary character. Manny is my homage to Huck.

You’re the father of four children. Did you draw upon their lives in creating the world of the children in your novel?

Actually, I think the lives of my children bear little resemblance to the kids in the novel. My adolescent peers were my inspiration. This book is, in part, the keeping of a promise I made to my childhood best friend.


Unknown said...

I wasn't sure about this book but as Dan is a friend I read it. The neighborhood was an alien society to me as I grew up in a white neighborhood in central Jersey. Latino's and Asian families were not my neighbors. African American families would not become the norm in our neighborhood until the early 70's. I didn't know about discrimination or segregation until I was 15 years old and then only vicariously. I found the book to be enlightening, humorous, clearly developed a picture of the area and the Iron River. The character development made them real. The reader could like or dislike the characters and form an opinion of their actions.
I enjoy riding the train. Never heard it called an Iron River. I will pass this book along to my 10 year old grandson. Thanks Dan. Look forward to your next one. Anne

Unknown said...

Hey, Daniel, this is Terri Waits- Smith. You volunteered in my classroom @ San Gabriel H.S. in 2008-10 I believe when I was teaching reading intervention to struggling 9th graders. I just came across your story "Homeboy" while clearing out some of my old teaching materials & looked you up to see if you are still writing. Can't wait to get/read Iron River! I'd love to connect with you. I'm retired & volunteering @ Homeboy Industies. Please contact me @


DANIEL I had the pleasure of meeting you at the veterans coalition in SAN GABRIEL. i grew up in the barrio .We arrived in SAN GABRIEL in 1959 from MEXICO and lived on sunset ave until i got drafted.I entered the service in 1966 and was sent to VIETNAMin 1967 and spent sometime with the 9th infantry division i was a field medic was wounded and returned to the states after an honorable medical discharge with a purple heart and a medical combat badge i took advantage of my g.i.bill and attended cal poly pomona and received my BS in ARCHITECTURE also graduate courses in urban planning and urban design i ended up working for architects after college and the city of pico rivera the city of cerritos and finally for the city of el monte in el monte i started in charge of housing was also promoted to community development ,redevelopment, assistant city manager and finally to city manager. My reason forwriting this comment is to let you know i read your book and reminded me of our old neighborhood ,we spent a lot of our time in LA CASA and the san gabriel mission .i just send my book to my sister . GREAT BOOK