Thursday, July 15, 2010

An ending, a begining, and a ALA speech

I knew it since last year when I accepted the plan: in 2010 I wouldn't eat, I wouldn't sleep, I wouldn't go out of the house. Two books to illustrate in one year don't leave room for the rest of one's life. But I am done at last and starting tomorrow I am doing noting but putting my feet up and scratching my bellybutton while I travel to Mexico where my family and my vacation awaits me.
In the meantime, I am marking the end of a working season with a speech. This is the text of my acceptance speech at the Pura Belpre award ceremony at the ALA conference this year in Washington DC.
See you all when I come back with my bellybutton swollen from so much idle scratching.

ALA Pura Belpre honor acceptance speech, Washington DC, 2010

When I was growing up I never, ever, imagined that I could be an artist. Even thought I spent much of my childhood drawing, and I was fascinated with how the lines of a pencil on a paper could make things appear―and I even got in trouble for doing so, I simply did not dare to dream of art and I together. To be such a thing―an artist!―I couldn't imagine.

Instead, I imagined being white. White with blue eyes and blond hair like the people that―I had learned―had it all. Like many generations of Mexicans before me, like my parents and my grandparents and their own parents, I had understood that to be smart, or beautiful, or talented, or important, one had to look different than me. You see, I grew up in a country that conquistadores indoctrinated with the belief that to be dark skinned or indian looking was to be like a child who needed to be guided and corrected. So powerful were these beliefs that they are still embedded in our popular culture, and even now many of us grow up admiring anyone who looks lighter, and we grant superiority to those who were born in another country, or speak other than Spanish. In my case, I accepted the fate of my features and my color, and so I didn't dare to dream being anything I thought wonderful, because, after all, I was just a brown kid.

Today that we are together at the Pura Belpre award, I want to tell you something; I love this celebration, and I await for it with as much anticipation as if it were my Primera Comunion or my Quince Años. I do, first, because this is a true fiesta, warm and colorful, much like the ones back at home with music and good friends. Secondly, because we are celebrating some of my favorite things in the world: children's books. These extraordinary works of art, which I discovered as an adult for the first time on the shelves of the public library in Walnut Creek, California, have changed my perceptions of the world and myself, and have given me a path to follow.Third, I love this celebration because you are here. Librarians, educators, book lovers, friends, we share the same passion. And when people with the same spark get together, we make fire. My writers and my illustrators being celebrated today, weavers of words, conjurers of images, searchers of meaning, keepers of stories; you are what I always really wanted to be, but I didn't know I could. Through the books that you create, kids like the one I was are finally the rightful protagonist of their own stories. In your books people like me are made of nothing but the right color, brandish the right accent, speak the right language, and―should we dare?--even wear the right clothes. In your books a truth is told: We are perfect exactly the way we are.

My friend Rose tells me that she believes that violence happens when we forget that we are all connected. Rose says we are one, all of us... her, you, and I. I only met Rose a few years ago, and she delivers sapience to me every Wednesday morning while we go for walks with my dogs.
If I had known Rose when I was growing up, I would have learned that while I felt I lacked everything , in fact I had it all. Because, you see, if Rose is right and we are all connected, what's yours is also mine. Those blue eyes I always thought I needed―mine. Just as mine is your black skin, and mine are your dreams, your talents, your triumphs. In exchange your get something too. Yours are my doubts. To you belong my fears―don't tell me you don't want them! And yours also is my passion for drawing, and my obsession to color. The nights I lie awake imagining stories are yours as well, and so is the joy I feel right now to be here accepting this Pura Belpre honor. In that token, yours is also my beautiful half Mexican, half Gringo son, and the love of my husband Tim, whom for many days and nights helped me arrange, light, and photograph the scenes of what became My Abuelita. Tony Johnston, since you and I are connected, guess what? This story you wrote about a round-like-a-calabaza Grandmother, her imaginative grandson, and one Frida cat, is mine as well. Gracias. I want you to know, my friends, that you are also the owners of the support of my editor at Harcourt, Jeannette Larson, who did not winced too hard when I announced that I was going to make the illustrations of this book differently from anything I had done before. “Puppets, paintings, and photographs,” I said, and I tried to sound like I knew what I was doing, but I didn't.

The result of this adventurous effort was far more than creating illustrations for a book. It was instead an opportunity to be a child again, kneading and shaping clay like I did so much as a kid, using the sewing machine to make little clothes like my mama taught me, putting the dolls I had built in scenes with little beds, little chairs, little dishes--trastecitos--and make believe they where alive. A dream come truth, for when I was a child, what wouldn't I have given to have an adult artist, like myself, to create all of those marvelous things for me. And just how children learn lessons about life in games, I learned something too. I'll explain.

For most of my youth I looked to people who were different than me searching for heroes and inspiration; what was familiar to me felt too poor, too common, too unsophisticated. I don't know if you realize but you don't need to tell Mexicans that we are undeserved, undesired, or unwelcome; we were taught that all of our lives! I am grateful for all of my life experiences, and so I am for this one too. But so I am grateful for the experience of children's books, like the ones we are celebrating today, because from they I have learned, and they have changed the way I see the world. My Abuelita has been not exception. While creating the illustration for this story, I had an opportunity to practice looking with ingenuity and curiosity at people like you and I, And do you know what I saw? I saw heroes.

Heroes of many colors; heroes grandmothers and grandfathers who at the peak of age take a grandchild in their arms to love him with all of their heart. Heroes who share books, who listen to children, who make them believe they have superpowers, who do magic tricks, who cook the food, tends the gardens, picks the fields. Children heroes who go to schools where teachers don't speak their language. Hero Families who cross borders with papers or without them, who tells stories under the stars, who risk their lives to come to unknown lands, who work tirelessly, who dream with a better life. Unstoppable heroes, I see. And since my friend Rose tells me we are all connected, while those might be your stories, guess what? They are my stories too. Thank you for so much inspiration.

Yuyi Morales