Think Freely Latino recently sat down with Raul Cisneros – entrepreneur, volunteer, and children’s book author. If you meet Raul in person, the first thing you will notice about him is his warm smile and genuine enthusiasm for life and serving others.
Sure, he’s always had a career and full-time job, but his heart is in volunteering and his “side hustle” – writing bilingual (English and Spanish) children’s books.
Read his profile and understand why adding perseverance to your passion is a great formula for finding personal fulfillment, and making a true impact.
TFL: So, you were born and raised in Panama?
Cisneros: Yes! Panama is a small nation in Central America with a population of about 4 million people. It’s a country with a rich history, from indigenous times to today. Panama is known for many things: pre-Columbian gold artwork; an important Spanish trading way station; the first transoceanic railway; the Panama Canal; and, as center for international commerce and trade.
TFL: Why did your family decide to come to the U.S.?
Cisneros: My family is both from Panama and the U.S. My late father, who was Panamanian, earned a scholarship to study in the U.S. as a young man. It was here where he met my mother, an American from Arkansas. They married there and returned to Panama to start a family. I lived mostly in Panama, but left Panama in 1982 to attend school in the U.S., where I have lived ever since.
TFL: So, somehow you ended up working on a cattle farm in Oklahoma?
Cisneros: My parents were very good friends with a family in Oklahoma. When I was barely 13, my parents sent me on the first of two trips to the U.S. to live with our friends who owned a large cattle ranch. It was a formative, unforgettable and all around a wonderful experience. In addition to attending school, I learned to be a ranch hand. I saddled and rode horses, fed and worked the cattle herd, and even helped deliver baby calves. I even had a chance to own a few head of cattle, which I sold before returning to Panama.
Q: You have a side hustle, but what is your full-time gig?
Cisneros: I have worked at the Census Bureau for nearly nine years now. I’ve served in a number of capacities including media relations, marketing, web and new media. One of my greatest professional experiences was to help promote the 2010 Census, one of the most important, constitutionally mandated, domestic undertakings of the U.S. government.
TFL: So, one of your big passions is writing children’s books. What is the name of your first book?
Cisneros: The name of my children’s book is Raul and the Iguana. The book is written in English and Spanish, so en español se llama Raúl y la Iguana. The book is written for five- to seven-year olds and was beautifully illustrated by Johnny Lamirande.
TFL: Sounds like a perfect treat for a kid’s Halloween basket. What is the book about?
Cisneros: It’s based on a personal childhood experience, when an iguana actually entered the apartment my family was living in when I was a young boy. It caused a great commotion. In the story, I decide to keep the iguana as a pet and named it Igor. Unfortunately, keeping Igor as a pet doesn’t quite work out in the end. So, I come up with a solution, but you have to read the book to see how it ends.
Q: Why was it important for you to write this story, and write it in both English and Spanish?
Cisneros: Ever since I was a young boy and learned to read, I have loved books. I visited the library every time I had an opportunity. I had this idea about writing a book about an iguana, and incorporating something that had actually happened. I thought it would make a good story for children.
Kids are like sponges – curious about the world, soaking up information. They are also better at learning another language. That is why I wanted to offer my book in both English and Spanish.
The book also includes a map showing where Panama is, plus biological and ecological information about iguanas. It was important for me to incorporate an educational element … as well as emphasizing the importance of protecting the environment.
TFL: Why is there such a demand, you think, for bilingual books?
Cisneros: Many young children are exposed to a foreign language as part of their education, which I believe is important. Here in the U.S., next to English, Spanish is the next most widely spoken language. That’s why I think that translates into a demand for bilingual English-Spanish books. For my book, the bilingual edition has been far more popular than the English one.
TFL: This is a self-published book. It takes a lot of perseverance to get it out there. What would you say are some of the most significant barriers or challenges to getting a children’s book published?
Cisneros: The most significant barriers are finding a publisher and/or an agent. The children’s book market is competitive. But, thanks to online commerce, the web, social media and a little marketing, it is possible to be successful on your own. There are opportunities to work directly with libraries and schools, particularly if you have something unique like a bilingual book. In fact, my local library has my book in circulation.
While there may be challenges for Latino authors, I see opportunities, particularly as the country is becoming more diverse. Latino authors can write about different and rich cultural experiences. Also, those who write in Spanish have an additional advantage – there is a potential market in Latin America. For those that really want to make a go of it, there are many how-to’s, resources and organizations that cater to children’s book writers.
However, it’s important to be realistic. It takes time and effort to write a children’s book and you need to do your homework. My book is a prime example, the manuscript alone, about 250 words, took me six weeks to write.
TFL: So if it is so hard to get the attention of a publishing house, why keep writing? How do you get book out there?
Cisneros: While it’s a challenge for new writers, there is a market demand for children’s books. Books are very popular with children, particularly if the story is engaging and unique. Added to that, if you publish a bilingual book, I believe that’s a competitive advantage. Also, if you love writing, persevere and market yourself, it creates an opportunity to garner more visibility. After one, two, three or more books, you may get noticed by a publisher or agent.
TFL: It sounds like you don’t have any intention of giving up. Any new children’s books in the works?
Cisneros: I am working on a few manuscripts right now. There was a beautiful parrot who visited my mother’s apartment for a few weeks and that gave me the idea for another story involving a tropical animal. I am also writing a story about visiting a small village in the Panamanian countryside and staying in an adobe house. Another idea, based on a true story, is to write about those who are less fortunate, and the importance of being compassionate to one another. I may also write a pre-teen story based on my experience living and working on a cattle ranch.
TFL: You also do a lot of volunteering. What kind of volunteer activities are you involved in? And why do you think it is important to serve one’s community?
Cisneros: I believe it’s very important to serve your community in one way or another. One of my first community activities years ago was to be a big brother and role model in the Big Brothers and Sisters program. That had experience brought an added benefit, because it was through Big Brothers that I met my wife. She was also a volunteer for the organization.
And today I serve as an official volunteer tour guide at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC – one of the most visited museums in the world. I enjoy telling stories about aviation and space. If I can spark the interest of a young visitor, that is always very personally fulfilling. Most recently, I’ve also been invited to read my book … to the kids at the National Children’s Medical Center in Washington, DC., one of the top children’s hospitals in the country.
In the past, I’ve also been appointed to county and state commissions, serving county and state residents.
TFL: Thank you, Raul for sitting down with us – and for your service to others. Loved the book, by the way.