Poet, novelist, and performance artist Tim Z. Hernandez is receiving critical acclaim for Mañana Means Heaven, a novel based on the life of Bea Franco, the “Mexican Girl” in the American Beatnik generation classic, “On the Road.” The iconic writer Jack Kerouac has a chapter about the time he spent in a relationship with a Chicana farm worker, who was fleeing an abusive husband and who had left her two children behind. Kerouac called her Terry, the Mexican girl, but it was Bea Franco.
Hernandez’ book, which he describes as 70 percent truth and 30 percent fiction, documents Franco’s illicit affair with the aspiring young writer during the 1940s in the California Great Central Valley. Hernandez spent time with Bea and her family, listening to her story, before she passed away earlier this year.
Hernandez, who has received the 2006 American Book Award, the 2010 Premio Aztlan Prize in Fiction, and the James Duval Phelan Award from the San Francisco Foundation, recently spoke to NBC Latino about the book, his fascinating research and his future projects.
1. Why did you become so interested in Bea Franco’s story? What was it about her life that inspired you to write this book?
The idea came to me in 2007. I was attending Naropa (University, in Boulder Colorado) which is also called the Jack Kerouac school. Some of the older generations of Beats are still around and teach there. We had many conversations about the Beat lineage and I walked out of the classroom feeling like I had a different lineage, that I was more aligned with writers from the 60s and 70s Chicano movement.
I just felt like, “What in On the Road has anything to do with me at all? That chapter of Terry, the farmworker girl, jumped out at me, and I thought, it would be great if somebody wrote a book about her and the 15 days she spent with Jack Kerouac from her perspective. I thought, who else but me? I come from that same area and same background of migrant farm workers. My parents and grandparents lived in those labor camps.
The idea was to fictionalize it and I started to do research on her and discovered there were over 22 books about Kerouac that mentioned her, but none of them had ever found her or asked her to tell her own story, and I thought I should at least attempt it. If not for her, at least for her family. I didn’t think she would be alive. The fiction idea very quickly went out the window and just became this search for her and her family.
2. What was your writing process like? How long did it take you to write the book? What kind of research was necessary? Did you revisit all the the locations or did you solely rely on imagination?
I started working on sketches in 2008 and the book was completed in 2012. I really took about 4 years of writing and rewriting. I did revisit these places. Even though I grew up around there they are a large part of who I am, I wanted to go back and look at it through Bea Franco’s point of view in the 1940s. during the time of repatriation. I was really looking at the valley and the landscape itself as a character. And that was something Kerouac was interested in himself as well. I wanted to do it justice and I had the resources to do it. I had no excuse– I was there and I knew all the historical societies. I started the book and wrote 100 pages of fiction before I found her and her family. When I found her, I started all over. I would interview her and record her on video and audio and go home and transcribe the interviews. In most cases, her long monologues in the book were written verbatim. I wanted the reader to feel like she was talking to them. And then, of course, the issue of proving that this was the Bea Franco of Kerouac’s book. That’s why the book ends with nonfiction. I ended up with 125 pages of nonfiction and I had to make choices about what was important and what I needed to leave out.
3. Did you have any funding for the project?
No. The research came from my own pocket. My whole life I’ve never made anything past the poverty income level. A lot of writers are doing this without funding. We do it because we love it and we think it’s important. Fortunately, I actually lived in the valley at the time. I had a day job. I also have a wife and three kids, and I had to take time away from my family to do research. That has to be factored in, too. But it’s a calling and you have to answer and abide by that. You can’t just turn away from it. Fortunately my wife, who is an artist as well, has been really supportive of me.
4. What I found most compelling was Bea’s boldness– a woman of that era living in a very macho culture choosing love and choosing to express her sexuality at whatever cost. Her interactions with her father were particularly painful to read. What was it like to write about those issues as a man?
I knew right off that it was something that would be scrutinized or at least looked at closely by my fellow writers and critics, and women in general who love to read. One of the ways I helped address that is to try to let the interviews I did with Bea be the root and heart of the material – not only what she was telling me, but also her physical reactions to my questions. I could tell that when she spoke about her father, there was still a lot of resentment and anger in her voice – disdain, actually. In Kerouac’s version, she’s leaving her husband, but in my interviews with her, it was clear that she was leaving her father, too. Her father was somebody she tried to get away from her whole life. She hated him. She had tried to leave her husband many times, and her father would tell him where she was.
When I first started to interview her I could tell she had a hint of regret in her voice. “I was a horrible mother,” she would say and her children tried to console her. That really became a part of the book. The choices and decisions she made, even if they were questionable at times, really, in the end, bettered her life. And no one could argue with that because in the end she did end up finding love and having a pretty nice life. Kerouac portrayed her as a sort of damsel in distress, but she wasn’t like that at all. She was someone who, when she was young, was making choices in which she stepped out of the traditional Latina role. After she passed away, many people said she was a really tough, fiery little lady and I wanted to be true to that.
5. What was Bea’s family’s reaction to the book?
Because I knew I was also fictionalizing aspects of it, as I was writing it, I would take sections I was worried about to Bea and her son Albert and read them excerpts. Bea was really nonchalant about the whole thing. Albert was much more skeptical and had more questions. The conversation we kept having was about how his mother was in 22 biographies with none of their input. I said, “We can either let that be the narrative that’s out there for all eternity or we can rewrite that bit of history with your input, so it becomes the real Bea Franco.” That’s why I think Albert wanted to continued moving forward with this project, but it took a lot of explanations about my choices. At one point, Albert said, “You don’t have to come justify why you’re making choices. I trust you now.” Bea herself was really happy with it. She was losing her eyesight, so she couldn’t read it, but her daughter read her excerpts. Her children liked the end result, too.
6. What are you working on now?
When I was researching Mañana Means Heaven, I was in Fresno looking through the old newspapers and I was looking for anything to do with labor camps and Fresno County in 1947 and 1948. I ended up seeing this newspaper that said “28 Mexicans Died in a plane crash” and other very dramatic headlines. By the time I finished reading those articles, I recognized that it was the same incident that Woody Guthrie sang about, (“Deportees”) that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen had re-recorded. I thought of it the same way I had initially thought of Bea Franco’s book. I wanted to fictionalize it. I started to look for the list of names and along the way, I discovered that they were buried in a mass grave in Fresno. I went to the cemetery director who helped me find the names. So after that, we were standing in the cemetery and I asked how much would it cost to put this on a headstone. We ended up working on a memorial project and raised over $10,000 and installed a headstone. Now you can see the names of all the people who died there. Along the way, I’ve found the living relatives of three Mexican families. There are also all sorts of characters and eyewitnesses of the crash. My book is reconstructing the event of that day and how far it rippled through the American landscape, and it’s told through the interviews I’ve done with all these people.