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Catalina Gómez: Good morning! We are here at the Library of Congress on May 6, 2015 recording Tim Hernández, a Latino prose writer, poet, and artist from San Joaquin Valley, California. Tim, it is really great to have you here with us. Thank you for being here.  

Tim Hernandez: Thank you. It’s an honor and my pleasure.

CG: So to begin if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you wound up being a writer and an artist.

TH: Sure. Yeah, absolutely! I come from a family of migrant farm workers. I’m the third generation who was born here in the United States. My grandfather and my grandmother were born in South Texas and my own parents also in Texas and in Los Angeles, and myself in California. That background has really influenced my writing and sort of the subjects that I look at and the material I write about. Early on, I was not much of a reader. I didn’t come into writing until I was already in my twenties, my early twenties. But I think one of the things that really influenced me early on was that I was a well-read-to child. 

My mother read to us quite a bit because like I said we were migrant farm workers in my early life as I was a young kid. My mother would read to us in the car because it will be long drives, driving from one field to another and there was nothing else to do except books. My father would eventually get tired to hearing the same books over and over so he would start to spin the story in a different direction. I think that that’s what obviously later on; I loved hearing that as a kid, sort of the story of it could be the little cowboy that my mother would be reading me and suddenly my dad would say: “You know what? That’s not how the story goes. Let me tell you.” Because he would get tired of hearing the same story, he would tell us other story, other version of it, and alternate version of the story. So we loved that! Myself, my sister, we loved hearing that as kids.

That informed, obviously, what I’m doing today. There growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, which is a predominantly migrant farm working communities there. It is a big agricultural hub valley, its where 70% of the world gets its produce from. So it’s a major, obviously, agricultural industry there. My school, my elementary school is situated literally between the orange orchards and plum groves there, and I had a third grade teacher, her name was Debbie Panek and she used to teach us poetry, how to memorize and recite poetry as in second, third, and fourth grade. So that kind of stuff, obviously, played a role and then later on as I grew up into a young adult, all of that kind of went dormant and I went into visual arts and I ended taking visual arts very seriously. I painted in college, that’s what my major was. Started to study murals and it wasn’t until a very pivotal thing happened in my life, which was an uncle who I’d lived with, who lived we us, was like an older brother to me, was killed in a very tragic way, um, in a way that we hear about so often today. The police department killed him, he was unarmed. And that changed the whole trajectory of what I wanted to do as an artist. I was painting up until then and suddenly my paintings started to include words in the paintings.

Eventually I felt like had, just…why waste time preparing the pallet and the paint brush and all that and just write the words, write what I have to say. So I ended up sort of leaving painting behind and just became a writer and started to write, and I never ever looked back since. At that time, though, I didn’t know what I was doing was poetry. I wouldn’t have dared call it poetry in my early twenties. I just thought they were thoughts, ideas I had to write down. And it wouldn’t be until I met poet Juan Felipe Herrera in Fresno, California. Who he was the first one who pointed at me and said, “You are a poet.” That blew my mind! So him and his wife Margarita Luna Robles were big influences in terms of helping me transition from this kid who grew up in the sort of sticks in the rural farm worker towns into the big city of Fresno. And I started to take myself serious as a writer. That was about in 1995 that it happened. And I never looked back since.

CG: Wow! Well, that’s great! Thank you so much. So we can begin reading. It is up to you with what book you want to start with. We have about 40-45 minutes.

TH: Okay, sure.

CG: If you feel like you want to say something about the poem or the excerpt you are reading that it’s up to you.

TH: Right, yeah. That first book I’ll read from is Skin Tax, this is the first book that I had published in 2004, Heyday Books. The way this book came about and I’m just briefly going to tell you a couple of sentences here and that’s that I was painting in San Francisco, and early on I had read this article about how the San Joaquin Valley had the highest rate of teen pregnancy per capita in the nation at that time, and this was in the late 90s. Anyway, I went looking for if there was any information for young fathers or young men who were sort of around fatherhood. There was no information so I began to interview young men of different backgrounds. I was looking for a non-profit. I was doing arts administration at that time, so it was kind of right up my alley. Anyway, so this book is a product of these interviews because I had originally wanted to create a grant program for this and it never got funded so I said, “What do I do with all this information of the interviews?” I ended up changing it into poetry, so that’s what Skin Tax came about. So its subject is sort of fatherhood or male identity. This poem is called I’m Gonna Put Virgil Down.

  • Hernandez reads “I’m Gonna Put Virgil Down” - Skin Tax (2004)

CG: That was great.

TH: I’m going to get a drink of water here and then should I read another one? Do I just keep reading?

CG: Yeah, just keep going.

TH: Yeah good, okay. I’m going to read this poem that I wrote for the poet Andrés Montoya, who was a friend of mine in Fresno, California. He passed away and then a few months later, I wrote this poem. It’s about a memory of him, about one of the times we read together.

  • Hernandez reads “Young Andrés” - Skin Tax (2004)

TH: So that was from Skin Tax. Let’s see, and I’m going to read from another book of poetry, my most recent one, Natural Takeover of Small Things. Alright let’s see.

  • Hernandez reads “Home” - Natural Takeover of Small Things (2013)
  • Hernandez reads “Brown Christ” - Natural Takeover of Small Things (2013)

TH: I’ll read one more poem from this book and then I’ll move to the prose. Let me have another drink of water here. Feels a little awkward not talking in between with you, in between the poems.

CG: Yeah.

TH: Alright. I wrote this…this is actually a love letter to Fresno.

  • Hernandez reads “Adios, Fresno” - Natural Takeover of Small Things (2013)

TH: That’s my love letter. Alright, um, now I’ll move over to the prose.

CG: Have you always been doing poetry and prose, or did prose come later, or before?

TH: Poetry was first, yeah poetry was first. I think it was just the most accessible. And then eventually, the characters that I had been writing about in the poems sort of evolved into…they had more to say, the characters, so, and then I dared to start to write my first novel, which was Breathing in Dust, and some of that was originally part of Skin Tax, as a manuscript. When I originally submitted Skin Tax, it was poetry and prose, and it was rejected like that, so I took out the prose and published Skin Tax as poetry, but the prose stayed and so I ended up writing stories from that, and uh…here I am now.

What I’m going to read from now is my second novel. This is a novel of historical fiction called Mañana Means Heaven, and um…just to give some context briefly, the book is about a woman named Bea Franco who was, she was most noted as the Mexican Girl in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road. He met her in 1947, and they had a brief affair, tryst, and he ended up writing about her. His book was rejected for six years, and it wasn’t until he was able to get this excerpt from his book called “The Mexican Girl,” which is a story he wrote about her, until that was published in the Parish Review, then that same story got published in the Best American Short Stories of that year, and then that opened up the doors to publish On the Road. And so, I found out she was alive still in 2010. She was alive at the age of 90 years old, and she lived literally a mile and a half down the street from my house. I had gone to the East Coast twice from California looking for clues about how to find her, to see if she was alive or if her family was alive, and um, it turned out that she was still alive. And so I sat down to interview her, and we became friends, and I wrote this book, which is historical fiction, but it’s based on our interviews.

So it’s basically the time that they were together that he wrote about, but it’s told from her perspective, her point of view, in California and during the 40s. So this is an excerpt of that.

  • Hernandez reads prose excerpt on Wednesday October 22, 1947 (Chapter 22)
    - Mañana Means Heaven (2013)

CG: I’m a little curious; I saw that…there was something crossed out?

TH: I edit as I read.

CG: Really?

TH: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, in all of my books there are lines crossed out and sometimes other words written in there.

CG: So when you read you would not read those…

TH: I don’t read them, yeah. I edit as I’m reading them.

CG: Like a post-published work editing.

TH: Yeah, but I do this also because in my presentations I think it’s a different medium to present than it is to read.

CG: Right, right.

TH: And I usually cross them out because I want the presentation to be more conversational, almost more storytelling than reading from a novel so, yeah, that’s why I cross them out. My own sort of cues. Um, how much time do we have left, so I can time this right?

CG: We have um…between 20 to 30 more minutes.

TH: Okay, perfect. Um, I’ll read one more excerpt from Mañana Means Heaven and then I’m going to read from the project that I’m working on right now.

So, uh, to set this up really briefly, this is the afterword I’m going to read from, and it’s really about how I researched the family and how I had to convince the family, because originally when I knocked on Bea Franco’s door and she was 90 years old, her son and daughter were the ones representing her. They were there, and I asked them if they’d ever heard the name Jack Kerouac and they said they never had, and I asked them about their mother and they said “You have the wrong woman. Our mother would have never…she was not…you know.” So it’s interesting how I’ve learned that some families, and many families after the second, third generation, and certainly by the third generation, we lose the stories in our families. We always know our grandparents’ stories, you know, typically, our parents and our grandparents. After that, we don’t know the stories.

In their case, this was a chapter that their mother had never talked to them about. Obviously because she was still technically married to her husband, and she was leaving him at the time and Jack was an affair that she had. And so, she didn’t want to talk about it. And so here I am knocking on the door about to out the affair and to say “Can I write about it?” You know, but the thing was, and I guess it was the only sort of chip I had on my side was that I said, “There are over 22 books published that have already outed the affair, and none of them have ever asked your mother, and they’ve all taken Jack’s point of view.” And I showed them all of that. So I had to convince them. They were blown away by all of that…I mean can you imagine? So this excerpt I’m going to read is about me trying to convince Albert, who is Bea’s son who I wrote about as Little Albert, and in fact in On the Road he appears as Little Johnny…Jack Kerouac writes about him as Little Johnny but his name was Albert, and so it’s me talking with Albert and his sister Patricia.

  • Hernandez reads excerpt from the afterward - Mañana Means Heaven (2013)

TH: So that’s from Mañana Means Heaven.

I’ll now move over to a book, a project I’m currently working on for the last five years, no four years I’m sorry. And this book that I’m working on now is tentatively titled All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck of Los Gatos Canyon, and it came while I was actually researching Mañana Means Heaven and I was looking up, was typing at the Genealogy Department at the Fresno Public Library, and I don’t know why genealogy, but I was there anyway…and I was looking up Fresno labor camps in 1947-48, and this news article popped up, and it was about, the article said, “100 People See an Airplane Fall Out of the Sky,” and then it said, “28 deportees were killed in this accident.”

And I recognized that this is the incident that Woodie Guthrie, the greatest American songwriter, wrote a song about, called “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” I didn’t know that happened there in Fresno County, where I’m from. After that I went looking. Actually, in that moment I thought, “This would be a great fictional book, you know. 28 chapters, 28 stories, and I can tell each one of their stories and recreate a life. And then I thought, “Well you know it’d be cool if instead of just inventing their names I actually found a list of who they were first.” So I went and I discovered they were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno…an unmarked grave, it was anonymous. So uh…befriending the Holy Cross Cemetery director there, Carlos Rascon, him and I, went looking to the Hall of Records, and we ended up getting the list of names of those passengers.

So this book is really a product of my five year search for those families, to find out who these people were that were on the airplane. It’s no longer fictionalized like I originally thought, and so this book is actually pulled from testimonies, from family documents, from photographs of who these passengers were on the airplane, and so this will be the first time I’ve uh…

CG: Were you able to contact…

TH: Not all 28, no. Um, I found six of the passengers and seven of the families so far, and just in January of this year, I went to Mexico to continue looking for more families there, knocking literally door to door, with a small team of people recording and interviewing people and, uh, ended up finding two more families there by doing that. And kind of seeing where all the passengers are from, and seeing their hometowns as a way to, obviously inform the book and so…this is what I’m going to read from now. 

CG: So the project is called…

TH: All They Will Call You. Yeah, All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon. And that’s the tentative title.Um sorry, it’s just not in a book form, it’s in a manuscript, but I’m going to, I know which one I’m looking for. Okay. One of the first families I found was of the passenger Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, and their family was actually in Fresno at the time, so they’re still around. And they gave me a photograph of Guadalupe and told me the story.

  • Hernandez reads excerpt from The Photograph (Chapter 11) - All They Will Call You (unpublished)

TH: So I’m going to read one more excerpt, which I believe is from Chapter 12: The San Joaquin Valley. Part of the…some of the individuals that were on that airplane were part of the bracero program. Not all of them, but some of them were, and so this chapter actually tries to contextualize the program that was happening and also the sense of place, the San Joaquin Valley during the 40s during this particular time, and the conditions that the workers who were being flown in, the conditions that they would have been in.

CG: Can I ask a question about the last one?

TH: Yeah sure! Please.

CG: So did you speak to Michaela actually, or…

TH: No, Michaela’s passed. Yeah, Michaela’s passed. This was from photographs and from their children, Guadalupe’s children.

CG: Okay. So then the story…it’s a fictional story?

TH: Yeah. The dialogue is fictional but the…uh… it’s fictional, absolutely. Very informed from the interviews, though, right? I would speak with his children and be like, “What kind of conversations would your parents have?” and they’d be like, “Oh they were always joking back and forth, they were very sort of, the humor was dry, you know?” And so after I wrote this, I would read to them excerpts from it and they would laugh and go, “That’s it. That’s exactly my family.” So that’s what you’re trying to do is recreate this sense of the real, of the San Joaquin Valley.

CG: Wow!

TH: But all the details of the photograph, and the situation of what led to the photograph, it’s all real.

  • Hernandez reads “The San Joaquin Valley, Chapter 12” - All They Will Call You (unpublished)

CG: Wow.

TH: I think that…are we about on time now?

CG: Yeah. So that was the airplane?

TH: Yeah.

CG: Okay.

TH: Yeah, actually that chapter actually comes near the middle of the book where I turn and start to talk about how they all start to get into the airplane, and you know the book is really just a lot of short stories about all these different peoples’ lives and all that, and then this one single tragic incident that brought them together and sealed their fates.

CG: That’s fantastic. And when is it going to come out?

TH: Well uh, it doesn’t have a publisher yet, so you know, we’ll see; hopefully sometime late next year. I’m almost done with it, so yeah.

CG: Well, I’m sure you won’t have a problem finding one.

TH: Sure.

CG: Thank you Tim so much. This was a great reading.

TH: Thank you. It was my pleasure and an honor; thank you.


U.S. Poetry at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC,

May 6, 2015

Approximately 48 minutes.

Recording Title: Tim Z. Hernandez Reading From His Work
Reading moderated by: Catalina Gómez


1) Selections from Skin Tax (2004)
- “I’m Gonna Put Virgil Down” - (min. 5:31)
- “Young Andres” (min. 7:48)

2) Selections from Natural Takeover of Small Things
- “Home” (min. 9:40)
- “Brown Christ” (min. 10:25)
- “Adios Fresno” (min. 11:35)

3) Selections from Manana Means Heaven
- Excerpt from Chapter 22 (min. 16:25)
- Excerpt from the Afterword (min 23:10)

4) Selections from All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck of Los Gatos Canyon
- Excerpt from Chapter 11: “The Photograph” (min. 30:06)
- Excerpt from Chapter 12: “The San Juaquin Valley” (min. 37:19)

Concluding Commentary – (min 47:20)
End – (min. 48:04)

Skin Tax (2004)

LC Catalog record:
Tim Hernández, Skin Tax (Berkeley, California: Great Valley Books, 2004)

Natural Takeover of Small Things

LC Catalog record:
Tim Hernández, Natural Takeover of Small Things (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013)

Mañana Means Heaven

LC Catalog record:
Tim Hernández, Mañana Means Heaven (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013)

All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck of Los Gatos Canyon

Related Resources

Tim Z. Hernandez

Tim Hernandez

Tim Z. Hernandez is an award-winning author and performance artist. His debut collection of poetry, Skin Tax (Heyday Books, 2004) received the 2006 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the James Duval Phelan Award from the San Francisco Foundation, and the Zora Neal Hurston Award for writers of color dedicated to their communities. His debut novel, Breathing, In Dust (Texas Tech University Press 2010) was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, and went on to receive the 2010 Premio Aztlan Prize in Fiction from the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was a finalist for the 2010 California Book Award. Most recently, in 2011, the Poetry Society of America named him one of sixteen New American Poets, and he was one of four finalists for the inaugural Freedom Plow Award from the Split This Rock Foundation for his work on locating the victims of the plane wreck at Los Gatos.

Learn more about Tim Z. Hernandez at Colorado Poetry Center.