March 9, 2007

Writing for young people is like writing with fire

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Chicano writer Juan Felipe Herrera remembers that the San Diego-Tijuana region was very different when he was growing up here during the 1950’s.

“Tijuana was full of grass and Chula Vista looked like a pueblito between Tijuana and San Diego,” he said. “The road only had two lanes: one going north and the other going south.”

Experiences like those growing up between two cultures inspired Herrera to become a writer.

And several of his books for children and young adults, such as “Downtown Boy” and “Calling the Doves,” have some aspects of his childhood memories growing up in San Diego.

Herrera returns to San Diego on Wed., March 14, when he arrives at San Diego State University (SDSU) with a public talk titled “From Logan Heights to the Heights of the Word: A Conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera”.

Herrera’s talk will be the second one in a series of talks with Latino children authors at SDSU.

“We’re trying to promote interest in Latino children’s literature,” said Phillip Serrato, assistant professor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature, which, with the Center for Latin American Studies, sponsors the series.

“There are many good books out there. We want our students to know this.”

Children’s literature written by Chicanos is getting more and more the attention of bilingual children.

Serrato said that during the 1990’s there was a sudden boom in children’s literature written by Chicanos.

“Publishing houses realized that there’s a lot of interest from young Latino readers,” he said.

Even though most of them are written in English, many Latino children’s books are bilingual, sometimes with the English-Spanish texts side-by-side.

The most common topics are daily life in the barrio, family traditions, and relations among different Latino cultures.

“These books validate Latino children’s cultural experiences,” said Serrato, who’s a member of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, based at SDSU.

Herrera, no doubt, has been a central figure in the development of Chicano children’s literature.

For the author of picture books such as “Cilantro Girl,” it’s important that young Chicano readers identify with the characters in his books.

“That’s been the vision of Chicano literature all along,” he said. “We all used to talk about doing arte para el pueblo, art for our people, so writing for children, nuestros niños, was a major idea.”

Herrera said there’s a huge difference between writing for adults and writing for children.

"The difference is that when you write for adults you write for a large, almost shapeless audience. Writing can become very abstract. But when you write for children, the focus is more intense. When you write for children you have to write with them in mind. You have to address their experiences, something they are going to enjoy,” the writer said.

But Chicano children’s literature isn’t only about positive experiences. On contrary, it touches difficult subjects, such as racism against undocumented immigrants and gang violence.

Some of the topics that Herrera has dealt with in his children and young adult books are about are about displacement, about being lost, about journeys to find ones self.

“I write about all those radical changes people go through the teen years. When you write for young people you’re writing with fire. Those are real tough subjects. Usually, adults get the sugar-coated, marshmallow writing. Children get the real, 100 percent truth when they read,” he said.

Herrera said that Chicano writers are trying to fill that void that had existed for decades. But he recognizes that is hard work to try to get young Chicanos to read.

“It’s difficult. We have to compete with television, music, movies. Sometimes is very hard to get a book into the hands of our kids,” he said.

That’s why he considers bilingual teachers to be the bridge between writers and children.

The last time Herrera visited San Diego was three years ago, when Calaca Press invited him for a reading at Memorial Academy, in Logan Heights, where he spent most of his youth.

Currently, Herrera is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, where he holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing.

The free event is this Wed-nesday, March 14, at 7 p.m., at Smith Recital Hall, at San Diego State University. Information: (619) 594-5170.

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