The Big Read Blog (Archive)

READ BETWEEN THE LINES: A Q&A with a Big Reader

July 15, 2009
Washington, DC

The University of Texas Pan American (UTPA) serves the state's Rio Grande Valley, a largely Mexican-American region in south Texas. With a student body of approximately 18,000, many of whom are first-generation collegians, UTPA was one of the 208 organizations participating in The Big Read for the 2008-2009 grant cycle. The university's Big Read of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima comprised the four southernmost counties in Texas--Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr, and Willacy--home to 1.2 million potential Big Readers. By e-mail I spoke with Big Read organizer Dr. Steven Schneider, director of new programs and special projects for UTPA's College of Arts and Humanities.

 TBR: Why did UTPA choose to read Bless Me, Ultima?

Schneider: I selected Bless Me, Ultima for our 2008-2009 Big Read because it is a book that is ?culturally relevant? for our community. Joan Parker Webster, in her book Teaching Through Culture, defines culturally relevant literature as literature in which ?students can see themselves...represented accurately and respectfully.? With [the text in both] English and Spanish and its themes that focus around competing family values of the priesthood and the vaquero tradition, we thought this text would have great appeal to readers in the Rio Grande Valley.  Our Big Read book selection had a tremendous response from our community and was widely read both in the public high schools and in community book discussion groups.

TBR: Why do you think  Bless Me, Ultima is worth reading?

Schneider: Bless Me, Ultima is a ?signal? text;  it was written and published at the beginning of a new wave of Latino literature. It?s an important book for that reason and [because it] provides a window into Latino culture in the Southwest. It is also a universal story about a young boy, Antonio, who learns that the world is full of paradoxes and that he must take good from all his experiences.

TBR: What are some of the highlights from your Big Read of Bless Me, Ultima?

Schneider: There were several highlights, including teen discussion groups, mariachi performances, and a themed art exhibit based upon symbols and characters in the novel. The most impressive event though was our keynote panel at which three renowned scholars--Professors R.C. Davis, Mark Glazer, and Eliseo Torres--presented their critical perspectives on the novel. Professor Davis addressed the place of Bless Me, Ultima in American literature, Professor Glazer examined Mexican-American folklore references in the novel, and Professor Torres presented a rich discussion of the tradition of curanderas and the portrayal of Ultima in the  novel.

TBR: Why did you choose Sun, Stone, and Shadows as the focus for your 2009-2010 Big Read grant?

Schneider: We selected Sun, Stone, and Shadows for several reasons. Because of our location on the Texas-Mexico border, there is great interest in Mexican cultural affairs. We wanted a book that would engage high school and college students, as well as families, lapsed readers and/or reluctant readers, and members of the Rio Grande Valley who may live in colonias or other underserved areas. We feel this collection of short stories will have great appeal to these groups and the availability of a Spanish-language translation is another important asset. We hope it will focus attention on U.S.-Mexico relations and serve as a unifying force.

TBR: Why should people in the U.S. be interested in a book of short stories by writers from Mexico?

Schneider: The year 2010 is the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, which had a great impact in the Southwest and on the U.S. border with Mexico. We will be tying our Big Read programming to the annual UTPA celebration of books and arts called FESTIBA and to the commemoration of the Mexican Revolution. Several of the authors who composed the stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows were impacted in one way or another by the Mexican Revolution. Readers on this side of the border will be interested in these stories because of the insights they share about our neighbors to the South.

TBR: What can we expect from your new Big Read?

Schneider: Our Big Read program begins in the fall with outreach to the public schools. Our kickoff will take place in late February with the greatest concentration of activities taking place in March 2010. We are planning our keynote panel and art exhibit for the last week of March to coincide with FESTIBA. We will be expanding our partnerships this time to include more museums and libraries.  This year we will also be working with the Mexican Consulate to promote programs on both sides of the border.

NEA: What effect do you think The Big Read has had on your university?

Schneider: The Big Read has had a very positive impact on our university. The tie-in with FESTIBA has been phenomenal, and we have had strong support from our university administration. It has also created energy and enthusiasm in the English Department, where many faculty members adopted our book selection. The Big Read has also been an excellent vehicle for building bridges between the campus and the community as evidenced by our outreach and partnerships.

NEA: What was it like being at The Big Read orientation?

Schneider: The Orientation in Minneapolis was terrific! I was especially moved by the keynote speech given by Tim O?Brien and the newly released film of Rudolfo Anaya. I wish we had the video available last year. I especially enjoyed the session on community partnerships and culled some valuable lessons from the panel. Most importantly, I left inspired about the Big Read program and our continued participation in it.

NEA: What do you think is the importance of a program like The Big Read?

Schneider: The Big Read is a vital program, especially in a community like ours, where literacy rates are below the national average. It?s critical to find innovative ways to make reading exciting and important, and the Big Read accomplishes that!

(All photos by Tony Casas. From top: A Bless Me, Ultima display at the Edinburg, Texas-based Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, UTPA's library partner for The Big Read; Dr. Steven Schneider at the spring  kick-off event; Mariachi Juvenil performing at the Bless Me, Ultima kickoff.)

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