Matt de la Peña was the first in his family to go to college. "[It] was a great thing, but it was also a source of guilt. I felt like almost a sellout going to college...When I got older and started writing about these themes, that guilt started to emerge." He had a complicated relationship with his ethnic identity during this time. He said, "The whole… thing of not feeling ‘Mexican enough’ was a big deal, too. On the one hand, you have your grandmother who is anointing you as a chosen one because you are light, but then you feel like you’re less because you are lighter than your cousins, who are more down on the streets. You know? So that confusion was all I wrote about."
He received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. "When I was in school, I was very much into just sports," he said of this time, "mostly basketball, and didn’t really see myself as much of a student."
A self-described "jock," he had early struggles with formal education. He was almost held back in second grade, he said, "because I 'couldn't read,' which shattered my confidence. For a long time after that experience I viewed myself as unintelligent — and the most difficult definition to break free from...is self-definition."
For de la Peña it was performance-based poetry that captured his imagination and catapulted him into writing. "Even though I was a reluctant reader in junior high and high school," he said, "I found myself writing poems in the back of class. Secret spoken-word-style poems I never shared. They were about girls, mostly. And my neighborhood. And the confusion I sometimes felt about growing up racially mixed." As he progressed in his college career, he realized he needed to make a decision about his future. "I figured I wasn’t going to be playing [basketball] beyond college," de la Peña said. "I started to think, what was I going to do, since I wouldn’t be able to make a living with basketball. There were a couple of things I liked to do. I wrote poetry...[But] I always thought books were just...things I couldn’t identify with."
In college, however, he discovered authors like Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel García Márquez, and Junot Díaz, and found their voices resonated. He fell in love with books. "I was introduced to really amazing multicultural literature—it was all the things I was trying to do unsuccessfully in my poetry. It really just changed everything."
His book Mexican WhiteBoy was banned from Tuscon High School in 2012. He found out through his correspondence with a reader. "She asked me to come visit her school...I was set to go to Tucson High School and meet her." When he heard that his book had been banned and the Mexican American studies program at Tuscon High School was being shut down, he said, "I thought it was a joke....Then I heard from…an advocate for Mexican American and Native American books [who] said that the kids were reading Mexican WhiteBoy when the superintendents literally pulled it out of their hands."
De la Peña thought at this point, his trip to Tuscon had come to a definite halt. "I was thinking if my book was illegal to teach at this school, there’s no way they were going to let me visit. But the librarian was very savvy. She played dumb and said to the principal that she…didn’t think I was one of the banned authors," he said.
As an author of an honest-to-goodness banned book, de la Peña feels it's a mixed bag. He said, "It sucks that your book was banned, but you almost benefit from [the publicity].” Peña was the subject of a New York Times profile piece due to the events in Tuscon. "And it was a crazy experience, because I thought I would find a bunch of Mexican American students who were deflated because this program…was taken away. But when I got there, what I found was that what this situation had done had created a generation of activists. They were picketing the school. They were going to board meetings. Chaining themselves to desks…And it was cool to see that it has given them something to fight for. But the thing that is crushing is that it is purely politically motivated. These kids were the ones affected."
His favorite author is Cormac MacCarthy. “I love him so much. There’s one book that informs me more than The Road—it’s called Suttree. That book is a huge influence on me…he inspires me. He never infiltrates my writing directly. He writes incredibly intelligently about people that are marginalized. Blood Meridian is [also] incredible. It’s very heavy. It’s a journey. Suttree is more visceral and heart.”