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Author Pam Muñoz Ryan on Ethnicity

Family traditions form the cultural foundation of every ethnicity, says Ryan.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

When author Pam Muñoz Ryan was growing up, there was no Hispanic Heritage Month. The month-long commemoration received federal recognition in 1988, when Ryan was 37. It has grown in popularity since.

"It has been interesting to see people create more ways to celebrate," said Ryan. She thinks it's a wonderful way "for non-Hispanics to see Hispanics celebrating their heritage and bring attention to Hispanic culture and traditions."

Ryan's popular young adult novels reflect her own experience as a young Hispanic American.

One of her most popular books, Esperanza Rising, is about Ryan's grandmother. She wrote the story to honor her family. She also wanted to give her children something to remember about their culture and history. Finally, Esperanza Rising was a way to share the Mexican immigration experience with non-Latinos.

"But most important, my grandmother’s life gave me a dramatic premise on which to base a compelling story," Ryan said. "My most ardent desire is for the reader to turn the page. For me, that's ultimately the most important reason to tell any story."

Her novel, Paint The Wind, is about a young girl's adventure with horses and a family she never knew. Although this book is not based on a true story, it still comes from personal experience and love.

"The inspiration for it was my own love for horses," she said. "I did weeks of research in Wyoming in order to write the book."

Her book, The Dreamer is based on the life of the poet Pablo Neruda. The 400-page novel is about the adventures of an imaginative young boy who grows up in Chile with an overbearing father.

"It combines elements of biography, poetry, fiction, and magical realism," Ryan said.

The path to a life of writing involves a life of reading, Ryan said. "Read. Read all sorts of books so you'll know what you like and don't like," she said. "Read so you'll know what is a compelling story and what is not."

For Ryan, writing is her job and like any other job, there are fun parts and frustrating parts. There are also magical parts.

"Daydream everyday," she said. "Pretend often. Get involved in dramatic arts, take creative writing classes, and keep journals. Read and write."

And learn about other people and other cultures. Special commemorations and holidays are a good way to do that, Ryan says.

A native of the San Joaquin Valley in California, Ryan learned about her ethnicity simply from living in a large extended family where both English and Spanish were spoken. The best part of having such a varied ethnicity, she said, "was going places with my Mexican grandmother, especially the Mexican market! But also just being able to communicate with my family in our native language."

No matter what your ethnicity is, you have family traditions that are the foundation of your culture, whether it's the tradition of keeping a language alive, or celebrating holidays, or eating certain foods, says Ryan.

"For a Latino, maybe it's something as simple as having piñatas at birthday parties," Ryan says. "It's simply establishing what you love and think is important."

Kid Reporter Anjali Bhat reviews Pam Muñoz Ryan’s book, Paint the Wind.

To read more Hispanic Heritage Month stories, click here.

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    Culture and Diversity, Sharing and Taking Turns, Pride and Self-Esteem, Sharing
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