Voices of change
Authors at ‘the tipping point’ seek recognition to help the Latino community
By Carl Kozlowski 09/18/2013
Pasadena is a city with a large and vibrant Latino community, one with deep roots in local history. Yet, one group of area Latinos that is often overlooked both by even their own ethnic enclaves and the larger population is the community’s published authors.
After expressing their frustration to the Pasadena Weekly over being left out of LitFest Pasadena in May, veteran teacher and author Thelma Reyna organized her fellow writers under the umbrella group Pasadena Latino Authors and started planning ways to increase local awareness of their efforts.
Sitting down with the Weekly, along with fellow local authors Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin, Randy Jurado Ertll and Victor Cass (a Pasadena police officer who’s also an author and Reyna’s son), the panel of writers proved to be as lively in person as their works are on the page.
Pasadena Weekly: What has motivated you all to come together and speak out at this time?
Thelma Reyna: Litfest is a wonderful event, but it had zero Pasadena Latino authors. We’re not angry, just trying to complete the picture. We believe it’s important for our community that no one be excluded, especially considering the demographics here. We see ourselves as a resource as a group of people who are working very hard — not rookies, not emerging authors — have been active for many years and have collectively won awards for our work. We’re a cultural and educational resource for our community, and we would like people to know we do exist and call us. If you want guest speakers for various cultural events, we’re available for workshops, classes, speaking in schools.
Randy Jurado Ertll: It’s more making a statement that we’ve been here and plan to stay here through our writing for perpetuity. It’s awesome that we Latino writers are able to capture the history and current events of Pasadena, because that hasn’t been done well in the past. We’re part of the fabric of this city, and it’s not just Latino literature. It’s also American literature, and we want to be taken more seriously as writers.
Have you attempted showcases of your own in Pasadena?
Thelma Reyna: We did an event in 2010 where we did a historic event, the first time in our city’s history that a group of our city’s published Latino authors got together for an event. It was six of us plus a moderator at the Central Library theater and over 100 attended, so it proved there’s an interest. We’re looking forward to doing another major event, and about 12 of us have gathered together lately to figure out how to do it.
Aside from increased exposure, what else can be done to improve your connection with the broader local culture?
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin: Although I never give up and have faith in Pasadena, I’m very disappointed. Pasadena has continuously failed the Mexican kids who are not achieving to their ability. We now know our kids need to know our language and take pride in themselves, rather than feel second class. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. If you can’t say a Spanish word in the classroom, that’s trouble. Our kids don’t know that there is scholarship money targeted for them because school administrators don’t let them know.
Randy Jurado Ertll: We need institutional change at the policy level. We’re not recognized appropriately for all we do. Even the mayor doesn’t want to recognize the effort we make as authors or tutoring kids how to read and write and do math and science. We struggle to be recognized and it gives a lot of pride to the community if we get appropriate respect for helping kids and through writing.
Thelma Reyna: You’ve heard of the phrase “The Tipping Point,” from the book by Malcolm Gladwell, the point where something has to change. And Pasadena is at a tipping point. The majority ethnicity in Pasadena is 38 percent Caucasian. Latinos are right there at 36 percent, and the rest are far behind. Our schools are over 60 percent Hispanic right now. We’re at a tipping point, where if you do not include this huge demographic in education and literacy you’re not going to develop into a good society. Abstractly, it’s all tied together and we have to come out of the shadows.
Victor Cass: I think that it’s important for anyone interested in literature to find the voices that are out there within the groups you have. The local public school system is sometimes 80 to 90 percent Hispanic and these kids are not exposed to as many Latino writers as they can be. So there’s a question of what we put out there. Studies show that if they read stories that resemble their family’s stories and have names like them, it generates interest.
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin: So many black and Hispanic men are in prison. I work on that weekly with All Saints Church. That’s what happens when you don’t have a goal or self-esteem and you just get into the negative.
Thelma Reyna: Functional illiteracy is huge in prison, because kids aren’t engaged.
Victor Cass: In my 20 years of law enforcement, I have seen the results of kids who are not nurtured educationally and culturally. If you don’t nurture that, something else is going to fill the void. You see homes with domestic violence and drugs and abuse. There’s not a book in the home and parents don’t care. The system has to educate the parents and the child together. That’s how you’ll get kids off the street.
What would you like to see done first in our schools?
Thelma Reyna: Let’s come up with a simple solution. Let’s supplement. We don’t want to throw out Mark Twain and Shakespeare. We love the classics, but in today’s times, studies show us to hook our children with supplemental reading. Functionally illiterate people are dominating our prisons and they often have very high IQs. It’s always about the little children coming up. The next generation is a big thing to me.
Victor Cass: States choose the school curriculum, and it really should be a multi-tracked level so we have more diverse voices in these literature textbooks. I love the classics, but there are Hispanic and Asian and Armenian writers out there too, so reflect that. Challenge kids to find Latino writers online — they’ll find hundreds of them and interest them in consuming them. I’m just glad when kids read. When my daughter goes to a bookstore and asks for a book, that’s one thing I’ll get every time.
Thelma Reyna can be reached via thelmareyna.com
Randy Jurado Ertll can be reached via randyjuradoertll.com
Victor Cass can be reached via victorcass.com
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.