Roni Capin Rivera-Ashford: A Jewish children’s author with a Mexican heart

When Roni Capin was growing up in Nogales, AZ, there was no wall bordering the United States and Mexico. Her paternal grandmother, Nana Lil, was a Bracker, and grandfather, Papa Sam, was a Capin – both were pioneer Jewish families – who went back and forth from their city of Nogales to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

“Fifty years ago, we walked across the border five times a day,” says Roni. “We brought along our stick of butter to enjoy the warm tortillas from the tortilla factory. The border was open for the Cinco de Mayo parade. Today it’s difficult for one person to get across.”

Twenty-nine years ago, she and her husband, Danny Ashford, moved from Nogales to Tucson. They have been married for 44 years, and although their path hasn’t always been easy, it’s been a happy one. Danny, also a Nogales native, is Mexican-American. Some of his ancestors descended from African slaves; his last name of Ashford originated from slave masters.

“I feel very blessed because I followed my heart, despite inter-racial, inter-religious and inter-economic strife,” affirms Roni. Although she and her husband knew each other growing up, they reconnected as students attending Arizona State University in 1971. They married a year later.

When Roni became a published author, she asked her mother-in-law if she could incorporate Rivera into her pen name, giving more credence to her Mexican heritage. (Hence, Rivera-Ashford.)

As her Jewish and Mexican cultures melded, and as a bilingual preschool and elementary teacher in Nogales and Tucson for more than 30 years, Roni recognized the necessity for more bilingual children’s books.

Why not write them herself? So she did. My Nana’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi nana (2002) and Hip, Hip, Hooray, It’s Monsoon Day! /Ajúa, ya llegó el chubasco (2007), were both published by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Her latest book, My Tata’s Remedies/Los remedios de mi tata, published by Cinco Puntos Press, was the 2016 Great Read for Arizona.

The Many Readers, Many Bridges Arizona State Book Project is seeking funding to supply all fourth graders, as well as every school library in the state, with a copy of the book.

My Tata’s Remedies has won many awards, including First Place for the International Latino Book Awards as Best Children’s Non-Fiction Picture Book and Best Educational Children’s Picture Book and as a Notable Children’s Book of 2016 by the Association for Library Services to Children.

Roni’s current book project is working with Disney-Pixar/Random House Kids to publish Spanish-language books for children, one of which – Miguel and the Amazing Alebrijes –she co-wrote with her son, Aaron Rivera-Ashford. Three books will be published on Oct. 10 in conjunction with the Nov. release of the Disney/Pixar children’s fantasy-adventure movie “Coco,” about a 12-year-old Mexican boy who loves music, and the cultural significance of the Day of the Dead.

But her heart resides with Raulito, a compelling children’s biography of Arizona’s only Mexican-American governor, Raúl H. Castro (1975-1977). President Jimmy Carter subsequently appointed Castro to posts as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, knowing he had been successful as an ambassador under LBJ to El Salvador and Bolivia.

In 2013, Castro died in San Diego at age 98, but not before the author had the opportunity to interview him (the interview can be viewed on You Tube). The former governor recalled the poverty, discrimination and hard work it took for him to succeed.

Roni can imagine Castro as a boy walking to school, carrying his one pair of shoes to keep them clean, to his eventually “filling the governor’s boots.”

And these days, she confides, “I’m totally grateful for the love, the languages, the cultures, the foods, the music that are my life. I love ‘Hava Negillah.’ I love dancing the corrida (fast dancing as a couple) as much, if not more.”

Her “Mexican heart” comes across “the way I express myself, that I try to get one idea across, in part Spanish, part English, with a Yiddish word thrown in, all in an effort to bring people together, as this is who I am,” she explains.

“You may have noticed,” Roni says, “Two of my books have ‘remedies’ in the title, a very healing word. Sometimes I write to heal from political strife.” As Gov. Castro said, “we must build bridges across cultures and amongst all people, not harbor animosity over our diversity.”

Sheila Wilensky is a writer, editor and educator living in Tucson.

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