SALT LAKE CITY — Author and National Medal of Arts recipient Sandra Cisneros told fifth-graders at Mountain View Elementary School that they live in a momentous time, but achieving their dreams will take much effort.
"Each one of you is a bridge," she said. "Each one of you has to step up and be an ambassador at this time. You have to promise me you'll be ambassadors of peace."
The students, a majority of whom are native Spanish speakers learning English at the school, have been reading Cisneros' "The House on Mango Street," which has sold more than 5 million copies and is acclaimed for its exploration of the lives of the working class.
"Don't dream little. Dream big," Cisneros told the students. "Do something every day to walk toward it, even if its something little."
The author said she wrote "The House on Mango Street" for high school audiences, but younger people can glean a lot from it as well.
"A lot of children in Latino schools don't see themselves in literature," she said, adding that she wants them to see the big part they play in U.S. history.
Cisneros, who was brought to Utah by a partnership through the University of Utah's Tanner Humanities Center, told the children she was a shy student, got bad grades and had a bad haircut. But she has grown and moved on from that, writing about the good and bad things that happen to her and people around her, weaving them into a fictional "story salad."
"They don't all have to become authors," Cisneros said. "We all need writing to undo the demons in our hearts."
Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Carver-Hunter said the students really benefit from hearing from people who succeed at hard things.
"She didn't shy away from the hard stuff," Carver-Hunter said of Cisneros' presentation Wednesday. "These kids lives are hard."
Most of the students at Mountain View Elementary take part in a dual-immersion program that will get them closer to college and career readiness, and put them just a few credits shy of a minor in Spanish upon high school graduation, she said.
"For a lot of our students, they might be the first in their families to go to college," Carver-Hunter said. "The majority of them are hoping to be first-generation college students."
Cisneros, who addressed the children in both Spanish and English, told the students they need to be proficient in multiple languages — not only to further their career potential, but "to better understand the world."
"Each language gives you a new perspective of the world," she said.
The award-winning author told students they can't realize their own dreams if someone else is paying their way, that they must plan on attending college. And while they can fall in love and be married, it's OK to wait to have children, and conversely, "It's OK to be alone," Cisneros added.
"Dreams take a lot of work. You have to focus. Keep you eyes on the prize," she said.
Mountain View Elementary Principal Ken Limb said the students lucked out hearing from Cisneros, the second author to visit the school this year.
"It gives them a real person to recognize that authors are real, that they can do that, too," Limb said. "It gives them ideas, hope and the realization that they can be what they want to be."