Remembering Tigger by Carlos Cortes

Sometimes writers just have to write. It happened to me, unexpectedly, a few weeks ago during an Inlandia creative writing workshop here in Riverside.

Jo Scott-Coe, our gifted workshop facilitator, gave us an assignment. For the next meeting, bring a book that has been important in your life.

I brought William Maxwell’s short novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, a simple but mesmerizing story of a killing in a small Illinois town and its ramifications for the community. The book focuses on the personal journey of one young man who, years later, re-reads newspaper reports of the incident and tries to re-imagine the killing and its aftermath through the eyes of different members of the community.

I began reading it early one evening in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, hotel. Although I had to teach a class the next morning at Harvard, I could not go to bed until I finished the book well after midnight. Re-reading that novel and admiring its artistry and insights have become a recurring part of my life.

At our next workshop, Jo asked each of us to choose a brief passage from our book and copy it down. Despite my skepticism about the assignment (seemingly shared by some other participants), I dutifully copied three paragraphs in which the aftermath of the killing is unexpectedly and poignantly viewed from the perspective of one protagonist’s dog, who is ultimately put to sleep.

Jo then asked us to write something prompted by what we had just written down. Almost without thinking, I began writing about Tigger, our wonderful kitty whom we had to put to sleep last summer. Out came the story of Tigger’s last day, told mainly from his perspective. When I got home, I immediately sat down and expanded that story, tracing the course of that fateful day by shifting among perspectives, as did Maxwell: first mine; then that of the veterinarian; then Tigger; and finally my wife, Laurel.

At our next meeting, Jo asked us to read one page from something we had written. I chose the middle page from my three page Tigger story, providing perspectives from the veterinarian and from Tigger. The ensuing discussion provided suggestions, which I considered while making revisions. But when it came to Laurel, who is also in the workshop, she merely shook her head and said, “I don’t know why Carlos wrote this. I just don’t know why.”

I sent the revised version to my network of friends who read and comment on each others’ writing. I was particularly interested in the comments of Ellen Summerfield, a glorious Oregon poet, and Steve Petkas, a perceptive Maryland wordsmith. Ellen, a minimalist, usually looks for ways to cut; Steve usually looks for ways to expand.

Both liked the story but, predictably, they gave contrasting advice. Ellen said I should drop the first two sentences, completely. She was right. Steve suggested that I expand the vet’s section, but I didn’t because it would have outweighed Tigger’s tale, the core of my story. Fortunately, Steve, a long-time dog owner who is generally dismissive about things written from animal perspectives, said Tigger’s section worked for him.

However, as I finalized my essay, Laurel’s comment continued to echo. Why was I writing this story? Suddenly it came to me. Because I had to. I couldn’t let our magnificent friend go without memorializing him.

When I asked Laurel to expand on her comment, her answer was simple. Why had I written about Tigger’s death and not his life? As usual, Laurel was right. My three-page essay about Tigger’s passing was just the beginning of my journey. Tigger deserves more. That’s when I decided to write a book about Tigger’s life. Because I have to.

Tomás Rivera and Civic Morality by Carlos Cortes

When Tomás Rivera became chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, in 1979, he accepted both the honor and the burden of being a first: first Chicano chancellor, first minority chancellor, and youngest chancellor in the history of the University of California system.

Tomás earned plaudits nationwide for his accomplishments. Partly because of his firstness, he also became the object of national attention, serving on numerous prestigious boards, committees, and task forces, including the Los Angeles Times Board of Directors. Moreover, beyond his administrative firstness, Tomás also garnered literary acclaim for such works as his novel (. . . and the Earth Did Not Devour Him) and his poetry (“The Searchers”).

But, as inevitable for most firsts, Tomás also bore a heavy burden, the relentless pressure of knowing he was constantly being viewed as a representative, maybe even the embodiment, of his people. He lived continuously with the terrible knowledge that any of his perceived missteps or failings would be interpreted by some as definitive proof of the inadequacy of Mexican Americans. That burden ultimately contributed to his death from a heart attack in 1984.

In the aftermath of his death, Tomás reemerged as a Latino symbol. His name soon adorned schools, centers, prizes, and, of course, UCR’s Tomás Rivera Library. Yet, while Tomás attained enormous symbolic importance, his real life administrative accomplishments received little serious assessment for nearly three decades. Then, in the fall, 2013, Professor Tiffany López, holder of UCR’s Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair, organized a seminar dedicated to analyzing Tomás’ speeches and writings concerning the role of higher education administrators, particularly Latino administrative leaders.

From that careful and astute examination of those documents, the seminar identified one core idea that illuminated the trajectory of Tomás’ administrative life: his commitment to the concept of civic morality. Again and again Tomás proclaimed that college administrators should lead with the goal of spreading and inculcating a sense of civic morality, a basis for fostering a more equitable society.

During the seminar, Tiffany invited me, as Tomás’ friend and a 26-year UCR History professor, to spend a couple of hours with her students, sharing my observations of and experiences with Tomás. Later Tiffany asked me if I would participate in a theatrical piece she was developing based on the seminar. Intrigued by the idea of a seminar on college administration being transformed into a theatrical presentation, I said yes. Yet the cynic in me knew that an administration-oriented seminar could not possibly become effective theatre. How wrong I was!

While the expression “blown away” has become a cliché, that is precisely how I felt when I participated in the first performance of “Civic Morality” on December 3, 2013, before a packed house at UCR’s Culver Center of the Arts. Riversiders will get another opportunity to see how wrong I was when Tiffany’s theatrical presentation, “Civic Morality,” about the life of Tomás Rivera, is presented again at 7 pm on Wednesday, November 12, at the César Chávez Community Center Auditorium in Bobby Bonds Park, 2060 University Avenue.

“Civic Morality” is as difficult to describe as it is impossible to resist. Both Tiffany’s opening narrative, which sketches the contours of Tomás’ administrative career and the evolution of his thinking, and the students’ heartfelt reflections on their engagement with Tomás’ writings provide drama and insight into the life and ideas of this remarkable man. When the students had finished their parts and I made my way to the Culver stage to share my recollections of Tomás, I felt both the joy of personal revelation and the onus of responsibility of helping bring Tomás to life for an audience of many who had never known him.

Tomás Rivera was far more than a first; he was unique. With his sly smile and mischievous sense of humor, he could charm. A man of virtually limitless personal generosity, he gave himself to everyone almost without reservation. He and his wife, Concha, hosted more than 200 events each year in the Chancellor’s residence. No matter how imposing the administrative pressures, Tomás would somehow make time to answer a local teacher’s request to speak to her elementary school class. An academic leader who never forgot his farm laboring family roots, he always remained part of the people.

The life of Tomás Rivera, particularly those last five sometimes joyous, sometimes tumultuous, always challenging UCR years, provide the stuff of tragedy and triumph. “Civic Morality,” which captures both the tragedy of Tomás’ death and the triumphant timelessness of his vision, serves as a moving tribute to a good and, in some respects, great man. I hope that many of you will be able to join us on November 12 for this dramatic exploration of a life worth recalling, cherishing, and emulating.

Events this weekend featuring Juan Delgado, Carlos Cortes, and Dia de los Muertos! by Craig Svonkin

First, this year’s Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) Conference will be bookended by sessions featuring Inland Empire creative writers. Taking place downtown at the Riverside Convention Center, three events will feature Inlandia authors:

Friday, October 31, 3:45 pm – 5:15 pm Inlandia Literary Laureate Juan Delgado will be presiding over a session of Inlandia poets titled “Creative Writing: Poetic Voices of Inlandia.” This will immediately be followed at 5:15 pm until 6:40 pm by a Creative Artist Spotlight Address by Delgado and Tom McGovern, co-authors of Vital Signs, a collection of poetry and photography about the Inland Empire, with book sales and signing until 7:00 pm.

Then, Sunday, November 2, from 10:45 am – 12:00 pm PAMLA will be offering a seminar, “Inlandia Institute: Celebrating and Memorializing Literary Inlandia,” hosted by Cati Porter and featuring Inlandia authors Laurel and Carlos Cortes (Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time). We will be discussing the value of ‘place’ in writing, and reading and talking about Inlandia.

These PAMLA sessions are open to the public, and all sessions are free to current UCR, RCC, CSUSB, Chaffey, La Sierra, and Cal Baptist students and faculty. For more information, please contact svonkin@netzero.net or visit the website for the full conference schedule: http://www.pamla.org/2014.

Also on Sunday, from 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm, please join us for an Open Mic with Juan Delgado at the Dia de los Muertos Festival at White Park, in the Gazebo, in honor of a loved one who’s passed. Read a poem (your own or another favorite) then place the poem on a joint altar. Attendance is free for the living and the dead.

Then, next Thursday November 6, at 7:00 pm please join us at the Riverside Public Library downtown, upstairs in the main auditorium, ArtsWalk for a reading and discussion with Tyler Stallings and his new book, Aridtopia.

Stay tuned – lots going on in November! More info coming soon.

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UPDATE: Addendum from the PAMLA Conference with complete details:

The Creative Artist Spotlight Address: Vital Signs with Juan Delgado and Thomas McGovern, will be on Friday, October 31, from 5:15 pm – 6:40 pm (in RCC Exhibit Hall C). Inlandia Literary Laureate, poet Juan Delgado, and award-winning photographer Thomas McGovern (both professors from California State University, San Bernardino), will speak about their collaboration on the beautiful and moving photography/poetry book, Vital Signs, about the Inland Empire region of Southern California, starting with the city of San Bernardino. The Before Columbus Foundation has selected Vital Signs as one of the recipients of the 2014 American Book Awards. Please join us for this special (and free to everyone) event. The Halloween Cash Bar (and Candy Feast) Reception will follow, with good conversation, light snacks, a cash bar, and a Halloween-themed film, all out doors (weather permitting). Feel free to wear a Halloween costume, if you’d like.

Riverside is an interesting place with an interesting history. If you’d like to learn more about the history and architecture of Riverside while getting to stretch your legs and get out of the Riverside Convention Center, please join one of the two Walking Tours of Historic Riverside conducted by Steve Lech, Riverside expert and President of the Riverside Historical Society. These tours (please wear comfortable shoes and be ready for a brisk pace) will leave the Riverside Convention Center on Friday at 2:00 pm and Saturday at 1:45 pm from the Lower Concourse (near the Registration table), and each tour will take 90 minutes.

Another opportunity to learn about Riverside and its culture and history, in connection to a variety of cultural, architectural and historical issues central to California and the West, will be the two back-to-back sessions about the Mission Inn, Riverside’s most famous architectural landmark (built in an eclectic “Mission Revival” style, and a fascinating place to explore (do be sure to visit the Mission Inn during the conference, even if you aren’t staying there). These sessions are titled “The Spirit of California Imprisoned: Summoning the Mission Inn,” and will be held on Friday, October 31, from 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm and then from 3:45 pm – 5:15 pm, in RCC Ballroom B.

As you are planning your PAMLA conference schedule, please take a look at some of our Creative Writing sessions and pencil one, two, or all of them into your conference schedule (of course, all of our scholarly writing is creative writing, but you know what we mean):

For example, on Friday, October 31, you could attend:

10:45 am–“Creative Writing: Poetry that May (or May Not) Change Your Life”

2:00 pm–“Creative Writing: Brief Poetry”

3:45 pm–“Creative Writing: Poetic Voices of Inlandia”

And then join us for the Creative Artist Spotlight Address, with local poet Juan Delgado and photographer Thomas McGovern, co-authors of Vital Signs, at 5:15 pm.

On Saturday, November 1, please join us for:

“Four SoCal Writers: Eric, Ara, Joseph, & Joseph” at 10:30 am.

“The Little Short Shorts: Narrative as Commentary,” at 3:30 pm, with songs and short creative fragments, including creative writing by me, PAMLA’s Executive Director, Craig Svonkin.

And then on Sunday, November 2, we will have a special session beginning at 10:45 am, co-sponsored by the Inlandia Institute, focusing on local writers featuring Carlos & Laurel Cortes, and Cati Porter.

The full conference program is up online: http://www.pamla.org/2014/schedule.