When she moved to Chandler, Ariz., in the late 1990s, Melinda Palacio had no idea she’d be stumbling into the inspiration for her first novel: the city’s infamous 1997 migrant sweeps.
Ocotillo Dreams, set in Chandler during that time period, brings to life the social issues that arise from border policy and economic inequity. While working as a news assistant at The Arizona Republic, Palacio lived in a house that “the neighbors said that they suspected was a type of way station for illegal immigrants.”
“When I moved in it was obvious that there were several different families living there,” she said. “They were still collecting clothes from the trees and it looked like they had chicken coops in the back.”
The neighbors’ mistrust and suspicions of Palacio — who has a Panamanian father and a Mexican mother and was born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles — sowed the seeds for Ocotillo Dreams, the story of Isola, a young woman who inherits a house in Chandler and relocates there temporarily.
Isola soon learns that her estranged mother lived a secret life of helping illegal immigrants and she confronts her own confusion and sense of loyalty in a strange and unwelcoming environment.
While the book and its characters are pure fiction, Palacio was only 24 when her mother died and she says she projected some of her emotions from that loss into Isola’s character.
“But unlike the character, I was very close to my mother,” she said. “We were best friends.
“I worked hard to make sure that the character was very different from me because I didn’t want people to think that I was writing an autobiography and that these things actually happened with me.
“I’ve never been arrested and all of the events are fiction,” she laughed.
Palacio began her writing career as a journalist and was a staff reporter at the now-defunct Goleta Valley Voice from 2001 to 2004 when she had the idea for Ocotillo Dreams. She started to write the book before realizing that “I don’t know how to do this,” she laughed.
“I put aside the idea and I started writing short stories and I realized I still don’t know what I’m doing, so then I put the short stories aside and I started writing poetry,” said Palacio, a lifelong student who holds a master’s degree in comparative literature from UC Santa Cruz and continues to attend writing and poetry conferences and workshops whenever she can.
One of the turning points in her writing career was her acceptance in 2007 as a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow, a prestigious literary fellowship program that provides new writers with the tools to launch a professional writing career, including a professional mentorship, master classes at UCLA and public readings of their work.
The program helped her finish the first draft of the novel, says Palacio, who was the first one in her fellowship class of six to do so.
“I went from writing journalism, reporting type of work, to getting deeper and deeper into language,” she said. “… Poetry has influenced how I write longer pieces, and each word does matter.
“I think a lot of people who may not write poetry write a lot of filler scenes. Somewhere I remember hearing that you should skip writing all the boring parts because, if you don’t want to read them, your readers aren’t going to want to read them. And it helped me write only what’s important.”
Now an accomplished poet and writer, Palacio’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, and her poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, won the 2009 Kulupi Press Sense of Place award. She also co-edits Ink Byte Magazine, an online publication for writers, and she writes a column for the online journal La Bloga.
Palacio finds time for guitar lessons, dancing (dancing outdoors at Cold Spring Tavern and El Capitan Canyon Campground are among her favorite things to do), teaching writing workshops to both high school students and adults, cooking and baking, and occasionally performing with local groups like Dramatic Women, Las Posadas and Speaking of Stories.
As a writer, poet and teacher, Palacio has an enviable flexibility in her schedule. She and her husband, Steve Beisner, a computer programmer, spend about two-thirds of their time living in Santa Barbara and the other third in New Orleans, Beisner’s hometown.
“New Orleans is very different from Santa Barbara,” Palacio said. “In Santa Barbara, there’s so much perfect beauty here, and New Orleans is more gritty. It’s a different kind of energy. I enjoy both places.”
Although she’s setting aside time to devote to marketing Ocotillo Dreams, Palacio also recently completed a full-length poetry manuscript.
Writers do like to write, after all.
“The excitement of having a new book is bittersweet because of the economy and the bookstores closing, and just the loss of certain contacts that I’ve made over the past several years,” she said.
“The book has a lot of important issues that don’t just pertain to Arizona, but now with other states like Alabama having copycat or similar laws, it’s a topic that can’t be ignored. And,” she added, “immigration is a topic that should be discussed more openly than it is.”
Melinda Palacio will be signing Ocotillo Dreams at Tecolote Book Shop, 1470 East Valley Road in Montecito, at 4 p.m. Saturday and at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St. in Loreto Plaza, at 7 p.m. Sept. 27.
She will be teaching at the 47th California Poets in the Schools (CPITS) symposium Sept. 9-11 at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in Montecito. She also will be a featured speaker at Valle Verde’s library fundraiser on Sept. 15.