Friday, December 10, 2021 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
BookWoman is delighted to present Teresa Palomo Acosta for the launch of her book, Tejanaland: A Writing Life in Four Acts (Texas A&M Press, 2021). Tejanaland collects three decades of Acosta’s work in poems, essays, drama, and children’s story that address the cultural, historical, political, and gender realities that have informed the author from childhood to the present.
Poet, historian, author, and activist Teresa Palomo Acosta grew up in McGregor, Texas, in a home approximately 100 human paces from the railroad tracks. She first learned about music and writing from her maternal grandfather Maximino and her mother Sabina. At 11, she decided to become a writer and spent the next four years cogitating before settling on poetry as her chosen form. Teresa’s degrees in Mexican American Studies from UT Austin and in Journalism from Columbia University reinforced her commitment to depict her Tejanaland life in equal measures of joy and pain.
In addition to Tejanaland, Acosta is the author of the poetry collections In the Season of Change (Eakin Press, 2003), Nile and Other Poems (Red Salmon Press, 1999), and Passing Time (Teresa Palomo Acosta, 1984). Acosta co-authored Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003) with Ruthe Winegarten.
CH: First, tell us a little about the term “Tejanaland.” Where did it originate, and how does it resonate with you? Why did you select “Tejanaland” as the title of your book?
TPA: Tejanaland is my name for a powerful world that gave me life. I chose it as the book title because it is an emphatic grito that lays claim to “the land that became Texas,” a common phrase used to denote the present-day State of Texas. Mexican-origin people often possess both indigenous and Spanish-Mexican roots, making us a people who, for many generations, have lived our lives on both sides of the present-day border. Just as importantly, the title is a way to proclaim my creative literary landscape. The title Tejanaland is leaves no doubt that what I write is both deeply rooted in the Central Texas Blacklands, where I grew up, and is connected to all the other geographic landscapes my people occupy in this state.
CH: You’ve said you learned about music and writing from both your mother and your maternal grandfather. What was the role of music and writing in your home life?
TPA: My maternal grandfather Maximino Palomo had been taught to play the violin as a boy. His family, according to the stories I learned, worked and lived on an hacienda. He was apparently meant to become the manager of the hacienda in due time. His future called for him to have “cultured tastes,” which included playing a musical instrument. The 1910 Mexican Revolution changed this trajectory, forcing him to flee with his family across the US-Mexico border. He continued, however, to play violin. He insisted that I practice soprano clarinet every day. I took up the instrument as a sixth grader in my school’s music program. My grandfather had been an actor in traditional Mexican plays, and he would sometimes perform a favorite role for me. My mother had a lovely contralto. She sang at home in Spanish as she did housework.
My mother provided space and quiet for me to write in our home. She would tell visitors, “Teresa is writing, so we must be quiet.” I’m not sure how she surmised that writing was important to me, but she did. In our kitchen, the Velásquez Spanish Dictionary was prominently displayed on a small table. My parents never told me how they obtained the book. But its presence was significant to me. I used the dictionary for my Spanish language classes in high school and later in college. Perhaps its availability was a foretelling that Spanish was a natural occupant of my writing world.
CH: Your bio talks about your early interest in writing, and the decision you made to become a poet. What was it about writing that fascinated you? And what steered you in the direction of poetry?
TPA: As a child, I spent a good deal of time imagining events and places. I would stand on the railroad tracks in front of our home and wonder about what lay in the distance—what people and experiences could be found “out there.” At the same time, the people who surrounded me were my major interests: how they spoke as they visited with my mother, father, and grandfather; the funny jokes and play on words that my father used in describing a friend or a situation; and what my grandfather told me about his life, dramatizing it for me, as needed.
What steered me to poetry is partly what steered many dreamy-eyed teenagers, at least in my memory, to poetry: a desire to write about romance, about being rescued by a “knight in shining armor” and similar themes. As a young girl, I grew deeply intrigued with the way words reveal so much about ourselves and others. Between the ages of 11 and about 16, I simply decided that poetry was my genre. Also, in high school, I participated in poetry interpretation in the University Interscholastic League competition. As a result, I read a great deal of poetry from English and American literature. However, I later learned just how limited American literature was by race and ethnicity, which was the case during my school years. Growing up, I had no Mexican-origin writers to emulate, and poems by or about about Mexicans were unheard at my school. Those poems, in fact, had existed for generations, but they were not taught to me throughout much of my formal education.
Thus, the Mexican American literature I learned was a living being within my home and my community. It was delivered orally to me in stories told at home and in our community. When I was more mature, I decided to make my people’s experiences one of the chief basis of my work. Indeed, my poetry emerged from what I learned or witnessed at home. As a young woman, I asked my parents a great deal about our family’s history. They were happy to tell me what they could. We would take driving trips around McGregor and the surrounding towns. On these journeys, they would relate many experiences and point out specific sites where they had lived, worked, and socialized as young people during the Great Depression. Many of the experiences they related to me made their way into my work—many. I cannot emphasize this enough. I can still hear my parents’ voices as they spoke about our family history in the Central Texas Blacklands. They, along with my maternal grandfather, were my teachers for making the community’s hearth a world—a Tejanaland—about which to write.
CH: I understand that Tejanaland surveys three decades of your work, from poetry to essay to drama to children’s story. How do you see your development as a writer over your career?
TPA: My formal training as a writer began when I enrolled at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. There, I studied with Dr. Travis Looper, who was considered a fearsomely tough professor of Freshman English. He taught us to diagram sentences, in an effort to illustrate to us how words function in relation to one another. After returning to us our first essay for his class, Professor Looper told us that while we “had a lot to say, we didn’t know how to say it.” I was both dismayed at my C- on that essay and elated that his class offered the opportunity to learn how to write persuasively. I had ended up in Professor Looper’s class by asking a pertinent question during fall semester registration. When I arrived at the registration desk, I learned that his composition class was woefully lacking in students. I asked why. A member of the registration staff responded, with a gleam in her eye, that students, if they could, made every effort to avoid Professor Looper’s class because he was “hard.” Great, I thought. I wanted a hard teacher, so I immediately registered to study with Professor Looper. I made sufficient progress in his class to earn a semester grade of A-. At UT Austin, I enrolled in the only creative writing class I’ve ever taken. Dr. Carlota Cárdenas de Dwyer was my professor. I wrote “My Mother Pieced Quilts” as a classroom assignment. Professor Cárdenas de Dwyer and other colleagues of hers were in the process of assembling The United States in Literature, a secondary school literature textbook. She asked me for permission to publish my poem in the textbook and, of course, I agreed to her request. “My Mother Pieced Quilts” has remained the best known of my poems, and continues to appear in several secondary American literature textbooks. For one year, I served as the editor of El Despertador at UT Austin, which was the newspaper of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). I loved writing. I knew that I would pursue it in one way or another.
CH: As a writer, what has become more important to you over time? As a young writer, were there things you thought important that seemed less over time?
TPA: Writing directly, using a contemplative or meditative approach has become paramount. As a young writer, I likely tried to please others. However, it’s become more important for me to write about what moves me rather than to try to please an audience. My lyric poetry has, I think, been largely been overlooked by scholars and others who have followed me as a poet addressing political matters. I consider the lyric poems key to my work. In Tejanaland they, some tinged with humor, reign.
CH: I have known about you as a poet and historian for some time, but did not know of your background in journalism. What led you to Columbia University? How did this course of study there shape the direction of your writing life?
TPA: I fashioned myself, incorrectly, a reporter because I am a very curious person and thought that journalism would provide a great platform for exploring the world. So I applied and was accept to the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Studying at Columbia was a tough road for me to traverse. I faced constant challenges in figuring out how to move about the city to complete my assignments. The pace at Columbia was also quite demanding.
Yet, while it may seem odd, I think the study of journalism is a great education for a poet. It certainly was the case for me. I learned how to be quiet and let others talk. I learned to think on my feet, so to speak, and how to quickly devise the main point of a story. Importantly, I gained the ability to rapidly start a piece of writing with a phrase or one sentence—the so-called important “lead” of a newspaper story. Indeed, figuring out the “lead” is also important in writing poetry.
Almost from the first week of my journalism studies, I realized that I was not bound for a reporting career. Yet I am deeply grateful that studying journalism showed me how to explore the lives of people and situations that I thought needed bringing to light in poetry. Many of my poetry subjects live in the American Southwest, with many residing in my family history in McGregor and in my larger community in Texas.
CH: What do you see as the relationship between journalism and history? Tell us a bit about your experience with journalism. How did you become a historian?
TPA: I think journalism and history share a great deal in common. It has been proposed that journalism is the “first” history, as it reports on events as they occur, and history reports on the long aftermath of events. The two fields require keen observation; numerous sources; the ability to listen to others’ opinions, while refraining from judging their perspective; organizing an account of events that entices people to read it. Both rely on using the most intriguing of voices to tell a story. They also require writing precisely, although history allows for the fashioning of a longer narrative. I began to write history when I served for four years as a research associate for the New Handbook of Texas project at the Texas State Historical Association. I was hired to write about the history of Mexican Americans in Texas. My tenure at the Handbook allowed me to learn to use archival records and seek sources beyond the all-important interview that is of high importance in journalism. Before my experience at the NHOT, I would never have imagined myself as capable of writing history.
CH: When I see the term “Tejanaland,” I can’t help but think of Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History (University of Texas Press, 2003), which you authored with Ruthe Winegarten. How did your experience working on that project influence your writing life?
TPA: Writing Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History with Ruthe Winegarten had a deeply personal impact on how to write about women’s lives. What an uplifting journey she and I took in pursing the book. I have an essay in Tejanaland about our collaboration. As to how our work impacted my writing life: The experience confirmed my desire to write about Tejanas who are unknown or little appreciated such as Elena Zamora O’Shea, about whom I write in Tejanaland, or Daria Arredondo Vera, a labor activist in the Rio Grande Valley. In writing Las Tejanas, Ruthe and I went beyond focusing solely on major Tejana figures. Our commitment to depict the lives of extra-ordinary women continues to guide me. I find their stories deeply compelling and in need of an audience. Another outcome of our work was that I pledged myself to write honestly about women.
CH: Looking back on what you’ve learned, what might you tell your young writer self?
TPA: I would definitely tell her to be bold, to experiment with her ideas; to live outside of the United States for some time; to forgive herself for her writing errors; and to begin with anticipation and joy each time she faces the blank page. That blank page is an invitation to preserve human life in words. I would also tell her to be a generous writer, sharing what she knows and learning from others.