Indian Youth Reach Deep
Arizona Daily Star
Nov. 11, 2004

Writing program helps boost student confidence

 By Rhonda Bodfield Bloom

Fourth-grader Cruz Yucupicio tells a marvelous story about a handsome little boy named . . . well, Cruz . . . who finds a magic gill and goes to live under the water.

 He writes of an ocean that tastes like saladitos, the mouth-puckering salted plums of Latino tradition.

 Ultimately, the boy misses his mother and comes back to find that his teacher, of all things, has been arrested.

 In the end, the boy can speak to fish. And sometimes, he can still hear the ocean.

 There's a good chance these images would have remained locked in the 10-year-old's brain had it not been for ArtsReach, a nonprofit program dedicated to increasing the positive self-image of American Indian students through creative writing. Local writers hold workshops at four local schools with a population of at least 45 percent American Indian students.

 Although the program has been around since 1987 - when it began at schools in the Old Pascua Yaqui community and the Tohono O'odham reservation - it's kept a fairly low profile, run largely with the aid of volunteers and small grant funding.

 Every year, student work is published. This is the first year that ArtsReach abandoned its tradition of writing in magazine form, and instead, opted for a book format, aided with grants by Desert Diamond Casino and the Tucson Pima Arts Council. The new book, "Dancing with the Wind," was released in September with contributions by more than 200 students. Proceeds from the sale of the $7 book will be used to publish next year's book.

 Cruz attends Richey Elementary School in a Downtown-area neighborhood called Old Pascua, populated predominantly by Yaqui Indians. He is the third in his family to participate in the program. An older brother and sister - now in high school and college - both took part in it.

 He said he used to think writing was boring, but then he changed his mind. "There's no one telling you what to do when you write," Cruz said, adding he hopes to be a baseball player some day, but figures he might be a writer if he injures himself and can no longer play.

 Cruz, who said he was inspired to write his story while looking at the family pool, said he was pretty excited to be published in a book and to read his work out loud to an audience at the book-launch party in October. "I was nervous because I thought I was going to mess up," he said. Instead, he made people laugh, and he liked that.

 ArtsReach Director Nancy Young Wright said the program is predicated on the idea that American Indian and minority children should be encouraged to write about things that matter to them. Writing often doesn't come naturally in the culture, one that had traditionally been oral. "We're trying to help them find their own voice so they can tell their own stories without having to censor what they have to say," Young Wright said.

 Laura Tohe, a Navajo poet and and professor at Arizona State University, served as editor of the book this year, calling some of the pieces "simultaneously beautiful and brutal."

 The work by Maria Escalante, 10, a fourth-grader at Mission View Elementary School, might fit that bill.

 In her piece, "Where I Come From," she wrote about a place called Tucson where dogs lick her face in the morning, where she hears gun shots, where she eats eggs and calavasas, and where roadrunners are considered bad luck.

 Maria learned to like writing because of the program, she said, and her writing has in turn helped her with spelling and other schoolwork. "I had to think and I got to look at pictures in my head," she said. It helped, she said, when the instructor told her she didn't have to rhyme.  

She's decided that it's harder to write stories than poems. She has to be much more precise with her punctuation. For one recent story, she sat down to work with an instructor on a childhood memory of a swimming pool.  

The rough outline focused on the fact she was scared when her family took her to the pool at Kennedy Park for the first time when she was 6. "I'd never seen that much water all in one place before," she said. Prompted to think about what the water looked like to her and what it felt like to her, she was soon burning up the paper.

And who knows? With a little encouragement, we may someday hear more stories about pools, beyond fear and magic gills.

Excerpts from "Dancing With the Wind," written by students from ArtsReach participating schools: Baboquivari High School,Baboquivari Middle School, Indian Oasis Intermediate, Mission View Elementary, Richey Elementary and Ha:San Preparatory and Leadership School.

 Richard Looks at Girls  

I was hiding  

on the roof.  

I saw the girls playing toka.  

You hold the stick  

hit it with a rock. I was  

eating a peanut butter  

sandwich and I was  


Richard Puffer, grade 4  


I feel mad like  

the Hulk  

strong and green  

like someone came  

and vacuumed  

all the happiness  

out of me.  

I feel so mad

 I feel like  

tearing a building in half  

and eating  

the whole thing.  

Teresa Lopez, grade 4  


Brown as the  

desert people  

dancing in a circle.  

Brown as the dry ground we  

stand on.  

Brown as wood  

brown as a tree trunk  

in the desert.  

Brown as the desert sand.  

Brown as  

an adobe house  

where desert people  


Tianna Aguilla, grade 3


 I feel sad

 like a piece

 of paper lying

 on the desk,

 I want someone

 to write on me

 but they throw me


Anna Stacia Savage, grade 4

 About the Desert

 What does it mean

 to be Tohono O'odham?  

It means to be a dancer

 to be a ha:san standing

 high in the sky, standing

 brave and tall like

 a coyote.

 Being a singer

 to sing out loud

 being the desert

with my strong, wonderful plants

 and cold mountains.

 Come to the desert. It is


 Sara Ventura, grade 4

 When my Nana Makes Tortillas

 When my nana

 makes tortillas  

they smell like

 fresh bread. I

 see her making

 the dough, rolling  

the dough, putting  

the dough on the

stove. She flips

 them over. They

start to get bubbly

 and they start

 to get black

 spots on them

 and when one is

 done she gets

 another one.

 When I taste

 one they are soft and buttery.  

Heriberto Gastellum, grade 4

 ● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield Bloom at 807-8031 or