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Transcript from an interview with Pat Mora

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Pat Mora. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Pat Mora

Missing heritage

It's interesting to me that though I lived in a very bilingual community, Spanish was never mentioned at school. Many of my friends also came from bilingual homes – or, certainly from homes where Spanish was spoken. And I visited those homes, just as I visited the homes of my monolingual English friends; but Spanish and being of Mexican descent and being part of the border experience was never part of my educational experience.

It was really not until I sat down to start writing, which was a little over 20 years ago, that I realized that part of my life – a big part of my life – had never totally been welcomed in my educational experience. So, I was a good student. I loved school. I loved reading. And to some extent, I never noticed that part of what I was, was missing at school.

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A vein of gold

When I finally realized that I had a sort of a vein of gold that I had never tapped, it was like opening that treasure chest. My whole Mexican heritage was something that I could write about.

And so now when I talk to teachers, and when I talk to librarians, and when I talk to students, I say the trick is how we bring everything that we are to the page – everything. So that if a student happens to love science and love bugs, I always say to him that was always something you could write about, because you were excited about it.

Well, culture is the same way. And when I'm using my books with students – particularly with students who are bilingual, who are bicultural – they make connections immediately. They're so excited, because they see themselves.

I had a woman come up to me the other night at a poetry reading at a university in Colorado. She rushed in and had this present for me. And she said, "I want to give you this present, because I want you to meet this little boy." And it was her son. And she said, "He never cared about books, until I read him Tomís and the Library Lady. And it had his name, Enrique, in it." And she said, "And he has carried this book around ever since."

Well, that was a very moving moment. We know that students read when they make connections. They need to make connections. And so including all of the rich cultures of the United States – that's another way that we help students to make connections with books.

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A versatile writer

The family memoir House of Houses is another book for adults in the nonfiction mode that was a great source of pleasure. It's not a book I ever expected to write, but I come from a very close family, and a lot of my children's books have family themes. So, House of Houses was a way to spend time thinking about some of the most important voices in my life, which is why I think family stories are so important.

It's fun to point out that the children's book, The Rainbow Tulip, actually began in House of Houses. And when I realized this experience that my mom had had in the first grade, being the translator – you know, many children around the country are the translator generation. Their families speak one language at home. The child speaks another language at school, and the child becomes that translator. So, my mother was that.

And had I not written House of Houses, I would never have heard that story about the May parade and her experience. And so when I finished House of Houses, I thought, "Well, I'm going to take that story out and do it as a picture book."

And I may do that with some of the stories about my dad, who was also quite a character. And I think it would give me a lot of pleasure to do some of the books about him.

I've also written five poetry collections for adults. Students always say, "Well, which is your favorite form?" And I always say, "Well, poetry's my favorite form." It's probably because it's the most challenging. In many ways, it's the most playful of the forms, I think.

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The library lady

But I also love talking to teachers and librarians about this little guy from Crystal City, Texas, whose parents did not speak English, and whose parents didn't have much money. They were migrant workers. Most students today do not know what those words mean. School after school, I say, "What are migrant workers?" And unless the teacher has done work before my visit, students do not know that.

So, that means they are growing up believing that those strawberries and tomatoes arrive at the store on their own. So, it's important that people realize that that is really hard stoop labor, and that the living conditions of migrant workers are still deplorable. And we're talking about right in our own country. And the way migrant students can be treated in schools can still be sort of an embarrassment.

The book is about this journey that he makes. Throughout the book, he's a child; but he has had a transforming experience. And, of course, I believe in the power of teachers and librarians with my whole heart. And in many ways, this book embodies that – that because of this one person who is there for him, who takes an interest in him, who helps him with his reading – and in the book I have him teach her Spanish, because I want that notion of balance, that we're both learning.

He goes on and, as I tell students when I visit schools, he experienced tremendous discrimination. He had a degree in English, but he was hired to drive the school bus. The notion was, how could a Mexican-American teach English?

So, his secret, though, was that he kept learning. And that's what I tell students. He kept learning. He kept getting more and more degrees. And, eventually, he was a faculty member, and then he was a vice president. And then he became the president of the University of California at Riverside.

So, it's a great example to talk about the idea that it isn't money that's going to be essential for personal success for students. He comes from a family without that. It is really his determination, his love of learning – and the fact that there was an educator – in this case, a librarian – who helped open that world of books for him. And many times when I read the books, teachers and librarians will themselves come up and say, "There was someone like that in my life." So, how can we be that for the next generation is the question.

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My Tío Pablo

I have begun asking teachers and librarians who I feel are being very successful, what are some of the things that they are doing? And I am encouraged at the sort of enthusiastic strategies that I see teachers and librarians exploring.

For example, I have always talked about the importance of making classrooms psychologically safe places. And that's one issue. How do we create a spirit of community in a class? And it's my interest as a writer where every child feels, "I can tell you my story, and it's safe. It's safe. I can tell you about the food we eat. I can tell you about the songs we sing. I can tell you about my crazy uncle, my Tío Pablo, and you're going to treat it with respect."

That is going to open up creative possibilities for students. They become so excited when they can talk about what they know and feel that that is valued, that that is important, that you're excited about it.

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Partnering with Latino parents

There has been some research looking at how different cultural groups respond to education – you know, the way maybe Asian parents versus Latino parents. And there are perceptions out there that Latino parents may opt out of involvement with the school.

There is deep respect for education within the Latino community, and so many times parents will feel – particularly because they may not speak English – that you're the expert. They have such respect for you, that they feel you're the expert. "I really have to let you handle my child's education."

And what I enjoy are the teachers and librarians who say, "Oh, no! We're partners in this. I need you. Your child needs you. And let me talk about specific strategies. Here are the things you can do. You can say, 'Read me that book in English. Read me that book in English, and I'm going to listen. And after you read it to me in English, I'm going to have you tell me about it in Spanish.'"

And by working with parents – whether we're talking about Appalachia, or whether we're talking about rural South Texas, or whether we're talking about inner-city San Francisco – we are often working with parents who may not have a literacy tradition.

And so we talk about how can you do this – what those of us know how to do, because we grew up in homes where people did it.

What I want us to do is to let that eddy out, you know, to really let the power of language and the power of literacy and the power of reading spread through the energy that we invest in working with these families that I think are ready to help, if we can give them some concrete strategies and ideas and fun projects that they can do.

I've seen schools that are having parents and children write their books together. And it doesn't matter what languages they're using. The school is there to work on developing English skills. We all want students to be able to read, write and speak English well. You cannot actively participate in the public life of the United States without that skill. I want that for every student.

But I also want them to realize that their home language is a gift. I always tell them that. You know, I am lucky to be bilingual. I wish I were trilingual.

We're cheating ourselves if we don't realize that these parents can be our teachers and our students' teachers, and bring them into the classroom and involve them. And my experience is that they just glow when that happens.

I saw a group of parents talk about the fact that they would get together with a teacher, and they would study a book in Spanish. And then they would decorate the school with posters that they were making. And then they would go present those books in the classes. And to see those parents saying, "I'm part of this school. My art is up on the halls. I'm helping my student learn."

So, the myth that somehow Latino parents can't be invited in and can't be active and excited members of the school community is a dangerous myth. And I think we need to put it to rest – and be busy building those bridges.

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Reaching out

I think we really need to differentiate between the fact that we have all kinds of Latino families – if we're going focus just for a minute on Latino families. I'm equally interested in Vietnamese families and Hmong families and how we make all kinds of families feel welcome.

But to focus for a minute on Latino families, there's a wide range of diversity within that group – not only diversity in terms of home country – so, it could be Cuba, it could be Puerto Rico, it could be Venezuela – but not all Latino families are immigrant families. So, there are families that have been here for five generations.

And when we think about outreach programs, we need to sort of really study – just the way we do in anything – what is the population that I'm working with like? If we're talking about immigrant populations, there may be the notion that, "Maybe I have to pay if I go to the library." So, I don't go. Maybe I don't speak English, and I'm afraid that the librarian is going ask me a question. And I'm going to look incompetent in front of my children.

I asked a teacher who worked with a group of students in Nevada one day, when the librarian said, "Well, I'm just really discouraged. I have a bilingual story hour, and nobody's coming." And so I said to this young teacher, "Why aren't they coming?"

And she said what I hoped she would say, "They're afraid." They're afraid. You know, we don't like to put ourselves in situations where we feel we might be humiliated. And so there's very good will on the inside of that library, or that school. How do we extend that?

And it's the same issue, frankly, that museums are working with now. How do we reach out to populations that, perhaps, previous generations were ambivalent about? And what excites me now is the number of teachers and librarians that are excited, that really want to serve the whole population.

So, how do we do that? Well, we set a tone. Sometimes it means we have to leave the library. So, I have a lot of librarian friends who do all kinds of outreach at community centers. They go to churches. They go to social service agencies. They go to medical clinics and start talking about books, and start saying, "Come over to the library. I'm going to be there when you get there."

Programs that make parents feel welcome. I remember a program in Redwood City, California, where I was to talk to an existing group. It was an outreach group. I think that these were primarily families from Guatemala. And the library had done a lot of outreach, and they had picked an evening time that was convenient for families.

And so what we did was I talked to the whole group in Spanish, and then the parents had time to wander around the library. And the students did a craft, and we all came together again. And it was a book about the desert. It was a book called Listen to the Desert/Oye al desierto. And we all read the book together, and the students used the little puppets – you know, lizards and frogs that they had made during the craft period. So, it was a positive experience for everybody.

And then they had a grant, which allowed them to give students a book. And I remember the mom who came up to me and said in Spanish, "I want to congratulate you for writing this, because I can read this book to my child, because it has the Spanish. And he can read it to me in English."

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Not enough multicultural books?

Though people talk about how it's wonderful that we see more and more multicultural books, I don't think the statistics bear that out. They may be more visible- that is, some stores may be more likely to have them. I don't know that more are actually being produced. Out of the 5,000 children's books published in the United States every year, two percent are by or about Latinos, though we know the size of the Latino population – 37 million – and we know the size of the Latino student population.

So, many times when I'm out, teachers and librarians are very generous and say, "Well, keep writing those books," and, "We really need them."

A whole other topic for conversation is how to get those manuscripts published. It remains really difficult. So, we need to see diversity within the publishing field. We need to see diversity in terms of reviewers, in terms of award committees. You know, publishing is its own complex world. So, I always encourage teachers and librarians to be leaders, to go into bookstores. And if they don't see the books that reflect their children's lives, to talk to the manager. Almost every bookstore has more books about dogs and cats than about Latinos. It's a sad reality.

So, I think teachers and librarians can help change that. Talk to publishers. Say, "We need these books." Encourage your libraries to have the books. I think we all have to be part of the change. We have to be part of the change of creating an American literature that is all that it can be, because it includes Native American voices and African-American voices and Arab-American voices and Latino voices.

And that's just going to keep growing, because we are the one world nation, you know. Most of the languages spoken in the world are now spoken in the United States. So, that's a blessing. We just want to make sure that that is represented in what we call our national literature, whether that's for children or adults.

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You don't have to speak English

The other detail that I've heard lately that I'm very excited about is working with parents, bringing them into the school and speaking to them in their native language, and talking about how to be a support to your child, and saying to them in their native language, "You don't have to speak English to help your child succeed. So, let's talk about some strategies."

What usually happens is those parents do get excited about learning. They get to feel comfortable in the school. Pretty soon, they want English language classes. You know, people like to learn. People are curious when their fears have been diminished.

In my hometown of El Paso, we had a program called the Mother-Daughter Program. Initially, it was targeted at sixth-grade girls, to help them think about the university as a reasonable option. What happened as we worked with those moms is those moms would say, "Well, I want to go on with my education."

So, there are so many advantages to a community in involving all parents, rather than in assuming that, "Well, those parents don't care," or because they don't speak English, they can't be part of the library family, or they can't be part of the school family.

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Día de los niños/ Día de los libros

The librarians around the country who serve Latinos and the Spanish-speaking have an organization that's a very diverse organization. It's not all Latino librarians, but they're librarians who are very committed to really being effective professionals for Latinos of all ages. It's a group called REFORMA, an affiliate of the American Library Association. They decided that April 30th would be a good day for all of us to celebrate El día del niño/El día del libro – Children's Day/Book Day. And it has been really exciting to see it ripple out.

I see schools and libraries that start planning a year in advance for what they're going to do. I always say it's not just a one-day event. It is the day in which we celebrate all across the country the hard, but joyful, work of a year of linking all children to books, languages and cultures.

One of my dreams is to see those words "El día de los niños/El día de los libros" translated into all the languages spoken in the United States. So, I always say to librarians, "If your service population is a Vietnamese population, put those words in Vietnamese."

In the pueblos here in the Southwest, I know that some of them have been involved in taking some time on April 30th to make culture boxes, and to think about their own culture and what they celebrate about it, and to write their own books, to draw their own books. I have known of places where they have author day on April 30th, and students autograph their own books. I mean there are all kinds of ways that we can help them to celebrate language, but also help them celebrate languages.

So, there's a lot of information on the web about this. And my hope is that if this is taking place in your community, that you'll be involved. But if it's not taking place in your community, that you will chat with a library. It could be a school. It could be a social service agency that is excited about this endeavor.

There is some information on my website at www.patmora.com. And there are links to the REFORMA web site, the librarians'. There are many ideas there. The Association of Library Services for Children has produced a brochure. There's a link to that. And the brochure is available in English, but it's also now going to be available in Spanish.

The Texas Library Association is going to be producing a website within the next year that will include a poster and bookmark and toolkit. The American Library Association also has an El día de los niños/El día de los libros poster and bookmark that can be ordered.

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"A book is a gift you can open again and again." — Garrison Keillor