Dr. Norma Elia Cantú waxes philosophical on life stories and new projects during the dog days of summer
Texas — and the rest of the nation and world — is undergoing a rich resurgence of literature in all genres by Latino/Latina writers. One major contributor to this renaissance is Dr. Norma E. Cantú, who has written eloquently from creative and academic perspectives. She shares her long view with us during the “dog days” when the stars of Canis Major dominate the summer skies and professors take time to reflect before a new teaching year begins.

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Dr. Cantú, you published Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera in 1995, and it won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize from the National Hispanic Cultural Center. You’ve referred to Canícula as a “fictionalized memoir” and an ethnography about your childhood in South Texas. Please tell us about Canícula and the 2015 update.


DR. NORMA E. CANTÚ: I wrote Canícula in the summer of 1993 in Albuquerque during a break from teaching at what is now Texas A&M International University, where I taught English from 1980 to 2000. It was a watershed moment for me as I gathered pieces I had been writing all along. My intent that summer was to finish a book on the matachines tradition, but instead the stories of my childhood nudged their way in. Working on a rental computer—we had no laptops back then—I worked nonstop day and night taking brief breaks to walk to Old Town for a breakfast taco and to pick up some fruit for my evening meal. I published a few pieces in what was then the Texas Humanist, a publication of the Texas Committee for the Humanities, so I suppose I reverted to that format and structure out of habit, for I had been working with photographs as an exercise for my students. In 2010, I held a literary quinceañera for the book and in 2015 published a twentieth anniversary edition with added photos and stories.


LSLL: If you could dive through a wormhole in the space-time continuum, what advice and inspiration would you offer the child Norma as she weathers the dog days?


NEC: The child Norma spent the lazy days of the canícula in a four-room frame house in Laredo, Texas, where the dog days are particularly brutal. She would scavenge the local dump, or cascajera, with her siblings and neighbors in the morning when it was not so hot and spent the afternoon playing with the treasures they found and telling stories, making up fantastic tales. I would tell her to be patient and to treasure those days. As the oldest of eleven children, I grew up feeling super-responsible and cautious, so I would tell her to ease up and have fun. Life is short.


LSLL: You wear many hats: professor, editor, poet, novelist, memoirist, folklorist, arts administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts, and chair of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UC–Santa Barbara, to name only a few. Which of these is your first love? Is it possible to make that distinction?


NEC: That’s difficult to answer because all of these identities have been rewarding and have allowed me to grow. I can’t make a distinction because many overlap as my “first” love or what I have been doing the longest. My first teacher was my grandmother Celia Becerra de Ramón; when I was six or seven she taught me about healing herbs and set me on a path that respects our indigenous origins and the knowledge of the people, folklore. The one thing I have done the longest is be a professor or teacher. I first taught the summer I was twelve and opened an “escuelita” (little school) in our backyard for pre-school kids. I have taught literacy classes in the community, community classes for Georgetown University and of course, my regular university classes since 1973 when I taught my first college level class at what is now A&M University, Kingsville.


LSLL: What can you tell us about the founding of CantoMundo, the national Latinx poetry workshop, and your subsequent work with the workshop? How has that work changed since 2009?


NEC: We founded CantoMundo because it didn’t exist. Pablo Miguel Martínez, Celeste Mendoza, Deborah Paredez and Carmen Tafolla drove to my house and we sat around my dining room table—a table, by the way, that I bought with the first royalty check for Canícula. We are eternally grateful to Sandra Cisneros for the Macondo Writers Workshop, because that space allowed us to dream as poets for a space devoted totally to poetry and Latinx poets. We modeled it on Cave Canem, the space for African American poets, but when we launched our first workshop in New Mexico in 2007, we knew it was to become a permanent space that fulfilled the needs of Latinx poets in the United States. I committed to a five-year stint, and although it was bittersweet, I am glad I left the organization at that point, confident that it would survive.


LSLL: We began publishing Lone Star Lit in February of 2015. Since then I’ve watched the publication of Latinx authors explode. In your opinion, what conditions have converged to make this movement possible and why now?


NEC: Actually, the ’60s and ’70s with the Movimiento Chicano literary renaissance we saw similar activity. Prior to that it had been the early years of the twentieth century when Latino literature was flourishing in the U.S., albeit mostly in Spanish-language publications. So, it is not new, but it is certainly necessary in these times to create and to write our stories. The difference perhaps is that in those previous eras, we were not in the mainstream and therefore not as noticed. I am thrilled that I now have so much to choose from for my Latinx literature classes—and in all genres and subgenres from poetry, and fiction—historical novels, and contemporary, of course, but also from science fiction to young adult as well as graphic novels!


LSLL: I have read that you consider writing to be an extension of your Chicana activism. What do you hope for the new Mexican-American Studies courses to be offered in Texas high schools? What would you like to see included in the curriculum? (Kudos to Tony Diaz and company here.)


NEC: Yes, kudos to Tony and Librotraficante, and to Dr. Liliana Saldaña and Dr. Angela Valenzuela and so many others. Invariably what I hear most often in my Latinx studies classes is the question: Why didn’t I learn this in high school? My hope is that students, all students, not just Chicanx or Latinx students, will learn the history of our state and of the rich literary heritage we possess dating back to before we were a state.


LSLL: I noticed that your email signature contains the phrase “Cada cabeza es un mundo.” In English, literally, each head is a world. It’s a truth I have always found fascinating and it’s the reason I read widely—to experience other peoples’ heads/worlds. What does this concept mean to you personally, and why is it so important?


NEC: Dichos or adages contain knowledge passed from generation to generation. My paternal grandfather, Vicente Cantú, loved to quote dichos, and I guess I first heard it from him when presented by someone’s baffling behavior, a kind of “to each his own” sentiment, live and let live. It is important to me because it reminds me to respect others’ views and to honor the uniqueness each person represents. We are all different. Each one of us is a world, a world to explore, yes, but also to honor and respect.


LSLL: What can you tell us about your next project?


NEC: I am currently finishing a novel, Champú, or Hair Matters, set in a beauty shop in Laredo, Texas, but I am most excited about the sequel to Canícula that will be out in February. I also have a long-delayed collection of poetry, Meditacion Fronteriza/Border Meditation, to be published in fall 2019. Of course, I also have a number of academic projects: meXicana Fashion that I am coediting with Aída Hurtado, and another anthology on teaching Gloria Anzaldúa coedited with Candace K. Zepeda and Margaret Cantú Sánchez.


LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?


NEC: I just finished Erika Sánchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and I just started Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. I am also re-reading A Wrinkle in Time. Poetry? I try to read a book in Spanish every month, and I just started El murmullo de las abejas by Sofía Segovia, set in the area of northern Mexico that I know so well.


Norma Elia Cantú was born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. She was raised in Laredo, Texas, and attended public schools there. Cantú received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas A&I at Laredo and Kingsville, respectively, and her PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. At Laredo State University, later renamed Texas A&M International University, she taught and served as chair and interim dean.


Her teaching interests include cultural studies, contemporary literary theory, border studies, Chicano/a and Latina/o literature and film, folklore and women’s studies. Cantú has published articles on a number or academic subjects as well as poetry and fiction. Her publications on border literature, the teaching of English, quinceañera celebration and the matachines — a religious dance tradition — have earned her an international reputation as a scholar and folklorist.


She has co-edited four books and edited a collection of testimonios by Chicana scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Her award-winning Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera chronicles her childhood experiences on the border. She edits the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Culture and Traditions book series at Texas A&M University Press.


Cantú was a senior arts administrator with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, and was Acting Chair of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Cantú has been on the faculty of the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 2016, she was named Murchison Professor in the Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio.