In Daniel Peña's short story "Safe Home," readers meet protagonist Cuauhtemoc, a Mexican man who grew up in Texas and, after being deported, became a pilot for a Juarez drug cartel and dropped cocaine across the border. It's no wonder that Peña, an English professor at UHD, received the prestigious Pushcart Prize for his relevant and poignant story, which reads like it has been ripped from the headlines rather than being a work of fiction.
This Thursday evening, Houstonians can meet and hear Peña read from his award-winning story. If the writing seems real, that's because Peña's work of fiction is a creative synthesis of his personal experience. An Austin native with dual U.S. and Mexican citizenships, Peña completed the 150 hours of flying required for his private pilot's license while studying English at Texas A&M. When the airline industry went bust, he applied to graduate school and received a Fulbright Scholarship to research the drug war in Mexico.
The peculiarity of pilot training, however, stayed with Peña. He recalls landing in rural airports and seeing abandoned planes with mysterious “X” tail numbers on them, signifying Mexican aircrafts. His curiosity was met with an answer he did not expect.
“A lot of the pilots were like, 'Oh—those are drug planes,' so matter-of-fact,” says Peña. “I was like, 'Wow! Who knows they are there?'”
While in Mexico, Peña wondered how people got involved in the inner workings of drug cartels. He never met anyone quite like his protagonist Cuauhtemoc, but many people he encountered shared a similar sense of being trapped.
“They didn’t fit into the social fabric of Mexico at all,” Peña says of the young people he met at the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium, an educational program that explores the challenges facing humanity, in Mexico City. “There was one kid who was in dental school, and then he found himself—thanks to his perfect English accent—answering phones and doing telecom stuff.”
A fierce critic of militarized borders, he writes openly about his political viewpoints. He does, however, draw a line between the two kinds of writing he engages in: fiction and opinion.
“I like to think of my fiction as character-driven. It’s less about problems and their people as much as people and their problems,” he says. “When I write opinions, like op-eds for The Guardian, I’m always conscious of the macro, the problems and then [the] people.”
Peña hopes attendees of the reading will come ready to explore the humanity of people deported by the U.S.
“The best of literature is really driving at what is it that makes us human,” he says. “That’s why we watch Bambi. That’s why we watch Lion King. That didn’t really happen, but those things tell us something about ourselves.”
Daniel Peña will read and discuss "Safe Home" on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. UHD’s Welcome Center, 320 N Main St. For more information, visit uhd.edu