Latino Children’s Literature Consultant
I often refer to Oralia Garza de Cortes as Día’s madrina, godmother in Spanish, a person traditionally chosen because of her commitment to the well-being of a child. In 1996, minutes after I was first zapped by the Día idea, the Tucson REFORMA Chapter quickly volunteered to help. Soon after, Oralia enthusiastically committed to connecting the Día concept to REFORMA nationally. REFORMA, of course, became the first organization to partner with me in growing Día. Oralia has helped me and ALSC increase Día awareness within ALA and in libraries across the country. She has also promoted the Día initiative internationally. Gracias, Oralia!
Read our interview with Oralia:
Tell us about your path to librarianship and work in youth services.
I grew up in Brownsville, Texas during the fifties and sixties, and although the town had a city-college library, it’s major objective was to serve the junior college students who primarily used the library. It did not have children’s books when I was growing up. My earliest memory of a library is my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Garcia’s makeshift library of books that she made available to us. Today they call them ‘classroom collections’. And although I was a member of the library club in both junior high and high school, doing voluntary work at both, and I worked at the junior college library while on college work-study, it was not until I became a mom that I fell in love with the fairy tales and the picture books that I read to my children when they were very young. As I read these beautiful books I kept wondering where I could find such beautiful books and stories with Chicanito characters and faces, or books that depicted children like mine in their own cultural setting, or books in Spanish from Mexico written for North American children. While I did find a few gems, there were so many more mediocre titles published in New York with demeaning stereotypes that should have never been published or should have been weeded years ago. The librarian at the Heights Branch, my neighborhood library in Houston, Texas suggested that I go visit the Carnegie Branch, where most of the Mexican Americans lived at the time. It was there that I befriended the children’s librarian at the newly reconstructed Carnegie Branch in Houston. Louise Yarain Zwick had just returned to the states after spending some time in El Salvador. She was the one librarian who influenced me, mentored me and passed on her love of children’s literature and children’s librarianship. She truly understood how important it was for children to have a librarian who looked liked them and who understood their culture and spoke their language. She also imparted her vast knowledge of the classics of Spanish children’s literature. I soon found myself working part-time as Louise’s assistant in the children’s section at the Carnegie Branch, conducting bilingual and Spanish children’s story hour programs and planning and conducting with Louise workshops for parents about children’s literature. They were among the first family literacy programs in the country. It was Louise who encouraged me go to library school, along with Dr. Billie Grace Herring, a professor from the University of Texas’ Graduate Library School who literally tracked me down in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where we were living at the time, offering me a scholarship to pursue library school.
My first job as a professional was as a children’s librarian at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, actively promoting Spanish and bilingual storytimes, programs and services for the neighborhood children and their families. I also doubled as the children’s librarian and branch manager at the then Dove Springs Branch in Southeast Austin where I filled the makeshift branch with literally hundreds of multicultural books that reflected the make-up of the children of that community. At the TLA conference in 1996, I ran into our dear Rose Treviño, who flagged me down and invited me to apply for a position at the San Antonio Public Library. I served as the manager of the Children’s Department, the magical space that was the third floor of the fabulous new central library built by the ingenious Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta for the children of San Antonio.
How long have you been a member of REFORMA, and why did you become a member?
I joined REFORMA over twenty years ago, at the same time that I joined the American Library Association (ALA), ALSC, the Association for Library Services for Children and the Ethnic Materials Information Exchange Round Table, EMIERT. I was a graduate student attending my first library conference. Louise had organized a program on Spanish Children’s Literature through EMIERT and invited me to participate. It was there that I met Sandra Ríos Balderrama, a newly hired children’s librarian from Berkeley Public Library. We became fast friends and true collaborators, working on REFORMA’s behalf to establish the children’s section of REFORMA. CAYASC, the Children’s and Young Adult Services Committee, provided us with the public space we needed to dream, plan, create and incubate a committee that would be charged with planning and conducting programs that addressed the library needs of Spanish speaking children. It was through CAYASC that we developed the Pura Belpré Award and where we were able to get REFORMA to formally endorse Día in 1992 and enthusiastically promote Día in our communities and in our profession to this day.
What ideas do you have for Día 2011 and what are your hopes for the 15th Anniversary celebration?
2010 has been a banner year for promoting Día at the international level. CAYASC members have begun to write and publish REFORMA’s role in the Día story and are introducing Día to the international community through IFLA, the International Federation of Libraries Association, through IBBY, the International Board of Books for Young People world congress to be held in Santiago, Campostela in Sept. of 2010, and to AMBAC, the National Association of Mexican Libraries, where Día has been wildly embraced. We hope to continue building Día at both the international and national levels. I am also curious about exploring ways for our libraries to promote ‘Stories without Borders’ as a way to challenge the nativism that is accosting our national conversation on immigration. As an organization we will be enthusiastically promoting Día and the Pura Belpre Awards’ fifteenth anniversaries by encouraging Quinceañera celebrations throughout the community. At ALA annual in 2011, REFORMA and ALSC will debut Día and the Belpre’s Quince (fifteenth) birthday celebrations in New Orleans.
What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush, a graphic novel by Alberto Urrea (Cinco Puntos, 2011). The illustrations are stunning, and the story is brilliant. It has stayed with me still. I’m also reading Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. I am thoroughly enjoying Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009), a wonderful magical fairytale in novel form.
I’m also trying to understand the roots of our country’s obsession with nativism in Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America by Peter Schrag (University of California Press, 2010) and how to keep caring about what we care about the most through To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Schocken Books, 2005).
What is your favorite example of Bookjoy either as a child or an adult?
Years, back, I found my eight year old son quietly searching through the hall closet. I asked if I could help, but he was deep in thought. As I observed him, I realized that he was looking for a magic path much like the children he was reading about in the C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).That was a Bookjoy moment I will long cherish. When I saw my own name in print for the very first time in Sandra Cisneros’ novel Caramelo (Knopf, 2002), I felt Bookjoy; when I find myself identifying with characters like Doña Flor (Random House, 2005) the passionate, caring woman who acts on behalf of the children in her community, I feel Bookjoy. When I share El Sapo Distraido [The Absent-minded Frog] (Kane/Miller,1995) with parents at family workshops and soon begin to relate similar experiences of my own – like the time I went to work with two mis-matched black shoes- the closet was so dark and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the light- they laugh with me and they soon start sharing their own absent-minded experiences — these are wonderful ‘bookjoy’ moments that come out of the shared reading experience. It is as if an infectious good enters our RNA and our DNA and we are forever changed by that.