Mary-Joan Gerson is the author of Fiesta Femenina. This book of traditional Mexican stories has received many awards including: the 2002 Amelia Bloomer Project List, NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People (2002), Top Ten Children’s Books on Women’s History, Booklist (2001), Kansas State Reading Circle Selection (2001-2002), and Voices from Around the World, Chicago Public Library (2001). Fiesta Femenina was also the winner of The Aesop Prize for 2001, and a Recommended Book Winner, Parents’ Choice (2001).
The author generously shared her thoughts about the book and Mexican culture with Spanish Playground.
Thank you so much for talking about your book with us. This is a beautiful collection of stories, and it feels distinctly Mexican. What values of Mexican culture do you see in these stories?
I tried to capture the passion of Mexican culture which is expressed in the determination of Rosha to free the sun, or Juan Diego in his reverence for La Virgen de Guadalupe. And I think a special gift of Mexican culture is to combine dark and light, sadness and humor—which we know are both part of life—without trying to hide one behind the other. Thus La Diosa Hambrienta is about the anger of the gods and the wailing of the earth, but balances these emotions with humor and surprise.
The gods in that story, La Diosa Hambrienta, are great! Why did you decide to make the gods so human? Why did you decide to make their language so conversational?
I made the gods human because that is the way they are portrayed in the original tales. Because Mexico is a Catholic country, people distinguish between God as a supreme deity and the ancient gods.
There are lots of characters in these stories that I think young people will really enjoy. I sometimes ask my students to think of characters in terms of who they would like to get to know. Of the women in these stories, who would you most like to be your friend and why?
My favorite female character is La Luna. I love her cleverness and her feminism. And I love that she makes fun of the way that cultures emphasize the weight and shapes of women. And she liberates us to be changeable and unpredictable, certainly not to worry about the expectations of men!
I love La Luna too. She is a wonderful character! She reminds me of a good friend of mine. Do any of these characters remind you of friends or family members? How?
Ave Verde captures the fierce love I feel for my daughter, a love I see her beaming towards my granddaughter!
I know that you have spent lots of time in Mexico. Do you think that modern Mexican women have the same strength that the characters in the stories have? How does this manifest itself in everyday life?
Absolutely. I am struck by the landscape of women who protect and provide for their families. Whenever I walk the streets of Mexico City or Oaxaca or Puebla, everywhere about me I see women walking to work, carrying children, and managing market stalls. I know that many of these women rise at dawn to prepare food for their families, prepare their children for school, then carry out a full day’s work themselves. Mexican women are a version of what American women call “supermoms”.
I know that strong women have been an important part of Mexican history too. Teachers often ask students to do research into historical figures. Could you suggest historical figures or contemporary Mexican women who show the same characteristics that students could research?
My favorite Mexican heroines are Frida Khalo and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a seventeenth century nun who became an internationally read author.
I think these stories could be used successfully in classes with Spanish language learners. There is also an English edition of the book that might be helpful as support for some teachers or parents or for families that do not speak Spanish. Do the English and Spanish versions of the stories feel different to you?
The English and Spanish editions are very, very close and I am so pleased with the translation.
The eight stories are very different. Which story was the hardest to write?
Actually the hardest story to write was the Virgen de Guadalupe. I wanted to include it, even though my publisher wondered why I was including a religious story. I just couldn’t imagine portraying the power of Mexican women without including it. But I was worried about losing some of its profound spirituality by including it in a folklore collection.
Were there stories that you did not include? Would you consider writing another book with those stories or another collection of stories?
There were stories I didn’t include either because they seemed not to convey something special about Mexican culture, since there are always more ordinary tales that are common to all cultures. I would love to write another book about Mexico and have a few ideas in early stages of writing.
That’s exciting. We would love to read more of your work about Mexico. Is there anything else that you want to tell children about Fiesta Femenina and why you wrote the book?
I wrote this book because I love Mexican culture. I once heard the author John Fowles speak about his love of Greece and he said that he thinks there are “landscapes of the heart”. I have always felt that way about Mexico: its colors, passion, vibrancy, diversity and beauty. I can’t even put it fully into words—and I’m a writer!
Thank you so much for your time and for sharing this beautiful book. We look forward to reading more of your stories!