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Author brings memories of growing up on the border to Victoria

By Carolina Astrain
Nov. 4, 2012 at 5:04 a.m.

Even though she was reaching her mid-40s, Norma Cantu was determined to complete "Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera."

"I just had to do it," Cantu, now 65, said. "I had to write this book."

Writing from the perspective of a young Latina two decades after the memories occurred called for a touch of fiction in the author's photographic and written biography.

"It was complicated because some of the stories are not what they are," said the former University of Texas at San Antonio professor emeritus. "They're fictionalized."

"Canícula," a fictional autobio/ethnography, is composed of Cantu's memories of growing up on both sides of the Mexico and Texas border.

The retired Chicana literature professor will give a free reading at noon Thursday in the University of Houston-Victoria's Alcorn Auditorium.

"It didn't feel like they were opposing dualities but that they were complementary," Cantu said of her life experiences on both sides of the border. "It felt very natural."

Words in English and Spanish are interwoven almost effortlessly in Cantu's descriptions of old black and white family photographs printed above the chapter titles.

The mastery of both languages came to her as a need for control.

"I grew up in an environment that had both languages," Cantu said. "It was a desire to have control over the things that are controlling me."

The writer often shifts verb tenses from past to present in her prose.

Each photograph and memory is marked by nostalgic, coming-of-age titles, including "The Last Piñata," "Piojos" and "Body Hair."

"That way, the reader is de-centered from the location, so that they don't quite know if it's the past or present," Cantu said.

Within her poetic prose, Cantu covers political and historical milestones in Latino-American history from the 1980s to the 1990s.

She sees lasting impacts of similar historical milestones in today's society. She remembers her parents had to pay a poll tax before casting their votes in political races.

"Access to the political system was so limited for Latinos," said Cantu.

The tax remained in place in Southern states after Reconstruction until it was banned by the 24th Amendment in 1964 because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The author drew a parallel between poll taxes to voter identification laws sprouting across the country today.

"It's not like a direct poll tax," Cantu said. "But in order to have that ID, you have to have money to pay for it."

The former professor emeritus at the University of Texas at San Antonio said she will soon start a Latino/Latina studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

On Thursday, the author said she also will read from a work-in-progress called "Champú," a novel set in a Laredo beauty shop.

"I'll do a little overview with the river and kind of situate the audience," Cantu said. "I'll do three or four pieces from 'Canícula' and then I'll do two short pieces from the novel."

It is essential for Latinos to read Chicano literature, said Cantu.

"Our literature has always been here," Cantu said. "We have to see ourselves reflected in what we read."



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