Bestselling author connects with students

by Alex Noble , Contributor

Matt de la Peña said he never thought he’d belong in college, let alone in literature. Yet today, he is an award-winning, bestselling author, not to mention, a San Diego State alumnus.

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, de la Peña returned to campus to deliver the second lecture from the Provost’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

The series is designed to connect students with the world’s preeminent scholars and artists as well as to promote intellectual discussion on campus.

Titled, “Reading (and Writing) on the ‘Wrong’ Side of the Tracks: My Journey from National City to the Newbery Medal,” de la Peña’s lecture discussed finding his unexpected home in books and giving a voice to children from marginalized backgrounds.

De la Peña is a New York Times bestselling author with 15 books to his name. His latest book, “Last Stop on Market Street,” is the winner of the 2016 Newberry Medal, one of the most prestigious accolades in children’s literature.

With another novel on the way and high profile fans like Chelsea Clinton, de la Peña is becoming a major voice in the literary world.

Montezuma Hall was packed Wednesday afternoon with teachers and students alike. President Elliot Hirschman and Provost and Senior Vice President Dr. Chukuka S. Enwemeka gave de la Peña a glowing introduction, listing his many successes and his importance to the university. In turn, de la Peña expressed his gratitude to San Diego State students and educators before taking the opportunity to snap a selfie with the crowd.

The first half of the lecture focused on de la Peña’s National City upbringing and its utmost importance as an inspiration for his work. He grew up in a half-Mexican and half-white working class household, where he, as well as many other men in Hispanic communities, was expected to maintain a stoic composure and keep any negative feelings below the surface.

With such little room for self-expression, in addition to never really possessing an interest in books, it’s interesting that he was able to find his eventual career path in the first place.

As de la Peña said, he went from “machismo to literacy.”

He broke this journey down into a series of funny and poignant anecdotes.  His feelings toward his own racial ambiguity, working class community and parents’ sacrifices all contributed to the formation of his identity and later, his work.

A high school basketball star by day, de la Peña secretly wrote spoken-word poetry as an outlet for the tension regarding these feelings during his teen years. However, it wasn’t until he first attended University of the Pacific on an athletic scholarship that professors’ recognition of his talent led him to not only take up reading but to consider a career as an author.

According to de la Peña, books such as “The Color Purple” struck a cord inside him and made it so that, “Reading became my secret place to feel.”

His newfound passion for reading and writing literature led de la Peña to pursue a master’s of fine arts from SDSU, where he “showed up on campus as a ball player, left a real author.”

De la Peña went on to write a number of critically acclaimed young adult novels including: “Mexican WhiteBoy,” “Ball Don’t Lie” and, “Last Stop on Market Street,” all including the common threads of his cultural and personal background in stories about working class minority kids like himself.

De la Peña also commented on the impact that his work has had on readers. He shared many incredibly rewarding experiences of the school’s he’s visited and the children he’s met.

Schools with diverse student bodies have even adopted his books into their curriculum, but more and more predominantly white schools are incorporating them as well.

De la Peña said he feels strongly that minority protagonists in literature are extremely important for all.

“We need a black Harry Potter or a Mexican Katniss,” he said. “Representation leads to confidence. Exposure leads to empathy.”

In fact, he said “Last Stop” was a book about kids seeing themselves and their surroundings as beautiful. De la Peña purposefully used a general street name and indistinct city as the setting so that everyone could relate.

The event concluded with a Q&A session, moderated by Professor Alida Allison, one of de la Peña’s own mentors from SDSU, along with a book signing.

“I got so much out of his lecture,” psychology sophomore Ana Vasquez said. “I’m a first generation Mexican-American and I could really relate to the stories he shared. He touched on a lot of specific feelings and situations that I don’t think most people would know about.”

In addition to his natural talent, it is the relatable nature of both Matt de la Peña as an author and as a person that has made him so successful.

He serves as a prime example of the importance of embracing your roots but not letting them define you.