Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Q&A with Mary de la Peña

Mary de la Peña is a native southern Californian-- born in Pasadena but raised in the spirit of Old California's Mexican heritage. Spanish is her second language, but her first love, having learned it from second grade through college, where she was imbued with the culture and mores of the Mexican people.

It was the cacophony of voices demonizing an otherwise hard-working and gentle people that made the author seek out and write about the quiet immigrant heroes who surround us but are never identified. Thus, An Immigrant American Hero is but one of the many stories of immigrants who came to this country and made it strong with their blood, their seat, and their fortitude.

Mary de la Peña is a practicing criminal defense lawyer in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and married to her law partner/ husband. For more information, visit

1.       What inspired you to write AN IMMIGRANT AMERICAN HERO?

I was at my first writers’ retreat in Sedona, Arizona, and the leader of the group asked us to picture the person who has most supported me in my endeavor to become an author. I pictured my husband’s face, and the story flowed from that image as fast as a river runs after a snow melt. This book is, in essence, a fictionalized version of my husband’s and his family’s story.


2.       How would you describe Tico and how would you say he evolved in this story?

Tico, because he came to this country as a lost little boy at an orphanage, always had the need to be accepted. He wanted to “fit in,” and he did so by working hard at whatever task he took on as his own. At his core was the desire to live up to his perceived duties so that he could be accepted and ultimately loved. Within that core were values that he stayed true to, including family, honor, duty, and God.

His evolution came through always seeing the inequities and trying to solve them or make them better, all the while staying true to his core values. It was only later in life that he learned that honor and love can also be received.


3.       What were some of the most important lessons that Tico learned in his journey?

I believe the hardest lesson he learned was that outsiders (perceived outsiders) must work harder to be accepted than those to whom status has already been bestowed. However, humility and hard work, while understanding the needs of others and tending to them, can also win acceptance. (Ex: Tico understanding outsiders at East LA College and running as an outsider; Tico helping officer recruits tend their uniforms; Tico commandeering a fuel tanker plane for his men to refuel their jets; Tico leading a strike force to save Marines putting their safety ahead of his career; Tico tending to a very mentally ill wife for years; and Tico tending to immigrant clients.)

It was only when he finally let someone in to love him—someone who truly loved him— could he find love for himself, finally learning that he was worthy of love.


4.       How would you define "Immigrant American Hero" and do you think Tico achieved that title in the end?

An Immigrant American Hero represents all the immigrants who have the courage to come to this country, leaving behind all that they know, in an effort to find a better life. It is their sacrifice and endurance that has made this country strong, making them everyday heroes. 

As for the fictional character, Tico, he is very much inspired by my husband’s life. Because of that, I can truly attest to the fact he is a hero in every respect. Not only is he a “hero,” as defined through military service and honors, but he is an everyday hero to his clients and to his family.

Federico de la Peña, an immigrant from Mexico at the age of seven, has risen to the top of his careers, achieving honors and recognitions that in his humility is embarrassed to admit. 

For instance, as a criminal defense attorney, he was the first Spanish-speaking attorney in California’s Inland Empire to be recognized by the American Bar Association as one of the top 100 trial attorneys in the United States. He achieved that status by working hard every day for his clients, getting up to go to court, then staying late at the office, only to go to the jails late at night to comfort those clients who had been incarcerated. He is a well-practiced and well-respected criminal defense attorney who is also fluent in Spanish. He is consistently recognized by Martindale/Hubbel with a consistent A/V rating for more than 25 consecutive years, being recognized for his ethics and legal knowledge. He is also recognized as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the Inland Empire by Inland Empire Magazine and Lexis/Nexis. These honors do not come lightly—only come to those who are honored by judges and opposing counsel.

He is also a hero to me, his wife and law partner. This man gets up every day and goes to work, though he is 77 years old! His work is his life, though he suffers from lingering issues from his years as a fighter pilot for the United States Navy. His back is crippled with arthritis and nerve damage, yet he does not let that stop him. His mission is to bring humility, strength, and justice to the courtroom on behalf of his clients. Yet, he is also a loving and attentive husband to me, his wife of almost 25 years, and my law partner for 26. How many women can truly say their husband is their hero?

The integrity and ethics of this man all relate back to the strong family values instilled in him by his Mexican family—hard work, family, education, and God.


5.       What was the hardest part about writing this book?

The hardest part of writing this book was getting my husband to accept his status as a hero. That, and the determination from a legal standpoint to make it “fiction.” The rest was easy. The actual writing of the book took me 4 ½ days! Getting my husband to read the book and “okay” it took six months.


6.       What do you hope readers will gain from your book?

It is my sincere desire that those who read the book will understand that heroes are those people who chose to do the right thing on a consistent basis. Also, in this day of demonizing immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, that those who read the book learn that our immigrants have much to contribute to the United States. I also hope that second- and third-generation immigrant readers will gain an understanding of the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents, who came to this country to make a better life for their families.

However, the most important lesson from the book is that education and hard work are the keys to success and acceptance. Also, no matter what the circumstances of a family, if it is impressed upon the children that they must stay in school, and that they must work hard, the children will learn the building blocks to having a successful career.

Lastly, I hope that my readers learn that honor is sometimes very hard. Staying with a commitment can be difficult. But, it is that very commitment to family, country, profession that makes a hero.


7.      What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?

Writing for me is like flying: it sets me free from my everyday life. When a story is unfolding I am transported to another time and place. I can see, hear, feel, and live through my characters. As a criminal defense attorney, my work for my clients can be daunting with reluctant judges, difficult opposing counsel, and needy clients. But when I write, I have control—well, sometimes my characters take on a life of their own, but at least I have the illusion of control.

What I like least is the heavy lifting of marketing. I love book signings and interaction with other writers, but the social media parts of marketing can be intrusive because they need constant tending. That is what splits me in two. Writing I can do in my downtime from the practice of law. Marketing is constant yuck!


8.       Who are some of your favorite authors?

Walter Farley when I was as a child. One of my more recent titles, as yet unpublished, is an homage to him; Velvet Blue Dancer is the story of boy who rescues a horse and learns that heroes do not need superhuman powers to be a hero.

As an adult, definitely Sue Grafton! It was one of her books that I read while on a long weekend in Santa Barbara, California, that inspired me to dare to write. I read her Kinsey Milhoune and thought, I can do that! From there, I started writing mysteries, at least four of which are in various stages of neglect, having never been finished. But, that is what started me on the journey. I took writing classes, and began writing in earnest a few years later, all while reading and paying attention to other authors and how they manage their characters.

I love John Sanford; J. A. Jance; Patterson’s early work; Baldacci; and Brian Haig. For a change of pace I like Stephen King’s early works, and Dean Koonz. More recently I have discovered Steve Martini, as he does a really good job of describing criminal defense work. I enjoy John Grisham, but he writes about civil attorneys—a world I don’t really know.

Influential authors are Michael Connelly—he spoke to one of my writing classes at Cal State—Fullerton before he became a huge success. I must admit he doesn’t really get a criminal defense attorney quite right in his Lincoln Lawyers series, but I like the rest of his work. His motto: “Keep writing!”

My tone in my recent fiction work under my “mystery writer” name, M. J. Hatch, in the Murder Most… series is heavily influenced by Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiaasen, and Elmore Leonard. I like finely crafted characters that are surrounded by “crazies.”

In all seriousness, the author that had the most influence on me is Tony Hillerman. He got the tone and texture of his characters’ speech patterns perfectly. Thus, it is critical to me to make sure my characters’ dialogues are truly reflective of who they are as people.


9.       Are you working on anything right now?

I just finished the third of the Detective Jake Swanson mysteries, Murder Most Merry, and am currently working with Thomas Hill to do a second edition of A Layman’s Guide to Criminal Defense. After we finish the second edition of that book, my husband and I will work on “A Layman’s Guide to Criminal Jury Trials and Other Proceedings.

I am also working on two other books and new characters. However, in transitioning from one computer network to another, I seem to have lost the outline to one of the books. I can tell from the first 128 pages the plot is very complex—too complex to write without an outline! Hopefully it will come to me again.

Speaking of mysteries, famed actor Robert Wagner loves the Murder Most… series, and especially the lead character’s partner, Melissa Sanchez. Wagner loves it so much we are working to get funding to develop a TV series based on the character. I also love Melissa—she is dedicated, hardworking, straight shooting, and the perfect foil for the more laid-back surfer dude lead character, Jake Swanson.


10.   If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of Tico? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.)

Actually, I see the movie more as an anime-type movie. There are some great artists in Mexico that would do a fine job of bringing the movie to life as an animated picture. If I ever get a script, a friend of mine wants to take it directly to the head of Universal Studios for production and distribution.



11.   And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?

The Latino culture is strong in Southern California, thus stories that incorporate the people as fully formed characters will by necessity rise in popularity. Someday, hopefully soon, publishers will recognize that books like An Immigrant American Hero resonate with a wide swath of readers. With that realization I am sure more young writers of Latino descent will write and see their books in print.

My husband is proud of his Mexican heritage and believes there is a strong artistic culture within its people. It is my sincere hope and belief that this will come to the forefront and more people will see the beauty in the Latino culture of family, home, and faith.

Up Next: A review of An Immigrant American Hero

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