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Oceanside Author Reaches Out to All Children : Books: Racial peace is as near as an abrazo, or hug, advises Victor Villasenor.

October 24, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Relying on hugs and handshakes more than his written words, author Victor Villasenor carried simple advice Sunday for adults seeking racial peace: think like a kid.

He practiced what he preached, celebrating the release of his first children's book, "Walking Stars," with a street party featuring punch and a pinata that went over big among the not-ready-to-read set.

More than 150 fans, mostly grown-ups, crowded the sidewalk outside Martinez Books & Art to greet the Oceanside writer, who gained national renown with the 1991 publication of "Rain of Gold," an epic tracing his family's immigration from Mexico that was compared to "Roots."

In remarks that coursed from English to Spanish and back, Villasenor told the largely Latino audience that society has scrubbed away child wonderment, replacing it with a way of thinking that categorizes, labels and divides people. Villasenor, who grew up in Carlsbad, recalled being punished by teachers for being dyslexic--and for being the son of Mexican immigrants who had taught him tales of magic.

"I believed my parents until I started school. They told me, 'No Mexican stuff here,' " Villasenor said.

Villasenor--who once organized a trip to Spain to ritually forgive Columbus for invading the continent--said peace was as near as an abrazo, or hug. He even got audience members to embrace each other.

Villasenor has become a local favorite, especially among Latinos, after making a previous visit to the store and doing a speaking tour last year at Santa Ana schools. The visits were spearheaded by a Santa Ana police officer captivated by "Rain of Gold."

"Just the fact that he's done something is a source of admiration. It's hope, I guess," said Michael Peinado, a 16-year-old student at Valley High School in Santa Ana. "We have a rich culture. I want people to understand it."

Corina Benavides, a senior at UCLA, said Villasenor's work has helped awaken her pride in her Mexican ancestry.

"I can identify with his experience of being marginalized," said Benavides, 22, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano. "I always wanted to be something I wasn't. Being an immigrant--I was ashamed to say that."

Many of those attending were too young to understand Villasenor's writing--even his new children's offering, a 202-page collection of short stories in which young people are heroes.

But Leticia Pacheco-Martinez, a Santa Ana teacher who scours bookstores on both sides of the border, was buying a copy for her 18-month-old daughter well ahead of time.

"Books go out of print," she said.

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