Viola Canales is the author of the award-winning The Tequila Worm, a young adult novel published in 2007 by Random House. The novel has received considerable acclaim for its positive portrayal of Mexican-American culture, including being designated a Notable Book by the American Library Association, winning the Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative, and receiving the PEN Center USA Award. In 2012, the Spanish language version, El Gusano de Tequila, was released by KingCake Press.
In addition to The Tequila Worm, Canales has also published a collection of short stories titled Orange Candy Slices and Other Secret Tales (Piñata Books, 2001). According to the publisher, it is a series of tales inhabiting “the mysterious and secret land that lies between the United States and Mexico, between child and adulthood, reality and imagination, and between life and death. These haunting stories not only reveal, layer by layer, the fantastic in the ordinary, but, most importantly, the powerful and healing magic inside all of us.”
Most recently, Canales has expanded her repertoire into poetry with a bilingual book, The Little Devil and the Rose: Lotería Poems // El diablito y la rosa: Poems de la lotería published by the University of Houston in 2014. Like her fiction, this poetic venture has been well received. Diego Baéz, a CantoMundo Fellow, has called it “a lively addition to Chicana literature.”
Throughout her publications, readers can discern the influence of her family background and history. As she has forthrightly expressed in various interviews, Canales’ background was a combination of poverty and privilege, Mexican-American culture and Anglo practices, Spanish and English. Much of her writing hints at how she came to realize and grapple with those disparities. In an authors’ description published by Random House, she expresses that “her barrio felt so wonderfully rich with the magic and mystery of traditions, family, friends, and foods that she didn’t realize she was poor until she won at a scholarship at the age of 15” to attend a prestigious boarding school in Austin, Texas – far from family.
Perhaps it was during her time at the boarding school that Canales began to most firmly grasp the differences between the world in which she was raised and the wider world of preconceptions about Mexican-American culture. She has written that the school helped her by fostering “her lifelong love of literature” and introducing her to “another mundo.” At the same time, however, it also made her “so homesick that she started writing stories – to conjure up her family and the barrio that she missed so much” (Random House Children’s Books). Out of these different experiences, Canales began to plant the seeds which would become the warm and engaging stories which would later earn her accolades as a published author.
By actively drawing on her background, Canales’ publications affirm the importance and richness of Mexican-American culture. Moreover, in actively counteracting negative representations of her people’s culture and history, she has developed into a significant Chicana writer, particularly for young readers. She openly discusses this social justice aspect of her writing when, in a Harvard Magazine article, she explains that she wrote The Tequila Worm in part to promote more positive representations of Mexican-American people – as well as to help people everywhere who are marginalized by mainstream society. “Even though this is a story of a Mexican-American girl,” she says of her work, “it is talking about people who are poor and who have come from outside communities, and about how the majority of society sees them and what they do with their rituals and traditions. We are so tired of stories of gangs and drugs. Tequila Worm really celebrates the positive side of our culture—the family, the spirituality, the food, and the music.”
Although the excellence of her publications would suggest a lifetime dedicated to literature, hers has not been the typical career of an author. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Canales has served as a field organizer for the United Farm Workers, an officer in the U.S. Army, a lawyer with a private firm in Los Angeles, and a presidential-appointment of the Small Business Administration under the Clinton Administration. When not spending time with her family in McAllen, Texas, she teaches courses at the Stanford Law School in Stanford, California. She also travels extensively to schools, colleges, libraries, and community centers to talk about her work and inspire other students to overcome obstacles and accomplish their dreams.
Image: Viola Canales. Reprinted from Harvard Magazine.