Sayra Reyes

When Gloria Velasquez opened her door to me, she excused herself briefly as she finished collecting the last few Barbie doll accessories that her granddaughter had left at her home. She already had a few shoes and a doll brush gathered in a tiny Ziploc bag, knowing how happy her granddaughter would be to see her things returned.

This is not the image that immediately comes to mind when you think of a social activist.

“It’s strange to think of myself as famous, but I really am,” she said.

A professor in the modern languages and literature department for 23 years, Velasquez is an internationally known poet and author who strives to inspire social change in her readers and her students.

She has published two books of poetry and a seven-book Roosevelt High School young adult series. Her Roosevelt High School series deals with issues such as divorce, absent fathers, interracial dating, teen pregnancy, sexuality and inequality in school systems.

The series, which gets its name from Velasquez’s alma mater in Johnstown, Colo., is required reading in some schools, such as Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles.

The third volume, “Tommy Stands Alone,” was the first novel for young adults that presented a gay Latino. It was initially banned by some school districts and made national headlines, but it is now considered a classic, she said.

Her influence spanned across the Atlantic when her novel involving interracial dating was translated into French.

When she tours, students come up and connect with her. She also receives letters from her many readers with anecdotes concerning her works. A librarian wrote to her telling the story of a girl who got in trouble for trying to take out a book without a card. The book was “Teen Angel,” which the girl wanted to check out because she thought she may be pregnant herself.

Velasquez can pinpoint her inspiration for the series to the day. She was watching a special on Judy Blume on TV and realized all of the characters were European-American.

“At that exact moment, I said ‘someone needs to write books that feature adolescents of color, and I’m going to do it,’” she said.

She immediately sat down and sketched out the first four books of the series.

She writes music in addition to her novels and poetry, and has released a CD to accompany the “I Used to Be a Superwoman” book of poetry. She also just finished recording a bilingual children’s CD that will come out in the near future.

However, she doesn’t think of herself as a guitarist – she just loves to sing. In Chicano culture, oral tradition is very important and she sees her performance poetry as a part of that.

“Poetry is like song; it comes from the soul: You have to sing it with your soul,” she said.

Born in Colorado, a “daughter of the poorest of the poor,” she was lucky just to get through high school.

“Teaching was not something I considered, I just considered survival,” she said.

She eventually saved enough money to go to Northern Colorado University, where she became connected with the national Chicano artistic renaissance and major social movements of the 1970s.

“When you’re born with nothing, you have everything,” she says.

As a student she attended the Flor y Canto Festival – during which people came together to paint murals and read poetry – which spoke to her specifically and made her realize she wanted to use her art for social change like the people she so admired.

She stresses the role of the Chicano writer as a cultural worker to her students as well.

“It’s a link to community: art not simply to express creativity but also to inspire social change,” she said. “I think you have to be a product of the ’60s to really understand that.”

She came to Cal Poly after finishing her Ph.D. at Stanford University and was hired specifically to bring Chicano literature to the university.

However, she said her biggest reason for coming was “el campo.” A native of the Colorado countryside, she felt at home among the mountains and small-town atmosphere.

“It’s a part of my indigenous soul,” she said.

She sees raising social consciouness and offering different perspectives as the most important parts of a college education, especially on a largely white campus. Her particular perspective was affected by the literary explosion after the Chicano artistic renaissance and her Stanford education, which contributed to her feminist outlook.

“The highlight for me as a Cal Poly professor is at the end of the year when I attend the Chicano and black commencement,” she said.

Although she has met some criticism among students for her perspective, she said most are grateful for a fresh point of view.

“Students are hungry for my medicine,” she said.

A big name in literature circles, Velasquez lives and breathes what she teaches, and knows most of the authors she teaches personally. This quarter, one of her literature classes will study an author she can offer extra insight into: herself. She admitted it may be a little interesting and she refers to her work as her “twin sister” in class.

“It’s not literature to analyze or sell or for any theoretical reason,” Velasquez said. “It’s to inspire social change.”

In the near future, she sees partial retirement, writing her autobiography and continuing to tour and meet readers.

“I’ve been very blessed by the spirits,” she said. “I’ve lived my dream life.”

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