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Interview with Jeaninne Escallier Kato, 2nd Place Winner in the WOW! 2020 Fall Flash Fiction Contest


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Once Jeaninne Escallier Kato found the history of her Hispanic/indigenous roots, her writing muse found its soul. She is Spanish on her mother’s side, Pechanga Indian on her father’s side with a smattering of European blood. She began her Spanish studies in 1999; whereupon, she switched teaching positions to teach in mostly Latino populated schools. From there, she discovered her love of Mexico. Her children’s book Manuel’s Murals is a love letter to her Mexican students and the culture from which they came. Jeaninne also developed the Latino mentoring program “Lincoln Hermanos Mentors” where she raised college scholarship funds for the Latino high school students who tutored her at-risk Latino elementary students from 2005 to 2014. Jeaninne devoted 36 years of her life to teaching in grades K-12 throughout California. She is currently a teacher coach for Placer County in Northern California. Writing is not only a passion, like teaching, it’s what she was born to do. Aside from her children’s book, Jeaninne has been published in anthologies and online literary magazines for her flash fiction and non-fiction work. She is featured in two Chicken Soup for the Soul series and has won, or placed in the top ten, of various writing contests. Jeaninne explains her writing philosophy, “I write for me. Publishing is a by-product of my craft, like icing on a cake. I’m thrilled if others feel anything from my work, but I’m a winner whenever I sit down to the computer and write the first word of a story.” You can find Jeaninne on her website: http://manuelsmurals-blog.tumblr.com. 

 ----------Interview by Renee Roberson 

 WOW: “Milagro” is such a beautiful tale of familial bonds and the will to survive. How did inspiration first strike for this particular story? 

Jeaninne: I was inspired to write “Milagro” as a compilation of all the wonderful people I have met in Oaxaca, Mexico, for the past twenty years. From the poor families on the streets to my college educated Spanish teachers, the Mexican people are bound by a strong tether of family, faith and culture. I befriended a young indigenous family of musicians who earn their money by busking on the streets. I have watched their babies grow up over the years. Money has nothing to do with good parenting. The depth of their love moved me to write. I think many Americans have grown immune to their own blessings. I want my stories to make people feel compassion for other cultures; but more importantly, I am compelled to share the realization that all human beings, no matter from where they hail, are driven by their love for family. 

WOW: I love these insights from you ("Money has nothing to do with good parenting") and wholeheartedly agree! You’ve also authored a children’s picture book called Manuel’s Murals. Could you tell us about the book and the story about how you felt called to write it? 

Jeaninne: My children’s book Manuel’s Murals came to me on the steps of the National Palace in Mexico City. I had spent all day mesmerized by Diego’s Rivera’s skyscraper size murals depicting the history of Mexico. The art of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo motivated me to transfer teaching positions from a continuation high school to a bilingual elementary school within the same district. I fell so deeply in love with my fourth grade Mexican students and their families, I immersed myself in all aspects of their culture. I learned folkloric dances and sponsored folkloric dance programs. I started my own mentoring program “Lincoln Hermanos Mentors” for Latino students, raising college scholarships for the Latino high school students who tutored the elementary students from my school. Writing a children’s book, a way to share my love of the Mexican culture, was the natural next step. Sitting on the palace steps that day in 2003, I was awe-struck by Diego’s work when his voice came to me in that moment. He whispered, “Teach your children the history of their roots.” I immediately took a cab to a nearby café, extracted my worn journal, ordered a strong cup of coffee, and wrote the book. I based it upon Diego’s murals, painted to teach the people about their glorious past. Of course, it took years of editing and attending writing conferences before I found the right publisher. 

WOW: I'm so glad you persisted in getting your book seen and heard. What a beautiful story behind feeling the call from the artist himself! Your work has also appeared in anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Soul. What types of topics do you like to tackle in your non-fiction writing? 

Jeaninne: I began to take my writing seriously when my golden retriever changed my life in the late 80’s and early 90’s, long before I found my Mexican muse. This extraordinary dog accompanied me to my middle school Special Education classes. Her effect on my students was evident from her first day in the classroom. For eleven years, B.J., changed lives with her unconditional love. I published my first article about her inherent healing powers in a California middle school journal. My Chicken Soup for the Soul stories are dedicated to B.J. and my precious students. I just finished a book manuscript called “B.J.’s Promise.” She accompanied me through some very hard times; and eventually, found the love of my life. I still mourn her loss 26 years later. 

WOW: As a writer inspired by her diverse family background, are there any Latino writers whose work you’d like to recommend? 

Jeaninne: I adore several Latino authors whom I wholeheartedly endorse. Sandra Cisneros, Laura Esquivel, Luis Alberto Urrea, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende and Victor Villasenor are just a few who come to my mind immediately. All of these authors pepper their work with the stark ravages of life, mixed with the magic that makes us want to be better human beings. I was blessed to have grown up in a Latino community. My Hispanic influences are not only in my bloodlines, they also reside in my own development as a child, adolescent and young adult. My husband is Japanese American, his stepfather is African American, and my nieces and nephews could be representatives of the UN. I was destined to be a student of the world, to teach, to write. 

WOW: Thank you so much for such a helpful list. You were also an elementary school teacher for more than 30 years. How have you personally weathered the challenges of teaching during a pandemic in California this past year? 

Jeaninne: I retired from full-time teaching in 2014, after 36 years teaching in all grades, but I have been a part-time teacher coach for the California Teacher Induction Program since 2016. I have definitely witnessed how the pandemic has affected my new teachers and their students. Before March of 2020, I was visiting my teachers and their students in the classrooms. For the past year, we have done everything online. I miss hugging my teachers and their students; I miss cheering them on through our smiles and laughter. However, what I have experienced through the long-distance learning model is short of miraculous. These teachers have adapted to an impossible situation with multi-media technology and constant communication with their students and families. Even Autistic children are logging on each day to connect with their dedicated teachers. I am humbled by the selfless teachers and frontline workers who are the salvation of this ailing world. Lastly, I want to thank all the tireless creators, authors, and editors of Wow-Women on Writing. This is such an important showcase for so many gifted writers. I am honored and thrilled to be a part of this organization. You have encouraged my work and motivated me to keep writing. Thank you for believing in me!

WOW: Please keep up all the wonderful work (both in writing and mentoring!) and we are so appreciative of your kind words about our staff and the contests.

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