amy costalesI heard my first words of Spanish on my grandfather's lap. The son of a Sicilian immigrant and a Spanish/Cuban who was exiled when the U.S invaded Cuba in 1898, he spoke Spanish, English and Italian. He grew up in Ybor City, a Spanish, Cuban and Sicilian community of cigar rollers in Florida. He was a teller of tall tales who created a fantasy world about Spain and Cuba, perhaps due to an inherited nostalgia. When my family moved to Spain when I was a child, part of my Grandpa's fantasy world became mine. I lived in a small, white town of cobblestoned streets surrounded by fields where mustard grew as tall as I was every spring. I thought I would never leave. When I was in my teens, my family unexpectedly move to California along the Mexican border. By then, I indentified as Spanish. I spoke English with a slight accent. Adjusting was a struggle, and I dropped out of high school. I was homeless at times, and worked in fast food restaurants or as a maid. I married a young Mexican immigrant, and soon had a daughter. I left him, but never the Mexican community to which he introduced me. I had a daughter to support, and started college in my early 20's. Without my family and friends—who offered love, childcare, places to live, car maintenance, and laughter—I would not have made it through college, which is why extended family is a topic in my books.
My own experiences in high school upon moving to California led me to teaching. I have taught bilingual third grade, fifth grade, Spanish, Social Studies, and ELD. I have taught in public school in California and Oregon and in international schools in India and Thailand. I currently teach Spanish and Spanish for Heritage Speakers at the University of Oregon where I am also an advisor to the Spanish Heritage Language program. An aspect I particularly love about teaching is inviting my students to write about their stories, their families, and their dreams.
amy costalesI have always loved writing. Raising my daughter, who is now a grown woman, inspired me to write picture books. She was a toddler on my lap, watching a video she had just received for Christmas. It was her first encounter with T.V. There was a happy father on the screen pulling his daughter in a wagon. I was enjoying the scene, tapping my toe to the rhythm of the song "Daddy's Taking Me to The Zoo Today" with no deep thoughts. My daughter was the one doing the profound thinking. She tapped me on the knee, trying to comfort me, saying, "Don't worry Mami, I have my Poppop." I was stunned by all that must have gone through her two-year-old brain. She had looked at the screen, thought about how, unlike that child, she didn't have a father around. She then thought of her grandpa, but also felt a need to console me. Híjole. That was a lot of thinking for one little girl. Soon after she began to draw herself blond and white instead of brown-haired and brown-skinned. I became aware of the way the image of family in the media never reflected mine or my friends'. The discrepancy between our reality and the image of family and beauty in the media was hurting my daughter. And where was I going to find a book about a Latina girl who lives with her 21-year-old mother and her mother's 20-year old friend? I had always enjoyed playing with words, but suddenly I had something compelling me to write. I wrote stories just for my daughter, stories about her, her friends, my friend Robin and my sister Kathleen that helped me raise her, her Uncle Armando, her grandparents and her lovely brown skin.
A few years later I graduated from college and became a teacher. My first job was in a bilingual school in Santa Ana, California. One day I was reading my class a lovely book about a middle class white boy getting ready for a sleepover when a student came up and snuggled against my leg.  His mom was divorced and undocumented, with four children. They lived in a garage. I was suddenly struck by how different the lives of the children in the book were from the life of the boy beside me. And like my daughter, my students drew themselves whiter than they were. I took packs of " multicultural" crayons and a mirror to class and we spent a day looking in the mirror and drawing ourselves. And I started writing about kids I knew, kids that share rooms and beds, drink horchata, suck on tamarind candy, have caramel or brown skin, speak Spanish, wear cowboy boots (it was the 90's and quebradita dancing was the rage), dance, and sometimes cross borders without papers. They live in extended families, often have dads who work two jobs, and sometimes don't have a father at all. I started trying to publish books instead of just writing stories for my child.
amy costalesWhat I write about doesn't represent all Latino children, but it does add an important piece. Because my daughter, her cousins, and my students often lived in extended families, that is something I wrote about in Abuelita Full of Life, Grandpa Used to Live Alone and Sundays on Fourth Street.  Because I was a single parent, and so many kids grow up with a single parent, two of these titles show a single mother, who is me. And because I know that in many families money is scarce, and I often think about how the child who has not must feel when bombarded with images of the child who has, Sundays on Fourth Street deliberately shows a family where three children share a bed. Lupe Vargas and Her Super Best Friend and Hello Night have universals themes, because I believe that Latino children should also get to simply be children, dealing with things that all children deal with like friendship and bedtime.
The lives of all children need to be legitimized, not just to themselves, but to all children. Therefore Latino kids do not need to read books about Latino kids. All kids need to read books about Latino kids. And Latino kids need to read books about all kind of kids. Children will better understand the complexity of the country and the world if they are exposed to it. Thus, I have realized that I was right to read my students a book about a middle class white boy getting ready for sleep-over. I just needed to read it alongside a book like Sundays on Fourth Street where sleepovers happen every night, in your own house, in the room you share with your cousins. I needed to read it alongside Lupe Vargas and Her Super Best Friend, which shows middle class Latino children.
I live in Eugene, Oregon. I have a son and a daughter. My husband, Fernando, has three sons. Our family is transnational, spread between Mexico and the U.S. We live in a small house painted with Mexican colors, surrounded by Oregonian trees, with chickens in the yard and a myriad of animals and children running in and out of the back door.