"How to Become a Star Giant" by Icess Fernandez Rojasby Tony Diaz on 07/17/14
Beyond the lights there was a row of people I'd never met, strangers with friendly smiles and confused faces. We had never laid eyes on each and some probably knew me by name as a friend of a friend. But know me? Not even a little bit.
In all fairness, I didn't even know myself at that point.
That night in 1997, on the stage of Talento Bilingue de Houston, I wore a pink puffy dress from a second hand store that aspired and failed to be a quincerea gown. On my feet were my dirty tennis shoes and in my head were the first lines of my monologue. I was 19 years old at the time. While other 19 year olds were dancing the night away or studying for a college Algebra test, I made my debut at Nuestra Palabra as a Nuestra Discovery. Pink dress or not, that night was my coming out party as a writer.
I came to the organization after my friend, Russell Contreras “advised” me to go to a meeting. I had learned that I was inflicted with wanna-be-a-writer-its and this was his solution for the disease that I knew would become my demise.
So, I brought my writing to my first Nuestra Palabra volunteer meeting, but instead of talking about writing, we talked about stamps. Yes, stamps. And mail outs and getting the Houston Chronicle to notice what we were doing and work. We talked about work because when you become part of Nuestra Palabra it is work, more work than you can imagine. In the meeting room of TBH, with a mural of the surrounding neighborhood, complete with the Maxwell House Factory in the background, we stamped and placed labels on thousands of postcards announcing the next monthly showcase. Back then Alvaro Saar Rios was a star (did he ever stop being one?) and I remembered thinking that this dude was going places and so was Tony Diaz, who from my point of view was a giant.
From that first meeting I was jealous. I wanted to be a star... and a giant. I wanted to be a star giant because that meant you knew stuff. I knew nothing. Alvaro and Tony knew where they were going even if they didn't quite know how to get there yet. I still got lost driving to and from the University of Houston and was in a perpetual state of being lost, though I didn't know how lost I was at the time. I remembered thinking that this place and these people were a bit of alright but I was searching for an answer whose question hadn't fully formed in my mind yet.
Nuestra Palabra was where to start looking.
I didn't mind all the work. Between the mail outs, moving and arranging the chairs in the auditorium, and setting up the book table in the lobby, all the work was something worth doing. Why? The names on the mail outs looked like mine. The people moving the chairs loved a good story. The books, the beautiful books, they were about something I never read before, about lives I'd lived or was about to live or knew someone who had lived them. While at that point of my life, I knew that there were Latino writers, to me they were more like a myth. It wasn't until I held those books in my hands that I knew that this was real and that I was missing the knowing of something great and wonderful and powerful.
And that's when my writerly education truly began. I learned from the great maestros, the performers and writers that graced the Nuestra Palabra stage. Who gets to say that? How many writers get to say they cut their teeth with an organization that brought Edward James Olmos and Esmeralda Santiago to Houston? Who gets to say that they learned about writing from listening and studying writers in their most infinite of moments, when their words hit their readers' ear drums.
Who gets to point to a writer on stage and say, “That, that thing right there. That's what I want to do for the rest of of my life”?
My time in Nuestra was a time of creative burst. I wrote and performed monologues, plays, and poetry. I became a spoken word poet after that and eventually settled into fiction. When I moved away, I still kept tabs on the organization that I thought of as home. I still visited and listened. I count alums Ramades Ortiz and Lupe Mendez and my friends, and well as Alvaro and Tony. See, once you leave Nuestra, it still stays with you. It's part of your heart beat. It's in the books your read, the song you hear. It's like your first love, you never forget and you always wish it the best.
Since then there have been so many readings, and writings, and even a degree or two or several. (Nuestra has several MFA in writing among its alumni – Tony, Alvaro, Russell, me, and soon to be Lupe Mendez). Nuestra Palabra continues going strong, ensuring that Latino writers and books aren't myths and who we are as a people doesn't become a legend. The organization has become a star giant, it knows what it is, where it's going, and how to get there. It's become a beacon for the lost, a path for the knowledge seekers, and a home for those who want more.
As for me, through the years I've become less lost. I'm not 19 any more. I've long since found the question and the answers I sought when I was younger. But with questions being like mushrooms, more have have sprung up. The difference between me now and me then is that now, I know where to start looking for the answers.
And how to become a star giant.