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Leadership Award

 Stella Pope Duarte 

Author, Educator
Phoenix College, Arizona

Stella Pope Duarte has come a long way since growing up in her south Phoenix barrio, La Sonorita, considered “one of the worst slum areas in Phoenix,” by a newscast done in the 1960’s. An accomplished educator, author, and motivational speaker, a conversation with Duarte is like a visit to two or three sections of a bookstore all at once. Duarte began writing because her father told her to – in a dream. She prays before she makes major decisions, as she considers the invisible world of faith, more powerful than the visible one. 

Her first book is a collection of short stories entitled Fragile Night, which was a finalist for the prestigious Pen West Fiction Award. A "fragile night" Duarte said, "is a moment of truth when the soul catches up to a person, and the person doesn't run." She describes it as an ‘aha’ moment, and in Spanish, an ‘ijuela.’

Her own fragile night included a dream visit from her father. "My dad had to show up from the other world, literally, to tell me, 'it's right there, what you have to do next,'" Duarte said about her writing career.

So, despite the skepticism of her family, she began to write. Her second book, Let Their Spirits Dance, published in 2002 by HarperCollins, has won critical acclaim, internationally. It tells the story of the Ramirez family, whose mother makes a vow to honor the memory of her son, killed in the Vietnam War. The mother inspires her family to journey with her to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, thus opening the way for healing, redemption, and the realization that love does not stop at the grave.

Duarte has received two creative writing fellowships – for each of her published books – from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and numerous awards and other recognition, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in Literature.

A graduate of Phoenix College in Arizona, Duarte went on to earn a master's in educational counseling from Arizona State University. She is a state certified counselor, a bilingual educator and an adjunct faculty member at two universities.

Her path toward success was difficult. Raised in a barrio in South Phoenix, Duarte had few role models to inspire her in her pursuit of a college degree. She attributes her success in school to her love of reading, "I loved to read. Literature opened up new worlds for me. Words danced inside my head like magical friends."

She was introverted and shy, but "I had this huge world inside me. I was a writer, but I didn't know it."

Today, she encourages people to discover what is inside of them, to tend to "internal business." She gives presentations in which she tells people "to look within to discover who they are," Duarte said. "If you understand the language of your own soul, it doesn’t matter what other language you speak – you will know who you are."  Her writing is a further attempt to serve society. In it, she tends to feature familiar scenes and characters from her barrio, and thus humble people “have a voice they never had before," Duarte said.

Currently, Duarte is finishing up her third book. The Women of Juarez, a historical novel that tells the story of the more than 400 young women who have been murdered in Juarez, Mexico since 1993.

Duarte is a community activist and an active Phoenix College alum. She is planning a fourth book, and is busy year-round, presenting inspirational messages to enthusiastic audiences of all ages.

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