California author Victor Villaseñor spoke to Watsonville High students yesterday about a journey that took him from being a near-illiterate high school dropout to having two novels published and one of his screenplays turned into a major motion picture.
In an impassioned talk to a packed room in the school’s library, Villaseñor, 53, who was raised in Carlsbad, told of the trauma he experienced during his first years of school: of how he and other Latino children were punished for speaking Spanish and made to feel ashamed of being Mexican; the rage that welled up in him during his teenage years; and how he finally came to terms with his anger and channeled it into a positive and creative energy.
..Before attending school, he and his parents lived in a barrio in Carlsbad, where Mexican culture – its language, food and music – flourished and pride in being of Mexican descent ran deep.
That world started to crumble when Villaseñor entered school. He quickly learned that speaking Spanish was a punishable offense, and was told Mexicans are stupid, lazy and violent. All he learned in school about Mexicans ran counter to what he had experienced in his neighborhood and what his parents had taught him about his people. He began to think his parents had lied to him.
Once while in elementary school, he was playing with an Anglo classmate named Howard, who asked if Villaseñor was Mexican. When Villaseñor said he was, Howard screamed in terror and ran away, saying his parents told him Mexicans carried knives and were violent. Howard feared for his life. Villaseñor tried in vain to convince Howard that he had no knife and was not going to hurt him.
The experience was a dark turning point that sent Villaseñor spiraling into an abyss of self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. That day, he said, he pointed his finger, like a gun, to his head and killed himself mentally and spiritually.
In the seventh grade, a substitute teacher made a big impression on Villaseñor. The teacher, who was in the classroom for only three days, gave the students an assignment to write about something they really loved. Villaseñor got an “A”, the first one he had ever received.
After getting his paper back, he went to the teacher, thinking the teacher wasn’t very good because he gave him an “A”. He told him “Mexicans don’t get `A’s”. “It was weird getting compliments,” Villaseñor said. But when the regular teacher came back, Villaseñor’s paper was given an “F”, and he was scolded and told he was “D” student. What astonished Villaseñor later was that he found solace being back in his old role of being a poor student. “I felt better” being a “D” student than being an “A” student, he said.
At 19, he was filled with rage and thought he would “go crazy” if he went back to school and was told again he was “more stupid than last year.” At that point Villaseñor had about a fourth-grade reading ability. He dropped out of school and went to Mexico, where he was “reborn”.
While in Mexico, he saw cities with skyscrapers, cathedrals and museums. He asked if Americans had come to Mexico to build the structures, and was amazed to learn that Mexicans had actually built them. He later met a 29-year-old woman in Mexico that was to play a mentor role for him. She introduced him to museums, the theater and music. Then she introduced him to books. At first he recoiled from them as if touching a flame. He could barely read, but she convinced him to read his first book, “The Little Prince.” The book left him w anting more, even though he encountered great difficulty completing it. He was to discover later that dyslexia was at the root of his reading problem.
The woman told him about other great books and recommended reading Homer. Vil-laseñor wanted to know whether Homer was a local writer.
He decided that books were not “bad,” they were “good” and education was “good”. “It is more powerful than all the push-ups I can do, it is more powerful than all the guns I can carry, it is more powerful than all the bombs I can throw,” he said.
After coming back to the United States, his rage still boiled and he had a driving desire to lash out at the world. His father, who was put in prison in Arizona at 13 for stealing copper to help feed his family, told him about his rage and how he had kept it from destroying him. His father told hi m, “Any damn fool can go around killing people. That takes no guts.”
Confused and still angry, Villaseñor took off for Wyoming. While there, he realized that civilizations had come and gone, some leaving nothing behind but pieces of arrowheads or pottery buried in the soil. Others, like the Greeks, left behind a history that writers like Homer preserved. That day, he decided he would try to preserve the history of his family through writing. In doing so, he would help preserve the history of Mexicans.
On that same day, he decided to become a “great writer.” He ran into a bookstore and, in a frenzy, demanded that the store manager recommend a book that would help launch his writing career. Villaseñor told the manager he was in a hurry to become a great writer. The manager, in turn, gave him a copy of James Joyce’s “Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist.”
He labored through the book. At the end of a typical day of reading for many hours, he had read only 15 pages and had circled about 200 words to look up in the dictionary.
THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ, was made into a major motion picture, starring James Edward Olmos in the title role.
In his latest book, RAIN OF GOLD, is a history of his family, dating back several generations to the mountains of Northern Mexico and detailing his childhood in Carlsbad. The book took many years to complete, and is filled with family stories that are steeped in mysticism and rich in symbolism and spiritualism. He said of the book, “It will be read for thousands of years.”
Villaseñor had a message for teachers, too. “You don’t teach kids.” He said. “You open doors for them.” Students, he said, will learn when they are ready.
At the end of his talk, he directed the students to give each other abrazos (hugs). He walked a round the room encouraging the students to greet each other and embrace. A heartfelt embrace, he said, can “melt away” hate, racism and fear.
Villaseñor spoke yesterday during two morning periods at Watsonville High, then at 1 p.m. at Aptos High. His visit to the two schools was arranged by Al Espinoza, bilingual education coordinator at Watsonville High.
By EMILIO ALVARADO