“In my early professional career as an elementary teacher, I was always in search of books with themes that would relate to my students from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. At an instinctual level, I believed that if children could see themselves in books or read about familiar experiences, their comprehension would improve,” she says.
“As I learned later, literacy research does indicate that cultural relevance is an important factor that spurs children of color to heighten interest in reading. I have always believed it is important to expose white children to the experiences of children of color as a way of building better relationships and understanding, but there were few culturally diverse books to be found in bookstores or libraries.”
There are more culturally diverse books available now that she’s written them, including “How Will I Talk to Abuela?” (and the Spanish-language version, “¿Cómo voy a hablar con Abuela?”) and “Countdown to the Last Tortilla (Cuenta atrás hasta la última tortilla).” They center on the stories of Spanish-speakers and Latin culture, winning awards in the International Latino Book Award Competition.
De la Luz Reyes, 77, is professor emerita of education at the University of Colorado-Boulder and lives in San Marcos with her husband, John Halcon; they have two children and five grandchildren. She took some time to discuss her books and the importance of diversity and representation.
A: My goal in writing children’s books is to expose Latino students and their peers to Latino characters and authors that are rarely seen in children’s literature. … I write children’s books because I want Latino children to see themselves as part of the fabric of American society. I want them to know that their everyday experiences are worthy enough to be published in books that all their peers can read. I believe strongly that culturally diverse books are not just for children of color, they are important for all children because the world is made up of all of us, not just some of us. Children should be exposed to all types of children’s literature, written by male and female authors of all backgrounds. I am only one voice among those diverse authors, and I write about what I know best. My stories come from ordinary events with an interesting twist that I experienced as a child, or I have witnessed in children negotiating their place within their family or peer group. They are stories about children with dreams, fears and hopes.
Q: Your latest is “Countdown to the Last Tortilla/Cuenta atrás hasta la última tortilla.” Can you tell us what the story is about?
A: “Countdown to the Last Tortilla/Cuenta atrás hasta la última tortilla” is a bilingual, historical fiction picture book. It is set in 1950, toward the end of an era when large families with few means recycled and repurposed everything. Few could afford department store clothing, so they turned to flour sacks to make clothing for the entire family. In this story, Mamá promises to make her youngest daughter, Pepita (who has three older sisters and has only worn hand-me-downs), her first new dress of her very own from a flour sack. Pepita’s clever schemes to recruit her older siblings to help speed up the use of the flour, brush against Mamá’s need to feed her large family.
What I love about San Marcos …
My husband and I live in Lake San Marcos, where we have beautiful park-like views of the golf course and the ever-changing colors of the surrounding hills. It is a tranquil place to live, easily accessible to everything we need. … We enjoy taking an occasional boat ride in our small lake, eating by the water, walking our dog in the neighborhood. What I love most is that we have great neighbors and almost everything is within walking distance.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The basic thread of “Countdown to the Last Tortilla” is based on my own story. I was number eight of nine children in a poor family, and the fourth girl. My wardrobe consisted of second-hand clothing and hand-me-downs. My mother made the first dress of my very own from a flour sack when I was 5 years old. While the story’s characters consist of three older sisters, twin brothers and an older brother named Guillermo, which I had, the plot is purely fictional. The book, however, includes a picture of me in my flour sack dress, as well as photos of two other little girls wearing flour sack clothing. As a bonus, the book also contains a brief history of flour sack clothing and classroom activities that teachers can use to engage students to learn more about the era.
Q: And what do you hope readers take away from this work?
A: In an age of instant gratification, when children spend a great deal of playtime in front of digital tablets, computers and phones, I want young readers to learn about an era when children had to wait patiently for a coveted toy, a new pair of shoes, or other desired items. I want them to learn that, while the characters are Mexican and tortillas are central to their meals, family relationships and dreams are universally similar. In “Countdown to the Last Tortilla,” Pepita enlists her older siblings to help use up the flour so she can get her new dress. When things don’t work out, she is disappointed, but never gives up. She comes up with one idea after another. When all else fails, she learns patience and resigns herself to focus on other things. These are important lessons for children.
Q: What were a couple of your favorite children’s books as a child?
A: Although I did not have access to many children’s books as a young child, my teachers exposed me to nursery rhymes and many stories and fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen and others. One of my favorites was “The Little Match Girl.” I related personally to this story of a girl who was poor and cold. Our winter nights in West Texas were cold; there were never enough blankets to go around. “The Tortoise and the Hare” was another favorite that helped me learn that “slow and steady wins the race.” This lesson is still relevant in every goal I set for myself.
At night, my mother used to entertain us with oral stories. These included the Mexican folktale of “La Llorona” (the crying woman), the story of a mother who drowns her children in the river. Although the topic seems inappropriate for children, the moral is: if you don’t behave well, bad things can happen to you. My mother used “La Llorona” as a spooky nighttime story that made us squeal and hide under the sheets, but always ended with laughter.
Q: You’ve also had an extensive career in academia, teaching at and working with various universities, and publishing your research in multiple scholarly journals and in books on language, literacy, bilingual/multicultural education, and equity issues. What led you to pursue a career in which you focused on this kind of work?
A: Becoming a good reader is key to learning and school success. Children who enter school speaking a language other than English have been historically considered “at risk” because they often come from low-income families with limited exposure to books. I was one of those “at risk” children. Many students who speak other languages face the same problems of low expectation from their teachers that I faced as a child. Hence, it was natural for me to delve into research that examines the problems and solutions to this issue and related ones. As for issues of equity in higher education, the problems slap you in the face when you are either the only one, or one of two faculty of color in a department or school. Institutions rely on us to speak for our entire communities, have the answers to the problems, and advise all minority students who gravitate to us. It’s a daunting task. It forces you to take on the issues, speak out, and seek solutions; otherwise, nothing changes.
Q: What are some misconceptions/misunderstandings people seem to generally have about bilingual education and learning?
A: The major misconception about bilingual education is that these programs teach only the children’s native language to the detriment of English and that their language and culture holds them back from excelling in school. The reality is quite the contrary. Most bilingual programs are transitional; that is, their focus is on teaching enough English with the goal of transitioning students out of the programs. Study after study shows that children who speak more than one language have an advantage over monolingual children in reading and understanding the world because they have access to two linguistic systems that can help break the reading code and two worlds to help with comprehension.
Q: In your years of personal experience, study and research, what have you learned about bilingual education and learning, particularly about best practices?
A: My own personal experience and research, as well as that of many scholars, shows that when children are allowed to use their first language to unlock the second one, that gives them an advantage. Children who have strong language skills in their native language have a good foundation for reading; what they need, then, is a new channel of communication. Knowledge is not linguistically bound. Two plus two is four, is the same concept whether you learn it in Spanish, French or English. The same is true of concepts in every subject matter. Learning to read in the native language is a huge help in learning to read English because the process of reading and making meaning of squiggly lines is similar. I learned to read Spanish on my own from hymnals and prayer books when I was 5 years old. Although I was not fluent in English, reading primers and early English basal readers came easy for me. The “Dick and Jane” readers had low information and much nonsensical repetition, unlike Spanish prayer books and hymnals with big concepts and polysyllabic words.
Q: And what have you discovered about diversity and inclusion in higher education, particularly in terms of how to implement these things successfully?
A: I’ve discovered that change is difficult and long-held education assumptions about learning and learners are difficult to change, even in the face of research that challenges those perceptions. Most American educators, at every level from kindergarten to Ivy League universities, are primarily white English speakers. This is historically understandable, and while this is not true of everyone, diversifying the system is often met with push-back. Power over positions and ideas are not easily relinquished. With changing demographics and the current animus against non-whites, making room for culturally diverse faculty with different cultural perspectives and the task of diversifying institutions is arduous. It is so because pushing for equitable faculty representation translates into an inevitable disruption of power. Forming coalitions with others who believe equitable representation is important, and who are committed to making necessary changes, helps. The push for diversifying institutions always falls on faculty of color. That is not an easy task when accepting and integrating ideas or solutions from educators of color, who come with different lived experiences, are often challenged or dismissed. Of course, there has been some progress, but until institutions reflect the populations they serve, the status quo will remain.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts but do thorough research before you embark on a new project.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: What surprises people most is that, in my 70s, I have embarked on what they call a “second career” that requires a great deal of work and energy. The thing is, I don’t view this venture as a second career, but rather an exciting hobby that challenges my creativity and gives me an opportunity to help fill a gap that has long existed in children’s literature.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: When we go to San Diego, I love walking along the bay at Seaport Village, a drive through Balboa Park, and the scenery along Harbor Drive. A stop at Old Town is always a must and the best Mexican dinner at Casa Guadalajara. It’s difficult not to buy a souvenir I don’t need, but I feel I gotta have!