Kathleen Alcalá

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Kathleen Alcalá (born 29 August 1954) is the author of a short story collection, three novels set in the American Southwest and nineteenth-century Mexico, and a collection of essays.


  • Once we lost the keys to our houses in Barcelona during The Plague, or the Inquisition or whatever other excuse was given for taking our properties, all the world was our temporary habitation. We saw each place through the eyes of the stranger seeking that pocket of refuge where we could set up shop until the next disaster turned people against us.
    • "The Road to Nyer" (after Isak Dinesen's "The Roads Round Pisa"), anthologized in Latinx Rising: An Anthology of Latinx Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Matthew David Goodwin (2020)
  • After all, what is the passing of time but a diamond turned to dust?
    • "The Road to Nyer"
  • I have always read science fiction along with mainstream fiction. Some people look down on “genre” fiction as not true literature, but alternate worlds and points of view fit perfectly with my upbringing in the southwest, with cousins on both sides of the border. Our reality has always been alternative. Other writers will tell you it is comics that sustained them when they were young, but that’s really the same thing, except in pictorial form: narratives willing to address the “what if.”
  • as time succeeded time into a whirlpool of eternity.
    • "Taking Inventory" in Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist (1992)
  • She could drop her shyness the way she dropped it to recite a speech or a poem, then step back into it like a cloak.
    • "Gypsy Lover" in Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist (1992)

Interview (2021)[edit]

  • In a novel or a movie, it’s often silence that communicates what cannot be said through words.
  • (In terms of telling stories based on cultural differences, do you consider yourself a “magical realist”?) The term became an easy way to classify a set of writings that didn’t match up with North American expectations. I ended up writing/talking a good deal about magical realism in relation to my work. I had already read One-hundred Years of Solitude when I was in college, probably because that was when it was translated into English. I sent a copy in Spanish to my parents, saying, “Look this is just like our family stories!” And they said, “Yes, this is like our story-telling tradition.”
  • Fiction is all about that moment of transition from one to another state of being. If that metamorphosis doesn’t occur, the character doesn’t change. We, the readers, don’t change. This reminds me of Walter Benjamin, who observes that stories transform the storyteller as well as the listeners.
  • Until quite recently, any Latinex writing had to be the same story about poor people who come up north to work on farms and make good and send their first child to college. That story falls within another story about the Protestant work ethic, the American Dream. This was the story we were allowed to tell. I don’t tell stories about earned success.
  • we celebrate survival, but being a survivor does not necessarily make you a good person.
  • For many people their story begins the moment their families arrive here. That’s only one way of telling their story.
  • That’s what made me a writer as much as anything. I wanted to hear the endings of stories that didn’t have endings. A family member would tell a story. I would ask, “What happened?” No one would say because no one knew. So I had to write stories.
  • When I was growing up these stories were dismissed. They were about a time and place our teachers did not recognize. They brought in other stories and said, “You’re American now, so these are your stories. You must adopt these. You must forget those.” There is no reason, though, for the stories of our grandparents to die just because we speak English now. Stories have emotional as well as practical value.
  • We remake our world by reimagining it, by sharing our idea of the world.
  • Anyone can imagine a story. Writers imagine and get the story down on the page.
  • Writing every day worked for Hemingway and Dineson. Dineson advised writing a little every day, without hope or expectations. I don’t write every day, but if I intend to write every day I do more than I would otherwise.
  • I grew up on the edge of the Mojave Desert in a very rural part of southern California until I was six years old, when we moved into town. Every time I start writing a new piece, I write a description of that landscape; it’s as if I have to ground myself in those very early memories and relationship to the land before I move on to the next thing.
  • (What is your advice to Latinex writers?) Don’t devalue your own stories. Two of my role models are Ana Castillo and Denise Chavez, who draw on their backgrounds for the work they do. They are fearless. I look at them and know I have no excuse. For years I wondered who had given Castillo permission to write? I wanted to ask her in person. By the time I met her, I realized she gave herself permission. Apparently, that was what I was waiting for, for someone to say, it’s okay. Well, I gave myself permission, and it’s okay.

"Deer Dancer"[edit]

Short story anthologized in New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl (2019)

  • When children went every day to school to learn to live in a world that no longer existed.
  • Tater was proud of her unusual name, and secretly hoped she was like them, ordinary at first look, but gem-like on the inside. Rooted.
  • This is how they took back the world - step by step, song by song.
  • This was new, the consciousness that she might have a future beyond herself.

The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing (2007)[edit]

  • By becoming a writer, you can rewrite history. ("Your Grandmother Might Have Been Mayor, or Why Write?", 1990)
  • Writing about family history has taught me that much of who we think we are is based on the unexplainable. ("The Skeleton in the Closet" September 24, 2003)
  • What I do know is that a writer's main job is to always be open to the possibilities of story. Like the interconnected lakes, old stories lead to new ones, and lead to new ways of seeing and living in the world. Like Amalia clutching her yellow roses, I will continue to follow these stories wherever they lead me. ("The Skeleton in the Closet" September 24, 2003)
  • We each seek to retrace those steps that led us from where we once were, to where we are now. ("Found in Translation")
  • I am a person born not only of translations, but of transitions-my very existence marks that conjunction between one culture and another. By claiming this borderland as my own, by acknowledging that I am neither one nor the other, but both, I have been able to reach out and find the parts of each culture that pertain to me. I will never really understand Mexican politics, or be able to tell a joke in English; but I appreciate the beauty and magic inherent in both languages. I have come to realize, finally, that my life's work, whatever it has been called, is the act of translation. Not necessarily from one language to another, but between world views. I am a translator between worlds, between cultures, between jargons and contexts. And in trying to explain these many worlds to others and to myself, I have become a writer. ("Found in Translation")
  • Each of these women has a story. Each beat incredible odds to get where she is today. They, too, have given a helping hand to other women on the way up. That's what they have in common with the women of their grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' generations. They didn't stop worrying about equal rights and equal access when they made personal gains. They turned around and said, 'There's room for you, too.' ("Against All Odds," September 1992, Hispanic Women's Network, Olympia, Washington)
  • what doesn't seem like much to you now, could mean a lot to someone else. We each know what we went through, but we can only guess at the odds facing young women today. But from among them will come the next century's Sor Juana or Matilda Montoya or Hermila Galindo or Elena Poniatowska or Margarita Prentice or Hermelinda Gonzalez. We are here speculating on futures, gambling that they will make it, against the odds, but with our faith and support bearing them up on wings of success. ("Against All Odds")
  • this is the role of the writer. By telling stories, we weave a narrative thread that ties our experiences together. The aftermath of September 11th has been flooded with stories of heroic deeds, of mysteries, loss, and simple friendship. In other words, the full tapestry of the human experience. This is how we make sense of the world. Storytelling is the glue of civilization. ("Words That Heal, Words That Bind", 2001)
  • We are not going to eradicate poverty by bombing people. ("Dear John: A Letter to a Friend Following 9/11")
  • In this desert was my beginning. My ancestors were born here, lived and loved here, suffered loss here, and died. Eventually, war scattered us, and we have lived a sort of exile ever since. But in our exile, the stories of the desert have taken on mythic qualities. Nothing else can ever fill up the empty place in our hearts left when we departed this place. Only the deserts and the oceans, the places where the rhythms of the universe are most apparent, can assuage that ache for a few moments. ("The Desert Remembers My Name", March 24, 2000 at The Border Book Festival in New Mexico)
  • With our dreams, with our stories, with our tears, and with our hopes, we, too, scatter new seeds and harvest new beginnings. We gather outside-the sky above us, the earth below, and all of the ancestors watching. We gather in a place blessed by the sun, watered by the rain, and cooled by the wind. We gather in a place that has known fire, and survived. We are here to remember the future, and look forward to the time when the ancestors remember us. May they rejoice. ("The Desert Remembers My Name")

Introduction to Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers (2001)[edit]

Anthology edited by Rob Johnson

  • One aspect of fantastic literature that must be noted is its political content. Starting with Alejandro Carpentier in Cuba, who probably first used the term "magic realism" to describe literature, such fiction has been used as a vehicle for conveying political and social truths that could be fatal if presented more baldly. In spite of their careful eloquence, many of its practitioners have lived out their lives in exile as a result of their work. This is the extraordinary power of the written word: that it can make dictators, surrounded by militia, tremble in their boots.
  • In some cases, the stories take the reader right over the line to horror, the worst thing you can imagine fulfilled. In others, the fantastic elements are merely implied, and if the reader tried to pinpoint the specific elements that made the story fantastic, it would be impossible to do. Rather, the fantastic element lies in "the overall effect" that Edgar Allan Poe tried to infuse into each of his stories.
  • In Latin America, there hasn't necessarily been a clear line between fantastic literature and literary fiction. This has allowed writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Clarice Lispector to be noticed by upstanding and respectable critics of modern culture, and has led to the eventual translation of their work, as well as that of many others. They now form a canon of work against which all the rest of us must be compared, although, in many cases, we have little in common with them other than the Spanish language.

"The Madonna in Cyberspace" (2000)[edit]

  • Writers collect things. We read magazines, we ride buses and eavesdrop on other people's conversations, we stop and read posters on telephone poles, we examine soup cans and old clothing stores and babies and pets and sewer covers and weather reports. We delve into ancient history, old gossip, rumors, hints of rumors, maps, brochures, irrelevant details, bad advice, good omens, lucky stars, and things that are nobody's business. In short, we are called to be witnesses. Things may happen, but unless someone takes note of it, it might not matter.
  • No matter what the venue, we can be witnesses to our own existence. "If we do not define ourselves for ourselves," said Audre Lorde, "we will be defined by others- for their use and our detriment." Each generation must look around with a critical eye and ask, "Is this who I am? How will we be portrayed to future generations?"
  • Providing the narrative thread to life is one of the oldest functions in culture. People need storytellers. They make sense out of life. Instead of being an abstract concept, a road without an end, life becomes something that we can touch, hear, feel, taste, see. Chekhov gave us the Lady with the Dog, James Joyce gave us Leopold Bloom, Sandra Cisneros gave us Woman Hollering Creek, and by creating the specifics of a life, they give us a sense, they make sense of, life.
  • In a way, artists are messengers between worlds, bringing ideas and symbols from one to the other.
  • That's what we do as artists: we collect, we connect, we serve as scribes for the collective culture, and as messengers between worlds. Most important, we bring these symbols to the public. This is our gift, our regalo, our ofrenda. But it's up to the reader, the viewer, the listener, to bring out the power of these stories, to call out their names, and give them a place in the world.

"A Woman Called Concha" (January 19, 1999)[edit]

  • A good story works like a musical composition. An idea is presented, elaborated, debated and perhaps defeated, and finally, presented to the reader in a modified, more mature form that embodies the path that was traveled in order to reach that idea. By taking the reader on a journey, we, to a certain extent, can re-create in their experience the thought processes and emotions of our characters. This should be done with compassion, humor, and generosity. But again like music, we can provide a pattern, a symmetry and closure that one seldom encounters in life. That is why reading good writing is pleasurable and fulfilling. That is why listening to good music can induce ecstasy.
  • The writer and her language should be the humble servant of the reader. To me, the act of writing is not fulfilled until it is read. The words need to be read, digested, and assembled within the context of the reader's mind and experiences in order to be complete. In other words, every reader is "reading" a different story, because every reader brings a different set of experiences and sensibilities to the story.
  • I want my writing to insinuate itself into the subconscious of the people of the Southwest, so that we might remember who we were and who we will be, since so little time is spent in the present.

Interview (2003)[edit]

in Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers edited by Hector A. Torres (2007)

  • Maybe that's the kind of thing you find out when you get older, that these cycles repeat themselves through the generations, how we respond to our relationships with our families, and how they're mirrored in the language we speak and we in turn pass that on to our children.
  • something that interests me is the fact that we continue to document things even if it's after the fact, even if it's a hundred years after the fact, to show that there were other voices, other points of view. I continue to do my work in historical fiction, but whoever we are and wherever we're living, the events around us continue to influence our view of history and we each continue to rewrite history in our own way. There is no set history. Each of us brings a new history to bear...I've done so much research with what's considered history that I've decided that it's just as fictional as fiction is. And many of the truths that I'm interested in telling need to be told in a narrative form, which history or anthropology or some other disciplines doesn't necessarily lend themselves to. People need to hear things in a certain way in order to understand them, and so I think that fiction in many ways tells truths that history is unable to tell.
  • Once you start talking about people as individuals, which I try to do in my fiction, it's impossible to say that any group of people can be excluded from full human rights.
  • I got very obsessed with documenting nineteenth-century family life and our relationship to history because I meet so many people who feel we have no foundation in history. We had to reinvent history after the Mexican Revolution. We have sort of cobbled together a history out of what we know and our place in the United States, which included, from all of society that surrounded us and brought us up, this notion that you are not worth anything; you are at the bottom of society. And so I think it's important that we see that we have roots that go deep into the earth here, in the United States and Mexico and in Spain, and all of this is something we can claim as our own heritage. That's certainly how I take it. Rather than being confined to being a mall rat in Southern California, I claim all of this as my heritage. I guess I would like other people to see that as well.
  • People had big families in those days. And the thing we need to remember about them, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which is still true in most of Mexico, is that your family is your treasure. You may not have anything else, but people really value children
  • One of the anthropological terms I've learned that applies to all of these peoples is this notion of syncretism, that cultures and religions come together and forge new cultures and new religions and new languages. And this is really the sign of a living culture and a living history. People are trying to preserve the past and aren't happy with other people if they aren't doing everything the same way that their parents and grandparents [did them], and they'll say, "Oh, that's wrong. You're not doing it right." But the fact that languages change and people change and adapt to new environments is the sign of a living culture to me. I certainly mourn the loss of the heritage that has fallen by the wayside because it was tied directly to landscape. When people moved from the land, they lost that. I also have to admire the spirit of endurance that made people continue to remember.
  • what I'm writing about in each of these novels is the notion that these are people who look around at the society they live in or the culture they live in and say, "This isn't necessarily where I belong. I need to change my place in history and I need to change my place in this culture."
  • I'm really interested in is this notion that when you read histories and when you read official documentations of countries and people, they tend to be very much on the macro level. When I did the research on nineteenth-century Mexico, you can find out where all the railroads ran, you can find out the front lines of all the battles, of all the wars, but you can't find out things like how women actually prepared meals in the home every day. That was much harder to find. The outward history, the official history, is easy to find. But the little things of how families interacted were much more difficult to research and I had to dig a little deeper.


  • Stories of the supernatural are stories of transformation, from one state to another. Love is the strongest transformational force that we know, and also the one most sought after on a daily, ordinary basis. These stories, for the most part, were not tales of alienation, which might have been expected if this was a collection of strictly horror stories, but of people searching for connections, usually to others. When our drive to connect, to transform ourselves from one state to another (unhappy to happy, unloved to loved, shackled to free) is so strong that it seems to exceed the limits of the physical world, then we may invoke the otherworldly on our own behalf. And sometimes there is a response, but not always in the ways that we expect.
  • There is a love of place that transcends the love of individuals.
  • the response shows a generational shift in aesthetic viewpoint, from encouraging the production of literature that shows Mexican-Americans in a socially acceptable light (the society being white), to literature being written to express all that our culture has to offer, and not really caring what others think of us as a result.
  • Since we were in church half the time, I used to sit there and read the Bible, which, like Shakespeare, encompasses most of the human condition.
  • I never made a distinction between realistic and magic realistic writing. The first book I read that probably fell into the accepted canon of magic realism was One Hundred Years of Solitude, by García Márquez, maybe in 1972 or ’73. I remember I found a copy in Spanish later and sent it to my parents, because it was so like our family stories. I also made my husband read it before we married, so that he would understand what sort of a family he was getting into.
  • Border literature implies the ability to dip into both cultures and step back and forth across the border. This area was a place of cultural convergence long before the Spanish or Americans showed up. By its very nature, the Southwest has always encouraged the cross-pollination of cultures, so border literature appeals to me.
  • Not only are each of us part of the whole, but a single act of kindness is an act of universal grace. A single act of cruelty is a falling away of a bit of the whole for which we are all striving.
  • When we use the term feminism in 19th Century Mexico, it means something entirely different from what Americans think of as feminism from the 1960s or 70s. Feminists in Mexico, at that time, were fighting for state-funded education for women. They were fighting for legitimate employment for women, fair wages and working conditions. Women had actually lost legal status in the mid 1800s under the rewriting of the constitution after independence from Spain, and women did not get the vote in Mexico until the 1950s. I suppose the fight is not too different today, including the search for cheap labor by the United States, and the search for foreign capital by the government of Mexico.
  • I think that it still takes a very motivated-either by need or exceptional ability-woman to succeed in Mexico today. In a country where the minimum wage is the equivalent of three dollars a day, most working-class women are still too busy putting food on the table to organize. The teachers union is very powerful, and it will probably be through some sort of labor movement, rather than strictly social or cultural, that real change will come about.
  • I hope that by including these cultures, the Jewish and indigenous as well as the mestizo, we can get past the idea that we are a monolithic people.
  • It was only in researching this work that history, in general, started to mean anything to me. Economics, the repercussions of the Civil War, the history of Texas, all made sense. Growing up in California, nothing we were taught seemed to have anything to do with us

Quotes about Kathleen Alcalá[edit]

  • Kathleen Alcalá is one of America's best writers. The clarity and depth of her work allow us to see and treasure the many untold stories about our indigenous ancestors in a territory always influenced by both Mexican and American history.

External links[edit]

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