Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator and traveler. Since publishing Las Niñas, she founded Barrio Writers and obtained a M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. Her writing has appeared in LATINO Magazine, Contrapuntos III, Outrage: A Protest Anthology For Injustice in a Post 9/11 World, La Tolteca Zine and will be featured in Issue 03 of Lumen Magazine.
Most recently, Sarah Rafael was awarded for Santana’s Fairy Tales, which is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center in Southern California. Sarah Rafael is currently the Editor for the annual Barrio Writers anthology and Co-editor of the forthcoming Pariahs: Writing From Outside the Margins anthology.
Fem: Tell us about Barrio Writers.
Sarah Rafael García: The Barrio Writers (BW) program aims to empower teens through creative writing, higher education and cultural arts. It consists of free 1-week intensive summer workshops and additional “café hours” (one-on-one tutoring). It also includes access to higher education resources and cultural arts field trips. Through the BW program youth build skills in reading, grammar, creative writing, critical-thinking and freedom of expression through the cultural arts.
Currently we have seven chapters in seven different cities—Santa Ana College in Southern California, University of Texas at Austin, University of Houston, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, University of Texas at El Paso, Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas A&M in Corpus Christi—and have also done workshops at Arizona State University in Phoenix. San Antonio is hosting the workshops for 8-weeks during the spring semester and offers one workshop a week, with also the opportunity to publish in the following anthology.
One goal of the program is to publish a collection of written works demonstrating the diverse backgrounds of teenagers. We are currently getting ready to release the 7th edition with SFA Press. Royalties from the book are returned to the BW program for future years. The long-term goal is to publish a new edition each year with hopes that more neighborhoods will adopt the program. The BW program is designed to empower the teenage community through the BW pedagogy while establishing a self-sufficient creative writing program that will represent community pride, perseverance & endless possibilities for following generations.
F: What themes can typically be found in your writing?
SRG: I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.
F: How does culture play a role in your work?
SRG: I’m a first-generation born in the U.S.A. Mexican-American/Chicana. Culture is vital to my writing, not only because I find myself battling to keep Spanish as my own language in and out of the workshop experience but also in future publications and part of my personal identity. Next month, I am returning to my childhood city of Santa Ana. I will be working on a special project from March 2016-2017.
My project, Santana’s Fairy Tales, is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. It is an oral history, storytelling endeavor that integrates community-based interviews to create contemporary fairytales and fables (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales) that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana, California. The exhibit will present a mixed media installation that will be curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase a fully illustrated published book (in English and Spanish), an “open book” performance with a narrator and actors, along with the band “Viento Callejero” who will compose and play a score for a featured story out of the collection.
Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I wish to return to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using mixed media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.
F: Is there a genre of writing that you identify more with than others? How so?
SRG: Well, I used to say creative non-fiction because it can be therapeutic for the writer and maybe also the reader. But now I believe fiction can attract a broader audience and help reach readers who avoid social justice issues and reading about a culture that isn’t their own. I really enjoy magical realism and I’m beginning to explore outside of my comfort zone by reading science fiction, I plan to one day write it too. Cuban-American writer Cristina Garcia put it best. During an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2007, García said, “It’s up to us, as writers, to transform the violence and cultural upheaval and migrations all around us into stories and syntax that reflect and illuminate these new realities, distort them gorgeously. To me, good fiction is about disproportion.” Through her words and mentorship during the MFA experience, I gained reassurance and perseverance in my writing, which turned me onto fiction as an alternative to creative non-fiction. At times I even combine the two.
F: How has being an educator informed your writing?
SRG: Guiding youth through the creative writing process has changed me personally and as a writer in many ways. It forced me to do what I was most scared of doing but yet I encouraged youth to do it every summer. There was a time when I was inviting youth to attend and participate in local open mics, then one of them turned to me and asked why I hadn’t presented my own work. So I had to role model, I began to write spoken word poems just to be able to get behind the mic with my youth. Honestly Barrio Writers made me a better writer and human being. The experience teaches me to confront my fears of not being accepted by the mainstream writing industry and my counterparts—male, white writers. It reminds me each year to challenge the notions of what is literary in white America. I still catch myself revising for workshop, doubting my use of Spanish when I get rejected and judging where to submit based on the ethnicity or gender of the editor. But slowly, I’m beginning to decolonize my writing. I no longer feel I need to italicize my Spanish, justify my history or pander to white readers. It made more diligent and proud of the various parts of my identity. Soy Xicana, I am womyn, el español es parte de mi cultura and my writing is too.
F: What advice can you give to young writers?
SRG: As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell youth to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind them to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.