On Wednesday April 22, 1998, in the party hall of Chapultepec Restaurant, in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, I founded Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say (affectionately known as NP).
I didn't know it would become a massive grassroots movement that would go on to organize the largest book fairs in Texas, create the leading literary radio show in the state, propel members from our community into literary, academic, and activist worlds. I didn't even know it would create the foundation for the Librotraficante Movement.
But I always suspected.
As we celebrate the 16th anniversary of NP, I have to pause and look back at the history we created.
On our birthday, I want to give back to the thousands of families, students, professors, professionals, activists, authors, journalists, teachers, and others who have blessed us with their vision, their time, their energy, their support.
I want to give us our history.
There are several reasons for this.
First, it would be too ironic for us to dedicate 16 years to inspiring others to write their stories, to save their family's history, yet we didn't archive ours.
That begins now.
Also, I have been blessed to see our work come full circle many times.
Three of these moments come to mind right away. I plan to write about each of them individually. I'll share one of these stories right now to kick off this new point in our journey.
A Day at the Opera:
Alvaro Saar Rios kicked off the first literary showcase of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say that April 16 years back. And he made the cover of the Houston Chronicle Metro Section for it.
That was his first time reading his fiction in public.
He went on to get his work published, his plays performed, and to create the Latino Boys Writing Group at Lanier Middle School, and he read on stage with such literary giants as Dagoberto Gilb, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and others.
He went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Writing for Stage and Screen from Northwestern University, and today, he is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
I want you to pay attention to the next sentence that I write because I can only barely begin to explain all the forces that have had to come into play, all the nuances touched on when I say this.
I Skyped in Professor Alvaro Saar Rios from the University of Wisconsin to speak to students in my Mexican American Literature course at Lone Star College-North Harris.
Almost every aspect of the previous sentence was carved out of thin air by the work, energy, and genius of so many in our community. It took many of us a lot of work to be able to utter that sentence.
But that is just the tip of the pyramid.
There is still more, much more.
I have had the honor of accomplishing many firsts.
The course itself was a milestone.
Previous to my course, only 6 students had ever signed up for Mexican American studies at once.
It takes 16 students to register for a class to stay opened.
That fall, 31 students enrolled.
Every student in that room was inspired by Alvaro in different ways. He spoke about his beginnings, our beginnings, the first days of Nuestra Palabra, about getting published, getting paid to write, getting paid for his plays, about going from being a student to a professor, and about being Chicano and changing the world.
Alvaro told us about how he would soon visit Houston for a bit because The Houston Grand Opera commissioned him to write an opera.
He wrote a bilingual adaptation of Rapunzel, set in the mythical town of Yerba. (Yet, another sentence for which it would take a book to fully explain all the thrilling nuances.)
I love teaching at a community college because we change lives on a daily basis.
It's a blessing when you get to directly see this impact.
Patricia Banda works at Lone Star College-North Harris. She is a single mom, working full time to complete her degree. It has taken her a few years more than most, but she is on track.
She took my course as an elective, even though she had to change her entire work schedule and get special permission from her supervisor.
Patty said, "I took the class because I wanted to reconnect with my roots. I also wanted to expose my daughter, Zaria, to our culture. She's a vibrant 10 year old who is eager to learn more about our cultura."
Alvaro inspired her to attend her first opera and to take her daughter with her.
Patty told me, "I was inspired because Alvaro was inspired by you almost 16 years earlier. And Alvaro is making history too as the first Mexican-American to write a bilingual opera for the Houston Grand Opera. I never went to the opera. So when Alvaro talked about his vision for Rapunzel, I immediately knew I wanted to go and take my daughter."
Patty added, "My daughter loved Rapunzel. At first I was a little nervous that Zaria wouldn't be too interested, but the title caught her attention, and she was super excited to go. The opera was bilingual. Zaria loved the singing & acting. She said she loved how the bruja overcame her meanness and became a nicer person to all her servants & didn't want to cut Rapunzel's hair anymore. She also loved the part when Rapunzel realizes that beauty comes from within a person. Since then she's asking to go to more operas."
This is what our word is all about.
I have to pause to think about how if one step in this process goes missing, we do not get to hear Zaria say she loved the opera.
I write these words down to hear those words again and again and again and again.
In this day and age, our young are not thought of, and if they are, it is not in the most positive light.
However, when I hear that one of our young drops out of school, I think of it as a failure of the system, not our youth. Because I know that when our community works together and delivers our culture on our terms, we bring out the genius in our youth.
I think back and see the young Alvaro standing on our stage, in Chapultepec, nervous, thrilled, gifted, emboldened, and then he brought the house down.
16 years later, he brings the Opera House up.
I begin to chronicle those moments to fill in some of the spaces in between, so that some day soon, across Tejas, then across the nation, all of your young will thrive on art.
Happy Birthday, Nuestra Palabra.
Patty, Zaria, and Alvaro at the Houston Grand Opera premiere of his opera Rapunzel.