Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Pablo Cartaya-Call Him Pablo, Not Paul
Pablo Cartaya, with Carrie Lightner and Ridley Pearson, said his stint before the engaged students at Wood River Middle School reminded him of why he loves what he does.
Thursday, October 10, 2019


Pablo Cartaya writes the books he didn’t get to read when he was a kid.

The books that tell of arroz con pollo and abuelas. The books that sprinkle a little Spanish lingo amidst the English.

But it took years for Cartaya to own up to the rich Cuban-American heritage that fills his award-winning books, one of which was just picked by Oprah Winfrey to underscore Hispanic Heritage Month.

“I want you to put a hand on your chest and say, ‘I have a story,’ ” Pablo Cartaya told students.

Cartaya, who has written three books for middle school students, told of his evolution during an animated talk punctuated by exaggerated salsa moves to 640 Wood River Middle School students on Tuesday. Then he shared his story from a slightly different perspective for adults and children at Ketchum’s Community Library.

Both talks were part of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference’s inaugural Eye on the Future project, designed to bring an author to Sun Valley each fall that youth will be able to relate to.

“We’re so excited to launch this new endeavor,” said Marcia Stavros, of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. “It’s the first time we’re done this so we’re testing the waters,” added Carrie Lightner.

An actor who once appeared on “Will and Grace,” Cartaya introduced the kids to such literary devices as foreshadowing as he told the story of his grandmother who spoiled him rotten, then asked them to guess how his own mother was dealing with his children.

Pablo Cartaya acted out, rather than read, the introduction to one of his books in which the protagonist notes that “love is like a pretzel—“twisty, kind of salty, leaves your mouth dry…”

 “We have all different kinds of abuelas but they all have stories, they all have histories,” he told the children as he paced the length of the gym floor in his shiny gold tennis shoes. “And they bring the background to who we are.”

The story of who Pablo Cartaya was hit him smack dab between the eyes as a 20-year-old actor trying to make it in Hollywood.

Though born in the United States, he had grown up speaking Spanish until he was 5.

“I walked into kindergarten and said, ‘I’m Pablo,’ and the teacher said, ‘I’m not going to call you Pablo because we don’t use that name in America. I’m going to call you Paul.’ From there on I lost more and more of my Spanish with each passing grade.”

Pablo Cartaya’s book, “Each Tiny Spark,” is about a girl who reengages with her soldier father after he returns from deployment; “Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish” is about an eighth-grader who goes to Puerto Rico in search of his father.

He spent his childhood wishing he had blond hair and blue eyes. And he even got green contacts against the advice of his doctor but had to shelf them when they clashed with his astigmatism, infecting his eyes.

The crux came when a casting director in Hollywood looked at his head shot and told him: “I’m not sure why you’re calling yourself Pablo. You don’t look like a Mexican so you should change your name to blend in better. If you stay Pablo, I’m going to have to put you in a drug movie.”

When his father saw his new headshot with its new name, Cartaya could tell he had hurt him deeply.

His mother told him how his father had fought government officials who were trying to take away people’s rights in Cuba and how he had been captured and imprisoned and forced to sit on a concrete floor for two years eating dry macaroni. When he got a tooth abscess, they ripped out the tooth with pliers.

When released he was so thin he couldn’t walk—he had to be carried to the plane to flee to Miami.

“He left family behind, including his beloved grandfather, whom he loved most in the world,” Cartaya’s mother told him. “When you were born, the only thing you were ever going to be is Pablo because that’s how your father remembered his abuelo.’

“I thought, ‘What have I done?!” Cartaya told his audience.

In response, he began boning up on his Spanish and got a Master’s degree in writing. Then, realizing that there were no books available that reflected his culture, he began writing “The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora,” about a 13-year-old Miami boy who fights to keep a developer from destroying his community.

 It took him five years to write that book. The original manuscript was 300 pages and he revised it 23 times.

“That means I wrote 6,900 pages,” he told the kids. “But it was worth it,” he added, pointing to a silver seal on the corner of the book cover awarded the book as a Pura Belpre Honor. The book is among those up for a Young Reader’s Choice Award. And Oprah just recommended it to celebrate Latino month.”

“You will fail a lot more than you will succeed,” Cartaya told the students. “But, guys, I want you to understand: If I’d given up after the first time or the second time, I’d not be in front of you speaking about what I’m speaking about.”

We see a mirror, or reflection, of ourselves in stories, Cartaya added.

“I realized I didn’t have that mirror in books when I was growing up. I love that I have a story that is very specific to who I was. And I write with every sense of my culture, my family. And when I look at all of you, I realize you have a story. You all have a favorite food, favorite music that relates to who you are.”

Cartaya told adults later that evening that he has often thought about how much he lost as a kid because he didn’t dig deep enough.

“I didn’t think my story was worth digging into. Today I sat in the Hemingway house and absorbed this tragic man, the pain he must’ve gone through. And thought deeply about what I would ask him if he appeared. I don’t skim over anything, anymore.”

Angele Barbre, a Wood River Middle School teacher, said it was huge having Cartaya speak to students, as they have the chance to understand that they, too, can become writers. “And the bilingual aspect that he offered is really cool,” she added.

Pablo is the kind of educator who works to make sure kids voices matter, said Library Director Jenny Emery Davidson.

 “For years the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference has brought great writers for adults to the valley,” added Children’s Librarian DeAnn Campbell. “It’s exciting to see them bring in someone like Pablo—the authors of middle grade books are the most magical of all.”

 “I spoke language all the time unapologetically because I spent a long time having my first language silence,” said Cartaya, who says he talks only to his baby in only in Spanish after regretting that he did not do that with his two older children.




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