Rio Grande Valley culture inspires legacy alum’s first novel

Ruben Degollado, UTRGV legacy alum, on Friday, May 3, 2019 at the Liberal Arts Building South in Edinburg. UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy

By Priscilla Ramirez, Special to the Star

Experts say to write about what you know. So Rubén Degollado has done just that.

Degollado, an alumnus of UT Pan American, released his first book, Throw, a novel, in February 2019. It’s the Rio Grande Valley-inspired story of Güero, a teenage boy dealing with love, loss and trying to belong.

An educator since 1994 in Texas, Florida and Oregon, Degollado also drew inspiration from another teenage novel – S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” – and his own students, who felt there were not enough book characters with whom they could identify.

“Year after year, my students loved ‘The Outsiders.’ But I wanted something that had the Valley, along with the same tough characters,” he said. “My students would tell me, ‘Maestro, we want something with us in it.’”

Finding the right book for his students proved elusive, almost impossible, he said.

“I knew it was going to be something I needed to write by myself,” he said.

Degollado, currently director of the Center for Excellence in School Turnaround at Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg, said he taught his students through reading and wanted to share the way he felt about the Valley in a story format.

After graduating from UTPA with a Bachelor of Arts in English, Degollado went to Lewis & Clark College in Oregon to pursue a master’s degree in educational administration. He said the uniqueness of the Valley gave him the confidence to pursue a graduate degree, and to encourage those he taught.

“I went out into the world sure of who I was,” he said. “I knew my culture and my language. I brought that into my work and built a bridge between the students I taught.”

He credits finding his voice and his love for writing to UTPA and his undergraduate studies.

EARLY WORK

Degollado was on a different career path when he got the writing bug, inspired by encouragement from his professors, including Dr. Don Newman, a faculty member in the English Department at UTPA at the time. They said he had potential, and inspiration followed.

“That was the first time someone saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” he said.

Degollado also credits Dr. Robert Johnson, a current professor in the UTRGV Department of Literatures and Cultural Studies, for guiding him to improve his writing through mentorship.

He said the Department of Writing and Language Studies helped him hone his writing skills and debut his first piece ever in the university student publication, Gallery: A Literary & Arts Magazine at UTRGV.

“Once I saw my work in Gallery and my name in print, it gave me courage to submit my work to other publications,” Degollado said.

He went on to contact small magazine publishers, and his work ran in several literary magazines across Texas.

A NOVEL APPROACH

When working on his draft of “Throw, a novel,” Degollado said his mindset was similar to the advice he would give to his students: Treat the writing process as a job.

“When you not only have a vision and passion for something, but the work ethic and drive, you can accomplish just about anything,” he said. “Believe in your work. Don’t find value in how many copies you sell or how many events you get invited to. The work itself is what’s important.”

Degollado said the best part of being an author is all the people he gets to meet when he participates in book festivals across the state. He has been traveling across Texas for close to a year to attend literacy conferences, including the Texas Book Festival, to share his novel, and most recently served as a panelist at the South Texas Book Festival in McAllen. In January, he will take part in the Corpus Christi Teen Book Fest by the Bay, again as a panelist.

“I’ve met readers who taught me that our work can often affect people in ways we hadn’t thought possible. It is a huge responsibility we authors have,” he said. “It is a privilege and a blessing to be able to do this.”