Zeke Peña is a Xicano storyteller and cartoonist from El Paso, TX. He received several awards for his book illustrations in My Papi Has a Motorcycle (Kokila, 2019) and Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty Publications, 2017). His own work is a mash-up of political cartoon, border rasquache and Hip Hop culture that addresses identity, politics, ecology and social justice. Zeke is currently writing and illustrating a story for young readers about growing up in the desert.
Zeke Peña will be one of the featured authors at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest will be streamed live on YouTube on Friday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The Festival will be in-person at Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, September 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with select Saturday programs streamed live on YouTube.
Our tagline this year is Read, Dream and Celebrate en dos idiomas. How do you think your books and stories help us accomplish this?
Our book comes from a cultural experience of speaking both English and Spanish fluidly and interchangeably. Both Isabel [illustrator] and I grew up speaking some degree of both languages. There is a wide spectrum between English and Spanish, My Papi Has a Motorcycle takes place in that space by using words in both.
What are some of the things you do to bring to life the world you’ve imagined?
For me, it’s important to make a personal connection to the story and world I’m illustrating. This personal connection allows me to use my personal experience and memory to make choices about the characters and setting. If the characters feel real to me there is a good chance they will feel real to readers.
What stories inspired you as a young reader?
I really enjoyed stories about science fiction and fantasy. Any otherworldly story really grabbed me and gave me a safe space to imagine. I also really enjoy reading humor and satire in cartoons and comics. I liked to poke fun at things and make jokes.
If your book was turned into a movie/series, who would you cast?
Wow, I’ve never been asked this before! And honestly, I’ve never thought about it…hmmmmm….I think Michael Peña or Luis Guzman would make a great Papi, and I think for Daisy, we would need to invent a time machine to cast 8-year-old Isabel.
"Having our book translated and presented in both English and Spanish is something that was really special. It is also really important because I come from a place, El Paso, TX, where we speak both languages on an everyday basis. It’s important for the publishing industry to recognize that Spanish-speaking and non-English-speaking people need the same access to stories in their language. If we can hear our histories and stories in our own languages, there is a better chance we will remember them and benefit from them."
What advice would you give to young writers?
Try to finish the things you start writing. It’s easy and fun to start an idea, it’s another thing to spend a little time each day work on it and then letting other people read it. Also, try to find a friend(s) that like to write also share your work and ideas with them. When you’re developing your skills, it’s really helpful to have community to share with.
How did you feel the first time your work was published? How was your publishing journey?
My publishing journey was very atypical, I’m not an art school student. I didn’t study writing or illustrating. So it took me a really long time and patience to develop the drawing and editing skills I have now. I took any project anyone would give me for a long time to get experience. Then when my first book cover was published by Cinco Puntos Press in 2014, it felt amazing to finally have an opportunity to have my drawings on an actual book cover that would be in libraries.
What are some challenges you encounter when writing?
Some of the challenges you encounter when you are writing are overworking and doubting yourself. This is why it’s really important to share your work with a friend or family that will be honest in telling you it’s amazing or if it stinks.
What was your experience like getting your book translated into Spanish or English?
Having our book translated and presented in both English and Spanish is something that was really special. It is also really important because I come from a place, El Paso, TX, where we speak both languages on an everyday basis. It’s important for the publishing industry to recognize that Spanish-speaking and non-English-speaking people need the same access to stories in their language. If we can hear our histories and stories in our own languages there is a better chance we will remember them and benefit from them.
How do you think libraries make our world a better place?
I think libraries make our world a better place because they provide important resources and services to people in our community. From books to power tools and a cup of hot tea to a warm place to sit for a while, libraries are integral to the fabric of communities. As a young person, libraries were a safe space for me and as an adult sitting in the stacks is one of the most peaceful places to me.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m writing a science fiction story about growing up in the desert. A young brother and sister walking in the desert see a piece of the Sun fall from the sky and go on an adventure to find it. I’ll be illustrating this book and referencing some of the amazing things I saw growing up in the Chihuahuan desert, which is the largest desert in North America. The story takes place in the future of a parallel universe, so it’s gonna be strange and fun.
Books by Zeke Peña
Isabel Quintero's graphic novel biography of Graciela Iturbide will appeal to all ages. Quintero interviewed the 76-year-old photographer whose pioneering work in photographing indigenous cultures is as remarkable as her own life.
Zeke Peña at L.A. Libros Fest