Return to Mango Street
By Tamara Vallejos
Each year through a conference named in his honor, UC Riverside celebrates the legacy of Tomás Rivera, the Chicano author and poet who became the first Hispanic chancellor in the UC system when he took the post at Riverside in 1979. It’s been 28 years since the educator passed away, but he left behind him a tradition of breakthroughs, and Tomás Rivera Conference organizer Juan Felipe Herrera seeks to keep that momentum going.
“He was a pioneering novelist with his book . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, and also a fabulous poet, in addition to having administrative genius, at a time when the visibility of the Latino community hadn’t yet caught up,” says Herrera, who holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UCR. “The goals of this conference are really focused on promoting his artistic, creative and visionary legacies.”
To that end, a committee that includes Concha Rivera, Tomás Rivera’s widow, searches for an appropriate speaker to anchor the special event. This year, it’s famed poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, who will give a free presentation on Wednesday, April 25, at UCR. Best known for her 1984 coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street, Cisneros has been a key literary figure for decades, recognized in particular for her impact in the Chicano/a literary scene. She’s recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—often referred to by the nickname “Genius Grant”—and her many other accolades includes a pair of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
“She’s an ideal speaker because she’s a leading Latina novelist all on her own,” says Herrera.
In other words, it’s hardly necessary to manufacture a buzz around Cisneros’ appearance. To anyone who has heard of Cisneros, the buzz is built-in; her name alone is enough to perk up the ears of young and old, local writers, campus English and Comparative Writing classes and a couple generations of people who have at least read The House on Mango Street while in school. Plus, Herrera says her cross-cultural appeal means “she fits perfectly into what we do.”
The 24th annual Tomás Rivera Conference kicks off Wednesday, and is in partnership with UCR’s Chicano Student Programs, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The two-hour event will also include an audience Q&A with Cisneros, and a brief reception and book signing.
Herrera says Cisneros is the first novelist the conference has had as its speaker in as long as he can remember, and he notes that the evening will feature another major nod toward literature, through the inclusion of the Inlandia Institute, a nonprofit literary center based in Riverside that seeks to highlight and build upon the Inland Empire’s literary scene. To begin the evening, the Inlandia Institute will announce the recipient of its second Literary Laureate.
“The Literary Laureate is a writer, nominated by a number of people with diverse expertise in literature, who is chosen to be the representative of literature in the Inland Empire,” explains Herrera. Laureate status is something Herrera himself knows a little about: in March, he was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown as the newest California Poet Laureate, making him the first Hispanic to hold the position.
“It’s very big, and a lot of creative responsibility,” he says of the honor. “I could probably just read my poems a few times a year and satisfy the very basic duties of Poet Laureate, but the real responsibility is making sure every person is inspired by their own poetic potential, their own words and language, and their own culture and experience.”
Sounds like Tomás Rivera would be proud.
Tomás Rivera Conference presents “An Evening with Sandra Cisneros” at UC Riverside, HUB 302, 900 University Ave., Riverside, (951) 827-3821; www.ucrtoday.ucr.edu/4967. Wed, April 25, 7pm. Free.