The son of a white Southern Appalachian sharecropper and a Salvadoran refugee, Villatoro has dealt with “being in the middle” all of his life. His father and mother met in 1940s San Francisco and fell in love. They did so even before either of them could understand what the other was saying.
“Dad didn’t speak Spanish, mom didn’t speak English, so of course, they got married,” Villatoro joked.
His parents decided to move to Tennessee shortly after Villatoro was born. It was in the South where Villatoro first discovered how people in a small town view a young person born of a bicultural couple.
“I was the only Latino boy in Rogersville in the 1970s,” he said.
Villatoro heard his bicultural background labeled in more than one way, but “half-breed” was the one that stuck out most to him. First used by his friend Tommy as a way to identify a half-white, half-Latino boy, the seemingly innocent remark from a childhood friend would help spark the flame that ignited his passion for education and literature.
“In 1973 Cher had come out with ‘Half-Breed.’ Here was this…woman dressed as a Cherokee, singing these powerful lyrics: ‘Half-breed, that’s all I ever heard, half-breed, both sides were against me from the day I was born.’ My friend Tommy and I were both 11 and we were in the garage singing it like crazy. We were going crazy. And then Tommy turned to me and said, ‘Hey McPeek, that’s what you are!’ And I stopped and the first thing that I did, I looked at my arms for some reason. I looked at Tommy and I just said, ‘Yeah, I am.’”
At that moment Villatoro began to realize the concepts of race and culture. The understanding that he was different was now all around him, in the air.
“I started to think about what it means to not be white, and what you have to do to be white. It opened my eyes to thinking ‘Oh, I am the other here.’”
His feeling of being "the other" would eventually lead Villatoro to writing novels, poetry and essays. His radio commentaries won him two Los Angeles Emmy awards, in 2009 and 2010.
Villatoro now sees how racism, especially internalized racism, can negatively affect people of all ages and influence how they respond to their environment.
It was around the time his friend made the "half-breed" comment that an Encyclopedia Britannica helped open Villatoro's mind to what was happening to him.
“I was flipping through the pages to the section on Central America and there was a photo of people in a market. The photo was in black and white, but they were obviously Latino, they looked like my mother, like Salvadorans. I remember looking at that picture and I quickly flipped the pages over. Inside that boy was internalized racism. Inside, he was starting to believe what the world said of non-white people."
“Children know it immediately. There are a whole bunch of little kids out in East Tennessee, and Texas, and New York, who are getting the message: ‘You’re less.’ It is felt. It is hard on kids to feel that.”
There are challenges that go with not being able to identify as neither Latino or Anglo in a country where race and culture are hot-button issues. Still, Villatoro believes that by embracing both aspects of culture, a person can overcome the confusion and feelings of being lost.
One thing that helped Villatoro was the pursuit of higher education.
“One way out of ‘the trap’ is school,” Villatoro said. “Going to school is what helped me become a writer. My wife, who is also an educator, her students are 95 percent of Mexican, Salvadoran, or Guatemalan [descent]. Most of them are poor. They come from struggle.”
Villatoro holds the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles, where he teaches writing and literature. He uses his past experiences to influence others in the Latino community.
According to a study done by the Pew Research Center in July 2016, the United States is seeing a rise in college attendance by members of the Latino community, as well as a decline in high school dropout rates.
In another Pew study, released in 2014, the dropout rate among Latino high school students went from 32 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2013. Researchers found 35 percent of Latinos between the ages of 18 and 24 were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college, compared to 22 percent in 1993.
Dr. Katherine Brueck, chair of the Department of English at Mount St. Mary's, said the school has experienced this growth.
“Over the past 10 years our Latino population at Chalon, our main campus, grew from 50 percent to 60 percent of the student population," she said. "I would say the majority of our English majors and minors are Latino.”
Villatoro helps English majors find their path, Brueck said.
“Marcos' personal qualities that attract students are openness to others and the world, his fairness, and an instinct for both amusing and at times mesmerizing an audience,” Brueck said.
A first-generation college graduate, Villatoro holds a bachelor's degree from St. Ambrose University and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. He is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Among his six novels, the Romilia Chacón mystery novel "Home Killings" was named a best book of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times and won first prize from the Latino Literary Hall of Fame in 2002.
He and his family have also traveled to Berlin, El Salvador, to meet members of Villatoro's family and to make tamales, something his mother Amanda did while he was growing up.
From their adventures came the documentary "Tamale Road," which not only delves into the heart of the violent past of the war-torn country, but gave Villatoro a tangible link to his heritage, and the truth of what his mother escaped.
Michelle McPeek, Villatoro’s wife, has been by his side working with underprivileged communities from Nicaragua to Alabama since the 1980s. Through her commitment to the Latino community, she has gained perspective on how to be an ally and an influence to her students and her own children.
“I specifically wanted to work in communities of struggle," she said. "Marcos has spent much of his adult life exploring his Latino roots, which not only shaped me, but how we raised our children as well.”
A teacher herself, McPeek wants the younger members of the Latino community to stay in high school, and to go on to obtain college degrees.
“There are too many students who are not given the tools to succeed," she said. "Don’t be afraid to explore your roots. Our life is fuller when we know who we are.”
Villatoro had one last piece of advice for anyone who is experiencing a situation similar to his.
“My advice for the [Latino] family who has come to East Tennessee is, ‘keep that kid in school.’”