Family Values

Patricia Preciado Martin talks about her work based on her Mexican-American family.

Patricia Preciado Martin, a writer, notes: "When Chuck Bowden gave this lecture, he said that everything he was going to talk about came from the Earth. Well, everything I talk about comes from family and community."

Two writers could hardly seem more different than Bowden and Preciado Martin; Bowden is a hell-raising journalist who finds stories by tramping around the wilderness and hanging out in crime-infested bordertown bars, whereas Preciado Martin quietly surrounds herself with ordinary neighbors and loved ones. Yet both spend a great deal of time listening to other people and reporting what they hear. So maybe it's not so odd that Preciado Martin will follow in Bowden's footsteps and deliver this year's Lawrence Clark Powell Lecture, a component of the Tucson-Pima Public Library's Southwest Literature Project.

Each year, the library recruits for the lecture a notable Southwestern author "whose body of work reflects the values, landscape, history and culture of the region." The lecture is given in memory of local literary gadabout Lawrence Clark Powell, a writer, critic and UA-connected librarian who celebrated in his many books the life, literature and landscape of Arizona and New Mexico.

As for Tucsonan Patricia Preciado Martin, she has made her reputation with a series of oral-history books (Images and Conversations: Mexican Americans Recall a Southwestern Past, Songs My Mother Taught Me and, coming in the spring, Cuatro Milpas: An Oral History of Mexican Americans and the Land) and original short stories (Amor Eterno: Eleven Lessons in Love; Days of Plenty, Days of Want; El Milagro and Other Stories). During the past 20 years, she has emerged as a thoughtful, lyrical Chicana voice.

She says she owes her success in part to Powell's support.

"He had a gracious and egalitarian manner, and he was a lover of books and very respectful of beginning writers like myself," she says. "He encouraged me and thought what I was doing was important, and it was kind of new at the time; there wasn't much Chicano literature or oral history then.

"Being a Mexican-American woman trying to write in the late '70s and early '80s was kind of a new thing. I don't think I felt any external forces, really; I was just following my own instinct, something that was in my heart that made me try something kind of new."

Preciado Martin grew up in Tucson, and went to high school and college here in the 1950s. "There wasn't much encouragement for us Mexicans in the education system," she says. "But a few people along the way thought possibly I was smart." One was the head of the UA Spanish Department, who pointed her in the direction of a Carnegie Foundation grant that allowed her to study in Mexico one summer. "That opened up a lot of doors for me," she says.

Preciado Martin began making up stories to tell her children; her husband encouraged her to publish them, but she had no luck. Eventually, she showed them to Margaret Maxwell, then a professor at the UA library school who, besides presiding over fearsome cataloguing courses, had a particular interest in children's literature.

"She said, 'Your stories are very nice, but why don't you write about your own culture?' That was the first time in my life anybody said in so many words, 'You, as a Mexican-American, have something to say.'"

Preciado Martin took Maxwell's advice and finally got into print with a bilingual children's story called "The Legend of the Bell Ringer of San Agust'n," set in Tucson. Then, she thought she'd collect a volume of Mexican-American folk tales, but in the course of interviewing elders in the barrio for material, she also heard fascinating true stories about families and the history of Tucson.

From her first interview in 1978 in a little house across from El Minuto, she spent five years collecting stories. Collaborating with photographer Louis Carlos Bernal, she assembled Images and Conversations for the University of Arizona Press.

Her fiction then arose from stories she couldn't work into the oral history books. "They germinated for years," she recalls, "and every story is my elaboration of something someone told me."

Even after all these years of experience, Preciado Martin seems both grateful to and awed by the other writers who have encouraged her--among them Demetria Mart'nez, Tom Sheridan, Elaine Romero and Denise Chavez.

"I'm not an academic, and I'm not that young, and I'm not one of the rat pack," she says. "I've been a housewife and a writer." She neglects to mention she's also been a junior-high and high school teacher and a Peace Corps volunteer. "I'm not out there doing the profession like the other writers; they're all hot-doggers and brilliant and young and energetic, and I just putter around."

She may be self-deprecating, but Preciado Martin has been honored with enough awards (from the Arizona Humanities Council, Mujer 2000 Committee and UA Hispanic Alumni Association, among others) that she can no longer escape the fact that she's a successful writer in her own right, and in a position to help newcomers.

"Dr. Powell had so much respect for everybody, and I try to be like that, too," she says. "I always remember that he had time for people, so I figure if he planted seeds, I can plant some, too, and help other people go on and do something with their lives."

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