About 500 seventh grade students from middle schools spanning Brownsville to Laredo came to The University of Texas-Pan American Thursday, March 29 to hear from faculty, students and famous authors about the importance of continuing their education to "find their voice" in life.
While visiting the campus during UTPA's weeklong Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA), the teenagers heard from accomplished authors Francisco Jiménez and Lorna Dee Cervantes and from actor, director and co-founder and executive artistic director of EastLA Classic Theatre Tony Plana, as well as from UT Pan American faculty and students about various academic programs in the arts and humanities that can help them express themselves.
Jiménez talked about his book, "The Circuit," which is based on his life growing up in a migrant family in California. Now a professor at Santa Clara University, Jiménez said education allowed him to have more opportunities for work and encouraged the students to stay in school so they could have more opportunities as well.
"All work is noble, all work should be respected," Jiménez said. "The difference is when you have an education you have choices. ... No one can take it away from you."
Likewise, Cervantes said poetry and writing empowered her to stand up to those who said she couldn't follow her dreams because of her gender and heritage.
"The one thing I knew was free was my mind and my words," Cervantes said. "Poetry was something that was totally mine. Poetry does not make anything, people do. Poetry makes things possible."
The authors encouraged the students to write about their lives, as it will empower them to pursue their goals and help them learn more about themselves and their communities.
Plana, who is best known for his role playing America Ferrera's character's father on the TV show "Ugly Betty," told the youths to find their "locura," the one thing they are passionate about and pursue it.
The 35-year veteran actor told the group about growing up in an immigrant family in Miami and how he developed a passion for acting and pursued a career in theater, TV and film in earnest.
"Ordinary people, regular people ... can do extraordinary things," Plana said.
He also told the students that humor is the best defense against obstacles and setbacks in their lives and to not let those things hinder them from reaching their goals. "It's not what happens to you, it's what you do with what happens to you," he said.
Students also watched a shadow puppet show put on by UTPA students, performances by students in the University's theater program and heard from faculty members about jewelry making and music to learn more about ways in which they can express themselves.
"I think a lot of it was very influential," said Jaime Gomez, a seventh grade student at Lasara Middle School who said he is considering a career as an author. "It makes me want to take up a career in these fields."
Shayla Puente, a seventh grade student at Port Isabel Junior High School, said she enjoyed participating in the shadow puppet show. In that activity, students added sound effects as puppeteers, some middle school students themselves, moved the characters across the screen.
She also appreciated the encouragement she and fellow students received from the speakers and University about continuing their education.
"You can get better jobs, you don't have to work at McDonald's," Puente said.
FESTIBA continues Friday, March 30 with more activities for students from Texas A&M International University's GEAR UP, a Congressional Roundtable discussion led by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa on Hispanic literacy and FESTIBA Jardín Del Arte Community Festival at Edinburg City Hall and grounds. The festival runs through April 1.
For more information on FESTIBA, visit www.utpa.edu/festiba.