When you were a kid, did you know that you wanted to make books or did you want to do something else?
I just wanted to make pictures, draw, be an artist - just the enjoyment of doing art. At the age of 12 or 13 I was making money by painting signs for Coney Island, which led me to become a designer. I then began working for design magazines. Then I became an art director, working for several advertising agencies. Photography came out of my work for the advertising agencies. After photography, I began to make films for Sesame Street and industrial documentaries.
What kinds of books did you read as a kid?
Adventure stories, Horatio Hornblower, sailing ships, Native Americans living in the forest. I chose my own books by exploring in the library. I started reading on my own in third or fourth grade.
Did you like writing as a kid?
I don't remember writing. If I could do things with pictures I would. I remember doing a school project on Cuba where I chose to make models of sugar-cane fields in Cuba like dioramas. I had to struggle with writing when I was young. Writing came later.
What was your family like?
I am first-generation American. My father came from Mexico first and my mother later. They met in 1927 in New York City. I was born and lived in Brooklyn, New York, as a kid, which was fun. I grew up speaking Spanish and learned English as a second language.
What was it like meeting your family in Mexico for the first time?
Fantastic! There were so many of them. My mother had ten brothers and sisters that survived, so I have ten uncles and aunts. Then I met my grandparents from both sides and cousins galore. The quality of a Mexican family is that they know you from birth and they keep track of you. Photographs of communions, weddings, and birthdays go back and forth. Once I got to Mexico I understood why. The warmth is there simply based on the fact that you're family. I went there when I was 19 and my Spanish wasn't that great because I had become more Americanized. They heard my Spanish and saw my shoes and called me a "gringo." That was fine with me, because both my family and I accepted that I was an American but still Mexican in heritage.
How did that influence your work and life?
It didn't influence my work immediately. When I got into books, however, I began to look into my roots and what my experiences are. That was my voice. I had always been doing work for someone else, but now I am doing it for myself. I am reaching into my childhood and roots. I think my writing is for everyone. American kids need to understand that there is a world out there that is bigger than their community.
How is Mexico different from the U.S.?
Mexicans and Americans are pretty much the same because of the geography. Like Mexico, the U.S. is the product of many cultures, except the indigenous is more apparent in Mexico. Mexicans are an assimilation of indigenous and European peoples.
Did you have a camera when you were a kid?
No. I started with drawings.
Were you ever a Boy Scout or Cub Scout?
Yes! I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. I was never an Eagle Scout. By then I was 16 and had a lot of other interests. I loved the camping and being outdoors. I was one of the ones who actually read the handbook. I was even Patrol Leader. The Scouts were sponsored through our local church, Our Lady of Solace.
Do you have a story in mind before you take the pictures, or do you take the pictures and then write the story?
Before I start taking pictures I create a sequence that will fit in a 48-page book. Then I start taking pictures and assign the pictures to the squares I drew. Once I have pictures telling the story I start writing in sequence, which is dictated by the pictures. I let the pictures tell me the story. I find that I do better if I know nothing about a subject before I start the book. The discovery of a subject is what makes it fun and that makes the book fun. I like to end up with a life experience that will enrich my life.
How many pictures do you have to take to make a book?
Usually for every picture, I use one roll of film. There are usually 50 pictures in a book, so there are 50 rolls and each roll is 36 exposures. So, for a book with 50 pictures I will take 1,800 photographs.
Do you have more than one camera?
Yes, I have about six cameras.
Have you ever written a book that didn't have photographs?
No. I'd be scared stiff to do it.
What age group do you have in mind when you make your books?
Ages 8-12, both boys and girls.
How is it different when you are taking pictures for a book someone else has written instead of your own?
Actually, that's how I began. I balance out my experience with what the writer is experiencing and listen to the writer's point of view. It's collaboration. The difference between taking pictures for yourself and adding pictures to someone else's words is that it is the writer's impression that you are illustrating.
How long does it take to make a book?
It takes two to three months for the photography to be completed. The writing takes about another three months. Then it goes to the publisher and then back and forth between the editor and myself. It takes nine months for my end of it to be finished. Then it gets printed. So it takes about a year and a half for the idea to become a book on someone's bookshelf.
What is the hardest part of creating a book?
Finding the story and cutting out everything that doesn't contribute to the story.
What is your favorite part of creating a book?
Going out and learning about what I am going to write about and satisfying my curiosity.
How do you decide what to write a new book about?
From what I see and what I think a young reader would be interested in. I sometimes get ideas from other people. Once, a librarian in Indiana suggested I write about the limestone quarry in her community, but I decided that it was too limited a topic. Later when someone suggested writing about St. John the Divine in New York, I discovered that the cathedral had been made with limestone from that quarry. So, I combined the two ideas into one book called Cutters, Carvers and the Cathedral.
If you could travel back in time to your childhood and neighborhood and create a book from that visit, what would your subject be?
My subject would be wandering around Coney Island - the amusement rides, the ghost houses - because that's where I began to work when I was 12 and 13. It was a carnival atmosphere which I liked, and working late into the night.
If you could travel anywhere in time to create a book, where would you go and why?
Well I think I would like to go back to find out where my ancestors came from and what that was like. I have traced them back to Italy in the 16th century and in Spain and the Yucatan. I would like to see how the Anconas came to the New World from the Old World. As a matter of fact, I am thinking of writing a book about an uncle who comes back and visits me as a ghost. It's a fantasy.
In your opinion, what is the best book that you have written?
There is no such thing. It's like asking me to pick my favorite child; it's impossible. Each one was a different life experience. I like to stay in touch with the people I meet while making the books. I made a bond with them and I want to honor that. Meeting all these people is my blessing and it makes each book special.
I'm thinking of being a writer. Do you have any advice?
Yes, write every day! Start a journal. Learn to write the way you speak. With a journal you can be very private and have your own thoughts, which is what writing is all about. You can also teach yourself writing every day and of course read other writers.
Do you still like to draw, or just take pictures?
I still like to draw. I travel with a journal and write my impressions and do my layouts and then I sit and sketch.
Why do you like to take pictures?
It's a great excuse to be some place and meet people.
Why do you like to travel around the world taking pictures of people?
I like the people I meet because they are so different and that makes it more interesting and fun. I think I am a stranger and people are curious, so even if we can't talk we can look at each other. After a few minutes you have broken through a barrier. People feel good when their pictures are taken. When I return home and develop the pictures, I always try to send the people I meet the pictures I took of them.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you like to go and why?
It changes every day. I'd like to go back to the places I've already been to like Mexico and places I haven't been to like Turkey.
What is your favorite book that you have read?
That's hard. I can't pick out one because I'm a different person every time I wake up.
If you weren't a book author, what would you like to be?
Either a painter or a dancer, because as a painter I don't need a camera and I can put something down right away. With dancing I can be with a dance partner and fly, and I love doing that.
Why did you move to New Mexico from New York City?
My wife wanted to move to New Mexico. She liked the architecture. When I came out here I found a great studio where I could work, and it opened up a new area. I have three kids in Brooklyn and one on Long Island, so I try to visit as much as possible. I love New York. I love Brooklyn.
Do you use a computer when you write? Why or why not?
I use a computer when I write because I'm a terrible typist and because it's easy to correct the mistakes. I can just move things around and switch them back and forth. I don't use it with pictures because I like to sketch out the photographs. There's something about long handwriting and drawing because it's slower and gives you time to think about what you're doing. I don't think it is such an advantage to be able to do everything faster.
Do you have a pet?
Yes, four dogs. We started with two, Sam and Pete, and then my wife found two, Zoe and Zita, that were abandoned.
Do you have any hobbies?
In a way my work is my hobby because it's so varied. I love to dance. I dance at parties or at a local club that I go to where the parish priest's band plays salsa music. I enjoy cooking but not too much; my wife is the better cook. Drawing could be a hobby. Being with my kids, my grandchildren. I read a lot. We don't watch television. I got so tired of commercials we haven't had one for about four years now. My wife dropped it and I never got around to fixing it. We read books and magazines because reading is relaxing. I feel the same way about the Internet that I do about TV. My daughter set me up with e-mail but it was like a post office with junk mail so I canceled it. I like writing letters by hand to my friends. When I need to research a topic, I'll call my kids and have them go online to do the research for me.
Do you have a favorite saying or motto?
Yes, "no hay mal que por bien no viene." Which means "something good always comes from something bad." It's a loose translation.
Are you making a book right now?
Yes, It's about migrant workers and it is called Harvest or I might call it Campesinos. It is about people who pick the food we eat. I am also working on some other books, Let's Eat, about the way people eat around the world, and Cuban Kids, about kids in Cuba.