Roberto German 00:01
Welcome to Our Classroom. In this space, we talk about education, which is inclusive of, but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto German. And Our Classroom is officially in session. In this episode of Our Classroom, we are joined by David Bowles, an associate professor and coordinator of the English Education Program at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. He is the award-winning Chicano author and translator of some 30 books among them, They Call Me Güero and My Two Border Towns. David's academic work and activism seeks to empower Latina educators and their allies in the fight for children's literacy dignity. He presently serves as vice president of the Texas Institute of Letters. With us today, David Bowles. Hey, welcome back to Our Classroom. We have a special guest. All the guests are special, folks. Let me make that clear. But we have a guest here today that I'm connecting with for I think the second time. I think we met at NCTE years ago. But it's-- it's been a while since we've had conversation. Certainly, this connection on the social media platforms on Twitter and whatnot. And Lorena's more connected to you. So David, thank you for being here. It is my pleasure to have you on Our Classroom. And I'm excited to learn from you and with you.
David Bowles 01:56
Likewise, I love this podcast. Love the work that-- that you do that. That y'all both do. And so, yeah, super happy to be here.
Roberto German 02:05
Thank you. Thank you. So we'll go ahead and just jump right in. Your-- your writing draws me in for a number of different reasons. And you address things such as immigration and life on the border, which is of-- seems to be a focal point for you. And I'm-- I'm, I'm wondering why is this a focal point and who are you writing for? And one of the reasons I'm asking is because I lived in Texas for seven years. So when we moved from Massachusetts to Texas, I got to see some different things and I got to hear some stories from people, and I got to experience some of what they were going through. And when I refer to them, I'm talking about individuals who either live on the border or were crossing the border particularly youngsters. There's a lot of youngsters that I was in contact with through a particular organization. And so I have a-a big heart for individuals who experience life on the border and-- and who have stories that perhaps where not, we the general public, may not be as familiar with and as a result might not have as much empathy. And then the second reason is because my parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. So the-- the story of family leaving behind their culture and-- and-- and coming over and adapting to culture in the United States that hits close to home, even though I did not grow up and live on the border. And so these things I noticed in your writing and it's drawn me in as a reader, and I'm interested to learn more.
David Bowels 03:46
Yeah. I mean, you've touched on some things that are really important to me, but kind of like at the heart of my reason for exploring border stories and immigration stories is, you know, the fact that this is my community. My family and my dad's side, the Mexican-American side has lived in this transnational community of, you know, the Rio Grande, the Valley, and the-- the northern part of Tamaulipas, it's a Mexican state, to our south for a couple hundred years. Many of them came with Escandón under-- when this was all new Spain. You know, about several dozen families, both mestizos and indigenous / Calteca came up out of the Saltillo area and settled here. So we've been living here for a long time. And our traditions are way of life. All of these particularities that are so important to me and that are not reflected in a lot of literature and entertainment and-- and haven't been my entire life until really recently, and then only a trickle. They're the things that I wanna share with the world. And, you know, primarily, I want to share it with other Mexican-Americans, especially young people from my community, so they can see themselves centered and celebrated in the pages of books and the-- the ins and outs of-- of our lives depicted that way. But also for people who are not from this community so they can understand our essential humanity. I think that a lot of people tend to think of the border as this kind of like postapocalyptic landscape. There where, like, tanks and like Mad Max warriors roam around and-- and-- and causing havoc and so forth, when in reality it's like this really peaceful, loving community. And you've been to South Texas, you know how this is. But you know, one of the things that increasingly has been a focus of my concern is the way that immigrants are treated. My wife is an immigrant from Mexico. She came across in her 20s a few years before we met. And the way I've seen her treatment get progressively worse over the three decades that we've been married. And the way I've seen immigrants in our community who have a place here, we easily fold them into our workplaces and just the fabric of our lives. But the way they've been demonized and marginalized and mistreated by people at the federal government level, but also just throughout the conversation that we're having nationally is of concern to me. And so you know, and also as a teacher, you know, I've-- I-I taught middle school for 14 years and then ran an English language arts and bilingual program at a local school district. And now I'm a-a professor at-- at the university here. And my students in all of those roles have been a mixture of, you know, long-term mestizos Mexican-Americans from the valley and then immigrants from both Mexico and other places, central America and the Caribbean. And their concerns and-- and the way that that national conversation that so ugly impacts their sense of self and self-worth and-- and their ability to emerge as lifelong readers and writers and thinkers. You know, that is what compels me to talk about them and talk about the issues they face.
Roberto German 07:11
Mm-hmm. That's-- you-- you use the word demonize. And for our listeners who are ignorant, and I don't mean that in any disrespectful way, I'm-- I'm truly using it as stating they don't know, they're not aware for whatever the reason may be of the way folks that cross the border are demonized. Do you mind providing an example or two?
David Bowels 07:35
Well, sure. I mean, in-- in the-- in the first place, there is this attitude that the people who are coming are harmful in some way to the-- our economy, to our law and order to our way of life. That they're gonna somehow dilute some essential American identity by coming in and bringing THE Spanish language or indigenous languages like religious beliefs and just ways of looking at the world that are incompatible, a certain segment of our society would say with the standard American way of-- of doing things and-- and thinking. And then, you know, like I said, there's this worry about criminality and about the motives of people who are coming here, that they're coming to try to basically snatch food from the mouths of people in the US. In reality, these are people who are coming here mostly in accordance with international law seeking asylum refuge because they are fleeing, you know, terrible conditions, violence, threats and so forth in their-- their home countries. And the vast majority of them are extremely honest, you know, family-centric, hardworking, although that shouldn't be, in my opinion, a-a-a measuring stick for the value of somebody to this nation. But nonetheless, they are usually very hardworking who come into this community, this-- this strip of, you know, 60 miles strip of frontera where I live. And-- and contribute quite a bit and make our lives better and richer and are-- are good friends and good, you know, community members. But that's not the way the rest of the world views them. And so you get unaccompanied minors being snatched up and-- and put in these really horrible conditions, essentially cages, even to this day, even under the Biden administration, put in very cold places with-- with, like, minimal comforts and just kind of made to suffer and the same hold through with families and so forth. Then, you know, many of them are forced to wait in Mexico camping out. My wife and I go across the border all the time, to visit friends and family in our border towns here, and we constantly see these people who are not allowed to even step foot on US soil halfway across the bridge because at that point international law says that they can request asylum. So this treating them like they are a danger to the US as a justification for keeping them away when ethically, morally, legally, they ought to be permitted to come in, that is what I refer to when I say demonization.
Roberto German 10:11
Thank you. Thank you for clarifying that. Now back to your writing, how much of you shows up in your books?
David Bowels 10:22
I think a lot does. I mean, the Border Kids series which started with They Call Me Widow and then obviously has gone now to, They Call Her Fregona. The-- the main character, the narrator, the-- the boy who writes poems and is telling his-- his-- these stories is probably about 30% drawn from me. In fact, a lot of his actual experiences, especially in the first book, are basically pulled from my childhood and brought into the present time because I'm 52, obviously I'm not 12. But I would say-- and then a lot of the rest of him is taken from my son who's now 21 and lives in Austin going to college there, but was a teenager when I was writing the first book. And other young men and boys that I've worked with over the decades here in my community of Donna which is about 20 minutes from McAllen for those who don't know. And so I wanted to, I-I-- when I write characters from the boarder, I often, you know, will pull from my own experience and from the experience of others because there's an authenticity that derives from that, right? When you-- when you want to write about the-- the experiences of members of a community, when you are a member of that community, pulling from what you know, what you've seen, what you've experienced, and what others closely you've experienced is the best way to authentically depict that-- that community and those types of people. So definitely, I mean, that-- that's-- that's why I do that. And, of course, as a result, my characters tend to be a little bit like me. They tend to be, like, light-skinned Mexican-Americans who are part of a community color without being of color themselves necessarily. You know, having indigenous heritage, but having it be, you know, genetically not obvious and, and things like that. And grappling with colorism within the community and like what that-- what that means to be 12 years old and realize that while your community is being demonized and othered and so forth, you within that community experience a privilege as a white per-- presenting person to move through the world. And then you have to decide what you're gonna do with that because you can't renounce privilege. Privilege just comes and is there. And as a young person, that's a really tough thing to face. Like, you-- you maybe don't want privilege because like in-- in my family and in many other Mexican-American families, there are people of varying shades of skin tones because of our mixed heritage. And I have-- my brother Fernando is-- is really dark-skinned. My brother Matteo is a little bit lighter-skinned with hazel eyes, and it-- it-- you just-- you just-- no, it's kind of like-- it's kind of roll of a dice. A genetic roll of the dice. But because of conquest and, and, and colonialism, we do have this colorist problem. And I think it was-- we see it laRoberto Germane in the elections that-- that-- just-- that we're just going through right now, the election. It's not election day, it's election season basically. 'Cause who knows when we'll find out how it turns out. By the time people listen to this., hopefully we'll have-- we have hammered all that out. And, you know, I think that pulling from my own experience as somebody who grapples with that privilege and-- and has to navigate the way I'm perceived in my community and outside of my community, all that complexity gives a richness to my characters that otherwise would be missing, which is, you know, the-- the argument for writing what you know, and writing within your lane. And-- and an argument against people who are not from the Latino community or from the Mexican-American community or the Dominican American community from writing as primary characters for protagonist people from our community, if they don't, you know, belong because they won't be able to-- they won't be able to capture those nuances.
Roberto German 14:20
I appreciate you naming that. Particularly the colorism piece, because I feel like that's still a conversation that we need to dig deeper into within Spanish-speaking groups within the Latino community and whatnot. It-- it's a conversation I'd love to see us push even further.
David Bowels 14:43
I agree with you. It's-- it's-- it-- there's-- there's a reckoning that's been been centuries in coming that needs to be grappled with and like lit-- I mean, you know, again, I-I'm-- it's kind of depressing to talk about election results a little bit, but when you take a look at, you know, what's happened in Florida and to some degree what's happening in South Texas and a couple other southwest areas with Mexican-Americans who-- who ha-- you know, the-- their proximity to whiteness is like really intoxicating and pulls them into conservative-- It's some-- that's not the only thing. I mean, there's also like religious, you know, faith-based concerns and so forth that dr-- that pull them towards conservative-- conservative voting patterns. But I still think the colors is the heart of it. And I see the results in Georgia and see how many, you know, gente Latina decided to vote for Kemp instead of Stacey. Like, I just know in my heart, because I know my community that colorism had something to do with that. It was a factor, not the deciding factor maybe, but it was a factor. Where you're-- you know, where certain Hispanics because that's what they would usually call themselves, are more likely to vote for a white candidate than a black candidate, regardless of the particular positions of either candidate. And that is depressing. Yeah.
Roberto German 16:04
Yeah. There's-- there's so much there to unpack, my goodness. But—
David Bowels 16:10
Not the scope of this episode.
Roberto German 16:12
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Maybe at NCTE dig deeper.
David Bowels 16:17
We can sit down and have coffee and like chat it out.
Roberto German 16:19
Absolutely. So how-- how do you balance writing for children while also infusing the profound topics that you address, not just in your books, but also on your social media platforms where we see you-- you go real deep on Twitter.
David Bowels 16:35
Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, it is-- it is-- it's a very interesting juggling act especially when I'm writing for like much younger people. You know, it's with border kids’ poems with Güero and Fregona, you know, it's a little bit easier. I'm writing for an audience of kids who are, you know, on that verge of adolescence, and they're beginning to kinda push back a little bit. And so they're open to an exploration, a nuanced exploration of their community and the fractures within it and-- and so forth. And what-- but when I'm writing for younger kids, it gets really, really tough. So, you know My Two Border Towns, my first picture book, which just won the-- the Tomás Rivera Children's Book Award.
Roberto German 17:22
David Bowels 17:24
Gracias. Gracias. Is also dealing with these kinds of things. But the way I was able to accomplish it, I think was couching the difficulties of asylum seekers and refugees being trapped between Mexico and the US in terms of the beauty of being able to live in both those towns of-- of being in a transnational community. So I spent about three quarters of the book kind of like celebrating the amazing textures and flavors and nuances and-- and joys of being a border kid. And then kinda have that twist at the end where we see, you know, children, like, camped out on the bridge and just show the boy, the-- the main characters kinda dismay at this. Like, he-- he's been going back and forth now for six months with his particular family living on the bridge from-- from Cuba. And he's made really good friends with the boy and he was, like, learning Cuban slang and stuff like that. And-- and he-- he gets along with them really well, and the two of them would be such wonderful friends if they were neighbors, and, like, he wants desperately for this boy to be able to come across the-- the bridge. And then his father has to have that, you know, the hard talk with like, "Yes, there is room for him in our community. And yes, it's unfair. I agree. It's unfair. But, you know, hopefully things will change. And-- and when they do and they're allowed to seek refuge in our country are-- will greet them with our arms wide open." And then the boy-- I mean, there's some kind of hope. So the idea is you give children hope, you-- you're-- you're honest with them about the complexities couching them in terms the kids can understand, and then you give the kids hope. 'Cause the last thing you want is to, like, damage children by saying, "Hey, you know, the world is a really terrible place and lots of kids your age are suffering." And they will continue suffering forever. I mean, you don't wanna do that. It's-- you know, that's-- that's a posture that would-- that would hmm, you know, have an opposite effect from what you want, which is to have kids double down on their, like, their central humanity. Like, little kids are some of the-- the most just ethical, humane beings on the planet. And it's something that we kind of like slowly carve away at as-- as they get older until they become, you know, sometimes callous and-- and cynical.
Roberto German 19:47
You know, the way you were able to, I'm trying to find the right words. I don't wanna say tone it down, but adjust. The-- the way you're able to adjust to the audiences is-- is quite masterful. Yeah. I've been working on my young adult poetry book, and I'm not gonna lie, I've-- I've struggled at times in terms of bringing it down or at least certain sections of the book. And I'm like, all right, you know, I-I like to be up here and-- and get real tricky with the language, but I'm also, you know, speaking to audiences that at times that that might be a little too much and they need a little something simplistic. Something they could digest easily. And also something as you just stated, that leaves them feeling encouraged. You know, 'cause some of the pieces that I'm sharing, they're not gonna do that 'cause I'm-- I'm sharing my reality also. Which is not-- not that it's all-- Yeah. Yeah. Right. I was gonna say, it's not all gray, but, you know, I-I don't wanna hide that reality. At the same time, I do wanna offer some hope. So I, you know, I appreciate the way you are able to-- to adjust for your audience so that you know, it-- it gets across the message that you wanna get across, that it-- it reaches 'em in-- in a tone and language that they could really receive while also pushing their thinking. 'Cause your-- your writing does that, it accomplishes that, so.
David Bowels 21:23
And I-- and I think that like in-- interweaving and-- and thinking of-- thinking of a-- of a poetry collection or a novel in verse where it's kind of like a quilt where you, you know, you can have this narrative thread that goes through the ups and downs of a ty-- typical narrative and you weave into it moments of joy and distraction and-- and just silliness or just whatever. Just to try to bounce things out not because life is all those things at once. You know, you-- you can be like dismay at par-- a particular thing that you see on social media in the morning, and then have a joyful breakfast with family and then pivot to, like, trying to solve a problem in your community. And then trying to respond to some, like, negative press while then maybe wrapping up at night with something joyful again. I mean, you know, every single day is just this constant complex interweaving of-- of moments and-- and capturing that in a way that's, you know, that has various multitude that has like realisticness in it in a novel and verse is tricky, but oh, when you nail it, you know, it-- it feels you-- you feel like wow. And you can do that. The same thing with language, right? You just-- you can have some tricky complex language that really pushes the-- the-- pushes kids to the very edge of their zone of proximal development. And then you-- then you back off and have something like lighter and-- and much more accessible. I mean, ultimately I think you probably agree that poetry should be the language of the people and not the language of some ivory tower or academia or scholarship. And-- and the-- as much as we can like, open that up to people and make them feel comfortable so that when we do challenge them, they're like, "Okay, I'm with somebody I trust." And you know, Roberto's gonna challenge me. Pero, pues yo confio en el and everything's gonna be okay. He's got me by the hand. And-- and yeah, we'll get on the other side of this really dense language. So yeah, that's what I would recommend. Not that you're looking for a recommendation from me, but yeah.
Roberto German 23:21
No, no lo recibo. 100% de acuerdo. So as it relates to your most recent book, They Call Her Fregona, what were you thinking about as you were writing the part of the story when the ice raid happens?
David Bowels 23:37
Yeah. I mean, it-- that was inspired by something that literally did happen in the early years of the former guy's time in the White House. And it-- it was just so shocking to me. And-- and it, you know, it would've been shocking even if it had just been, like, a single incident. But there were multiple incidents of ice raiding, you know, factories and fields and all these things, snatching up families without any kind of thought for their children. I mean, you-- we would hear, you know, report after report in 2017, 2018, and 2019 of kids who just suddenly show up at home and their parents are not there and they don't know what's going on. And the family, you know, neighbors or family members who find out about the-- the raid come and check on the kids and, you know, and they're cut off from their parents. It's like the-- the most horrifying thing in the world. And in our own community that's-- that was happening and I wanted to grapple with, you know, how that feels for a child that's in that situation, but also like what it does to the community, especially when maybe part of the community is supportive of those kinds of things. And so it was, you know, in the first book we have Güero really kind of like celebrating his family and community and kinda like falling in love, not just with poetry, but with the ways in which it allows him to celebrate everything. And then in the second book, I wanna-- kinda-- I wanted to like, like basically pull up a flagstone and flip it over so we could see like all the ants and-- and cockroaches and stuff crawling under-- under the-- in the underbelly, right? And the ice raid is a-a way for me to-- to-- that's like the metaphorical flipping of the flagstone in the book. And at that point, the, you know, book, which has been really joy-- relatively joyful and grappling with, you know, kind of like, you know, middle school kind of issues. It-- it suddenly becomes really heavy and everybody's life and all the things that have been going, all the threads get tinged with sorrow. And there's still moments of joy because joy doesn't stop. But everything is, you know, now kind of flavored differently. And your-- when your joy is-- and-- and moments of great crisis become bittersweet, right? It is-- it's this weird alchemy that happens.
Roberto German 26:02
Hmm. Deep, deep, deep. Thank you. And thank you for sharing even that part of the-- the story and-- and bringing a real situation to text so that the audience can grapple with that. I think the more that we talk about these matters, the-- you-- you've mentioned a-a few times the term essential humanity and I think the-- the more we can really work towards that, right, drawing people into that essential humanity, then hopefully we could have honest conversations about these actions and how they impact people and communities.
David Bowels 26:44
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's-- it's important because otherwise these-- our communities are erased from the national conversation. They're out of sight. And it's easier then for people to-- to not see us as human and-- and then to not feel broken hearted when tragedy befalls us 'cause they're like, oh, you know, well those-- they're not, they're not us.
Roberto German 27:11
Right. So if you had an opportunity to have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
David Bowels 27:23
Yeah. Oh, man, that's a hard question, Roberto. I mean, there's so many. But I-- just because his work is on my mind and I recently spent a bunch of time with his family in San Marcos, Tomás Rivera would be, I think my pick today. His book ...y no se lo tragó la tierra, Earth Did Not Devour Him really open the door for people to write about young Latinas with, you know, honest complexity and literary dignity in a way that up to that point, because most of the books written about, you know, Hispanic teens or-- or-- or Latina’s folks ha-- were written by people who weren't-- weren't from the community, and they were usually kinda like didactic. And the message was always, you know, in like, in the 60s and 70s, well, I guess the 50s and 60s was always, you know, you have problems, but if you would just learn to speak English well, if you would just, you know, dress this particular way, cut your hair a particular way, ape the norms of, you know, white Anglo society everything would be fine. And that was invariably what would happen. And it was this book that was like, yeah, that's a bunch of nonsense. In reality, you know, the things that-- that in this book young Mexican Americans are grappling with can't be solved by just assimilation. They are problems that assimilation will only exacerbate. And so it-- it-- it's-- it's a great book, really timely to this day. And I-I always recommend people revisit it. It's not written in a way that we would recognize as being middle grade or YA, despite the age of the character. It really, I don't think that Dr. Rivera was thinking in those terms when he was writing this book. It's more of an adult book with a young protagonist. But it's relevance in the fact that it, along with Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. And-- and then, you know, several decades, well, at least a-a decade and a half later Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, these are like key books that inspired a lot of-- of my fellow Mexican American kid lit writers to-- to be involved. But that was the-- that's the urtext, that's the first one, Tómas Rivera’s Se Lo Tragó La Tierra written in Spanish originally, which is something that happens less and less and less in US letters in US literary engagement. And so I would love to pick his brain. I would love-- I would probably just spend my entire time just like, like, fan girling over him and whatever. 'Cause he was just such a brilliant man and just so eloquent both in English and in Spanish and was such a big heart. Just, you know, there's a reason that this award, the Tomás Rivera Children's Book Award is named after him because he like literally did open that door, so.
Roberto German 30:14
Amazing. Amazing. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that and inspiring us to go read some works by Tomás Rivera. David, where can folks follow you?
David Bowels 30:26
Sure. They can totally find me on social media especially if they want to be challenged in lots of interesting ways.
Roberto German 30:34
David Bowels 30:35
It's at-- it's at DavidOBowels both Instagram and Twitter. I have a Facebook account where I-I don't post as often. But yeah, Twitter is-- Twitter is my-- it's my thing. We'll see for how much longer, but it-- I'm gonna stick-- I'm gonna stick around until-- until Elon Musk… I was gonna wait until then. He's gonna have to throw me out.
Roberto German 31:01
Va ser como el Titanic.
David Bowels 31:03
Yeah. And I'm gonna be like playing my little violin.
Roberto German 31:08
Yes, yes. The band-- The band keeps playing.
David Bowels 31:12
It's gonna be-- there's a whole bunch of us, like activists that'll be there like, until the very last minute we're like, all now, jump on the door and see how many of us survive. I'm not gonna be like Jack. I'm not gonna be in the water. I'm gonna be on the door.
Roberto German 31:26
Yeah, no, the water's gonna be--
David Bowels 31:28
All the Titanic fans are like, oh, is it too soon? And then my website, davidbowels.us. So they can check me out there too.
Roberto German 31:37
Well, David, thank you so much. Appreciate your time. It was so insightful to hear from you, to learn a little bit about how you approach your writing, to dig into your books, wonderful works. I know we have a couple copies over here of-- of Güero and Fregona. And I-- and, you know, they are staple characters in this house, so.
David Bowels 32:02
Well, I appreciate that. Appreciate the-- the support and friendship and collegiality and to you at NCTE, bro.
Roberto German 32:11
Absolutely. Can't wait. And we'll have to dig in over coffee. You mentioned, I… Yo, bueno yo tomo café con leche.
David Bowels 32:20
Roberto German 32:20
David Bowels 32:22
It'll work just fine. Un abrazo a Lorena and see you very soon. Thanks.
Roberto German 32:27
All right. Take care.
David Bowels 32:28
Roberto German 35:33
As Always, your engagement in Our Classroom is greatly. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias, education, and society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your hosts, Roberto German.