Carmen Tafolla’s contributions to American literature are multifaceted and profound. Her readers already knew this when Alex Haley called her a “world-class writer.” Literature teachers and students celebrated her selection as San Antonio’s first Poet Laureate in 2012 followed by her 2015 appointment as Texas’ Poet Laureate. A steady stream of prizes followed, including three International Latino Book Awards: First Prize for her Rebozos book, Best Book of Poetry, Best Gift Book, and, in recognition of Catalina Garate’s illustrations for the book Rebozos, Best Art Book. Tafolla is also the author of several award-winning children’s books and books for young adults.
In 2009 Tafolla was inducted into the state’s most prestigious literary organization, the Texas Institute of Letters, and in 2018 she became the first Latina President of that organization.
Tafolla grew up in San Antonio’s Westside barrio, a community where bilingualism comes naturally and stories of Mexican culture, history, and traditions are passed on from generation to generation. But she was also raised at a time when the state laws of Texas prohibited the speaking of Spanish on school grounds, and she was scolded by her junior high principal for speaking Spanish because he felt she had the “potential to make it all the way to high school.” (He never foresaw that she would finish high school, college, a BA, MA, and Ph.D.)
The neighborhood around her home on San
Fernando Street and that of her grandparents on Buena Vista Street gave her a plethora of cultural material to write about. Her fascination with stories as well with Spanish dichos [phrases] and legends led her to begin writing and reading poetry and to begin publishing it in the early 1970s. She studied at Austin College and Texas Lutheran University and received a Doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. In 1973 Tafolla was appointed Director of Mexican American Studies at Texas Lutheran
University. She is Professor Emerita of Bilingual and Bicultural Studies at the University of Texas San Antonio.
The first public reading of her poems occurred as part of the famed Flor Y Canto Dos Conference in Austin in March of 1975. The five poems she read at the conference became the core of her first publication in 1976 [with Reyes Cardenas and Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo], Get Your Tortillas Together. Trinity University literature professor Norma E. Cantu has written several introductions to Tafolla’s literary work and laments that the popular Get Your Tortillas Together book sold out shortly after its printing and was out of print, amost impossible to get.
One of my favorite poetry books is Carmen Tafolla’s New and Selected Poems published by TCU Press in 2018. This collected work of poetry noted by publisher Bryce Milligan, “captures a ‘breath of peace and song of celebration’ and highlights the best of all seven previous poetry books, and an exploration into the poetry of place and the enduring spirit of deep time.” Tafolla, San Antonio’s first Poet Laureate, knows San Antonio well and the collection introduces the reader to historical places as well as less known places in the Westside barrio. Her poem, “Alli por la calle San Luis,” resonates with me. It is a poem about the women who provided the tortillas to the Neighborhood, hot tortillas for a penny each. These ladies, matriarchs of the Lara family whom my family knew well, prepared all the tortillas for the wedding of my father and mother in 1941. The ladies reminded me of that event often in the 1950s as I visited the tortillera almost daily before school to pick up delicious freshly-cooked corn tortillas.
Allí Por La Calle San Luis
West Side–corn tortillas for a penny each
Made by an ancient woman and her mother. Cooked on the homeblack of a flat stove.
Flipped to slap the birth awake
Wrapped by corn hands.
Toasted morning light and dancing history–
Earth gives birth to corn gives birth to man
Gives birth to earth.
Corn tortillas–penny each.
Another excellent book of poetry by Tafolla is Rebozos. Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet and bright shining light of Texas literature, wrote that Rebozos is a “gracious labor of love, this bowing down/lifting up of generations of women and their exquisite unsung dignity, this sharing of spirit and artistry.” Nye described Tafolla’s poem as “carrying us all to ‘the other side of tired’.” Tafolla collaborated with California artist Catalina Garate, who had painted 16 indigenous Mexican women in their rebozos, and created poems that expressed the voice of the women portrayed in each of the paintings. For example, a beautiful rendering of a woman with a red rebozo standing and facing a burnish red surface compliments the poem “Mujeres del Rebozo Rojo.” Another poem titled “The Other Side of Tired” is placed next to a painting of a woman walking to more work at home–after a long day of work.
Poets are the “conscience of the nation; the voice of the people,” Tafolla told a San Antonio KSAT reporter recently. When asked by a reviewer what she wanted readers to get from her poetry, Tafolla explained that she wanted readers to appreciate their own internal strengths and to understand that socioeconomic status does not define one’s potential. She also wanted readers to appreciate the beauty of Chicano culture and traditions.
Tafolla’s book of poems, Curandera, was banned by the State of Arizona. I recall the controversy over the book ban, but I also remember that Tafolla was in good company. Other banned books included Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Laurel Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Publisher Bryce Milligan noted that the smuggling of Tafolla’s book Curandera to be given away to students in Arizona began almost immediately. Tafolla responded to the book banning by making available to Arizona students several video readings of her Curandera poems.
Tafolla is a true product of the melding mestizaje of bilingual biculturalism, and she thrives on fusing genres. She noted to me that in the first month of the world pandemic lockdown, April 2020, she wrote a novel-in-verse about a young girl in 2019 who lives in the Westside barrio of San Antonio, and confronts inequalities, racism, cultural exclusion from history textbooks, and most painfully, the deportation of her father. Penguin Books immediately accepted the manuscript in a world pre-empt, and it is scheduled to be released in 2023.