Cultural Literacy: Valley author shares ‘Cascarones’ with Gear Up students at FESTIBA

Valley native Sylvia Sanchez Garza and author of "Cascarones" a young adult novel speaks to students Wednesday morning at TSC Perfoming Arts Center part of UTRGV's Festival of International Books and Arts. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Hundreds of Rio Grande Valley middle school students got to hear from an author speaking their own language Wednesday morning at The Arts Center on the Texas Southmost College campus during an event to kick off FESTIBA 2019 at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Now in its 13th year, FESTIBA stands for Festival of International Books & Arts. Events are planned through next week on UTRGV campuses in both Brownsville and Edinburg. The festival strives to promote the importance of literacy skills and confidence in self expression through the cultural arts.

FESTIBA also has an important dance and music component and takes place during the height of mariachi competition season in the Valley, as well as Charro Days in Brownsville.

Children’s author Sylvia Sanchez Garza discussed her book “Cascarones” from the stage of the TSC Arts Center, making references only Hispanic kids from the Valley would understand. Sanchez was born in Mercedes and grew up in Weslaco. She holds a Ph.D in leadership studies.

Cascarones is a term best understood in the context of Deep South Texas. They are egg shells with the egg removed, filled with confetti, painted with colorful designs and cracked over the heads of friends and family during Easter.

“A cascaron starts as an egg. It becomes a piece of art and in an instant it’s gone, like our lives,” Sanchez explained to the students. “We all start off as an egg. The yolk is your soul. The cascaron is your body. it’s just a shell. Life is cyclical. It keeps going.”

Then a video by Los Lonely Boys, “How Far is Heaven?” played on the screen behind her. The book is about life and death, and the first chapter, The Golden Egg, is about a funeral. Others are about first communions, la bendicion, Las Mañinitas, and not being allowed to speak Spanish in school. Spanish phrases and terminology are interspersed throughout the book

There’s also a chapter about the time her father Joe V. Sanchez briefly moved the family to Houston so he could complete his education.

After that the family stopped being migrant farmworkers. She and her brothers and sisters are all educators, as is her father, who earned a PhD and became a Weslaco city commissioner. The elder Sanchez recently wrote a book about his experiences as a migrant.

“Cascarones” is a coming of age story that revolves around a Mexican American family living in the Rio Grande Valley. The main character, Suzy, as well as her family and friends are encircled by the rich traditions and culture of the region, shaping who she becomes. The story is about growing up as a Mexican American in the 1960s and ‘70s amid discriminatory undertones,” a description on the back cover says.

A picture of a Big Chief tablet along with an old-style telephone next to an iPhone illustrated her talk at one point.

“We had a party line,” she said. “You all are so blessed. You have everything in your phone. You have the power to be whoever you want.”

Just then a clip from an old Selena video showed on the screen and Sanchez started dancing a spur-of-the moment cumbia.

“Selena did so much for our culture,” Sanchez said. “She opened doors beyond belief. I love to dance. In my book I write about the first dance. … You have to keep that creativity you were born with. Remember, you each have a story to tell. Remember that.”

After the presentation the students were treated to pizza in the lobby outside the theater.

Israel Leyva Jr., a seventh-grader from Berta Cavazos Middle School in San Benito said the presentation had inspired him.

“Now I want to write a book, too. I’ve been trying. It’s about my life. I’ve been thinking about it since I was 9.” he said.

The students attended the program through the Gear Up initiative run by the Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg to promote post-secondary attainment among mainly low-income Hispanic students who would be first-generation college students.

Within Gear up, FESTIBA “strives to promote the importance of literacy skills and confidence in self expression through the cultural arts to inspire creative thinking,” according to information provided by the organizations.