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Our Stories

A Gift and an Inspiration to Me

This program is a breath of fresh air. I can see how by engaging with California history through the innovative Building Empathy project, student-teachers are motivated to make connections with current challenges and create knowledge to engage fellow students as only peers can. <span class="su-quote-cite">Liliana Valenzuela</span>

By Liliana Valenzuela; guest author for Building Empathy,  a project of PEF and PUSD, with support from the California State Library and California Humanities

Liliana Valenzuela talks about her own writing with Mr. Raya’s students at Pasadena High School

Visiting Pasadena for the first time, I was impressed not only by the San Gabriel mountains, but also by the vibrant learning environment I found at both Blair Middle School and Pasadena High School. I was honored to be invited by the Pasadena Educational Foundation (PEF) to participate in PEF’s Building Empathy project and chat with students in what proved to be an enriching and rewarding experience all-around.

First, I visited Ms. Cobian’s class at Blair Middle School, both 9th grade sections, and I was awed by the level of insight shown by the questions students submitted before my visit. They had read Before We Were Free, by Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez, which I translated as Antes de ser libres in its Spanish version. These Spanish immersion students amazed me with their language skills as they asked probing questions of all aspects of the novel’s plot, the process of translation, special Dominican terms (as opposed to words used in other Spanish-speaking countries), and their bilingual skills, which in this world is their own superpower. Their curiosity and genuine interest were delightful to watch.

I also had a great time visiting two of Mr. Raya’s English classes at Pasadena High School where I shared my journey as a translingual writer and poet, working simultaneously in two languages. They had excellent questions about a poetry sample from my bilingual poetry anthology Codex of Love: Bendita Ternura (FlowerSong Press, 2020). We discussed how our life experiences show up in our writing, and the importance of being open to different points of view. They also tried their hand at writing an ekphrastic poem, one inspired by other art forms such as a photograph, a painting, or a sculpture. Mr. Raya had classroom management down to a T, so we enjoyed a lively discussion and the students’ focused attention.

Liliana Valenzuela talking about translation with Ms. Cobian’s Blair Spanish Dual Language Immersion Program students

I was able to meet with the eight bright and committed middle school students who are participating in the Building Empathy project. I also heard from teachers about the importance of this program and how students have taken leadership roles speaking out at teacher professional development training sessions and teaching lessons — based on their research — to fellow students. That takes a lot of initiative and maturity! This program is a breath of fresh air. I can see how by engaging with California history through the innovative Building Empathy project, student-teachers are motivated to make connections with current challenges and create knowledge to engage fellow students as only peers can.

My participation in all four classes as well as my visits with other teachers and students were a gift and an inspiration to me.


Liliana Valenzuela is the author of the bilingual poetry collection Codex of Love: Bendita ternura (FlowerSong Press, 2020), which received an Honorable Mention in the Juan Felipe Herrera Best Poetry Book Award contest of the International Latino Book Awards 2022. She has also published the chapbook Codex of Journeys: Bendito camino (Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and several artisan chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Edinburgh ReviewIndiana ReviewTigertailANMLY, and other publications. She has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Dairy Hollow, and The Tasajillo Residency. Valenzuela is also the acclaimed Spanish language translator of works by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Cristina García, Dagoberto Gilb, Richard Rodríguez, and many other writers. A CantoMundo and Macondo fellow, she collaborates with the Hablemos, escritoras podcast. Born and raised in Mexico City, she lives in Austin, Texas. www.LilianaValenzuela.com

Banner photo of Liliana Valenzuela with student-teachers, DLIP instructor Jesus Cobian, PUSD administrator Jose Ortega, and PEF Student Engagement Manager, Sehba Sarwar; all photos by Kayte Deioma