Long regarded as one of the masters of poetic code-switching, Carmen Tafolla often employs the bilingual idiom of her native San Antonio’s Westside in her poems. Tafolla’s dramatic talents make her readings both lively and touching.
A scholar of note, Tafolla is the author of To Split a Human: Mitos, Machos y la Mujer Chicana(1982), Curandera (1983), La Isabela de Guadalupe y Otras Chucas (1984), Sonnets to Human Beings (1992), Baby Coyote and the Old Woman (2000), Sonnets and Salsa! (2001), and many other publications.
Tafolla received her PhD in bilingual education from the University of Texas in 1982. In the 1970s, Tafolla was the head writer for Sonrisas, a pioneering bilingual television show for children. She has held numerous university positions, including Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, Visiting Professor of Honors Literature, Director of Mexican-American Studies, and Special Assistant to the President for Cultural Diversity Programming, and has taught at California State University Fresno, Northern Arizona University, the University of Texas and Texas Lutheran College.
She has been a freelance educational consultant on bilingual education, writing and creativity, and cultural diversity issues for over two decades, and travels throughout the U.S. and other countries performing her one-woman show and carrying messages of cultural and individual value and impact.
In 1999, Tafolla was awarded The Art Of Peace Award, for writing which furthers peace and human understanding.
Tafolla resides in San Antonio, Texas.
Why did you want to live in San Antonio in a 100 year old house, do you rent or own?
San Antonio is a beautiful city, full of history, full of coraz?n. It is
the city of my great-grandparents, and of my roots. Something in the dirt, in its river, in the wind that goes through its pecan trees, whispers
something to me about who I am, so coming back to San Antonio was only natural, like coming home. I had never owned any property here in my whole life, but finally in the last decade of the twentieth century, I was able to purchase a hundred-year-old house that was full of history, where I could envision the early nineteen hundreds, even the late eighteen hundreds, where time could stand still for a little while so we could hear the past, the present and the future all talking to each other.
If you could go back to your childhood and change something, what would it be and why?
I think maybe I would find a way to be able to read more books. My parents were poor and I was always scared to ask them to buy me books cause I know how much they struggled to make ends meet. We didn't have that many books in the house, we had no library at our elementary school, and it was later in the elementary years when I would ask my mother to walk with me the two miles to the nearest public library. If I could change just one thing, I think it would be to get more books into the hands of that little kid I was.
Who inspires you?
The people all around me inspire me - family, friends, strangers, people I see at a distance or just hear a story about. There are so many noble, brave, loving poeple in the world, and often they don't see how truly impressive they really are, they don't realize how much courage or compassion they are showing in their own lives. That's why I write - to try to capture a little bit of who they are, these magical, miraculous people I see all around me.
Who is the most important person to you and why?
Oh, now I'm gonna get all subjective and biased and totally personal -
selfish, even. Because the people in my family, the people I live and work and laugh and cry with every day are terribly important to me. My husband, who is also my partner for life, side by side with me in all my biggest struggles and all the tiniest details, willing to take the tough stuff along with the happy moments - he is one of the bravest, gutsiest, most sensitive people I know, AND my children, those souls that God entrusted me with, and let me have the privilege and the honor of watching them grow and become who they can become.
Writing is lonely work, but very filling also. It's a lot like giving birth - very painful, with a miraculous reward at the end. One person said,
"Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper
until drops of blood form on your forehead." and a lot of it is a struggle inside yourself, to say what only you can say, and to be honest, very
honest, in this struggle to express meaning in a way unique yet human,
totally free yet true to yourself. But if you are called to do it, if
something inside you really wants to write, to express, to create, then it is a path you must follow no matter what. I am not happy unless I write. If writing were outlawed, then I guess I would go to jail or go underground. It is part of my search for meaning, for justice and for beauty in a world that is sometimes crazy, sometimes unfair, sometimes violent and destructive.
How did you become a writer and what lead you to this choice in career?
When I was a child, I dreamed of being a writer, but it was a secret dream, often not even confessed out loud to myself. I thought all writers came from "important places" like New York or London or Paris (as I saw the publishers' addresses in the books.) I thought that I needed to write about the kinds of things I saw written about in books. But my barrio was NOTHING like the neighborhoods in the books. My culture and my family and my friends didn't resemble the culture and the characters in the books. My language wasn't even like their language, and I wondered if I would ever have anything TO write about. I loved reading, and I read Great Expectations, The Incredible Journey, Aesop's Fables, anything I could find! But it wasn't until years later, that I realized the greatest stories I'd written were from the barrio right around me, about the tortilleria and the ancient lady and her MOTHER, about the kids down the block, and the search for La Llorona's phone number!
I didn't CHOOSE writing as a career. Writing chose me, as all callings do, I believe. I got my degrees (Bachelors', Masters' and Doctorate) in Education. Then, I went back and did what I'd always dreamed of doing. I wrote from my heart. Not from the official training of a writer and what writers are supposed to do, but from my internal search for what I was called to do, and what I felt was right. I have enjoyed meeting other writers - great reknowned writers like Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Alex Haley, and Ernesto Cardenal - as well as people whom I thought were great for "inventing the field" much as I did, people like Tomas Rivera, Angela de Hoyos, Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo, Estela Portillo Trambley, and Alurista. But I have always learned the most from the viejitos del barrio, the people who have written stories not with pens but with their life's blood, people of
courage whose names may never be preserved in history, ... unless I try to document them in my writings. These are the people that are all around you, some of them your grandparents or your neighbors or even strangers sitting at a bus stop. Look at them with special respect and reverence - they are the heroes of our world.
I think I enjoy my "voice" writings the most. Those poems and stories and dramatic monologues or dialogues that speak the voices of simple, real people, people that readers recognize and understand, characters that make my audiences say "I know her! That was my grandmother!" or "I met him - that was my neighbor!" I like characters like "Tere" and "Tia Sofia", stories like"How I Got Into Big Trouble, and the mistakes I made (in order of importance)" and "I Just Can't Bear It" and poems like "Feeding You" and "The Storykeeper." I like capturing the eloquence of the street statements of ordinary people. I also feel most artistic about the barrio eloquence of characters that speak our bicultural language "Tex-Mex."