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Gloria Velásquez wears many hats. She is a professor of Spanish and Chicano studies at Cal Poly, an author of one of the first series to focus on a racially diverse cast of characters and a social activist involved in the Chicano civil rights movement. Writing unites these roles.
“Above all, I am a writer,” she said. “It takes a long time for young people to find out what their passion or gift is. One of my Cherokee sisters said that this is the medicine I give to young people. My Catholic sister said it was my ministry.”
Velásquez came to Cal Poly 28 years ago to teach Chicano studies. Eight years later, she published the first book in the Roosevelt High School Series.
The series was inspired by Judy Bloom’s interview on “The Joan Rivers Show”. Her daughter had read many of Bloom’s books, but Velásquez never had. As she listened to the author talk about the different stories, Velásquez realized none of them were about adolescents of different ethnic backgrounds.
“Being the dreamer that I have always been, I said, ‘Someone needs to write books that feature Chicanos, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and I am going to do it,’” she said.
The novels center around a cast of ethnically diverse characters and address social issues such as sexuality, teen pregnancy, divorce and abuse. All the characters navigate and overcome their problems.
Velásquez grew up without Chicano role models in literature — only recently has there been an attempt to incorporate different ethnic backgrounds. Velásquez has been part of that change.
Her latest novel, “Tommy Stands Tall,” is a sequel to “Tommy Stands Alone,” published in 1994. The novel focuses on a gay Chicano male who wrestles with questions about identity.
The novel was loosely inspired by her cousin who died of AIDS. As a woman, Velásquez struggled with how to write about a gay male. However, she consulted with a friend who read her manuscripts before sending them to the publisher.
“She told me to think about the discrimination you have faced and think about the discrimination that is from another sexuality faces, and that was it,” Velásquez said. “You are able to see that is all about inequality.”
Her novels focus on commonalities between all people. Connections with her audience become tangible when Velásquez receives fan mail from teenagers around the country who identify with her characters’ struggles.
But the attention hasn’t always been positive. “Tommy Stands Alone” was banned by the Colorado School District because of the topic of Tommy’s sexuality.
Velásquez was scheduled to speak about poetry to a middle school in Longmont, Colo., and some teachers purchased her novels to familiarize their students with Velásquez’s work. A parent complained about the subject matter, which prompted the ban.
“It was one of those moments in my life that I won’t forget as a writer,” she said.
The event fostered discussion about the issues, which Velásquez considered a positive result.
“I want (readers) to learn about compassion for all people, whether someone is older, handicapped, etc.,” she said. “I want my readers to understand that everyone has value, everyone is unique, everyone is worthy.”
Writing these novels in San Luis Obispo — which is not known for diversity — seemed fitting to her because it highlighted the need for it.
“Coming from Stanford University, where every country was represented, to here was a shock,” Velásquez said. “It always is shocking for underrepresented students. I came from a fairly redneck country town of 1,000 people. I was able to take my experiences and put them in a global perspective at Stanford.”
It’s valuable for undergraduate students to broaden their perspectives through ethnic studies courses, Velásquez said. Her books serve that purpose, but for a larger audience.
Recently, she’s seen a change in the classroom.
“In the 28 years that I have been teaching, the students in the last five to six years are more open-minded to issues of diversity,” Velásquez said. “I oftentimes have students who take my class and it is an eye-opener for them to see another perspective.”
Sociology junior Christina Tlatilpa is one of those students. She took a Spanish class with Velásquez her freshman year and was inspired to minor in Spanish because of Velásquez’s passion for the subject.
Tlatilpa has read a collection of Velásquez’s poems that touched on issues such as poverty, discrimination and sexism.
“She has accomplished a lot toward fighting injustices and she continues to do so by bringing awareness to these issues,” Tlatilpa said. “I am glad that I have met her, and because of her, I can say that I feel at home at this campus.”
Velásquez’s colleagues also think highly of her. Ethnic studies professor Kate Martin has known Velásquez for years. She has read some of her books and seen many of the students and programs Velásquez helped.
“Her dedication to high school and college students alike is really quite remarkable,” Martin said. “She has been at Cal Poly a long time, and I don’t think she has received the recognition that should be paid to someone of her standing.”
Velásquez will sign books at the Barnes & Noble on Marsh Street on May 31 from 2-3 p.m.