Guest Dispatches: Tucson, AZ

Marge Pellegrino is a fellow Tucsonan. As leader of the Hopi Foundation’s Owl and Panther expressive arts group here, she works with new Arizonans who arrive as refugees from around the world.

Here’s what Marge had to say about how that work and Tucson’s desert landscape came together to inspire her novel, Journey of Dreams:


[full moon over the Rincons] The full moon pulled up large and yellow from behind the Rincon Mountains. I drove Vicky, my 12 year-old student home from an Owl and Panther expressive arts meeting. We were mesmerized by the dark sky changing minute by minute. After a long pause, I had a feeling I was about to be schooled again.

“In our village everyone is going outside to bang pots and make noise to help the moon be well again.”

We pulled over and hooted and clapped our hands and stomped our feet at the yellow tinted moon. Back in the car, we beeped the horn a few times. By the time I dropped this Guatemalan refugee child off at her home in Tucson, Arizona, the moon was a glowing white orb and we’d had another magic moment when she shared a delicious detail from her real home.

The research that began as a means to better understand the families I served turned into a passion to share what had happened to force them from the highlands they so loved and continued to long for. I felt driven to understand their experience as best I could. I wanted to offer children who were lucky enough to live in a safe place a story to help them understand why these refugee children were in our community, why they had to flee for their lives.

[Journey of Dreams cover]The book I originally produced was eight pages – a picture book or an early chapter book was what I had envisioned. Enthusiastic rejections followed submissions. They were all variations of “well written but will miss its audience.”

Could I write a novel? I knew I could produce 7,000 words – but 50,000? As our Tuesday night meetings continued with these children’s art and writing as a back drop, I dug in by day and read boxes of books, interviewed scores of people, watched videos and before long, I started to hear Tomasa’s voice.

It took ten years from the idea to holding a copy of Journey of Dreams in my hands. Weaving the narrative with folktales and dreams, I had built a world so real to me that I grieved leaving Tomasa and her family behind when the writing wrapped up.

On Tuesday nights now, my students are mostly from Iraq, Nepal and Somalia. I never ask about the details of my ever-changing charges’ past. But it’s hard to avoid knowing. Their pain of separation and the feeling of being an “other,” echoes those original families in the late 1990s.

When the full moon rises from behind the Rincons, my mind always drifts off to Guatemala and I feel Tomasa’s hand in mine. A deep gratitude rises up. I’m so glad I risked knowing her.


[Marge Pellegrino] ” On the seventh day, only the owl and the panther were still awake. Because they did not succumb to sleep, they were given the power to see in the dark. ” – from a Cherokee Creation Story

Marge Pellegrino leads Owl and Panther, a Hopi Foundation project designed to help those affected by torture, dislocation, refugee status, and family problems through creative writing, counseling, and community service. She also runs the Word Journeys program at the Pima County Public Library, which received the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ Coming Up Taller Award for excellence in after school programming in 2008. She was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly in December 2006. In 2009 Marge received the Judy Goddard/Libraries Ltd. Young Adult Author Award from the Arizona Library Association for Journey of Dreams.

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