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.

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