I first met Carmen Tafolla in the fall of 2009, when I organized her reading at South Texas College in McAllen. I’d enjoyed her story collection The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans and felt my composition students—most of whom were Mexican-American—would identify with her work, which focuses on Mexican-American characters and culture. For a little over an hour, my students and I watched in fascination as Tafolla ignored the conventions of a traditional reading and instead transformed into her characters; her facial expressions, voice, and posture changed to bring the people of her work to life. Afterward, students praised the performance.
In addition to writing fiction, Tafolla is an accomplished poet. Her latest collection is Sonnets and Salsa.
April of 2012 was a remarkable time for the author because she was announced as San Antonio’s inaugural poet laureate. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
RM: Congratulations on your selection as San Antonio’s first poet laureate. You assumed this role in April 2012 and will serve for two years. How were you selected, and what are your responsibilities?
CT: In early 2011, the city of San Antonio, in the process of visionary planning to become an intellectual and artistic brainpower community, decided to stimulate the literacy and literary involvement of its community by appointing a city poet laureate. A national committee of expert poets was appointed, nominations were requested from the community over a period of several months, and 21 nominations by city residents were reviewed by the national committee. In March 2012, I was informed I was their unanimous selection. On April 3rd, the city celebrated my investiture as the inaugural poet laureate in City Council Chambers to a standing-room only crowd. Mayor Julian Castro proudly presented the medallion and entrusted me with the role. They looked to me to define the five programs I would help develop to impact literary involvement in our community. The honor came one month after my book Curandera, about to be released in its 30th anniversary edition, was banned in the State of Arizona, along with Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, Tomas Rivera’s Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the other books in Tucson USD’s exemplary K-12 Mexican- American Studies curriculum. While Arizona was attempting to control and exclude its diversity and the writings of its Mexican-American authors, San Antonio was embracing their diverse writers as a reflection of who we, as a nation, are.
RM: You have been a teacher for many years and are now writer-in-residence at the University of Texas – San Antonio. What is one lesson you want students to come away with?
CT: That the physical world, the modern scientific world, the world of “validated data” is only the tip of the iceberg and that human beings respond to, impact, and are influenced by a huge non-visible world that we have not “validated” yet in the data. That is, standardized tests do not tell us what students have learned, pharmaceutical medicines do not treat all our ills, and the world of emotion, spiritual energy, respeto, and peaceful attitudes toward our environment has an immense and tangible impact on how smart, healthy, and happy we end up. This means that there is a place in our world for curanderos, traditional folk wisdom, and poets, and that you are more than just a number or a score or even a label—your powers are limitless.
RM: Who are your major literary influences, and what contemporary writers would you recommend?
CT: The most important literary influences in my life had to be the elderly people in the barrios where I grew up, who told stories and declaimed poems that represented centuries of legacy and affirmation. The grandparents, aunts, uncles, and storytellers who polished a story with each telling, revising, editing, and verbally transmitting those stories down through generations, [holding] us children captive with their tales of La llorona and El cucuy, and with their dramatic poems they had been taught by people who learned them 100 years earlier. As far as modern writers, I always recommend Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel, as well as Juan Felipe Herrera, Amy Tan, Ana Castillo.
RM: You are one of today’s leading Mexican-American authors. Many of your works heavily feature aspects of Mexican-American culture. Do you believe ethnic authors have a duty to introduce audiences to their cultures?
CT: Ethnic authors have the same responsibility all authors do: to honestly, accurately, and authentically reflect, reveal, and document the world in which they personally live. For some authors, this means exposing the ugliness of a bureaucratic system; for some, it means revealing the inner strength of the characters they paint; for others, it means detailing the beauty of a centuries-old culture.
RM: As an author, you are also a performer. I recall a performance in which you suddenly transformed into your story’s narrator, an old woman. Your posture, gestures, and voice changed dramatically. How does a transformation like this work, and what does it add to your readings?
CT: For years, I read my poetry very dramatically, in the voice of the protagonist, and one day, Alurista said to me, “When you read, you do something. With your voice, your face, you turn into these people.” Then one day, I was talking to an audience about the people of my culture, and I found myself wishing I could share these people with the audience—the way they looked and the power with which they spoke. And I realized, I [could]. So, I decided to make a leap and go all the way—I brought simple props—a shawl, a cane, a baseball cap, and performed the characters that were already in my poems and stories. People loved it. It helped them see the person.
RM: What are your current literary projects?
CT: By far, the most important literary project I have undertaken and which I hope to finish this year is the adult biography of Emma Tenayuca, the young Mexican-American civil rights organizer in San Antonio in the 1930s. I also would like to finish editing my newest children’s book, The Prince of Chocolate, aimed at children 7-11 years of age. This September, I have two books of poetry being released: one the long-awaited Rebozos!, an art and poetry coffee table book featuring the amazing color portraits of Catalina Gárate, who captured, through the texture and drape and folds of the rebozos of rural indigenous women in Mexico, the universal emotions and experiences of women, and for which I wrote poems in English and Spanish. The other is a collection of poems about San Antonio entitled This River Here. I also have a collection of poetry for children entitled Catalina’s Calendar, with poems for the events and seasons of the Mexican-American Southwest.
RM: Thank you for your time.
Contributed by special NewBorder correspondent René Martínez. Mr. Martínez is a native of the Rio Grande Valley. He teaches English and creative writing at South Texas College in McAllen. His fiction has appeared in Boulevard.