Have you ever met someone who changed your life? Tomás & the Library Lady is based on the true story of young Tomás Rivera, who learned how to read and speak English with the help of a kind librarian. We asked Director Rebecca Martínez to talk about her plans for bringing the colorful world of Tomás to life on stage, what makes the relationship of Tomás and the Library Lady so special, why this show is so important now, and more!
Q: What makes you most excited to direct this show?
A: I am excited to work on a story about how two people from very different backgrounds, cultures, and ages are able to connect with and impact each other in a profound way.
Q: How are you planning to show the imaginative world of Tomás?
A: There is so much rich imagery in this world and we are looking to find different ways to share this, through music, song, dance, movement, projected images, and mask work, as well as finding ways to authentically connect to Mexican culture.
Q: What can you say about the importance of having strong support when a child is learning how to read?
A: When I was very young, my parents read to me on a regular basis. Because of this encouragement, I became a strong reader from an early age. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was encouraged by many teachers along the way to keep reading. I was given books that teachers thought would challenge me to become a stronger reader. Reading was presented to me as something to do for fun, and I still love getting lost in a book. Reading with a child, reading out loud to a child, encouraging them to read to you, all these things will help develop critical thinking skills and a life-long love for learning.
Q: What do you think is special about the relationship between Tomás & the Library Lady?
A: This story takes place in 1944, during WWII. The Library Lady may have experienced suspicion because of her German heritage (many people during that time changed their German-sounding surnames to more Anglicized names). Tomás may have experienced prejudice as a Spanish-speaking migrant worker (a few years before this, Mexicans and US-born Mexican Americans were "repatriated" back to Mexico, many of who had never stepped foot on Mexican soil). When people spoke of the woman who the Library Lady was based on, they remembered her as someone who didn't naturally go out of her way to make friends with people. So in many ways, this friendship is remarkable. It illustrates how possible it is that two seemingly different people can share similar values and interests. The Library Lady opened her heart up to this small boy and that act of generosity impacted his life forever.
Q: In what ways do you think the audience (children & adults) will relate to this show?
A: For children, I hope they can see themselves in Tomás, as a kid who discovered something he loved, something he was good at and held onto it with everything he had. For adults, I hope they can see one of the many rewards that can result from the genuine interest they show in children.
Q: Why is this show so important now?
A: Tomás is the US born son of Mexican parents whose families fled war in Mexico. Their story is similar to many stories throughout the US, families who come to the US fleeing violence or war, people who want a good life for their families and do so by working in the fields to pick the food we eat, people whose existence in this country has been made precarious by the current administration. Fear is a primary motivator for so many people's actions in this country. One way to combat that fear is to build empathy. One way to build empathy is to tell stories that demonstrate an alternative to fear. That is why this show is so important today.
Q: How do you think having Spanish integrated throughout the show will impact audiences?
A: The show is primarily in English with some Spanish. Almost everything in Spanish is repeated in English. I'm hoping we'll have a number of bilingual children in the audience, we don't have enough theater for youth in Spanish in this country, so I'm excited for both these languages to share space.
I'm writing this from Prague, Czech Republic right now. I studied up on a few words of Czech before I got here, but have discovered that the majority of younger folks speak English. In many parts of the world, speaking more than one language is seen as a benefit and I hope that this new generation of US youth will grow up with a similar global world view. Productions such as this one both encourage and validate children's bilingualism.
About Tomás Rivera:
Tomás Rivera was born in Texas to migrant farm workers in 1935. In 1944, he moved with his family to Iowa to work in the fields. While he was there he met a kind librarian, Bertha Gaukle, who helped instill his love for reading. Rivera grew up to be a high school teacher, then a professor, and ultimately the chancellor at University of California, Riverside, where the campus library is also named after him. The library houses an archive of his work, including 85,000 pieces donated by his wife after his death in 1984.
Throughout his life, he was a strong advocate of the power of education for Mexican-Americans. He was given an award from the Chicano News Media Association for outstanding achievements and contributions to the Chicano community, and also received an award from the Riverside Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his leadership as Chancellor at the Riverside Campus.
Tomás & the Library Lady runs April 1—29 at the Winningstad Theatre. For tickets and more info, click here.