A few years ago after presenting at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, I took questions from students. One of them made a comment. He said I was changing the names of the characters in my stories into Spanish, and passing them off as Mexican American stories. The professor was a bit worried, knowing I speak my mind and often with too much color. The class was a literature of the Southwest class, and the students had read Mexican American writers so they had some knowledge of Chicano/a stories, and yet this insulting comment was made.
After class the professor Dr. Cory Lock, a good friend of mine, apologized for the student. I brushed it off because I know when we tell our stories, we honor the names of our hometowns and families, but I have met my share of folks who don’t want to learn about our culture. My Spanish is terrible, but I don’t run or hide from my Mexican heritage. Soy Chicano, Mexicano, and Mexican American, but I will never be Hispanic. It’s a great feeling to belong to the Rio Grande Valley. I think a sense of place and culture is important, but I didn’t grow up reading about Mexican Americans in Texas, much less the Rio Grande Valley. Mexican culture was around me with family stories going back over a hundred years, but we weren’t in the books. The only story I knew with Mexicans was the story about The Alamo in San Antonio, how the brave Texans were surrounded by the evil Mexican army, and the Texans died for Texas, but the textbooks didn’t say anything about how the Texans wanted slaves and Mexicans were against slavery.
Mexicans were the good guys, and now Texas hides its shameful past in school textbooks under the issue of state’s rights. March 2, 1836, known as Texas Independence Day, is also the day 5000 African Americans were chained to fields across Texas, and by 1860 there were 58,161 slaves in Texas. But imagine if Mexican American students knew Mexico was against slavery? If Mexican American students knew we were on the right side of history, we’d have a stronger self-esteem. I think it takes a dose of healthy self-esteem to write about your culture, but living in your culture is not enough. You have to reflect on your personal experiences and study your culture. Talk to your family and ask them about the elders. Learn your past, embrace the present, and clear a path for others.
In 1980 my family left Edcouch for Austin, Texas. I was 16 and didn’t know anything about Austin. The farthest I had been was San Antonio, and it felt like the Valley, but Austin had bigger buildings and it was, and still is, very white. I couldn’t get my bearings in Austin, and though my school was good mix of students, due to mandatory busing, I was missing home. I didn’t know I was Mexican until I left the Valley and I didn’t understand what a Mexican American was until I joined the Chicano Culture Committee at U.T. Austin in 1985. Several friends from the Valley moved to Austin, and we became active in the Chicano Committee: Francisco Guajardo, Miguel Guajardo, Jaime Vela, Yvonne Cardenas, and others from across Texas. We had help from faculty: Dr. Rolando Smith Hinojosa and Dr. Ricardo Romo. The committee organized conferences and symposiums on Mexican American topics and invited guest speakers, and in the process we were building our own education. Speakers challenged our roles as Mexican Americans in American society and pushed for us to speak up for others and, more importantly, create a space for Mexican American voices and stories.
In December 1989 my brother Roger was killed in a car accident, and his death was the beginning of my writing journey. Before his death my plan was to be a politician or maybe go to law school. I was happily married, and my wife was supportive of my career choices. I was a Mexican American with a white last name. I was practically raised by my grandfather David Hume Rice, so I was comfortable around white people and knew their ways of thinking and talking. I could go far in politics or law, but my passion was writing. My grandfather David and some teachers said I should become a writer, but it was almost an impossible task. After Roger died, I thought every day about how death comes too quickly even if you live to be a 101. A day not doing what you love is a wasted day. A few months after my brother’s death, I told my wife I wanted to be a writer. She said what we both knew.
“A writer? How are you going to do that? You don’t like to read, you can’t spell and you can’t sit still for five minutes.” She was right, and to top it off, I have dyslexia and ADHD. My brother and I weren’t allowed to drink coffee or sodas as kids, and I still don’t drink coffee or sodas. Writing was going to be a challenge, but my wife didn’t stop with my lack of skills. What was my subject going to be? I told her I was going to write short stories about being Mexican American and growing up in the Valley. My wife, who was born and raised in Arkansas and had been to the Valley several times, was quick.
“Mexicans don’t read and don’t buy books. If you write about being Mexican no one is going to read your stories or buy your books. You’ll be broke all you life.” In 1987, I was a reporter for The University Star at Southwest Texas State University, and I had some experience with writing and meeting deadlines, but those were news stories; I wanted to write fiction. I did my best to persuade my wife and explained how I thought there was a market for Mexican American stories, not because I wanted her support, but because I loved her and didn’t want to lose her, but honestly, I didn’t know any Mexican American writers. I had met Rolando Smith Hinojosa in 1986, but I didn’t know he was a writer. I had never read a book by a Mexican American writer, and by 1990 there were plenty: Rolando Smith Hinojosa, Tomas Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Américo Paredes, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. But I didn’t read any of their works in school or college. My wife and I went through a painful separation, and I decided to focus on reading.
I was not in college at the time and drove a UT shuttle, going round and round all day. Before I drove a bus, I used to work for the Austin Public Library and shelved hundreds of books a day. I knew there were lots of books on how to write, and I used to thumb through the pages, wondering if I could be a writer. I had a copy of Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories, fourth edition, by James H. Pickering. I began to read the stories in the collection very slowly, as I read anyway, because I have dyslexia.
I’d go to the public library and looked up dissertation abstracts on the stories. I’d sit at a table and read the bio of the author and essays about the story. I wanted to learn how to deconstruct a story and put it back together again. I needed to learn how stories worked: paragraphs, transitions, foreshadowing, metaphors, double entendre, etc. My grandfather David, who died in 1984, told me a self-educated man can do anything.
In the spring of 1991, I took a creative writing class at Southwest Texas State University and my professor, Dr. Karen Brennan, didn’t like my story too much, “Guilt-Shaped Cookies.” I later changed the title to “Heart-Shaped Cookies.” She said she didn’t understand it, and I told her I didn’t write it for her. I was an older student, 27, and had a sense of urgency to my writing. Brennan said she didn’t think she could help me, but she did what a good teacher should do. Find the right mentor for a student in need. She introduced me to Jaime Mejía who was from Donna, Texas. Brennan and I became good friends. Dr. Mejía at the time was the only Mexican American faculty member in the English department. I showed him my story, and he read it in front of me, and when he finished, asked what Mexican American writers I had read. My answer? A disappointing none.
Mejía, an avid reader, loaned me some books and said he wouldn’t help until I read the books. Fair enough. I read books by Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Tomás Rivera, and Sandra Cisneros. The books by Hinojosa and Rivera were great because they had a Valley feel to them and I could relate. When I was reading Rolando Hinojosa- Smith’s books, I think it was Dear Rafe, I felt as though I knew his writing style, and it came to me. It was the mid ‘80s, and I was flying from RGV to Austin on Southwest Airlines and in the flight magazine had one of his short stories, “The Gulf Oil Can Tin Santa Claus.” It was a great story about home, and I wanted to keep the magazine, but thought it best to leave it for someone else to read.
I returned the books to Mejía. He had a lot of questions regarding the stories, and we talked for over an hour. Mejía wrote his dissertation on Hinojosa-Smith, and just being with the man who studied one of my heroes, made Mejía my hero too. It was the beginning of a good friendship but also one of high expectations. Mejía asked what my plans were for writing. I told him I wanted to write a collection of short stories and have it published by the time I was 30. I thought if I could write a book by 30, my wife might take me back. I could show her how serious I was about my found passion. Three years to write and publish a book seemed possible.
Mejía has an expressive face and gave me a good dose of reality. He said I was arrogant to think I could write enough stories for a book and he was right. I didn’t have an MFA and not even a college degree. But I was determined to write and said I’d follow his advice and commit myself to the discipline required to write my book. Mejía nodded and said we’ll see. A month later, one Friday night, Mejía and I were at the Showdown bar in San Marcos having a drink. It was a good night and I had a few friends there. Halfway into the night, Mejía leaned over to me and said, “You know what Hinojosa is doing right now?” I didn’t know and thought maybe Hinojosa was giving a big talk at a conference. I said I didn’t know.
“He’s writing and you’re here drinking,” Mejía said with a disapproving shake of his head. His line stung deep, and to this day, when I’m goofing off, I think, Hinojosa-Smith is writing right now and I need to get to writing.
Over the summer I took a short story class with Dr. Robert Randolph. It was a short summer session class, and I didn’t miss a day. Randolph, like Mejía, was good at deconstructing stories; something I enjoyed because I knew the key to writing stories was studying how they worked. Between Mejía and Randolph, I began to re-work “Guilt Shaped Cookies.” It took weeks of re-writes. Writing what you know is a great place to start, but you still have to write it well, and re-writes are the best part of writing.
My parents were not too keen on my being a writer. I think for most Mexican American parents, having a child who wants to be an artist is a bad idea. College is meant for getting a degree so you can get a job. Parents want their children to get a degree in business, science, law or become a teacher. Something practical because we don’t have the luxury of being artists. I’d show my parents my work so they could see I was doing my best, but three magic beans don’t mean much to most people. I didn’t think of writing as a way to make money, but maybe I should? One day I was in the computer lab of Flowers Hall at Southwest Texas. I spent many hours there working on my stories since I didn’t own a typewriter or computer. The lab director Beverly Braud was super cool and let me print as much as I needed. She even read my drafts and encouraged me to keep writing. The lab assistant, an M.A. graduate student named Mark, was a nice guy too, and one day he had a damn good line. I was working on my stories, and this girl came in and started flirting with me. After a couple of minutes of giggling, Mark came over and kicked her out. I was dumbfounded.
“Why did you do that?”
“You come here to write, right?” Mark asked.
“When you’re here writing, you’re not really writing. What you’re really doing is making money. Get back to work,” Mark said with a jab of his index finger.
In the Spring of 1992, I submitted my story to the college literary magazine, Persona. In 1987 when I was a reporter, I’d read Persona and thought, there’s no way I could ever be in this fancy literary journal and I had never seen a Spanish surname name in it, but Mejía liked the story and so did my parents, and I did too. If the journal passed on the story, it’d be okay because my audience was The Rio Grande Valley, not central Texas, but of course, I wanted to see the story in Persona.
In the fall of 1992, Persona published “Guilt-Shaped Cookies,” and though I wrote the story, I didn’t write it alone. My parents, Mejía, Jeff Trejo, Eddie Ray Bills, David Robledo, and Frank Guajardo read my drafts, and to this day, they still encourage me to write as if I’m writing my first story. Frank Guajardo was teaching high school at Edcouch-Elsa, and he began to use my stories in his class. These were drafts mind you, but Frank thought they were good enough to share with the students. He even invited me to speak to his students. At the time, I thought it was good practice, and I had been practicing reading my stories at a coffee shop in San Marcos called the Blue Pearl.
A friend of mine, Courtney Dever, said I should read my stories in front of a live audience. Every Thursday they had open mic at the Blue Pearl and a lot of graduate students read their material, so I might as well too, right? By the time I got to Edcouch-Elsa, I had plenty of practice reading out loud, and I knew the audience in my hometown might like the stories. I thought if you were Mexican American and liked reading, you might like the stories. But people like stories they can relate to, regardless of cultural background or level of education. You don’t have to be a bunch of graduate students hanging out in a coffee shop. The best stories are often told at quinceñeras, weddings, funerals, around the breakfast table and bar-b-que pits. People like stories about themselves, and better yet, if we are the heroes in our own story, and don’t forget, Mexicans were against slavery.
What I didn’t know was the impact of what I was doing. I think Frank knew because he was a teacher and believed Mexican Americans needed to celebrate their stories. A student in one of my presentations at Edcouch-Elsa was Juan Ozuna. He went on to become a school teacher. A few years later I visited his students. He said, when he saw me read my stories, he thought, he can write his own stories too. My first collection was all about me and about proving something to myself. I didn’t think too much of how they could help in the classroom or help others find their own story. I was a selfish writer, and maybe most are?
On June 22, 1994, fourteen stories I wrote were accepted for publication by Bilingual Press. Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories (1996), was the title, though I thought of maybe calling it Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories, but Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories was a better fit, given that I did need a chance. I think Mejía and Hinojosa had something to do with the book getting published. Mejía and Hinojosa knew Gary Keller, and I’m sure they asked him to give me a chance. Hinojosa gave my book blurb something I didn’t ask for, but much appreciated. Mejía helped edit every story along with Frank Guajardo and my parents. The stories had been tested in front of audiences thanks to Frank and my visits to the Blue Pearl, but Mejía suggested I remove the story, “The Circumstance Surrounding my Penis” and to take out the profanity. But I said I wouldn’t censor my stories.
“High schools won’t be able to buy them and it’ll hurt your book sales,” Mejía said.
I think what Mejía meant was the need for the book, not about book sales, and looking back, I wish I could change the book, but I can be pretty terco. Mejía did give me some stern advice, though. He gave me a big lecture on how I didn’t deserve to have a book published. How the stories weren’t bad and there were better writers out there. I just got lucky.
“You’re young and you can play up the book, but you have a choice. You can be famous or you can be a writer. Let go of the book. Don’t hold its hand.” I wasn’t about fame or money. I wanted to be a better writer. I wanted my stories to be judged, not on who wrote them or who can read them the best out loud, but for the content. In a time when fame is important and that’s every time, and recognition from their peers brings validation, well, I get it, but it’s not me. Writers die, stories live on.
Mejía was right about the book sales. Schools couldn’t buy it, and it didn’t bother me, at first. I got invited to quite a few schools to talk to students, and I wasn’t good at it. There’s a lot that goes in to it: part performance and throw as much you can on teaching how stories work. As I visited schools I noticed a lack of Mexican American books on library shelves and classrooms. In 1996 there were quite a few Mexican American writers, but not enough in the classroom. I visited a school, I think it was Edinburg, and a teacher let me have it. He asked why I put stories in my book he couldn’t use in the classroom. I said I was a writer and wasn’t going to censor my stories. He gave me an almost angry look.
“Oh, this is all about you, huh? I need books I can use in my class and all you can think about is what you want.”
His comment echoed in my head for months, and he was right. Schools needed books Mexican American students could relate to and use to spring-board to other stories.
In 1996, a couple of months after “Give the Pig a Chance” was published, I received a letter from Harry Mazer. Mazer found the galley for “Give the Pig a Chance” at the Strand Bookstore in New York City and read the galley. He contacted Bilingual Press for my address and asked me for a story for his new collection, “Twelve Shots: Outstanding Short Stories about Kids and Guns.” I couldn’t believe he wanted a short story based on the galley, and I knew I had to write a good story if I was to build a working relationship with Mr. Mazer. I wrote, God’s Plan for Wolfie and X-Ray, and his editor at Random House, Lauri Hornik, read the story and emailed me for a meeting. I was spending a lot time in New York in the ‘90’s and met her at Random House to talk about the story. She asked me to consider writing a novel. I didn’t think I was ready for a novel, and I didn’t like reading long stories. I’d read a long big book, and when I was done reading it, I’d say why didn’t you just say so in the first chapter?
In 1996 I was flying from New York, and in the hop from Dallas to Austin, I met Dr. Rob Johnson. Johnson was a professor at U.T. Pan American and he liked teaching local stories. We managed to sit together and started a friendship still going strong. He wanted a story for his Collection, “Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers,” Bilingual Press 2001. The anthology sounded great. I submitted The Devil in the Valley. The story first appeared in The Llano Grande Journal in 1998. In the spring of 2015, I was Johnson’s student in the MFA program at UTRGV and it was a delight to watch him teach.
In 1997, when I began to write the stories for “Crazy Loco,” I was surrounded by students. At the time I was working at Edcouch Elsa High School for the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development. How I wrote the stories with students walking in and out of the office is beyond me, but I think their hope for the future and their constant talk of home life were inspirational. Writers are told to write at a desk in solitude, but I wrote my first collection in a computer lab at Southwest Texas State University surrounded by college students. I like to write with people around me. I’m not sure what it means, but if I am going to write about people, best to be around people.
In 1999 I gave Lauri Hornik the short stories, and to my amazement, she accepted the collection, but again these stories had been tested by students, friends, and family. Edcouch Elsa students and staff of the Llano Grande Center had read my drafts. The editors for each story was Frank Guajardo, Yvonne Guajardo, Jaime Mejía, Samantha Smith, Natasha Sinutko, Lisa Bell, Laura Rodriguez, my parents and anyone else who took the time to read my stories.
Sometime I’d step out of the office at Llano Grande and come back to find a student reading one of my stories I left lying around. It’s a great feeling. Beats me how many folks have drafts of my stories, but each one had a valuable comment. And each reader made the story better. I don’t write alone. Given all the support on Crazy Loco, Lauri and I still had long conversations on each story. She had lots of questions, and I was able to answer them, not because I grew up in the Valley, but because I was working for The Llano Grande Center and our interest was pedagogy of place or what some call, place-based education; to study one’s self in depth and express it in print, audio and video.
Dr. Frank Guajardo is the director of The Llano Grande Center and to watch him go from The Chicano Culture Committee in 1985 to The Llano Grande Center in 1996 is something I always expected. And to watch him go from high school classroom teacher in 1992 to college professor, my professor in the fall 2013, represents a complete circle. Frank is never without insight into learning. A good friend to the last.
Crazy Loco was released in 2001 and was well received. It won Best Books for Young Adults 2002, was a finalist for the Pura Belpre Award, Notable Books for a Global Society, finalist for The Pen USA children’s literature award, and a finalist for the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. But best of all, we got a play out of it. The story “She Flies” was adapted for stage by Mike D. Garcia and we titled the play She Flies. Mike is from McAllen and one of the founders of Nushank Theater Collective in Austin. Mike pulled together the cast for the 40-minute play: Marita De La Torre, Gavino Barrera, Anika Trevino, and Ellen Stader and music by Brian Ramos. U.T. Gear UP funded the play to travel across the Rio Grande Valley, and over 9,000 students saw the play. I’m happy to say the play, She Flies, is in my last book, Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories and schools can read and perform the play whenever they want.
Reading is supposed to engage students and moreover get them excited about literature and the possibilities. Mike D. Garcia has an essay in the book to show the power of a writer and playwright working together. Lots of stories can be adapted for stage and screen, and students in our region can bring stories to life.
Though Crazy Loco did well with critics and sales, I felt the stories were maybe too long? I thought about what the teacher said years before. Write stories teachers can use in the classroom. I believe literature can lower the dropout rate, but we can’t wait till students are in high school to read Mexican American stories. We have to get 4th and 5th grade students hooked on reading. I thought about writing flash fiction, one page stories with them in mind.
I think stories are written on three levels. First is the plot of the story. Second is made of devices used in stories, such as metaphors, symbolism, double meanings, and foreshadowing. The third level is high concept. What does the story mean and get the students to discuss the characters and their motives, the upside and consequences of the characters’ actions? Stories can teach life lessons and hopefully keep students from making the mistakes they read in a story.
The idea of flash fiction was a hard sell. Dial Books wasn’t too keen on the idea and neither was Bilingual Press. René Saldaña knew I was working on a book of flash fiction. I thought it would be fun to write 100 flash fiction stories, and I shared some with René. He was contacted by Jon Scieszka who was putting together an anthology of flash fiction titled Guys Write for Guys Read: Boy’s favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, 2008. I submitted “Death of a Writer” and it was accepted. René too has a story in the collection. Two Valley writers, two Valley friends in one collection again. Our first collection was Rob Johnson’s anthology and now Jon Sciezska and in the future, it got better. Juventud! Growing up on the Border, VAO Publishing, edited By René Saldaña Jr and Erika Graza-Johnson, 2013. Arriba Baseball! A Collection of Latino/a Baseball Fiction, VAO Publishing, edited by Robert Paul Moreira, 2013. And while it’s great to be in a collection with René, it’s also an honor to be with so many other Valley writers, and best of all, we get to meet them at schools and literary festivals. And all the writing going on in Middle schools and high schools across the Valley. Teachers are encouraging students to create books of poetry and stories and others, like David Bowles, have started publishing houses, VAO (Valley Artist Outreach) Press. No one writes alone in the valley.
In 1996 I got a call from Anne Mazer, the daughter of Harry Mazer. She wanted a story for collection she was editing, Working Days: Short Stories about Teenagers at Work, 1997. I wrote a story about my brother’s death, “The Crash Room.” It wasn’t an easy to write. In 2004 “Tied to Zelda” was published in Tripping Over the Lunch Lady and Other School Stories, edited by Nancy Mercado, Puffin Books. Nancy worked for Lauri at Dial Books. I’m happy to say Nancy and Lauri are still in my life. Nancy asked for another story for Baseball Crazy: Ten Stories That Cover All the Bases, Puffin Books, 2008. I wrote “Tomboy Forgiveness.” Three months went by, and Nancy had not contacted me, so I called to ask what’s what.
“David, I’ve read all your stories, and this one is the best you’ve written,” Nancy said.
A nice thing to say, but that’s one reader in the world and that’s what’s great about stories. You share your stories with your parents, family, friends, and colleagues, and stories are measured by the reader, not a literary critic or an editor in New York City. The best judge is someone who reads, and a forgotten door in their mind opens to the possibilities of their own story.
In 2011 Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories, Bilingual Press was released. The book is what the teacher asked for all those years ago; write a book we can use. Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories took stories from Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories and other stories published in anthologies, flash fiction and She Flies, the play adapted by Mike D. Garcia. Karen Van Hooft at Bilingual Press wasn’t sure about the collection idea. But I knew the book could do well in schools, or at least I hoped it would. Not for books sales, but for the simple need. Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories had tested stories. Most of the stories and the play had been tested with students and live audiences. I knew the book was unconventional and most likely wouldn’t get a book review from the critics who give out awards, whoever they are. I knew the best argument for publishing Heart Shaped Cookies was based on the book sales of Crazy Loco. Every six months I get a sales statement of Crazy Loco. At the time, over 50,000 copies of Crazy Loco had been sold, and I told Karen Van Hooft Heart Shaped Cookies could maybe sell as many.
Publishing houses like Bilingual Press, VAO Publishing, Arte Público, Cinco Puntos Press, and Wings Press have to sell books to survive. We have to support publishing houses who print regional stories. When I watch a Mexican American writer present, I buy his or her book, and sometimes I can’t finish the book because I don’t like it, but we still need to support the home team.
I’ve been working on a novel and it has lots of Spanish names, takes place in Edcouch Texas, and it’s not for everybody. I hope my parents like it and my friends won’t mind. I hope students like it too, but wouldn’t it be great if students in middle school and high school had read lots of Mexican American stories before they read my novel, and looked me in the face and say, “Your book is terrible.”
 Texas Historical State Association