I'm happy to share the stage with David Bowles, my teaching colleague, and an award-winning author and poet. Here's a short bio of David: A product of a Mexican-American family, I have lived most of my life in deep South Texas, where I teach at the University of Texas Río Grand Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, I have written several books, most significantly the Pura Belpré Honor Book, The Smoking Mirror.
David has a brand new book out this fall, They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems (Cinco Puntos Press, 2018), and Janet (Wong) and I had the chance to read an advance copy and it's truly unique and lovely. Kirkus Reviews noted, "Güero's voice brims with humor, wit, and bits of slang, and a diverse cast of characters offers hints of other cultures. [...] A valuable, too-brief look at the borderlands."
I asked David for a little behind the scenes glimpse of this book and am so touched to get a nod for my (and Janet's) role in the birth of this book. I think you'll also find it fascinating to read about how a single poem can turn into a whole book. [Thank you, David, for your generosity here!]
My Journey to Güero
by David Bowles
In less than two weeks They Call Me Güero: A Border Kid’s Poems will arrive in all its red-headed, freckled glory. I’m proud of the little novel-in-verse, especially given its curious and unlikely origins. It’s a strange delight when fate gently sets aside an author’s well-laid plans and says, “No. Here. Write this instead.”
Where did my journey to Güero begin? I suppose I could go back forty-eight years to my birth. That seems a bit trite and silly. Perhaps it happened four years later, as I sat enrapt as my Grandmother Garza told me tale after tale.
But no. That centers me, and this book isn’t just about me at all.
Okay. It’s November 2016. NCTE Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Trump has just won. Elementary teachers of English approach Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong with a dilemma.
Their students are confused. Scared. Taunted by bullies emboldened by the rhetoric of the president-elect. They need poetry to help them grapple with this new era. Goodness. We all do. So these two amazing poet-scholars, heroes of mine, the sort of people I want to grow into some day, rise to the occasion. They agree to put together an anthology before inauguration.
That gives them two months. They shouldn’t be able to pull it off.
Now, Sylvia and Janet are familiar with a poem of mine, “Border Folk,” published a year before in BorderSenses. So they reach out.
“Could you write something like that, with the same richness of details, but for 7-year-olds?” they ask.
Yes. Yes, I can. The idea energizes me, helps me filter my own experiences as a half-Chicano child in deep South Texas in the 1970s through the lens of my son’s life and the struggles of other kids we know, undocumented girls and boys in our community who fear for themselves and their families.
“Border Kid,” I title it. Sylvia and Janet are pleased. They include it in their anthology Here We Go: A Poetry Friday Power Book (Pomelo Books 2017). A lovely opportunity for me. I’ve always wanted to be in a Poetry Friday Book.
But the generosity of Sylvia and Janet doesn’t stop there. Believing strongly in the power of “Border Kid,” Janet suggests it also appear in the Journal of Children's Literature. They like it and reprint it just before I am inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. At the ceremony in El Paso, inductees are required to read their work for five minutes. I choose four poems for my turn at the podium, ending with “Border Kid.”
As I step down amid admiring applause, I am approached by Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press. He gives me a hug and mutters, “If you can put together another fifty poems in that kid’s voice, I’d love to publish the book.”
It in’t too hard, to tell you the truth. I can hear the boy just as clear as a bell. He doesn’t need a name. He’s the güero /wero/, the light-skinned kid in his extended family, a 12-year-old with one foot in mainstream America and the other in his family’s Mexican American traditions. A Gen-Z gamer who goes to Spanish-language mass, a dreaming reader who runs through the monte—the brush—with his dog.
He is, in short, a blend of me and my son, my cousins and nephews, every big-hearted boy in every barrio on the border. And he is bristling at the hatred, worried by the fearmongering, protective of his friends.
But just like me when I was his age, there are people who love and guide him. Storytellers. Priests. Friends.
In a moment of magic, his English teacher pulls the lid off poetry for him, helping him see the wonders inside.
He is hooked. He begins to write his own verse, using it to tell his stories, to understand himself, to map out his place in the world.
To make the girl he likes fall in love with him.
To resist those who would hurt his family and friends.
To stand tall and fight back with words instead of fists.
That’s Güero. Even boys who hate poetry are going to like him.
And along the way, they might just fall in love with poetry, too.
***Now head on over to The Water's Edge where Erin is gathering all our Poetry Friday goodness!