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Tomas Rivera award encourages authors, illustrators to accurately represent Mexican-American community


San Marcos Daily Record (09/25/2005)

By Jennifer Warner

With buildings, libraries and institutes named after him around the country, the late author and educator Tomas Rivera has lived up to his title as a Texas State University Distinguished Alumnus.

As a winner of the Premio Quinto Sol Award for his 1971 novel "And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him," Rivera has become one of the most well-known Mexican-American writers in history. He received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas State and became the first Mexican-American distinguished alumnus of the university.

But the start of Rivera's life was anything but distinguished.

Born in Crystal City to migrant farmworkers, Rivera spent the most of his early life traveling around Texas following the farm work. His novel and other writings were based on those childhood experiences.

Despite Rivera's influences on Chicano literature and culture, Judy Leavell, Texas State curriculum and instruction professor, said the Mexican-American culture is still often neglected by publishers, especially in children's literature.

"In our public schools in Texas the largest group of students is the Hispanic group, yet the number of library books that reflect the Mexican-American culture are very few in the United States," Leavell said.

In the mid-90s, several Texas State education professors set out to solve this problem. The result was the Tomas Rivera Mexican-American Children's Book Award.

Now in its tenth year, Leavell said the award was designed to encourage authors, illustrators and publishers to accurately represent the Mexican-American community in children's literature.

"The first year of the award, out of approximately 5,000 new children's books published, only eight or so qualified," Leavell said. "Now in its tenth year, the numbers have increased to (just under) 50, but there's still a need for publishers to do more to see that more examples of this literature are produced."

In honor of the award's anniversary, the Southwestern Writers Collection on the Texas State campus will be hosting two exhibits, one about the history of the award and the life of Rivera and another about everything that takes place behind the scenes of the award.

Assistant Curator Steve Davis, who designed the exhibits, said there will be a number of artifacts tracking the history of the award and how it was established.

"One thing we were interested in doing here at the writers collection was collecting the archives of the award," Davis said. "So we thought this was a good way to preserve the history and track the ways that it has grown over the years. Having these archives made the exhibit even more special because we were able to show off those original artifacts. We're very proud of our association with the award."

The Southwestern Writers Collection has been involved with the award since the beginning and has held the award ceremony each year of the prize's existence.

Included among the artifacts are letters, memos and other items that helped establish the award and a detailed history of past winners and the award-winning books.

The 10-year retrospective exhibit, highlighting the award-winning works, artifacts, and the live and times of Rivera, will be held on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library through Dec. 11. The behind-the-scenes exhibit will run only through Oct. 30.

Other events will take place throughout San Marcos as part of the semester-long anniversary celebration, including two art galleries as well as readings, panel discussions and book signings.

A gallery of artwork by the award-winning illustrators will be on display at the Activity Center Walkers' Gallery until Nov. 5. Artwork by award winners will also be on display in the Mitte Gallery in the Texas State Mitte Complex from Oct. 26 through 28.

The Decade Celebration, featuring readings, discussions and book-signings by award-winning authors, will take place Oct. 28 and 29.

The Southwestern Writers Collection often has school groups visit, and Davis said for the students to see books on display that they have read and relate to is often inspiring for them.

"The kids have read these books and these books often speak to their lives," Davis said. "Not many books speak to the Mexican-American experience and to see a book with people like you in it, it's very inspiring. The lessons kids get from that is that they're capable of doing anything they want to do. That's such an good thing to learn at an early age."

In addition, Davis said he feels like his involvement in the award is like being a part of history in the making.

"To be able to see the results in real time is just so gratifying," Davis said. "It changes kids lives in a good way, there's nothing better than being a part of that."

When the award was conceived, it was never intended to be in honor of Rivera, though when a dean suggested the award be named after him, it seemed like an obvious choice and Leavell said she believes it does Rivera justice.

"We hope that the award honors his work because his name honors the work of the award," Leavell said.

Winning books are narrowed down by a regional committee and then a winner is chosen by the national committee, which is composed of education dean Rosalinda Barrera, Los Angeles education specialist Oralia Garza de Cortés, University of Texas English professor Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, University of California literature professor Manuel M. Martín-Rodriguez, San Antonio-based writer, actress and educator Carmen Tafolla and Texas State professor Mary -Agnes Taylor.