Arguably, this has been one of the hottest and most humid summers in the Inland Empire in recent memory, and the excessive heat has driven many people indoors, looking for something good to read. Fortunately, a compelling new memoir by one of our region’s most prolific academic scholars and longtime Riverside residents has appeared on the local literary horizon. Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time Time, published by Heyday and the Inlandia Institute earlier this year, was penned by Carlos E. Cortes, professor emeritus of history at University of California Riverside who also happens to be a prolific playwright/actor, lecturer, and collaborating writer for the popular children’s TV series, “Dora the Explorer.”
Cortes was born in Oakland in 1934, the son of a Mexican-American/Catholic father and German-American/Jewish mother, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri before attending University of California, Berkeley and eventually taking his teaching position at UCR in 1968. He took time recently from his busy schedule to talk about his book while sipping coffee and munching at oatmeal cookies at Riverside’s iconic Back to the Grind coffee house.
“At my daughter Alana’s request, more than 10 years ago, I agreed to write the stories of our family history,” Cortes says. “I never set out to write or publish a book. In fact, the whole thing ended up being about 600 pages, in all,” he chuckles.” He began by writing short mini-biographies about each of his grandparents, and then his parents, and then about other family members, until he ended up with somewhere between 50-60 little anecdotes that focused on each person’s life and character. Much of the manuscript was penned while he sat at a table along the downtown Riverside promenade adjacent to the Mission Inn.
He quickly realized, once he began to review what he had written, that what he had originally considered to be personalized family stories, written for his daughter, just might appeal to other people. He relates an anecdote about how, when he was reading part of the manuscript aloud to Alana while seated at a former Bob’s Big Boy restaurant located at the corner of University and Iowa Avenues in Riverside, another customer poked his head out from another booth, and said “that’s a great story! You should publish a book!”
He realized that the heart of his story collection resonated strongly with a number of cultural and historical themes and nuances common to most, if not, all of us, including the search for identity and belonging that so many people in our richly diverse multicultural and religious diaspora that comprises our society struggle to reckon with. As the son of a mixed race/religion family, and keenly aware all his life of the tug-of-war he lived in between his parents and other family members, Cortes has struck, and poignantly elicited, something that many readers can easily identify with.
Initially, Cortes skimmed his manuscript for the key ideas that formed the core of a one-hour, one-person play that he wrote, based on these stories, and titled it A Conversation with Alana: One Boy’s Multicultural Rite of Passage. He has subsequently performed the play more than one hundred times around the country.
He later decided to edit and create a narrative structure to his larger manuscript and publish it as a book. With help from Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books – who he reveals that he shared a long lunch with, with both of them telling little stories in Yiddish as they discussed ideas for the book -, and Heyday’s Acquisitions Editor, Gayle Wattawa, the much-abbreviated, final version of the current book began to take form. He also notes that, in creating the final manusucript for the book, he took the advice of author Elmore Leonard, who wrote the novel Get Shorty: “…leave out the parts that people skip.” It seems to have worked for Cortes’ book.
“It was important to me that I make my book accessible to as many readers as possible,” he Cortes says. “I was hoping to open up a general discussion, among readers, and at the readings I do, about issues of mixed racial and cultural backgrounds, which affects so many people everywhere in the melting pot of our society. I wanted to help articulate the experience, and find a common thread in this that others can relate to, so they don’t feel so isolated.”
The start of Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time begins, for example, by giving the reader a clear sense of this, at the start of Chapter 1: “Dad was a Mexican Catholic. Mom was a Kansas City-born Jew with Eastern European immigrant paragraphs. They fell in love in Berkeley, California, and got married in Kansas City, Missouri. That, alone, would not have been a big deal. But it happened to be 1933” (p.1).
The narrative arc of the book follows his parent’s controversial marriage and his own birth and growing-up years in Kansas City, and is told in short chapters, each of which serves as its own vignette, as a story in itself. Cortes reveals his parents’, and his own, struggles in their search for belonging to a society that all too often expects people, and family, to fit into neatly-prescribed and restrictive “norms.”
Although much of the book’s setting is placed in Kansas City, the book does have a definite Inland Empire-area flavor. Cortes talks, later in the book, about how he came to play an important role in the development of inter-cultural curriculum at UCR, as creator of the university’s Chicano Studies program in the 1970’s, which helped both him and his father reaffirm their Mexican-American heritage.
There’s also the passage in the book where Cortes and his wife discover his parent’s decades-old love letters, in storage in Cortes’ garage in Riverside. “Now, at the very time I was trying to reconstruct our family’s story, the letters had been revealed to me,” he writes. “And as I read them, I yet again rediscovered my family, as I had so many times before” (p. 160). The letters had somehow survived many moves across the country, and in fact, Cortes had almost mistakenly thrown them out while moving.
The overall impression of this gently-rendered, often humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and honestly-written memoir is one that will remain with most readers, long after they’ve finished reading. Taken as a whole, the stories are highly readable, familiar, spirit warming and also, in a profound but never forceful manner, tinged consistently by the current of the book’s wider sense of vision and the compelling themes that it evokes.
In the past few months, Cortes has given readings from Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time throughout the Inland Empire, which he combines with a question and discussion forum with his audience. So far, he’s appeared at events sponsored by the Inlandia Institute, the Inland Empire Latino Artists, the Redlands Library, and at at UCR and at the annual Cesar E. Chavez breakfast in Riverside. He continues to give readings, and will soon be appearing at College of the Desert in Palm Desert and at a book festival scheduled at Barnes and Noble in Riverside this fall.
“It’s important to open up the dialogue on these issues,” Cortes says. “So far, all kinds of people have approached me to say that the book has given them a sense of understanding and familiarity with some of the bi-racial and bi-cultural and other issues of social duality that they struggle with.”