Transcript from an interview with George Ancona

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

George Ancona

Homemade Mexican chocolate

Well, my mother was a big woman who would just love to cook and feed people. She was a nurturer. So, my friends and I would come back from school and dump our books, and the first thing we knew, we were sitting down at the kitchen table, and she was making chocolate with the old batidor – making Mexican chocolate. And everybody had this steaming, frothy chocolate. And there were always cookies and tacos.

And I stay in touch with some of my friends that I grew up with. They're all scattered all over, but they would always reminisce about my mother's cooking and the warmth in our house.

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An immigrant neighborhood

My neighborhood was basically Italian, and we moved to three or four houses in that neighborhood. But I went to public school, and the kids from public school came from another side of town. So, there was a big mixture of immigrant families. We had Polish upstairs. We had an Irish family and Russian. And so I grew up listening to all these different languages.

Going into a friend's house was like entering a new universe. You know, my Jewish friends, I remember going to the house on Friday, and there was always newspapers on the floor and their mother yelling, "Don't bring the dirt in!" And, of course, in Italian houses the smells of pasta… One neighbor would grow grapes and make his own wine. And all this polyglot of impressions and tastes and smells is something I grew up with, and I'm very sensitive to that.

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Never say never

My father was an amateur photographer. He set up a little studio in the living room, and he would photograph the neighbors when they had their confirmations, or weddings. And in the bathroom he set up a little darkroom, and he would always ask me to come in. "Pablo, come on in." He would have me agitating the prints and the developer while he was setting up another print. And I swore I would never be a photographer, because it was so boring in this dark room with this red light and the gurgling water, and all I'm doing is agitating.

Never say never. So, I became a photographer later – but only later in life, after I had a career as a designer.

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A risk that paid off

After working ten years as an art director for various magazines – like "Seventeen" and "Esquire," I went on to advertising, because I wanted to do things in Fashion. And working with terrific photographers, I just watched what they did and, finally, I decided I just didn't want to go to another meeting. And I didn't want to just sit at a desk and be concerned about the politics of a structure at a corporation. So, I gulped hard and came home one day, and wrote a letter of resignation.

And my wife opened up the door. We had three kids then. And she says, "What are you doing?"

I said, "Don't talk to me. I'm quitting my job." She closed the door.

So, I went in and turned in my letter of resignation. And everybody was kind of in awe of me. You know, sort of thinking, "You're crazy; but, boy…"

And it worked. I started getting assignments from Vogue magazine, because I had done a lot of pictures with my children, and that's what I showed. And they had a magazine called "Vogue Children" at the time, and I fit right in, and I started doing that.

Then a friend of mine was Freddy Brenner, who was a men's fashion illustrator when we had worked at Esquire. His wife was Barbara Brenner, who wrote children's books. And we were having lunch one day at the house, and she said, "You know, I have an idea for a book, and I think photographs might be better than illustrations. It's called Faces." And she asked me would I like to try it.

I said, "Sure." So, I tried it, and I designed the book also. And we presented it, and they loved it.

We did another book together, called Bodies. And then after that, the editor said, "George, why don't you try writing a book?"

"Me? Write? I never went to college. I'm always a visual person."

And he said, "Well, you see, if you were to write the text, you would get the other 50 percent of the royalty."

"Alright." So, I wrote, and I did a book called Monsters on Wheels. They liked it. They published it and, voila, I'm an author.

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More than 30 seconds

To photograph people and leave – I've never wanted to be a journalist because of that. You go in, you get your story, and you're out. I had that feeling when I was doing the films for television, because you had to come in, and they just need 30 seconds. And here I am in Tunisia, let's say, and I'm just getting to know people and seeing and discovering things. And only 30 seconds, you know? It's not enough.

Discovering children's books just opened up a lot of opportunities to get to know people, to be accepted by them, to live with them. And more than the book, I feel that it's enriched my life. I have friends, and I'm still in touch with children that I photographed very early in their lives and I recently went back to a wedding of the little boy from Pablo Remembers. And I remember the father called me – collect – and said, "Pablo's getting married."

And I said, "Oh! Well, I want to go."

"Yes! Can you come?"

So, I went, and it was so touching to walk into their house, and these kids who were, well, maybe like six, eight, and ten at the time now 21, 19, and 17, look at me with this shock and come and just throw their arms around me and begin to cry. I cry. You know, I get teary-eyed. And there's no substitute for that experience. Sure, I got a book, but I carry this in my heart all my life. And I'm a part of them, and they are part of me. And wherever I go, the same thing happens.

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Day of the Dead

When I went to Mexico, I saw the way they spend the Day of the Dead, where the people get together like we do for Thanksgiving, and they spend a day and a night with their dead relatives in the cemetery. And they clean the gravestones. Then they light candles. They put flowers, and they put food offerings. It's time for prayer and contemplation, but also for enjoyment. The kids are running around, playing. And people play guitars, and they'll be singing.

And I came back, and I thought, "Gee, I'd like to do something about that." Death is not something that you brush aside or you hide. But the Mexicans confront it. They mock it. They dance as an affirmation of life.

So, I came up with this proposal, and I started sending it out to publishers. And at that time, I was doing one book after another. That's fine. But I couldn't get this one published. Everybody was rejecting it. I got 13 rejections over a period of five years, until one editor looked at it. And he says, "I'll publish it."

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Adventure in Mexico

Well, while I was in high school, I would go on Saturdays to the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and I would take a good drawing class. And I knew that Rufino Tamayo was teaching there, although I didn't take a class with him.

One day, I took my portfolio and showed it to him, and I said, "I am Mexican, but I've grown up here, and some day I'd like to go to Mexico."

And he looked at my work, and he said, "Well, when you come – this is my address – come and see me."

Well, I graduated, and I had saved $500 over the summers from my work. And I took a Greyhound bus from New York to Mexico City. It took five days…

So, I arrived in Mexico City, and I got a little hotel someplace, and I went to see Rufino Tamayo, who was very cordial. And he wrote a note which allowed me to go to the Academia de San Carlos, which was the school where all the great painters went. I took courses in fresco painting, the chemistry of painting, drawing and sculpture. And I was able to stay there for about three or four months, because my money was running out by then. I had some relatives in Mexico City, but not much. And I knew I had to get to the Yucatan to meet my grandparents and my uncles – that's where both my families come from.

But during that time in Mexico City, there were wonderful opportunities to meet people. They really went out of their way to get students to have experiences at the dance theater. I met José Limón and saw his performance. And for one of those performances I went backstage, and there was Diego Rivera and his wife. And he's a big man. He looked down on me. I was introduced to him, and he said, "Oh, you must come to have some mole." But he scared me. I didn't go!

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The best of both worlds

We grew up Mexican in a strange place. Aside from my parents, I had two uncles, and that's about it – and two cousins that lived in the Bronx, who I would see occasionally. And they were growing up the same way as I – sort of Mexican-American.

And when I went to Mexico for the first time and I met my Mexican cousins, suddenly I was engulfed with family. And it was so exciting. And I said to them, "Finally, I've gotten to meet the people of mi tierra. I've come to my country, to my land."

And they looked at my shoes, and they listened to my Spanish and said, "No. You gringo."

And I was crushed. But over the successive years of going back, I kind of realize who I am, because I have the best of both worlds.

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"If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book." —

J.K. Rowling