Alda P. Dobbs Talks with Roger

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First-time novelist Alda P. Dobbs finds inspiration in her great-grandmother’s experience of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 for Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna.

Roger Sutton: This is your first novel — I bet that’s exciting.

Alda P. Dobbs: Exciting and nerve-wracking. It’s almost like wearing a blindfold, going into a room, and trying to figure things out.

RS: I was trying to figure out the Mexican Revolution, preparing for this talk. Man, it’s complicated.

APD: It is. I knew about it growing up, a little bit, but as I delved into the research, it was so complex. It was a challenge trying to explain it to children in a way that would not confuse them, but would allow them to enjoy the story within it.

RS: You always have to remember the story.

APD: Yes, exactly.

RS: I know from reading the afterword that your great-grandmother’s story is the core of it. But I wonder: how much do you think of Petra as your great-grandmother and how much do you think of her as you?

APD: The majority is my great-grandmother, in terms of what she went through, crossing the desert and reaching the safety of the United States. A lot of it also involved the poverty and prejudice my grandmother experienced, as she grew up very poor and illiterate. She’s the one who had the dream of learning how to read and write. Some of the conflicts between the generations, the way Abuelita viewed the world and Petra viewed the world, those were the same kinds of conflicts my mother and I had. Both of us were immigrants, but we had a different way of seeing the world when we got to America.

RS: And I take it your mother was the more conservative one?

APD: Yes, she was. When I graduated high school she was very proud of me. I was the first in my family to accomplish that. But when I told her I wanted to go to college, she asked: “Why? You already have a high school degree. What do you need college for?” I said, “Well, I want to see more, and I think I’ll get better opportunities.” She said, “Okay, that sounds good.” Then when I told her about grad school, she said, “Wait a minute. What do you need grad school for?” So I was trying to put that, as well, in the story line.

RS: I’ve never written a novel, and you have, so you’re the expert in this conversation. How do you both put yourself in a story and keep yourself out of it?

APD: I’ve heard, and I’ve seen from friends, that every time you write a piece, or a short story, or a novel, a little bit of you goes in there. A little bit of your soul is in that story. Even if we try to avoid it, it seeps through, from our experiences, who we are, who we grew up with, our surroundings, and everything. Sometimes I’d see myself too much in the writing and say, “Let’s stick to the story. This is not an autobiography here.” Keep it a different world — just stand back and let the characters run that world. If you try to control them, in my experience — it’s your story now, but if you let the characters speak for themselves, you fit into their story.

RS: Were you tempted to let Petra join the army of revolutionaries? That would have been exciting.

APD: I was. I was in the military myself. I joined the Air Force the year after I got out of high school. That just opened the world in a whole different way. I wanted that experience, too, for Petra, to feel that openness, being able to work with males and females, especially during that time. I loved that, reading about the soldaderas from that time as well. I wanted to add more to it, but I figured no — the story itself told me no, it has to run this way, so I followed it.

RS: It’s interesting, given the contemporary context, that a hero of your story is the United States.

APD: I was amazed doing the research. There were these photographs I saw of people escaping violence in their homeland. You see them wearing just the clothes on their backs, carrying their children, and walking through the desert down railroad tracks. You see the exhaustion on people’s faces, the desperation. Recently, I came across photographs of the same thing — but from two months ago. People fleeing the violence in their home countries, children, women with that same expression. The pictures are in color now, but the same desperation on their faces, and they’re walking on the railroad tracks as well. It was astonishing to see them side by side, and their resemblance, despite the fact that they were taken a hundred years apart. It’s so powerful that it’s happening now, again. We have the crisis at the border, which happened back then, as well as the refugee camps. My great-grandmother stayed in one of them. They had the smallpox scare, and now we have COVID-19. It’s amazing, the resemblances.

RS: Do you remember your own immigration?

APD: I was born in Mexico, and as a child, my mother brought me here. I was a baby, I believe three months old. My mother was sixteen years old. In order to get me to this country, she borrowed a visa from a friend. She put me in a paper shopping bag, at the very bottom, and put blankets on top of me. I was asleep. She put me at her feet, on the floor of the backseat of a taxicab, and they drove through the border. Immigration officers asked her what was in the bag, and she said blankets. They let her through, so I came in in a paper bag. I think I was about four or five when my mother and I both got our resident status. Right before I joined the military is when I became a citizen.

RS: There’s your picture book.

APD: That shopping bag, right? I said to my mom, “Weren’t you afraid I would start crying at any moment, especially when the immigration officer was asking you the questions?” She said, “No, I was sixteen. I didn’t really think about it.”

RS: Is your mother still with us?

APD: Yes, she is.

RS: And has she read your book?

APD: She doesn’t speak English. She can read it a little, but she has trouble with English. She’s read the prologue. She enjoyed it, but she wants it in Spanish. That’s something we’re working on right now, my publisher and I, to do the translation. She’s anxious to learn more about it.

RS: Have you been to Mexico recently?

APD: The last time I went to my hometown area, which is a small northern town, was about ten years ago. I went to San Miguel de Allende five years ago. I’d never been there. It was beautiful.

RS: How do you think of your own identity? Are you American, Mexican American — what do you call yourself?

APD: That’s a great question. It’s a matter of however I’m feeling. If I’m in San Antonio, where I grew up, I feel part of that San Antonio culture, and if I’m in Mexico, I feel purely Mexican. When I was in the military, I was stationed with these five guys who were all from New England. After working long shifts and being with them — in the end I was speaking like them and celebrating Irish culture, New England style, to the point that I felt Irish myself. At the moment, I’ll blend in, and I’ll enjoy that culture. Wherever it gets me. It could change.

RS: When I was a child here in Boston, we actually used coal for heat. I had that experience Petra has, my friends and I trying to squeeze the lumps of coal to turn them into diamonds. We’d squeeze and we’d squeeze.

APD: That’s amazing. Oh my goodness.

RS: I thought it was a great metaphor for your story. Petra could put that metaphor in her pocket, so she could take it with her everywhere.

APD: Where I’m from in Mexico, that region has a lot of coal mining. It’s part of the culture. There’s a pride in it. It’s amazing, the stories you hear, how proud people are that they supply fuel to the country.

RS: I’ve interviewed a couple of other military veterans, and they said that the military taught them discipline that came in really handy when it came to writing a novel. What do you think?

APD: I would have to agree with that. And for me, it was the exposure to different cultures. I grew up in San Antonio, and I didn’t leave Texas, other than Mexico, until I joined the military. The military was what took me out of the country. I got to live in Germany, and that opened my eyes even wider to different cultures, different languages, and different ways of seeing life. I wanted to put that into characters. More than anything, I think that’s what being in the military gave me. Discipline, yeah, it helps, but it’s more the exposure to other cultures.

RS: Where do you think your novel-writing career will take you next?

APD: I hope I can continue to write stories that connect children to other cultures. To pieces of history like this one, which lets them know that history repeats itself. And to learn from that as well, to avoid similar things in the future. Children are the next generation, so we’ve got to give them the tools and the knowledge of what’s happened in the past; what they can prepare for; and help prevent. And also to let them know that kids like Petra Luna are leaders and can take charge and change the circumstances. They don’t have to settle for what life has handed them. They can change that; they have that power. We’re all humanity. Every culture, every person, we’re all connected. We resemble each other, no matter where we come from. It’s something I want to achieve, hopefully, with my future writing.

RS: You’re talking now about what you hope kids will take from your book, but what did writing your book give to you?

APD: It gave me the confidence to communicate. I’ve always liked storytelling, but the confidence wasn’t there, because of my English. It took me a long time to learn English. When I started kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of it, and it took me four or five years to learn. In the back of my head, I’d wanted to be a writer. When I got to college, on the English placement test I ended up scoring at a remedial level. I said, “All right, that’s a sign it’s not meant to happen.” But I stuck to it, and now with this book, I gained the confidence that I am capable of doing this, and I should probably let other people know of it. Don’t let something like insecurity dictate what you’re to do or not do. This particular book also got me closer to my family. I’ve been tracing my ancestors, and it was amazing to appreciate what they went through. It was a wonder to write this book.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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Jaime Arredondo

Amazing story by Alda Dobbs. I too am from Texas, Dallas to be exact, and can understand with great depth her story and history. How can I email her?Thanks, Prof. Jaime ArredondoNYU and The New School

Posted : Sep 06, 2021 04:15



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