The Onstage Tribute to Tomás Rivera
“Tomás and the Library Lady,” originally a book by Pat Mora, tells the true story of how young Tomás Rivera came to love reading and libraries.
Story By: Steve Penhollow
Rivera, who died in 1984, grew up to be a prominent writer and educator. A stage adaptation of Mora’s book, written by play-wright José Cruz González, will be presented at the Dallas Children’s Theatre this spring. The show started March 24.
Rivera was the son of poor migrant workers and the young man who is playing him in the stage version, Edwin Alan Aguilar, said he is able to empathize with the difficulties of Tomás’ early life.
“I know the hardships that my family had to go through in order to get here and to get molded into society,” he said. “Not only that, the hardships of building from a new land and starting all over — leaving their hometown and their home country. Just the roller coaster of surprises in life. I had to go through that as well.”
Aguilar said he had difficulties at first in a U.S. school because English was not his first language.
“We speak Spanish only in my house, and in the story, Tomás’ family speaks Spanish in their house only,” he said. “So there’s a similarity right there. Learning English for me was a little bit hard in school. I am still struggling right now in college. It’s a process.”
Aguilar’s mother insisted that he get an education and this wasn’t something he fully appreciated at first.
“I didn’t see that at the very beginning,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, man. I gotta go to school, mom? Oh, no.’
“But she was doing the right thing for me,” he continued. “Because she didn’t get an education herself, she knew what she was doing from the beginning. When I grew up, I started trusting her more.”
Aguilar recalled an unfortunate interaction he had as a boy with a misguided teacher, but one that had a positive outcome.
“There was this one teacher who was very rude to me,” he said. “He’d put his finger on my chest. My mother said, ‘Mi hijo … ¿Por qué tienes esto aquí? Why do you have red marks on your chest?’ I cried. I said, ‘There’s just this one teacher who touches me when he gets mad.’ They ended up firing the teacher.”
This episode could have turned into a lifelong mistrust of teachers and other authority figures. But the opposite occurred. Aguilar said a lot of good faculty members rallied around him, and his family was very supportive.
Just as the librarian in the play helps Tomás feel comfortable and grow, so did the adults in Aguilar’s life help him move past his initial fears and misgivings.
“Having the support of teachers and mentors and people who don’t give up on you is very important,” he said. “That definitely helps push a student and a person’s life in general.” Tomás’ curiosity lead him to this place and he met this wonderful lady. She saved his life. He opened up to new roads and new opportunities. He learned to read and to speak and he just carried on from right there because he enjoyed that; he loved that process. He knew that this was another way of expressing himself.”
Robyn Flatt, the co-founder and director of the Dallas Children’s Theatre, said she has collaborated with play-wright González on other projects.
“He’s always been so nurturing of other playwrights and theaters,” she said.
This play in particular spoke to her, she said, because artistic alliances with libraries have always been important to her theater.
“Here’s a child who’s curious, who’s hungry,” Flatt said. “He wants to know more stories. He’s just thirsty like a little sponge. He goes to the library and this woman takes him in. She takes him in in a way that nobody has done except his family, but they didn’t have access to books. To me, that is so exciting.”
Another wonderful aspect of the story, she said, is the encouragement of the grandfather.
“His grandfather can’t read,” Flatt said. “But he knows stories are important. He knows imagination is important and curiosity is important. And so he encourages his grandson.” Flatt said she is upset “about how America steps on the backs of the people who need the most help.” She wants this play to send a vital message to the children that come see it.