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Interview with Pam Muñoz Ryan
by Aline Pereira*

Pam Muñoz Ryan is the 2007 author recipient of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Award. She has written over thirty books, including Becoming Naomi Léon, winner of the Américas Award Honor, and Esperanza Rising, the recipient of a long list of accolades, including the prestigious Pura Belpré Medal and the Jane Addams Peace Award. Her latest book for young readers is Paint the Wind.

Her background is as varied as her stories – she is half Mexican with Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman cultural influences. Whether through picture books, young readers’ fiction or general historical fiction, she draws on her rich heritage to speak, amongst many other things, of daring young women and of the Latino experience in the United States.

The oldest of three sisters and also of twenty-three cousins on her mother's side, Pam Muñoz Ryan grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley, with many of her aunts and uncles and grandparents nearby. She and her family live in North San Diego County.

Referring to your own family, you have said: “Where there are big numbers, there will usually be diversity.” Could you please start by telling us a little bit about growing up around so many relatives and influenced by so many cultures?

I grew up with both of my grandmothers nearby and many of my aunts and uncles.  When people ask me what I remember about my childhood, I tell them, “I remember food.” And it’s true. I remember going to one grandmother’s house for a big gathering and eating enchiladas, rice and beans. Or just stopping by. She would fix tacos at a moment’s notice. The next weekend, we went to my other grandmother’s house and ate fried chicken, black-eyed peas, fried okra and peach cobbler. Most of my family life revolved around noisy dinners at one of my relative’s houses or another’s. My grandmother spoke Spanish.  My aunt spoke Italian. My Oklahoman grandmother had her own peculiar but endearing sayings.  It all became the pieces of this quilt that is my childhood.

In your very first book for children, One Hundred is a Family, nuclear families appear side by side, so to speak, with those linked by community (“60 is a family sharing a neighborhood street”). How did you come up with the idea of a counting book about family?

Before I wrote for the children’s market, I wrote an adult food-for-thought book about families called A Family Is A Circle of People Who Love You. I co-authored that book, but from the onset of that project I knew that I wanted to do a spin-off for young children. 

Before you started writing full-time, you worked in various capacities, including as a bilingual teacher and as director of Early Childhood programs. Have these early experiences of working with children and families informed you writing?

Yes, absolutely. All of my teaching background and work with families help me to know what rings true with my characters.

With Esperanza Rising you pay tribute to the struggles and accomplishments of your grandmother, who left a life of privilege in Mexico to work at a migrant farm labor camp in California’s Central Valley. Since you didn’t learn much about her story until after she died, how hard was it to write something inspired by the girl she might have been?

My grandmother, Esperanza Muñoz Ryan, immigrated to the United States at a very young age, where she lived in the Mexican farm labor camp that I depicted in Esperanza Rising. The book is loosely based on her immigration story, but ultimately a work of fiction.

As I was growing up, my grandmother did tell me about living in the farm labor camp, but not much about her life in Mexico. I had to research both Mexico and the camps in California to write the story. The time period and setting are as accurate as I could possibly depict them. I have been to Mexico, and people who lived in Aguascalientes, the town where she was born, helped me. Based on my research, I tried to give the most accurate suggestion possible, the most precise illusion of what it might have been like for the characters.

In order to offer believable descriptions, I researched extensively in the local history room at the Beale Library in Bakersfield, CA, and interviewed many people who lived in the same camp as she did (the Mexican camp at DiGiorgio Farms), including family members.  The setting is very near where I grew up so it wasn’t hard to go to the area and see the train tracks which led to the packing sheds, to stand where she might have stood, to understand the terrain and the weather. 

Esperanza Rising takes place during the 1930’s, the Great Depression years, and shows the struggle for survival of so many people, including Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese. It was a time of heightened prejudice and hostility as they were often regarded as taking jobs away from Americans. What were some of the day-to-day issues the camp residents dealt with? Please also tell us about the Mexican Repatriation program, which was the additional threat that Mexicans and Mexican Americans faced during that difficult time.

The day-to-day camp life was very much like I depicted it in the book. The  camps were segregated: there was the Philippino Camp, Camp 8 for the Okies, the Mexican Camp, etc. My mother was born in the Mexican Camp. On her birth certificate on the line that is reserved for the name of a hospital, are the words "DiGiorgio Farms."

Mexican Repatriation was very real and is an often overlooked part of our history. In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico. Government officials thought this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression: but it didn’t. County officials in Los Angeles, California, organized “deportation trains” and the Immigration Bureau made “sweeps” in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally. Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico. Some did not speak Spanish. 

The number of Mexicans deported during this so-called “voluntary repatriation” was greater than the Native American removals of the nineteenth century and greater than the Japanese-American relocations during World War II. It was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time. Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico. Some historians think the numbers are closer to a million.

Both your grandmother and mother were named Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish). Have any of the grandchildren in your family been named after them? Can you tell us a little bit about this family “circle of hope,” so to speak, and what it means to you?

My grandmother, Esperanza Ortega Muñoz, was really the hub of the entire family. Everybody seemed to congregate at her house. As a young girl, I observed the influence that her affection had on people and how her traits carried over to others in the family. When I became an adult and a writer and looked back on her story, I realized how remarkable it was.

In addition to my grandmother, my mother’s legal name is also Esperanza - but she has always used the English version, Hope. And my first granddaughter is named Hope Sofia.  It’s a family name and it’s heartwarming to see my daughter carrying it on. 

Becoming Naomi León is the story of Naomi Soledad León Outlaw, a girl with a soap-carving hobby who, in spite of her young age, has had her share of troubles and pains. Through Naomi’s endearing story you introduce young readers to a unique and little known Mexican Festival, “La Noche de los Rábanos” (The Night of the Radishes), which happens in Oaxaca  and combines folk art and agriculture in a Radish-carving contest. There are so many imaginative elements in this story! How intent are you on introducing aspects of the Mexican culture through your writing?

After I wrote Esperanza Rising, many adult readers told me how much they loved the story and how much it connected them to their Mexican heritage. Many admitted they didn’t know one word of Spanish or celebrate any Mexican customs. This is a common trait that many American children share: a heritage from another country with no knowledge of that country.

The book idea brought me back to my own upbringing immersed in several cultures, and, luckily, I did have the language and some of the cultural background to draw on. However, whereas the sensibilities of the book's characters (Gram, Naomi and Owen in particular) were familiar to me, some of that information came to me in ways that go beyond my own family and heritage.

I became intrigued with the Night of the Radishes Festival and went to Oaxaca to research it.  I've integrated aspects of Mexican culture into that book because it fits the story, in the same way it also fits my picture books, Mice and Beans and Nacho and Lolita - but not every one of my books lends itself to Mexican culture. Readers can find my background proudly reflected in much of my work, but not all.  For me, the story really dictates my direction. Examples are Paint the Wind and Riding Freedom.  There is no Mexican culture in these novels but they are decidedly western in flavor; and When Marian Sang is about the famous African-American contralto, Marian Anderson. I write stories I feel passionate about.

Riding Freedom introduces readers to the fictionalized account of Charlotte Parkhurst, a young girl in the 1800’s who, in order to be a first-rate horse rider, must defy tradition. Many of your heroines are young women who learn to think for themselves. Is that a conscious goal of yours, to help young girls feel inspired to create the future they want for themselves?

I’m not sure it is a conscious goal.  I have always loved to read stories about heroines. I’m very interested in little-known stories about women who persevered against society’s expectations - against odds that were stacked against them. I came from a very matriarchal family. That alone, on some level, has probably influenced me. I also have two daughters. So, maybe it is unconscious. But then again, my main concern when I sit down at my desk, is to write a compelling story – one in which the reader wants to turn the page – a story I care about, whether it’s about a woman, or has a Mexican theme. I simply want the reader, whoever that child might be, to be able to “fall into” the story.

Horses appear again in Paint the Wind, your latest novel for young readers, this time leading you away from familiar territory. The book intersperses the stories of Maya, an 11 year-old orphan who lives with her very strict grandmother, with those of Artemisia, a wild mustang mare. From what I understand, the process of writing this book led you to many adventures, indoors and out. Please tell us a little bit about this exciting (challenging, perhaps?) journey.

Until the idea for this story came to me, I'd been on horseback only a few times. In order to write this book, I needed to go where my story would be set, or somewhere similar, to see the wild horses in their habitat. So I signed up for two research rides. And I never could have imagined the adventures that lay ahead of me. I have taken hundreds of lessons with a top-notch trainer, sometimes riding three days a week, to prepare for my research rides.

During my first research ride (in May 2006, in the eastern Sierra Mountains), the weather turned wet and cold, but our group rode anyway, one day for six hours in freezing rain. I will never forget the moment we finally encountered a harem band: that first sighting was awe-inspiring. The horses’ spirits were self-righteous and noble. And I realized how very seldom I have ever seen a large mammal in the wild, living free within its own defined society. This experience helped me developed an impassioned respect and affection for horses. It gave me profound respect for the horses to realize their ability to withstand the elements and the restraints of man.

On the second ride (in August 2006, in southwestern Wyoming, near the Red Desert), we rode for eight days and I called a tepee on the banks of the Sweetwater River "home". I was caught on horseback in a swarm of “mean bees,” bathed in the river and spent long days in the saddle. In that part of the country, there is much more sky above than there is earth below, and for me, there was something both unsettling and settling about the wide open spaces. They are so vast and stark and the sky feels so big it could swallow you up! At night, the stars came slowly, one by one. The Milky Way emerged as a smear - a giant swipe across the speckled blanket of sky. It was peaceful and comforting: but at the same time, against it, I felt belittled and helpless. I wanted to convey all those feeling to the reader.

Horses are revered in many cultures throughout the world and have captured the imaginations of children and artists since time immemorial. With Paint the Wind you subtly introduce young readers to painters of the American West as well as to some of your personal favorites by naming the horses after them. Artemisia, for instance, is named after artist Artemisia Genteleschi, the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Indeed, several of your books are layered that way and entice deeper learning. How did you settle on painters, this time around?

I tried many different approaches to naming the horses. At one time, I toyed with the idea of naming them after the towns in Wyoming. During my research, I visited the Gilcrease Museum: The Museum of the Americas in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was inspired by their collection. There I saw, among others, the works of Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Olaf Seltzer, Charles Banks Wilson, John Singer Sargent, John Audubon, N.C. Wyeth, and Winslow Homer.

The artists and their works stayed with me. I realized that many of them were likely to be unfamiliar to young people, so I saw an opportunity to introduce them subtly: but most importantly, naming the horses for famous painters fitted the story. Many are named for painters of the American West because that's where the story is set. I hoped that if readers searched for their work, they might appreciate the landscape, history, and color of a part of the United States that is truly unique. Other horses are named for artists whose personal journeys impressed me, and who had to overcome their family’s or society’s reservations about them becoming artists.

You have said that your ability to imagine and tell stories comes from “Big blocks of unchoreographed time and a lot of benevolent neglect.” Were you able to provide that for your own kids? Do you have any advice to parents on that front?

I couldn’t presume to advise parents today. I grew up in a different time – in a small neighborhood in the late 1950s. I could ride my bike to the store and the library, downtown. Things are different now. In many instances, for issues of safety, children must be kept under a far more watchful eye.

I will say, though, that reading to your child and raising them in a print-rich environment is a gift that will nurture their imagination in ways that other media cannot. I’m not saying that children should not watch any television - that’s almost impossible in most families. What I'm saying is that surrounding your children with books and reading to them is something that will enrich their lives in immeasurable ways.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new books coming out?

I am currently finishing a novel about the childhood of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. Right now it is slated for spring 2010, with Scholastic.

*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor

Posted September 2008

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interviwee-Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park's photo

By Pam Muñoz Ryan:

Paint the Wind
(Scholastic, 2008)

Becoming Naomi León (Scholastic, 2004)

When Marian Sang illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2002)

Esperanza Rising
(Scholastic, 2000)

Riding Freedom
illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic,1998)

For a complete bibliography and more information, please visit
her website.


More on the web:

Paint the Wind press kit

Check out the reader's theater script for When Marian Sang, created by Toni Buzzeo.

Watch a video interview with the author, from Scholastic.

Learn how her name is pronounced by using the very cool Author Name Pronunciation Guide.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by reading Pam Muñoz Ryan's books and learning more about her work.

Check out these Discussion Guides to her novels.


Interested in Pacific Rim and South Asia-related fiction and nonfiction for adults? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review.

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