Published March 7, 2022

On March 7 as part of the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, Alda P. Dobbs (Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna) discussed her middle-grade book in a presentation for school groups across Virginia.

Watch the video from this event here and read the transcript below:

About the Book

“Dobbs’ wrenching debut, about family, loss, and finding the strength to carry on, illuminates the harsh realities of war, the heartbreaking disparities between the poor and the rich, and the racism faced by Petra and her family. Readers will love Petra, who is as strong as the black-coal rock she carries with her and as beautiful as the diamond hidden within it.”—Booklist, starred review

Based on a true story, the tale of one girl’s perilous journey to cross the U.S. border and lead her family to safety during the Mexican Revolution.

It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family she has left—her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito—until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.

Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: “They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far.” But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.

Sponsors

Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Transcript

SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book, presenting a Virtual School Visit with Alda Dobbs. I’m Sarah Lawson, Associate Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before we begin. Please share your questions for the author using the Q&A tab on Zoom, and we will get to as many as possible at the end of today’s event. This event also has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time with the tab at the bottom of your Zoom window. If you’d like to rewatch this event later, it will be available along with other videos from Festival speakers at VaBook.org/watch.

Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s featured author. Alda Dobbs, author of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna, is as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, and nature as she is about writing. She lives with her husband and two children in Texas.

Based on a true story, Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna is the tale of one girl’s perilous journey to cross the US border and lead her family to safety during the Mexican Revolution. It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is driven away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family until they can be reunited. They flee north, and each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger, and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the US border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.

Alda, thanks so much for being here. Take it away.

ALDA P. DOBBS: Let me see. Okay, here we go. Good morning.

SARAH LAWSON: Thank you for being here.

ALDA P. DOBBS: Thank you for that introduction and thank you so much for having me here. I want to thank Sarah and Aran that welcomed me here. So we’re going to get started with the presentation, and I’m going to tell you what inspired me to write this story—the family stories that inspired me to write this book—as well as the research that went behind it. And hopefully I can inspire you to dig into your own history, your own family stories. So let me do the share screen. Okay, here we go.

So Barefoot Dreams was inspired by family stories. And a lot of my family stories came from my great-grandmother who’s here in the center and my grandmother who’s here at the left, and all their stories were passed down to my mother who’s here on the right side. And that’s me when I was about three, four years old. And I was always fascinated with their stories.

A lot of them talked about their past, of how they grew up. So this is a typical home that my grandmother and great-grandmother used to describe of them growing up in. So it’s a hut, and the hut was made out of mud. So it was made out of adobe blocks that were made out of bed. So they would stack up these adobe blocks in such a way to form this long room here. And the roof was a thatch roof, so it’s made out of hay. And this is the way the typical homes looked like, and I saw that a lot in my research in the photographs that I found.

Other stuff that I found that matched the family stories were that I saw a lot of siblings—older siblings taking care of younger ones. That’s something that I heard about a lot with my great-grandmother and her friends. And the reason was, for instance, my great-grandmother lost her mother during childbirth. And being the oldest one, she had to take charge of the younger siblings. So it was pretty common to have this happen back then, and I saw that in photographs. It’s stuff we take for granted now because right now, if a woman is about to have a baby, she’ll go to a hospital, and there will be doctors or nurses to help her out. But back then, they had their babies in these huts. And if complications came about, it was difficult to have someone there to help out—someone like the professionals that we have now.

Other stories I heard about were about the work that they had to do as children. For instance, my grandmother—her first job. She got her first official job when she was about four, almost five years old. And her work was to take care of these forty, fifty goats. It was a local rancher who hired her, and every day she had to get up at sunrise or a little bit before and go look after these goats. She had to take them out of the corral, take them to the creek to drink water, take them to the pastures to eat, and back to the corral. She did this about three times a day every day, and it didn’t matter if it was hot, cold—that was her job.

She told this one story where an ice storm was approaching fast, and she had to get the goats together because of the ice storm. If they were caught in that ice storm, they would die. So she quickly gathered them, but some of them didn’t want to move anymore. They were too cold. So she’s trying to gather these goats, and one of them refuses to move, and it’s a big goat, and she’s trying to push this goat. And she’s by the edge of a creek. So you can imagine this four-, five-year-old trying to push this goat. And suddenly she slips and falls into the creek. But she’s able to get out. At this point, she’s just drenched. She’s soaking wet. And she manages to get these goats together.

In her young mind—she’s only four or five, but she knew she had to get those goats together and back in the corral to have them be safe. Because if one of them died or one of them got lost, she’d be fired, and that meant she wouldn’t get paid, and she wouldn’t have money to buy food to help her family with buying food. So, she knew that was her goal, her mission. So, she puts all the goats inside the corral, and by the time she’s closing that gate in the corral, her fingers are stiff. She can’t feel them. And she locks that gate and collapses just because she’s freezing. And they told her later on that it took them three, four hours before they found her. And by the time they found her, she was just blue, and she almost died from that incident. It just makes you put things into perspective, right, of kids having to work back then.

And something she said—when she was twelve, she would climb trees and chop wood, and then she would strap it to her back, kind of like this young girl here on the left. And she would go to the village and go sell this wood. This was something she did, and she said she appreciated having work because she, again, got paid and was able to buy food. And the hard times were when there was no money to be made. There was no work. That’s when the hunger just became really bad sometimes. She said they would go two, three days without eating—sometimes four. And it was just a terrible pain that she says she just never got over that experience and always wanted to protect her kids from that experience. But it’s things we take for granted now that happened a lot back then and are still happening in parts of the world right now.

So if you think about that—about kids having to work—they can’t go to school because they have to work. They have to help the family buy the food. And only certain kids could go to school, and usually those are the ones well to do. They could afford to go to school. So if you think about that fact and think about Mexico during that time in 1913, what percentage do you think was able to read and write? So just take a moment to think about that, to give me a percentage. If you think it’s half of the people could read and write, that’d be 50 percent. If it’s less than, it’d be less than 50 percent. Or if you think more people knew how to read and write, it’d be more.

So all right. Let’s look at the answer. And it’s twenty percent. So twenty percent of people could read and write in Mexico back then, and that means 80 percent—so 80 percent, that’s a big chunk of your population—could not read or write. That’s not good for a society when you have that many people that are not educated. It’s going to catch up with that society, and there’s going to be problems eventually.

Other stories I heard about were about the disparities for grandma and my great-grandmother. So I showed you the outside of the hut. This is the way it looked on the inside here. And as you can see, they had no furniture. They had no couches, no tables, no chairs, no beds. Everything they did, it was on the floor, and it was a dirt floor. There was no carpet, no wood. It was just a dirt floor. So this is a typical interior of those huts.

So now do you want to see how the wealthy lived back in 1913? So this is a photograph that I found that shows the haciendas. So these were the haciendas. This is the wealthy people in Mexico. And the haciendas were these large land estates. They had thousands and thousands of acres. And one family, the hacendados, owns that hacienda. And some haciendas are really, really big. In fact, one of them—the Razas family hacienda, which was in northern Mexico—they said the hacienda was so large that it was the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island states put together. So this is just how massive these haciendas were. And the haciendas had fields. So you can see the field here on the left picture on the background. So those fields—they had crops there in those fields. And it wasn’t the hacendados who worked the fields; it was the peasants. They hired peasants to work those fields.

So the peasants worked the fields, but the crops would be sold, and that money went to the hacendados. So that’s how they became wealthy. They had a lot of land and a lot of crops. So they would pay the peasants. Once a month they were paid. But of course, they didn’t get paid that much. And remember how big the haciendas are. So they’re big, and they have their own community. They have the hacienda, the mansion. But you also have stores. You have a church. You have different places there in the hacienda. So the peasant, at the end of the month after getting paid, he had to buy food for his family, clothes, medicine, and he would go to the hacienda store to buy those things. And many times he couldn’t afford it if prices were high. So what would happen is, if he couldn’t afford it, the hacienda store would say, “You know what, you can take that stuff. Just we’ll write your name on this book, and we’ll put how much you owe us. Next month comes along, when you get paid again, just make sure you pay us what you owe us.” So that was the deal.

And next month came along, and again they would get paid. They would have to go back to the store to buy the stuff they needed for their families, and many times they couldn’t afford it. So again, the hacienda store would say, “Take what you need, and we’ll just add to that debt that you have already here.”

So this happened month after month, and it didn’t take long before that debt was just really, really high. And the person couldn’t quit. They couldn’t say, “You know what, I don’t want to work in this hacienda anymore. I’m going to go somewhere else.” They couldn’t do that, and they owed money. As long as they owed money, they had to stay in the hacienda and pay off that debt.

So many people worked all their lives in the hacienda. They were young there and got old and then died. And they accumulated this large amount of debt. But what do you think happened to that debt once that person died? Where did it go? Yes, it went to their kids. It went to the next generation.

So imagine yourself. You’re trying to pay this debt. You’re working. You’re saving. You’re almost there, when your uncle or your father dies, and now you have their debt. So it was just a way—it was just part of the system for the hacendados to keep you there. And some people wanted to run away. Some people would say, “You know what, I’m never going to pay this debt off. I’m going to run away.”

But you see these men here sitting in this patio with the tall sombreros? Those were called Rurales. And the Rurales were the mounted police that the hacienda would hire. So if somebody ran away, they would send the Rurales to go catch that person, bring them back. They’d punish them and then put them back to work. So for many people, that’s all the life they knew. It was in the hacienda.

Other stories I heard too were about the disparities between the rich and the poor, and it’s something both my great-grandmother and grandmother told about because they were so poor, and the way they interacted with the rich or the way the rich treated them was interesting to me. And when I saw this photograph, it captured pretty much all the stories that I had heard. If you see these four ladies, the way they’re walking here—they have silks. They’re wearing nice silk dresses. And then you see this woman and child. They’re walking the opposite direction and they’re dressed the way my grandmother and great-grandmother would’ve been dressed. They were wearing the ragged clothes, the shawls. They’re barefoot. They’re walking in the opposite direction. And you see this lady here on the edge right here—she’s tucking in her skirt, and you see the glance that she’s giving them.

So for a moment, think about it. What do you think is going through her mind as she’s tucking in her skirt? So I’ll give you a couple of seconds. Usually the answer I get from students is disgust, right? She doesn’t want to be touched. She’s protecting herself, her clothes. And it’s something, like I said, that encapsulated all the stories that I heard about stuff like this, about the way these two societies interacted.

So this photograph moved me so much that I decided to add it as one of the scenes in the book. So if you read I believe it’s Chapter Two where it’s a scene, you’ll recognize the scene from this photograph.

And other stories I heard about were about the bare feet. Every story—my grandmother, great-grandmother, and even my mom was barefoot. And that’s just because shoes are a luxury. They were a luxury back then. They’re a luxury now. A lot of times we take it for granted now that a lot of people in the world can’t afford shoes, especially for kids, because they outgrow shoes so fast. So back then, it was better to feed the child than to buy him new shoes.

Other stories that I enjoyed were about the courage and the dreams. My grandmother and my great-grandmother as well—they walked with their heads held high. Despite the poverty, despite their circumstances, they carried themselves with pride because they knew they worked hard, and they knew where they stood. So they never let their circumstances bring them down.

My grandmother—she was part of that 80 percent that couldn’t read or write. And when she was nine, she says she committed herself or made that commitment to herself about wanting to learn how to read and write, despite not going to school. So she started asking people what certain words read—or how it was pronounced. And within three years, by the time she was twelve, she figured it out and how to read and write. So to this day, that accomplishment just blows my mind—that someone that young would achieve that, would have that courage—that dream to fulfill and would do it.

So if you think about that, if you think about the uneducated population, you think about the haciendas—how powerful and how big they are—what percentage of Mexicans back in 1913 do you think owned land? So think about it, and I will give you the answer here. So let’s see if you guessed right. So it’s going to be 1 percent. So only 1 percent of Mexicans owned land, and that’s because it was so expensive. So if you think about it, 99 percent—that’s pretty much everybody, right, could not afford land. Because it was just so expensive.

You ask yourself so how is it that these haciendas became so powerful and so large, and the way I explained it—the way I found out—is that a lot of the money that the haciendas were making—because the haciendas had land. They sold a lot of crops, and some of them even had minerals in their land. They had gold. They had coal, copper. And they would mine those and even make a fortune out of that. So a lot of their money, they’d give it to the Mexican government. The Mexican government grew stronger and more powerful. They were richer. And in return, they would give the haciendas more land so they could grow.

But where was this land coming from? Who were they taking it away from? And it was the peasants. It was the poor they were taking it away from. And it was easy for them to take it away because remember they’re uneducated. They don’t know how to read or write. So any document they’d present to them and ask them to sign it—they didn’t know what they were signing. And it was that they were giving up their lands. And also they didn’t know how to write their name. And back then, if they didn’t know how to write their name, all they had to do to sign their name at the bottom—they had to write an X or a cross. And that was enough to take away the land because anybody could write that X or cross. So their lands were taken away pretty quickly.

My great-grandmother said this was something they were really fed up—it came to a point that they were upset. They said, okay, it’s enough. We’ve had enough. A lot of our lands are being taken away. Our children don’t have opportunities for school. There was just the life of the peasant in the hacienda, and as a mine worker, it was terrible. There were terrible conditions. So they wanted change, and that’s what brought about the Mexican Revolution, which my great-grandmother said became really violent during that time.

The interesting thing about this revolution—I explain to kids, when you have a hard time understanding this war at least in Mexico, I compare it a lot to Star Wars. So I ask kids are you familiar with Star Wars. And the way I describe the Mexican government is like the evil Empire. So you have your evil Empire. And instead of having the stormtroopers fighting for them, the Mexican government had the Federales. The Federales fought for the Mexican government. And on the other side you had the Rebels. And the Rebels were the ones that were fighting for their rights, for their land, for the opportunities. And they were called Revolucionarios. So they’re fighting to get all those rights back.

But you couldn’t say that it was all—one side was good and one side was bad. You couldn’t say that because it was very complicated. It’s a war. And a lot of the Federales didn’t want to be in the Federales. A lot of them were forced to join them, and they didn’t want to fight for them, but they were threatened not to if they didn’t. So it was very complicated.

In this war, it was interesting that women followed their husbands—followed their fathers, sons, brothers—to the war fields and to combat and stuff like that. So they would cook for them. They would clean for them while they were fighting. And they would even go and take them lunch down in the trenches and help them fight while they were eating. So this was really interesting about women joining these wars.

And children. If you were a child—if you were a kid and you were twelve years old, you could join the Rebels. They would allow you to join the Rebels. And it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. You were trained as a soldier. You were paid, and you were treated as an equal because now you were a soldier.

And a lot of the kids—it was interesting because they would train them as spies. So they would train the kids as spies, and the kids would blend in well when they went to the Federales, and they would listen to intelligence. They would listen to information. They’d be plain. They’d be pretending. The children, they’re plain, but they’d be listening. They’d be listening to everything that was being said. And as soon as they had enough information, they’d come back to the Rebels and share that information. And a lot of battles were won like that—because of the information kids were bringing.

And women—for the first time in history, women in combat were achieving really high ranks. Some women were captains. Some women were generals. And some general women had five hundred troops under their command, and it was something that was unheard of before this time in history.

But my great-grandmother was nine years old. She couldn’t join the Rebels. She was too young. She had younger siblings, and her father—they were after him. The Federales were after her father. So the Federales would raid towns, and they would gather the men and boys too. Boys as young as eight years old, they would force them into uniform to fight for the Federales. So as soon as the Federales came to town or an area, people would flee. People were scared for their lives, and they would leave the town—the village. And the Federales would attack the town and try to take as many men as they could. So my great-grandmother left her town along with her siblings and her father, when they knew the Federales were coming. They were burning down villages.

So they left. And you think about that. You think about if they were attacking your neighborhood and they’re about to attack your home, and you only have thirty seconds to grab something—to grab something near to you. And you might never come back. So what would you grab? Think about that.

And in the many pictures I saw of research, I found a few of them of people carrying their pets. You see this lady here on the right, how she’s carrying her dog? So you see this a lot. And it was interesting that people carry that—what’s most precious to them—knowing that they have to cross a desert here for many, many miles.

That’s something my great-grandmother did with her family. They crossed a desert on foot. They walked. And they left the mountains of Mexico—and this is Texas here. So their goal was to walk across the desert and reach the United States. And their mission was to cross the Rio Grande. They wanted to cross the Rio Grande and walk into the safety of the United States. And they knew they’d be safe there because the Federales were after them, and the Federales would stop there. They would stop at Mexico. They wouldn’t cross over. Because if they crossed over, that meant that they were declaring war against the US. It’s considered an act of invasion, so the US would respond. And they didn’t want a war with the US. They had their own war at home. They had a revolution going on. So they would stop there at the border. And people knew that, so that’s why people wanted to cross over to the American side for safety.

So  my great-grandmother said that they reached a bridge at Eagle Pass, Texas. And Piedras Negras is the Mexican side. The bridge looks like this right now, but it used to look like this on the right side. So my great-grandmother said they walked halfway across the bridge, and they had to stop. They couldn’t cross—they couldn’t go all the way to America because there were two gates that were there in the center, and they were locked. They were closed. They were locked. On the other side of the gates, on the American side, were two U.S. Army soldiers. They had rifles, and they weren’t letting anybody through.

So my grandfather—or her father. My great-grandmother’s father said, “Let’s try tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow they’ll open, and we’ll get across.” And people kept saying that the Federales were about three, four days away, so they still had time. And next day—they sleep on the sidewalks. It’s raining. Next day, they walk back to that gate, and that gate is still locked. It still has chains around them, it’s locked, and those American soldiers are still there.

So they’re growing a little more nervous, but they figure we’ve got to be patient—they’ll open it up. So they wait there, and her father told her let’s just wait on this side of the bridge here. Let’s just sit here, and if they do open it, we’re the first ones across. So let’s just stay put here on this side at the edge of the bridge. And they wait there. Day three, it’s still closed. But the Federales are still about two days away.

So they’re growing a little more nervous, but they still have a little more time. And as they’re sitting there waiting, my great-grandmother remembers that people started screaming. The people were screaming that the Federales were there. They had approached the town already. So quickly, everybody gathered their kids, their pets, and ran. They ran to this bridge, hoping to get across. And luckily, my great-grandmother was here on the edge. So when she ran and finally came to a stop because so many people had swarmed the bridge, she came to a stop, and she could see those gates that were locked. So she was pretty close to those locked gates. But they were locked. She couldn’t get across, and people were starting to shove and push, and they’re screaming. They’re begging for their lives. And she could see the American soldiers on that other side of the gate, and their faces are red. They’re scrambling. You could tell that they wanted to open the gates, but they had orders not to. But they looked frustrated, and my great-grandmother saw that in their faces.

And as they’re pushing and shoving and kids are screaming and women are shouting to please open the gates, the shouting gets louder. A lot louder. And she’s wondering what they’re screaming about, and everybody is looking at the Mexicans. When she turns to see what they’re screaming about from the hill, she could see the Federales on the hills just charging down on horseback. They’re mounted on horses, and they’re charging towards the bridge. So people really started yelling because they know that the Federales had threatened them with execution if they had fled them. If they had escaped or fled the village, they would be executed. So people are really—that’s it. The death threat is there upon them.

So my great-grandmother said she gathered her siblings and held them close. And at nine years old, she said, “That was it. I knew this was the last day of my life because I was trapped.” The bridge was closed, the gate was closed, and the Federales are coming. When suddenly she turns to the American side, and she sees two American soldiers running toward the gate. They’re running, they’re screaming, they’re shouting. And quickly, the American soldiers unlock the gates, remove the chains, and swing those gates open. The doors open. And my great-grandmother picks up her siblings and dashes over across into the American side. And she said when she passed those gates that she felt such a relief—such an enormous amount of gratitude that she wanted to put her siblings down and go hug each American soldier. Because she felt so excited and so grateful that they had given her that opportunity—that refuge.

And she talked about this over and over in all her stories, and my grandmother told that story again with that same enthusiasm and my mother, and it’s something I decided to write about.

But before I decided to write about it, I figured this is a family story. I have to find out if it’s true or not. So I said let me do some detective work. And I had my basic questions, right? The who, what ,where, when, why, and how. And I had answered most of them with the story that I told you. The only thing I couldn’t get was the when. I had no idea when this had happened. My mother didn’t know, my grandmother didn’t know, and my great-grandmother had already passed. But they didn’t even know the year.

So I said, okay, I’m going to research this. I’m sure I’ll find something. And I went to the library, and I checked out about forty books on the Mexican Revolution in English and Spanish, and it took me about a year to read them all. It was a lot of reading. And at the end, I didn’t find a single thing that mentioned that bridge. And my grandmother had said that it was hundreds of people on that bridge, so I figured there’d be something about it. But there was nothing.

Little by little, I began to doubt my family story. I began to say maybe it wasn’t hundreds. She’s nine years old. Perhaps she imagined that it was hundreds. Maybe it was two or three families that were crossing, and a few Federale soldiers were walking by, and they got scared. Or maybe it’s this fantastical story that she made just to keep up entertained.

So I was about to quit on this story when a librarian told me not to and advised me to look into this resource. And I’d never heard of it. It’s a beautiful website that allows you to have access to all these old newspapers that had been printed in Texas. And every state has their own portal, as far as I’m aware, that you could access information. Old newspapers and maps that had been published before.

So I said, okay, I’m going to go look at the old newspapers. But I can’t possibly read every newspaper, so I’m going to have to find out what timeframe to start reading. So I went back to my books, and I came up with this date: November 20th, 1910. And that’s the start of the Mexican Revolution. So I figured if that’s when it started, my great-grandmother crossed after that date. So let me start reading newspapers starting from this date and just continuously read them until I come across something that mentions a bridge.

So I did that and started reading newspapers every day, which was fascinating. Because you see how the war unfolds. And after seven months of reading newspapers, I finally came across this article. This headline. And the article is exactly as my great-grandmother had described the event—exactly—about them having to wait, the bridge being closed, the three days waiting, the Federales rushing in, everything. Even the weather was the way she described it. The only thing that she was a little off on was that she had said it was hundreds of people. It turns out it was seven thousand people. So it was thousands, not hundreds. So to me, that surprised me that it was not in a book.

Now I had a date. I had October 5th, 1913. And I was able to find even more information now that I had the date. And it turns out somebody had a camera. So somebody had a camera and snapped photographs of that event. So this is that old bridge that I showed you earlier from Mexico. And all these people here are running for their lives. And to know that my great-grandmother is somewhere there, you know, could be this little girl here in the front holding her siblings. It might be her. But just to know that this family story was captured in a photograph. It amazes me here. And you can even see the American soldier here on the right side. Just the way he was described. What he’s wearing was described by my family story.

I have a second book coming out. So this is Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna that came out this year, and I have another one that’s coming out next week called On the Other Side of the River or The Other Side of the River. And that one follows Petra Luna to San Antonio because so many refugees ended up in San Antonio. You had thirty thousand refugees in San Antonio, and throughout the Southwest border you had two million refugees that crossed the border. It changed the landscape of America and Mexico forever, but it’s something you don’t hear about too much.

Like I said, it changed—there were all sorts of little Mexicos throughout the Southwest and major cities. So this is my story. This is my family story that I was able to research. So now I need you to find your story—your family story. And the reason is because the way I see it is like puzzle pieces. There are these little fragments that make you who you are. So the more you learn about your past, the more you learn about yourself. You realize why you view the world the way you do. A lot of it is because of our ancestors.

Just the way I told you about my great-grandmother crossing that bridge, it’s something that you didn’t know about before. So now you have stories as well that you need to find out about and that we all need to learn about too because we connect each other through these stories. And also, history tends to repeat itself.

So you have here on the left side the Mexican Revolution, and on the right side the photograph is from a few months ago. But both of them show people just walking away from the violence in their homeland. They’re walking up railroad tracks. You see the exhaustion in their faces. You see the despair. And these are a hundred years apart, but it’s happening again.

Even right now, in eastern Europe, you see stuff like this happening again. So you’ve got to keep in mind that history repeats itself.

That border that my great-grandmother crossed—it’s the same exact border now. And again, there’s crises in both borders.

And the refugee camps. We had them back then, and we have them now. The interesting thing right now is that we have COVID. Back then, they had smallpox. And people were really afraid of smallpox. So when those seven thousand people crossed to Eagle Pass, a lot of people in Eagle Pass wanted to send them back right away. They said, no, we can’t keep them here because we might have an outbreak. But another group of people said, no, we have to keep them here because, if we send them back, the Federales are there. You know, we’re sending them to their death. We can’t do that. So how about we keep them here, we quarantine the ones that are sick, we vaccinate all of them, and we’ll have it under control. And luckily for my great-grandmother, they did that. They didn’t send her back.

Remember that picture I showed you earlier—the differences between the rich and the poor—that gap. You’re starting to see that more and more around the world and here in the United States as well.

But people always come together to help, and that’s what they did back in San Antonio to help the refugees. They’re doing that now here in Texas at the border, and you see that too like in Poland right now. How many refugees are being helped there as well.

So it’s nice to learn all these family histories—all this history—because we, especially the younger generation, the younger readers—you’re able to prepare yourself better. When you know that things happen again, you’re better prepared, and you know how to even avoid it or better prepare so that it won’t be overwhelming.

Last but not least, this picture I came across during my research, and I just thought it was such a beautiful woman. Just her eyes. The wisdom and the light behind her eyes. All those stories, all those experiences. So whenever you come across a person like this, get those stories. Ask them what life was like for them—their joys, their struggles—and learn from them. Because there’s so much that you learn from them, but you also learn about yourself, and you can make the connection again. It’s all about making the connections.

And your stories too, for the young readers, write them down—you know, what you’re going through right now with COVID. Everything that’s going on around the world, write it down. Make sure you share those stories. Because you might have a grandkid later on that’s going to write a book about you, so all this information is going to help them. So keep that. Keep sharing these stories.

I do have a website that lets you learn more about the history, the music. And I have a newsletter too where you are able to read two chapters from the next book if you sign up for it. It gives you behind the scenes and stuff like that—the newsletter.

So right now I’m going to go ahead and show you a book trailer. Let me exit this, and I will do this here and let you see this so you can learn more about the book.

[Book trailer plays]

All right, okay. Well thank you so much for listening. I appreciate that. Let us know if you have any questions, and I’m happy to answer them.

SARAH LAWSON: Thank you. That was wonderful, and I love the book trailer. That’s such a good intro to everything that you’ve told us about today. So yeah, as Alda just said, please enter your questions in the chat or the Q&A if you have them. In the meantime, we have a couple questions also that we can kind of jump in with while other people are thinking of theirs. One question is what inspired you to become a writer in the first place?

ALDA P. DOBBS: Oh, my goodness. I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always liked storytelling, listening to stories, telling them. But the thought of being a writer crossed my mind when I was a kid, but English was my second language. I learned Spanish first, and it took me a long time to learn English, and I’m still learning it right now. But it was just that confidence—that lack of confidence in English that always stopped me from wanting to be a writer. And I ended up pursuing physics and engineering as a career, and not until I was older did I realize that I’ve always been a writer. I have always been writing. I’ve always been—from college applications, essays, to scholarship essays, in order to get into grad school, to get grants, reports that I did for engineering. So I’ve always been writing, and I said, okay, why am I so terrified about writing? Since I’ve been doing it a long time. So how about now you just have to put the creative spin, but there’s always a story to be told in any writing you do. So just put that creative spin and tell those stories that live inside you.

So it took a while for that confidence to catch up, but I always tell people don’t wait for that confidence. Don’t think it’s going to come to you right away. It takes work, it takes time, but eventually it will be there. So it’s just start it. If you have that passion in your heart, follow it. Follow through, and it’ll catch up. The confidence will be there eventually.

SARAH LAWSON: Excellent. And that leads in well to a question that we have from Ms. Gail’s class, which is her students want to know how you got your book published?

ALDA P. DOBBS: Oh, my goodness, that’s a great question. When I first started writing, that was about twelve years ago, and I had this story that I had been thinking since I was in college, and it was about talking butterflies. And I was learning how to write, so it’s not the best, so I’m glad it never got published because I’m learning how to write. You have to put in the time. Everything you write at first might not be the best thing, but it’s good because you’re learning. You’re getting practice. So I put that away, and I started writing articles for Highlights magazine, and those were shorter. The stories were smaller, and it was easier to revise. And I figured, okay, let me get myself the practice first when it comes to editing. And the articles were sold, so I got the practice in editing and the publishing. And that’s when I had the idea for my great-grandmother’s story. So originally it was a magazine article, but then I decided to turn it into a picture book. I took that to conferences to find out if my writing was going well or not. At first, it needed work, but it started getting better. And finally, one agent told me that she wanted more. She said, “No, this should be a novel. It shouldn’t be a picture book. It has to be a novel because we want to find out what happens to the character before and after this event here.”

So I said okay, and it took me years to do the research and do the writing because I’m still learning how to write. But yeah, it took me a while. It took me another seven years after. Actually, no, it took me another five years after I had that picture book written. So in total, I would say it was seven years, but it turned out to be two books. So I was lucky about that, that it was two books. But now hopefully, now that I know how to write, it’ll be a lot faster, a lot quicker.

SARAH LAWSON: Yeah, I think you make a great point that we’re all always learning how to write and read better, right?

ALDA P. DOBBS: Yeah.

SARAH LAWSON: It’s always a developing skill. Okay, we have another question about your family’s storytelling, actually. So someone is curious to know did your mother tell you the stories about your great-grandmother, or did your grandmother tell them to your mother, who then told them to you? What did your family storytelling dynamic look like?

ALDA P. DOBBS: It’s interesting. Yeah, I heard it from my great-grandmother once. I remember sitting in her lap, and I was about four and a half. Because she passed when I was about five. So I remember hearing the story once from her, but I was young. I captured part of it, not all of it. But then my grandmother told it a few times. But most of it came from my mother. And that’s a good thing. They were all storytellers. They had a passion for the story, for the history. So both of them just said it with that same enthusiasm, with that same just everything. The way they described everything—that emotion was always there. So once I started writing, I just embraced that emotion that they told the stories with and used that for the book.

But yeah, and not only that, from my mom and my grandmother, but every now and then I’d hear it from uncles, aunts, great aunts. It was neat because it was the same story, but I’d always learn something new about it. There was always a detail that I hadn’t heard before, or a new question would come to my head that I hadn’t thought about before, and they’d be able to answer it.

So that’s what I tell kids. Sometimes it seems like it’s the same boring story, but you never know. You might hear something totally different that takes you into a different direction. So always have your ears open to see what new detail you’re going to learn about that story.

SARAH LAWSON: Yeah. So how do your younger family members feel about having their family story now shared with them as well as with all of us through this book?

ALDA P. DOBBS: Yeah, it’s really neat—the feedback I’ve been getting from them. I have one cousin who moved from Mexico to the United States and said she had never—she had heard the stories just like I did, but she had never thought about sharing those with her daughter until the book came out. And she said, oh  my goodness, these are all the stories here. But I don’t know why—I guess time passed, and she didn’t think about it. So she gave her daughter the book, and it started a whole conversation about her past. So she was really grateful that it was a conversation starter between her and her daughter about our past—our history.

So yeah, if I could urge more people to do that—just write this down. Write your history down. That’s one way your kids or your grandkids could find out about it. And even now I tell young readers about writing your own histories because your grandkid might end up writing a book about it.

SARAH LAWSON: I love that. All right, we have another question from the audience, which is very specific, but they want to know what your job was while you were working on this book.

ALDA P. DOBBS: Oh, my goodness. Well luckily, I was a mom. I was staying at home. So I was doing a lot of work taking care of the two small kids I had, and my husband is military. So we were moving a lot. We moved about every year or two years. So I remember a lot of packing, a lot of unpacking, and changing diapers, and stuff like that. And he traveled a lot too. So as soon as the kids were asleep or their naps—that’s when I would start to research.

I remember one time that they were asleep, and I had already printed out all these maps for San Antonio—old, old maps. They call them the Sanborn maps. And I sat there and taped them all to have the big downtown San Antonio map. And I taped it to my kitchen wall just so I could know where my character ate and different things she did. But I felt lucky that I had that time. Because some people have to juggle careers, family, and writing, and that’s really tough. I don’t know if I’d been able to do that. I’m sure, if you have the passion, you’ll find a way. You’ll find time.

SARAH LAWSON: Excellent. All right, well we are right at time. So one final question. Do you have any recommendations or advice for people who are listening who would like to write their own story?

ALDA P. DOBBS: Oh, my goodness. I would say read—and it depends what kind of story you want to write. But if it’s a historical story like I did—my family story—go ask questions and interview family members. Or if there’s a particular time or event that happened, go to libraries. Libraries are always happy to help you, and I didn’t know that. I was really shy. But now I know that librarians are happy to help you. I always thought I was going to bother the librarians. But, no, that’s what they’re there for. That’s what they told me. So go there and ask the questions and do the research, and read books that are similar to that, and you kind of get an idea of how people did that. How they broke down the scenes, the story, the pacing. So read a lot of those books too and highlight them. I mean, not the library book. But buy yourself a special book that you can highlight and write on and take notes. That’s what helped me.

SARAH LAWSON: Yeah, excellent advice. Well thank you so much. I’m so sorry that it is time to wrap things up, but thank you for telling us all about your story, Ms. Dobbs. Thank you to everyone who tuned in. This was wonderful.

And as noted, you can visit VaBook.org to see the video from today’s event or to explore the full schedule of other upcoming Festival of the Book events, including another one that Ms. Dobbs will be in. And we just thank you so much for being here and taking part.

ALDA P. DOBBS: Thank you. And if  you have any questions that I didn’t get to answer, I have a contact form in my website, AldaPDobbs.com. Feel free to contact me there, and I’m happy to answer questions. Or if anyone wants to share a family story, I’m happy to hear those too. Please.

SARAH LAWSON: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much.

ALDA P. DOBBS: Thank you. Take care. 

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