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Carmen Tafolla author's photo

Visit the [Carmen Tafolla Performance and Resource Site], introduced by Mayor Julián Castro.

Recent Awards and Honors

May 2013  Carmen's collection of poetry REBOZOS won the International Latino Book Award, in three different categories  Best Book of Bilingual Poetry, Best Illustrated Book, and Best Gift Book.

APRIL 2012  Carmen Tafolla was named the first-ever Poet Laureate of San Antonio. See below for additional information on this.

Read Jeff Biggers on Carmen's selection as poet laureate and on the banning of her book Curandera in the [Huffington Post]

Tafolla's children's book, Fiesta Babies (Tricycle Press, 2011) was honored both as an ALA Notable Book and an Américas Award Commended Title, and it was named one of the "Best Books for Babies of 2011" by the Fred Rogers Corp.

In January, 2010, Tafolla became the first Latina to win the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Best Children's Picture Book, for What Can You DO with a Paleta? (Tricycle Press). It also received the Américas Award for children's literature (presented at the Library of Congress) and the Tomás Rivera Book Award for Mexican-American Children's books, and was selected for the Tejas Star Reading List.

The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans: A Feast of Short Fiction (Wings Press) received the 2009 Tomás Rivera Book Award for Young Adult Mexican-American Literature.

In 2009, What Can You DO with a Rebozo? (Tricycle Press) was honored as an ALA Notable Book, a Pura Belpre Honor Book, an Américas Award Commended Title, and it was a selection for the Junior Library Guild and the Texas Two-by-Two Reading List.

Tafolla's non-fiction, illustrated children's book, That's Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / No Es Justo: La Lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la Justicia (Wings Press) was named by Críticas Magazine as one of the Best Children's Books of 2008.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Read Nick Swartsell's [Texas Observer] article, "San Antonio's multi-faceted poet laureate gets a multimedia outlet." (June 10, 2013)

Dr. Carmen Tafolla is the author of numerous award-winning books of poetry, nonfiction works, short stories, and books for children. She is among the most anthologized of all Latina writers. Called a "world class writer" by Alex Haley, and a "pioneer of Chicana literature" by Ana Castillo, Carmen Tafolla's most recent book is also one of her oldest. Curandera, originally published in 1983 was republished in 2012 by Wings Press in a special anniversary edition with additional historical essays and photographs. Curandera was one of the titles banned by in Arizona as a result of action by the state's right-wing legislature. The now-famous Librotraficante caravan "smuggled" hundreds of copies of Curandera into Tucson, where it was given away to students and teachers.

Carmen Tafolla was honored to speak on the issues facing ethnic studies programs around the country at the 2012 annual conference of the American Library Association. The presentation was sponsored by REFORMA and the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Sonnets and Salsa is a widely-praised collection of poetry that is the basis of Tafolla's one-woman show, "My Heart Speaks a Different Language" (also performed as "Las Voces de San Antonio"). Tafolla has developed a new performance derived from her forthcoming collection of poems, Rebozos (Wings Press, October 2012). Tafolla is a dynamic, much sought-after speaker who has performed, read, and lectured in London, Madrid, Malaga, Mexico City, and throughout the U.S.

Tafolla is also the author of Sonnets to Human Beings & Other Selected Works, which included not only the title selection (winner of the University of California at Irvine's 1989 National Chicano Literature Contest) and other poems and short stories, but also several essays on Tafolla and her work.

Tafolla is also the author of several award-winning books for children and young adults, including The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans: A Feast of Short Fiction, That's Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca's Struggle for Justice / ¡No Es Justo! La lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la justicia (written with Sharyll Teneyuca), Baby Coyote and the Old Woman / El Coyotito y la Viejita, (all published by Wings Press) and Fiesta Babies, What Can You DO With A Rebozo? and What Can You DO With A Paleta? (all published by Tricycle Press).

Biography

Born and raised in San Antonio, many of Tafolla's early poems employed the bilingual idiom of the city's westside. She has long been regarded as one of the masters of this type of poetic code-switching. Curandera (1983) is considered something of a core document in this regard. In the 1970s, Tafolla was the head writer for "Sonrisas," a pioneering bilingual television show for children. Her dramatic talents make her readings both lively and of profound emotional impact. She was the first Chicana faculty member to direct a Chicano Studies Center in the U.S. (Texas Lutheran College, 1973).

Tafolla received her Ph.D. in Bilingual and Foreign Language Education from the University of Texas in 1982. In 1984 she published To Split a Human: Mitos, Machos, y la Mujer Chicana, an analysis of racism and sexism from a Chicana perspective. She has held a variety of faculty and administrative posts at universities throughout the Southwest, including Associate Professor of Women's Studies at California State University at Fresno, and Special Assistant to the President for Cultural Diversity / Visiting Professor of Honors Literature at Northern Arizona University. She has been a freelance educational consultant on bilingual education, writing and creativity, and cultural diversity issues for over three decades. She currently teaches in the Bilingual/Bicultural Studies Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

HBO's "Habla Texas" series featured Dr. Tafolla, along with other important Latino politicians, musicians, educators, filmmakers, and other writers and artists.

Tafolla currently lives in the city of her ancestors, San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Ernesto M. Bernal, her daughter, Carmen's mother, three cats, a dog, and a multitude of manuscripts, molcajetes, and books.

In 1999, Tafolla was presented with one of her most cherished honors, the "Art of Peace Award" for writings which contribute to "peace, justice, and human understanding." She continues that work today.


From the April 2012 ceremony honoring Carmen Tafolla as the first-ever Poet Laureate of San Antonio

OPENING REMARKS by Felix Padrón, Director, Office of Cultural Affairs:

Buenas Noche, bienvenidos y gracias por compartir en este evento especial y dedicado al primer poeta laureado de San Antonio. Mayor, I know that today is Tuesday and parking is free to all that visit downtown San Antonio, but I will say that tonight's great turnout is really due to Carmen, alone. Let me start by saying that San Antonio is the New Face of the American Dream, as Mayor Castro has boldly stated on several occasions. And it is also where the arts run deep in our hearts. I think tonight's ceremony is evidence of both of these statements.

I want to congratulate all of you for being in attendance for this historical occasion and for supporting this long-awaited initiative. As many of you know, April is National Poetry Month, and what better way to celebrate than to appoint San Antonio's First Poet Laureate, Dr. Carmen Tafolla.

I want to begin by acknowledging the vast team of folks who made this initiative, this selection, and this evening possible. I would first like to thank the Mayor for his leadership and support, and point out the two vision areas of SA2020, Arts & Culture as well as Education, which helped shape and make the Poet Laureate Initiative a reality ... thank you, Mayor. I would also like to thank the Mayor's staff for working with OCA staff throughout the process and selecting the Poet Laureate. There have been other elected officials who have been a part of this initiative and who are in attendance tonight, including Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who was one of five individuals who nominated Carmen for this honor.

The Poet Laureate Selection Committee, which was comprised of four poets from across the country and we thank them for their time and dedication to this project. I want to personally thank Rose Catacolas who took this project head on and helped us guide the selection process. Thank you, Rose. I also want to thank our partners including: Gemini Ink, the Diez y Seis Commission, the San Antonio Public Library, the Cultural Arts Board, and more importantly, the literary community, Nominees and those who took the time to nominate the poets. And, finally, thank you to the San Antonio Community for embracing this initiative.

As the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman once said, "To have great poets there must be great audiences, too." And I believe that Dr. Tafolla has a great audience if tonight's attendance is any indication.

Many may not remember, but it is important to recognize that initial Poet Laureate conversations began in 2005 when then Councilwoman Patti Radle inquired with OCA about the idea of establishing a poet laureate and after she had been presented with the idea by local Chicano/Community poet, Trinidad Sánchez, who passed away in 2006. It was at that point that the research of other cities' and states' Poet Laureate programs began and with the leadership of Mayor Julian Castro we were able to make this initiative a reality. Thank you, Mayor, for taking a great interest in this project and making literacy and education a priority for the San Antonio Community.

The state of Texas named its first poet laureate in 1932, however, TODAY, San Antonio becomes the first major city in Texas to appoint its own poet laureate. With this we join the ranks of other cities across the nation and we expect other cities in Texas will soon follow suit.

In San Antonio, we recognize that poetry plays a significant role in the culture of our city as well in the education of our population. I quote poet, Audre Lorde, who, by the way, was poet laureate of New York from 1991-92, who captures the power of the written word when she said, "Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before." We believe that our Poet Laureate will carry this same message throughout her two-year term and she will bridge and bring to the forefront the necessity to promote literacy, poetic arts, and literature.

Nelson Mandela once said, "A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special." And we know that Carmen Tafolla has a good head, a good heart, and most definitely a literate tongue and pen. I think San Antonio has something very special. Renowned author, Alex Haley, even called her "a world-class writer" and Ana Castillo called her a "pioneer of Chicana literature."

Dr. Carmen Tafolla was nominated by five individuals for this honor among a total of twenty-one nominations. Her relationship with the community is one that spans all ages, ethnicities, and creeds and her family history in San Antonio goes back several generations. Carmen, herself, was raised on West side of San Antonio.

Carmen has written six children's books and a total of six fiction and nonfiction books. She also has a total of six collections of poetry. And her poetry has been translated into Spanish, German, and Bengali. In addition, her works have won numerous awards, too many to list tonight, but in much of her poetry you will notice she is a master of "code-switching," which is the skill of alternating between formal and colloquial Spanish and English as a literary technique.

She believes strongly that a multi-cultural dual-language education is one of the greatest gifts we can provide our children, and that effective family literacy is heavily dependent on the availability of stories and literature to which people can relate culturally and realistically.

I cannot think of anyone else but Carmen Tafolla as our first Poet Laureate. She is truly hecha en San Antonio. Mayor, please join me in congratulating Dr. Tafolla and to preside over the official honors. Gracias.


Carmen Tafolla's speech delivered at the induction ceremony

Mi pueblo querido, I love you very much. In a village this creative, this artistic, this bubbling over with energy, and with dynamic good will, I feel nothing but humility and a desire to serve. It is an honor, but it is a very humbling thought to accept this post. I will do my best to bring us all flowing together like this beautiful river, our namesake.

It's unthinkable to not thank you as a community and you as a city for this poetic energy, this richness of expression, this unconquerable spirit that San Antonio represents. People like to say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I was planning to talk about how it takes a community to create a poet  but I attended last week's Art of Peace Award, given to local poet and publisher, Bryce Milligan, and there I heard him say, more eloquently than I could have, how it takes a village to make anything happen. And I concur, but still, I have a village to thank.

In some parts of this nation, communities are trying to erase the history and the contributions of their diverse groups, but here, in San Antonio, our mayor, our city leaders, our residents have had the visionary genius to embrace the great diversity of our writers knowing that in our diversity lies our strength, our wealth and our future. So I thank, first of all, the City of San Antonio, its leaders and its people.

I also thank family, familia is what makes everything happen. I have my familia out there tonight, I'm very proud to say: my husband Ernesto Bernal, of almost 33 years now, who has always supported me and believed in me, and even tolerated those crazy moments when I'd say, "Yea, yea, yea we'll talk about supper in a little while. Hold on, I only have another 672 pages to go."

My mother, Mary Duarte Tafolla, is the youngest spirit I know and at age 94, still appreciates poetry. I still remember her reciting the poem that she had learned in elementary school to me, meaningfully stating, "In Flanders Fields the poppies grow / Between the crosses, row on row." I also remember her saving and scrimping and struggling for the two dollars a month that it would take to buy a Childcraft Encyclopedia set, the first volume of which was called Children's Verse.

And, my children Mari, Israel and Ariana, seven, right there [points to front row]. Also, my cousins, and my tias, you're out there, I see you. All of my cousins: my 1st cousins, my 2nd cousins, my 3rd cousins, my 4th cousins, my 5th step-cousin inlaws, my 6th cousins, twice removed except that in Mexican families we don't remove anybody. Thank you for being here. I know you're here.

I want to thank my friends for the tesoros that you are. You are the treasure, the true treasure of life. Friends and my colleagues who are here in force, tonight. UTSA is here from the top down, and I thank my colleagues for their support. I also want to thank the University I started at, way back in 1973 [then, Texas Lutheran College] and its now-retired President Charles Oestreich (who was then, I believe, academic dean or some such modest title). He actually hired a 21 year old, wet-behind-the-ears young woman from the Westside of San Antonio as Director of the Mexican-American Studies Center because he believed that maybe I had some potential and something to contribute to the world. And, I thank you for that, Dr. Oestreich.

I thank, today, the educators that are out there, and the legislators and the daily makers of this city who build this city one tortilla at a time, one brick at a time, one smile at a time, one tourist welcomed in and one suitcase carried at a time, because all of you help make this place happen each day in each word and in each action.

I also want to thank the poets. Poets, you know who you are! I want you to stand and be recognized. All of you poets, if you're wondering, am I the one she's talking about? If you're wondering if you should stand. Stand! The Sun Poets, The Jazz Poets, Macondo Poets, Canto Mundo Poets, come on! Young Pegasus, Writer's Blog, The San Antonio Poets Association, San Antonio Cultural Arts and Placazo, Wings Press poets, Pecan Grove poets, Trinity University Press poets, Our Lady of the Lake writing program, UTSA writing program, Alamo Community College poets, St. Mary's writing program, Texas A&M San Anto and Incarnate Word, Rap poets, Hip Hop poets. Don't sit down! We're not done, yet! Alamo Poets of Texas, San Antonio Writers Forum, Awaken the Sleeping Poet, Gemini Ink, Voices de la Luna, Fresh Take Under 21 Poetry, Gallista Gallery poets, the San Antonio Express News poetry column, the NALAC poets, the Third Monday poets, the independent poets and the closet poets who haven't told anybody that you're poets.

[I want to thank] the cultural arts organizations of the city: The Esperanza, The Guadalupe, The Museo Alameda, The SAMA, The Witte, The Children's Museum ... all of the places that encourage and support our writers. Please, everyone, let us applaud these people who write and sweat and work hard to express our soul. These people everyday struggle to find just the right words, to put who we are, who our spirit is, down on paper and then they go back and they change it and they find a better word and then they struggle over that word for like 3 hours and then they trash it, and put in a comma, and then they take out the comma, and put in, finally, the perfect word.

So, these are the people, these poets and our artists and our musicians who, I've got to tell you, for those of you who think that "uhhh, poets, writers, artists are those weird people out there in the edges of society. What do they do, I'm not really sure? They don't make any money." But, I have got to share with you that they are our prophets. And, I use the word prophet in the Old Testament sense of the word. A prophet is not somebody that forecasts the future. A prophet is somebody who interprets the present. They help us see where we are and who we are. And I have to thank you all, today.

You might ask, why is poetry so important? We're in a world full of illiteracy, violence, hunger, teen pregnancy, depression, lack of unity, all kinds of problems. Why put emphasis on poetry? Because, if poetry does its job right, it reaches the most honest and the most authentic part of our humanity. It helps us understand, why we're here and what we need to do. It helps us understand the spirit and the soul of this city. It speaks to who we are. It celebrates our strength. It celebrates our uniqueness. And this city is full of rich literary expression. It's everywhere. Not just in the formality of our books. Not just in our presses. But, it's standing at the bus stop. In a person who is telling their story, who's trying to figure out what their life is about and is trying to express it just right in the perfect words. It's in the lines of a song. It's in the punch lines of the best jokes in the city. People trying to create an expression about what our life is about. It's even in our wonderful bilingual aliteration, like "Que cool!" Or, "Bueno, bye."

You can count on the fact that the projects I lead here will try and tie all facets of the community together not just the young, not just the old, not just the highly educated and not just the people who are on the fringes of our institutions. But, we'll try to bring people together so that we can empower each other. I will try and make poetry a two-way street, not a one-way street. Not something we "give" others. Not, "I'm here to share elegant poetry with you" and you're there to just sit and receive it. No, we're here to make it a communication. And I want that two-way street to connect to all the highways, footpaths and rivers of this great pueblo connecting the different languages, the cultures, the time periods and the neighborhoods in one empowering poetic affirmation of our potential and our future. I want these projects to focus not only on sharing poetry with the community but hearing the poetry that is coming from our community, hearing the voices of San Antonio and allowing our citizens, young and old to be co-creators in the act and the performance of poetry.

Many things are possible if you will stand by my side and help me. If you will suggest to me, if you will correct, amend and elaborate on the ideas we come up with. Like people saying, "Remember the bookmobiles? Yeah, I remember the bookmobiles! Why don't we have a poemmobile!" It would carry around, not only a library of poetry, not only workshops for the young, but a stage and the kids could get up there and perform and have talent contests. We'd have talent contests for all age groups. We could get everybody involved.

This morning I was with my husband at the barbershop and his barber starts to quote an Amado Nervo poem. "Llave vieja, que ya no tienen dientes / Porqué las guardo...." And he goes on, a barber pulling from the poetry of his soul from a poem that had reached him.

We can skype poetry into the schools. We can get all of the poets out there involved in sharing with schools, in teaching students. We can create a performance piece about San Antonio, mi pueblo, tu pueblo, so that tourists who come here to see what San Antonio's about hear in the voices of our poets and our people and our young people, what we are about. There's a lot we could talk about but I'm just one person and I'm hoping that if I'm lucky, I can work in a midway position between the communities, the poets and the universities and cultural arts organizations and help make these projects happen.

I have to tell you that I didn't grow up knowing I was going to be a writer or a poet, despite my mother's poems, despite my Tía Ester putting me on her lap and teaching me to declamar in good Spanish style, "Rin, Rin renacuajo / salio una mañana, / muy tierno, / muy majo.... 'No salgas, hi'jito' le dice Mamá / pero él le hace un gesto / y orondo se va.... Con pantalón corto, / corbata a la moda, / sombrero encintado / y chupando de boda..."

I didn't even know what "chupando de boda" meant! But, she taught me at age five to declamar. To declaim. But I didn't know, I didn't think I could be a writer. I wished, maybe, for the resources of elsewhere. We didn't even have a library on the Westside of San Antonio at that time. So, books were not easy to come by. They didn't put a library there until I was eleven years old and my mother would walk two miles from our house to the library once a week with me to help me check out the books. I'd get five books a week and I would open them up and I would read them all the way through and pretty soon they were done. And, I was bored, again. And I opened the book and I looked at it to see if there was anything I'd missed and, yeah, I'd missed one page. The one right behind the title page with all the little fine print, very boring stuff that says things like ISBN: 0-0067-2954, but there was one thing on that page that fascinated me, and it was an address. Every single book had an address where it came from and it said things like, Doubleday, New York; Random House, New York; Little Brown, New York; and I thought, "Oh, that's where the books come from and that's where the writers come from. Too bad! If only I had been raised in New York, I might have had something to write about."

Instead, I was raised in the Westside of San Antonio. I don't have anything to write about, you know, we don't have a Statue of Liberty on the Westside. We don't have a Central Park on the Westside. We don't have any park at all. Instead of a park at the end of our block, like they had on TV neighborhoods, at the end of our block we had a tortilleria where an elderly woman would make corn tortillas for a penny each. And, she was ancient. She was the oldest person I had ever seen, still breathing.

We'd go in and if you had 5 pennies, you bought 5 tortillas. If you had 20 pennies, you bought 20 tortillas. It was easy. And the little kid from down the block would cut line in front and slap 7 pennies on the counter and say, "siete tortillas, por favor!" And she would start to count out these pennies one by one. She would say, "uuuuo-o-o-o, doooooos..." So, I had a lot of time to stand there and stare. And while I stared at her, I saw that her face was brown and wrinkled. It was so wrinkled that it looked like little brown squares, just like the dirt in San Antonio in the summertime, in the charcos when they're all dried up and they look like little brown squares and I said, "That's it!" That's why she and the dirt look alike. They're the same age. She's the oldest breathing creature on the face of this planet. And she said, "treeeesssss."

And I looked at her hair which was so white and the sunlight that came in through the window, that looked like it was sending messages back and forth through her hair. They were talking to each other. They were sending rays or vibrations, or something and her hair would say, "Eey, ¿cómo te va?" And, the sun would say, "okay, last century 'taba bien gacho, hijole.'" You know, they were talking to each other, her hair and the sun. And I said, "I know why! Because she and the sun are the same age. She's known him forever, they were kids together, you know. That's what it is! That's why she and the sun communicate so well because she's the oldest breathing creature in the solar system. "And just then she said, seeeeis." I knew we were getting close.

And I looked at her hands, and her hands didn't look like they were made out of hands, they looked like they were made of the corn masa that she'd been working all day long. Her hands looked like masa. And I said, "She's older than Mexican food? No civilization would be possible anywhere in the universe without Mexican food. I think, she's the oldest breathing creature in the universe. That's what it is!" And, just then she finished and she said, "Sieeeeete."

She stuck the 7 pennies in her delantal and turned around to yell to the back of the house for help, for someone to come help her turn the tortillas, because when you're the oldest breathing creature in the universe, you deserve a little respect, a little help, so she turned around, she yelled to the back of the house, it was just a house with a front counter where they sold tortillas and they lived in the back, and she yelled, "Mamá!"

And her mother came out and helped her turn those tortillas. And, I thought I had nothing to write about!

And I did write. And I wrote some more, and I wrote some more. And then I found out that there was one little poem that was published more than anything else. It wasn't about New York, or Central Park or the Statue of Liberty. It was a little, tiny poem about the little old lady and the tortilleria and her mother.

So, when we think about that, we realize that our best doesn't come from being someone else. Or, growing up somewhere else. Or, trying to imitate somebody else. It comes from being who we really are. And who San Antonio really is, is really special.


A review of Carmen Tafolla's performance at the 2012 San Antonio Luminaria, "A vision of poetry"

With its refrain of "this river, right here or maybe a little farther down," Carmen Tafolla's poem "This River Here" should probably be the official poem of the city, just as the West Side native was recently named the first poet laureate of San Antonio. In one of the opening performances of Luminaria, complete with dance and music in the auditorium of the Instituto Cultural de México, Tafolla beautiful in a bright turquoise blouse to set off her auburn hair boldly embodied (she doesn't merely recite) poems such as "The Alamo Is an Olmec Head," "Flour Tortillas," "Tía Sofia" ("she was the wild one") and "San Antonio Is a Young Yanaguana Woman."

"This River Here" is a rhythmic, musical, code-switching tour de force of family, culture and history ("This river here is full of me and my/and you and yours").

It's a generational album of verbal snapshots, capturing events minuscule and momentous that happened "right here" on the San Antonio River "or maybe a little farther down."

The important thing is "my grandfather washed the sins out of his congregation's souls" they happened. Here.

Tafolla understands the depth of meaning and memory the river carries for the city even if it is only four feet deep. She knows the river not only spawned San Antonio, but continues to nourish it "and all its people and languages and its multicolored heritages."

Perhaps that's why she's poet laureate.

Near the end of the 40-minute performance, Tafolla finally got to the really important stuff. Want to know the secret of making good flour tortillas? Tafolla's tía knew that "the secret's in the heat of the hands/cold hands don't make good tortillas."

Story by Jim Kiest, Elda Silva, Deborah Martin and Steve Bennett. Read more

Email Carmen Tafolla

Website: http://www.carmentafolla.com/

Titles Published by Wings Press: