My Top Reads of 2019

Happy New Year, everyone! After a brief hiatus during the month of December, I am happily back in the world of blogging! As a non-fiction writer, I tend to read mostly non-fiction works, and this year was no exception. Below, you will find my Top 5 Non-fiction reads of 2019, in no particular order.

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City, by Laura Tillman

A graduate of Vassar College, Laura Tillman landed her first job in journalism with The Brownsville Herald in 2008. Five years before, in 2003, John Allen Rubio and his partner, Angela Camacho, murdered their three children in a two-story apartment building previously located at 805 East Tyler Street in my hometown. (it has since been demolished)

I was away in college when the murders occurred and recall hearing a little about them when I moved back. Disturbing, engrossing and fully human, Tillman delivers true journalism, asking the reader to examine themselves, the case, the community, and what drove the couple to commit such an act. (Disclaimer: I had to put this book down, more than once, and pray, fearful that the evil events I read about were somehow going to pop up out of the pages at me)

Whiskey in a Teacup, by Reese Witherspoon

Is there anything Reese Witherspoon doesn’t do?! She had me at teacup.

Filled with rich, colorful photos of the South and southern charm, the read is equal parts stories, delicious recipes, hosting and fashion advice.

I felt like a Magnolia blossom observing a culture so different from my own, yet similar. I also felt 100 times more ladylike by the end of the book.

Learning to Ride Again, by Amanda Stephens

I knew Amanda Stephens my freshman year of high school; we were both in a medical program. She penned a poem on waiting for love, just for me, that I still have. It left an impression. Her literary debut is no different.

After a brief marriage to her husband, he died suddenly, her vision of a future with him completely shattered. The story follows her piecing together her life again, her healing, and a faithful God.

I laughed, I wiped away many tears, and came away knowing how to better care for those deeply grieving as a result. Her story is a gift for anyone that reads it.

Life Creative: Inspiration for Today’s Renaissance Mom, by Wendy Speake and Kelli Stuart

Perhaps because last semester I was just coming out of the fog of raising three children 24/7, this book did exactly what it set out to do: it inspired me to action!

It is filled with countless tales of other mothers like me, who wear multiple hats and yearn for an outlet of creativity.

If you, too, are an entrepreneur, artist, or simply a creative person, Life Creative will greatly encourage you in whatever season you find yourself in!

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land

Written in my favorite style, I stumbled across this memoir by accident. While waiting in the Des Moines airport for a flight back to South Texas last winter, CNN was interviewing Stephanie Land, a recent national bestseller.

Her story intrigued and inspired me, and I set out to find her book when we arrived home. After putting it on hold at our local library and waiting for about a week, I had it in my hands! It did not disappoint.

A tale of sociological proportions, it makes the reader examine our class system in the United States, and how we treat people that serve in humble ways. Her grit, determination, and transparency make for a delicious tale! I look forward to reading other works by Land.

How about you? Which literary works did you read that left an impression this year? I would love non-fiction recommendations if you have them! Until next time, keep your feet on the ground and your nose in a good book!

A Blow to My Pride

On a typical Friday evening, I sat down on my sofa to check my work e-mail to pick and plan my next script. I read these words:

Hi, Giana,

Unfortunately, our proofreaders told me that they very often return your scripts and re-write a lot. I’m really sorry, but I don’t think we’ll be able to keep working together. I wish you all the best on other projects! You can create Custom Work, and we’ll pay you for your scripts.

Thinking I had misunderstood, I read them again. I called my husband and asked him to come downstairs to help me with something. I handed him my laptop and proceeded to stare at our wall in disbelief. He quickly read the message under his breath.

“Is it what I think it is?” I asked, halfway hoping that I missed something and my understanding of the message was completely off. He sighed, and said, “Yes.”

It typically takes me time to respond to big news, good or bad. The process usually goes as follows: I receive said news, file it away temporarily, and then it comes flooding to the surface at the most inconvenient times: when I am alone, with no one to console me, or when I am at church or another place surrounded by people.

This time was different. After realizing that I had just been fired from a job for the first time in my life, the tears immediately fell strongly and quickly, making it hard for me to see, much less talk. I had so many questions. The loss of a job I held for two months sent me into a tailspin of grief within 24 hours: I was in shock for about 5 minutes, sad for nearly 3 hours and then angry the next day.

I was short with my husband and children, completely irritated that I was in this situation, not fully understanding why things had transpired the way they did without so much as a warning.

The Writing on the Wall

When I first decided to apply for this writing job that seemingly fell from the sky (my cousin sent me the job description via messenger), I had a strong feeling that I would get it. In the world of writing, rejection is common and often occurs more than successes. Still, I knew this was it; this job was going to be mine. And it was.

I tuned out my husband when he asked, “Do you think you’ll be able to swing 1,400 words a day?” as was stated in the original job description, and pressed on, thrilled at the idea of finally being paid to write. I was going to do whatever it took to make it work.

I squeezed in the writing and researching between balancing my family and part-time work life. This was, after all, my second part-time job. I was in constant communication with my editor, and she encouraged me to take my time with the scripts, occasionally praising me with phrases like, “I don’t know how moms do it all!” While the job itself was not the creative outlet I imagined, seeing my words turned into animations and read by a narrator was quite empowering!

I chalked up my feelings of not being sure about certain aspects of the company, and not being excited about some of the writing assignments, to the newness of the job. I was only a few weeks in, so certainly my learning curve would lessen and I would get the hang of things, right?

A Full Circle

Immediately after speaking with my husband, I called my mom. I knew she had experienced job loss, oddly enough, when she was close to my age– nearing 40. I was in my sophomore year of college when the largest retailer in our city let her go after 20 years of service. I received a letter from her, then, that she had written while processing on the beach.

Then 20 years old, with the world as my oyster, I felt terribly for her and prayed. It wasn’t until Friday, November 1st, of 2019, though, that I had a small inkling of what it must have felt like for her.

“I’m so sorry,” I choked out in between sobs, “that I didn’t know what it was like for you.”

She told me not to worry, and together we remembered how she had walked all alone, her office belongings in a box, down the long corridor to her car when she was told her services were no longer needed.

Through My Son’s Eyes

Life doesn’t stop when someone is grieving. The very next morning, after receiving the dreaded news, I accompanied my son to his most recent Taekwondo test. I sat on the bleacher with many other parents and guardians, watching the process of about 50 students get promoted to their next belt.

During one of the sessions, participants spar against each other while wearing full fighting gear (a helmet, gloves, shin guards and boots). My firstborn fought against a formidable opponent who showed no mercy. He swung, multiple times, at the sides of Jack’s head. Confident in getting out of tough situations, my son kept moving around, quick on his feet. But the boy wouldn’t stop, and I could tell with each blow, Jack grew more and more discouraged.

Eyes wide with apprehension and slightly teary-eyed at the end of that round, he searched for me through his helmet. Holding back my own tears, I gave him a confident thumbs up and nodded, as if to say, “You’re okay. You’re going to make it. You need to see this through.”

The irony was not lost on me. This is my life right now, I thought. I tucked the illustration away in my heart, remembering who and, more importantly, Whose, I am. My faith reminds me that this job simply was not meant for me, and in the grand scheme of things, this will be but a scratch on the surface. Has it been difficult? Yes. Has it been humbling? Absolutely, face down in the dirt humbling.

Already I have seen great lessons learned from this tragedy, and I give thanks for the opportunity. Like past lessons and those yet to come, I will dust myself off fully, slowly get up and keep moving forward. It’s what every child does when they know they are fiercely loved by a good, good Father.

The Dos and Don’ts of Book Marketing

It has been six months since my book, Stories by the Seashore, went live on Monday, March 25, 2019. The journey has been exciting, humbling and full of learning curves. Here are my top 5 marketing tricks that have helped me sell my first self-published book.

  1. Do Get Ideas from Other Authors

I have started following writing and marketing accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Cyberspace is full of authors that have gone before me, eager to impart wisdom to those willing to listen. The most helpful accounts I’ve stumbled across are mixtusmedia and shyonbooks on Instagram, with excellent editing, marketing and penning ideas and inspiration shared daily. I also like Jon Acuff, an author of several books and speaker.

Slowly, I am incorporating some of the ideas I’ve seen. This blog post is one of them.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Other Authors

It is easy to fall into the comparison trap, with most published authors and individuals sharing only highlights of their process. It can be inspiring as a budding writer to follow authors that have published multiple books and have huge followings. Glean what you can but don’t expect that their story will be yours. Remember that they, too, started somewhere.

Most of my inspiration has come from local writers, like Professor Chip Dameron of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who has penned a few books on poetry, Katelynn Renteria, a recent high school valedictorian that wrote her first manuscript at age 14, and is the recipient of a national book award, and Daniel Garcia Ordaz, a master of the English and Spanish languages, whose most recent published work, Cenzontle/Mockingbird, I am currently devouring.

2. Do Use Social Media as a Marketing Tool

I was pleasantly surprised when, shortly after my book release, many friends and family shared the link to purchase my book on their Facebook platforms. A few also took pictures of it and shared the image on Instagram (one of them I use in my self-publishing presentations because it’s such a great shot!).

I am still learning about how to best use hashtags on Twitter. I had not given that social media site much thought prior to the last couple of months. I am starting with baby steps, following other writers and allowing them to follow me, too. My next step will be tweeting about my book.

Don’t Rely on Social Media for All of Your Marketing

Our local libraries did a fabulous job promoting my self-publishing and book-signing presentations. I had several people come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re famous! I saw your picture on the screen at the main library.” While fame is not my goal, it was encouraging knowing the libraries were promoting my work. It wasn’t solely up to me to do all the leg work.

I also had positive experiences with my first couple of book-signings at my church, Brownsville Community Fellowship, Paragraphs on Padre (on South Padre Island) and the Vintage Crush Tearoom in San Benito, Texas. Looking back at these humble beginnings, having good first experiences were key to my motivation in continuing.

My next event is on Saturday, October 26th, at the Viva Life Christian Bookstore in McAllen, Texas. I would love to see you there!

3. Do Celebrate Small Victories

The first three months after my book release, it was flying off the shelf! At least, that’s what it felt like to me, a newcomer. My initial goal was to sell 40 books, and then 100. I rejoiced when I got to 102, and then stopped counting after that. Sales slowed down after the initial rush. While it is not a national bestseller, I am thankful and humbled that people (and not just family and friends) want to read my book. As of right now, I have 11 reviews, and I still find that exciting!

Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself (or Others)

There were a couple of libraries in South Texas that invited me to present and were completely unprepared when I arrived. As a busy mom of three young children, I was more than a little annoyed. I schedule one event per month with plenty of advanced notice so that I am prepared, and it gives the host site ample time to prepare, too.

However, I quickly reminded myself to be gracious in both instances. My dear husband and wonderful friends all helped to save me on both those days (issues with technology). And then, the tables were turned. As I presented at the Southmost Library in Brownsville (a library that was very well-prepared), my MacBook Air turned off in the middle of my presentation because it ran out of power! I was absolutely mortified! (and that’s because I’m not easily embarrassed)

I quickly scrambled to plug it in but it did not turn on. What else could I do except keep going with the presentation? Did I mention that it was being filmed live, via Facebook? Good times.

4. Do Think Outside of the Box

One of my favorite spontaneous events took place in July. We order about a dozen books every month for signings (as a self-published author I get them at printing cost). The summer zoomed by, with my children home all day and participating in multiple camps and extra-curricular activities. Because of this, I did not schedule an official event.

Since I had books on hand, I decided to do home deliveries. I asked via Facebook and Instagram if anyone who had not purchased a copy of my book wanted one signed and delivered on a particular Saturday morning. The response was great, and my son and I spent a couple of hours delivering the books to 6 destinations.

Don’t Place Yourself in a Box

One of the most popular pieces of advice I read at the beginning of my marketing journey was, “Don’t give copies of your book away.” I clung to it, fairly legalistically, the first couple of months. 6 months into the process later, I have given away multiple copies of my book. A couple of these instances have been through social media giveaways, and other times I felt prompted to gift it to someone in particular. I have not regretted it.

Again, soak up all the wisdom you can from those who have more experience, but do be yourself.

5. Do Bask in the Support of Others

One of the main reasons I kept it together at the Southmost library presentation after my power shut off was because I had a couple of dear friends sitting in the audience. I knew they were panicking inside, wanting to salvage the situation. I didn’t want to let them down; I wanted them to know it was okay. So I kept going.

As I look back at these beginnings, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to you, my supporters. Whether you were one of the first to purchase my book when it went live, attended a presentation and book-signing, ordered a copy for home delivery, asked me how things were going, or simply encouraged me, I thank you. Your belief in me has blessed me tremendously.

Don’t Expect Everyone to Support You

Not everyone is going to like your book, and that’s okay. For whatever reason, not all will be supportive of your writing endeavors. That should be none of your concern.

Show up anyway. Those that rejoice with you will come. As many great writers know, we love for people to read our work and give us feedback. However, that is not the driving force behind why we write. In many ways, we do it for ourselves. It heals us, and reminds us of what is most important.

If you have other successful marketing ideas I would love to hear them! This is all still new to me, and I am constantly learning.

For those that have asked about my scriptwriting job with Bright Side, it is going well and keeping me busy! You can find the first two videos that were made based on my scripts here.

And here.

10 (Happy) Years Later

While vacationing on the island last week, I wrote “10 Years” in the sand to celebrate our upcoming marriage milestone. I handed my phone to my 7-year old and asked him to take a picture of my husband and me. Afterwards, he was looking at what I’d written with a pensive expression on his face.

South Padre Island is our favorite spot on Earth, truly.

How about 10 ‘Happy’ Years,” he excitedly suggested. “Great idea, go ahead and add it,” I told him. My eyes were slightly teary, as I recalled just that morning my husband and I had an exchange of words in the kitchen before departing for our staycation. Concerned, our firstborn son held his fingers in his mouth and looked around on the verge of tears. Ultimately, we made-up and told our children it’s natural and acceptable to have disagreements, and we must learn to forgive and move forward.

I was especially struck by his suggestion of adding “happy” in light of that morning. Here was our blue-eyed boy, who, more than anyone, has a front-row seat to our union. If he has mostly observed happiness, we must be doing something right. It inspired me to think through and share some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned regarding marriage during the last decade (in no particular order—sprinkled with photos from *some* of our favorite traveling adventures): 

  1. There are seasons of giving and taking.

My husband started graduate school this January, a step I had prayed for years that he would take. I was elated but not completely prepared for how this would alter our lives as a family. One of the biggest adjustments was 24-27 hours, per week, of him studying, researching and writing papers (in addition to having a full-time job).

About two months in, I began to feel slightly resentful. The short-lived honeymoon period of him seizing this tremendous opportunity came to a screeching halt! An honest communicator, I approached him with my concerns. There were several conversations that followed in the next few months. By the time June rolled around, I accepted my new reality with contentment.

Prayers and conversations with other wives that had been through similar seasons helped, as well as a renewal of my perspective. I recalled all the times, during the last decade, that he selflessly served me: before, during and after the birth of our three children, and in and after the process of me writing my first book, to name a couple. I remembered that though lenghty, this was a season in our lives that would eventually pass. I didn’t want to simply survive it, I wanted to thrive in it, too.

Iowa is a lovely place with wonderful people. Check it out!

2. Boundaries are good.

Early on in our union, one of the first serious conversations we had was that we would not discuss personal marital situations with members of our families. We love our extended family, and have gained much wisdom and many blessings from different people. However, we recognized that an objective perspective would be more helpful.

We did not desire to bring those we love into conflicts. This is where close couple friends, our small group, and occasionally, counseling, comes in. While we strongly believe in protecting one another, and not speaking poorly of the other person, venting is absolutely necessary. It has been my experience that if there is not an outlet, resentment grows, leading a couple to feel like they are all alone.

Hard talks need to happen, as well as readjusting boundaries as a marriage continues.

Colorado is one of our favorite states, and the site of our honeymoon.

3. Money is a big deal.

One of the biggest revelations for me is that “it’s not how much you make, but you how handle what you make.” I have mentioned this before, and will likely again: one of the best things we did as an engaged couple was take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.

Within the first two years of marriage, all our debt was paid off, and we have lived debt-free on 90% (because we tithe) of mostly one-income for the past 7 years. Everything has a budget line. Everything.

There have been times where I’ve felt frustrated because we live so frugally, telling my husband in an unkind tone, “Just tell me how much I have so I can go shop.” However, I can’t recall a single moment where I feared whether or not we could pay all our bills. There is tremendous power and freedom in that.

Were things ever tight? Yes, uncomfortably so (for me), at one point. We went back to the drawing board, reevaluated and moved forward.

Inside an amazing cathedral in Cologne, Germany.

4. Saying “yes” to your spouse could eventually mean saying “no” to more attractive options.

Yup. I just wrote that, husband approved—ha! In a society that promotes lust and random sexual encounters above towing the line of monogamy, keeping yourself for your spouse is quite counter-cultural.

I love people, and finding common ground with most anyone I meet. There have been a handful of times since being a wife that I’ve been introduced to single men where there was instant chemistry on both ends. If thoughts lingered, I was quick to confess it to my accountability partners and ask for prayer. Most times, it stopped there.

There was one instance where someone pursued me. While the attention was flattering, I soon told my husband about it. “What kind of man pursues a married woman?” was all he had to ask to lift the small amount of fog that clouded my vision.

Being married to a man that cherishes me, confessing when I struggle with my thoughts, and ultimately, being reminded that I already made my choice, keeps me in check. I was relieved, sharing years ago with a girlfriend of mine, when she said, “Situations like that will come up in your marriage from time to time.”

San Antonio is our favorite city in Texas to visit!

5. Children are a blessing.

And it’s okay to occasionally go on trips without them. In fact, we HIGHLY recommend it. In our 10 years of matrimony, we have traveled to California, Dallas, South Padre Island and the Pacific Northwest sans the little ones. We have gone on many more adventures with them, though.

They are a joy, not a burden, and some of our greatest teachers in life. I have always seen myself surrounded by children, as a teacher, and as a child when my favorite show was The Brady Bunch. In fact, if I was younger, could pop them out naturally (I’ve had three c-sections), and was able to provide a great quality of life, I would want one more. 

I love being a homemaker and working part-time. My heart beats to mold their little minds, watch them grow and eventually release them into the world to make their own choices.

The Pacific Northwest is stunning!

The original list of lessons I penned was longer than five points. There is still much to learn. My prayer as we continue forward is that we would not stop being students of one another, our children, our Lord and the world around us. I do not ever want to be at a place where I think we have “arrived” and know all things.

Thank you to our families and friends that have stood by our side and supported us; we would not be who we are without you.


(other favorite spots are Louisiana (and the whole South), skiing in New Mexico, vacationing near Dallas (Legoland!) and the Texas Hill Country)

Disneyland Angels

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” -1 Peter 3:15b, NIV

My husband and I attended a Purpose Driven Church Conference led by Pastor Rick Warren this past week in Lake Forest, California. The conference ran Tuesday through Thursday, and we decided, ahead of time, that we would have fun that Friday (before heading home on Saturday).

After an incredible, life-changing experience with people from around the world, I was ready for reality to soon trickle in. We had several discussions, and made plans to see Downtown Disney, located just outside Disneyland. We opted to save money, buy souvenirs for the children, take it easy, and bypass the park. We were completely at peace and content with our decision (looking back, there is a lesson in that, too).

At the end of our fun Downtown Disney adventure, I made a quick stop at the ladies’ room, while my husband waited for me outside. Upon returning to Beau, I saw he was standing with a fellow Latino couple. He motioned to me, “This is my wife, Giana.” I said hello and met Josh and Iliana. Beau continued, “Josh and Iliana are pastors, and they want to pay for our entrance into Disneyland.”

As fate would have it, Beau was wearing a Think Before You Speak shirt that we sold during a particular series at church. It was the shirt that caught Iliana’s attention. She went up to him and said, “I like your shirt. Do you mind if I take a picture of it?” Beau obliged, shared that he was a pastor, and the connections began.

There have been a handful of times in my life when I’ve had what I describe as “out of body” experiences. This ranks high among them. Did I hear him correctly?! I wondered. “What?” was the only response I could muster, quickly followed by, “Are you serious?”

Josh and Iliana smiled at us warmly. Josh began, “We love pastors and want to bless you all.” The more he spoke, the more unbelievable this new narrative became. We began walking towards the entrance of the park with them. The entire time, I literally kept pinching myself, and Beau and I continually exchanged “Is this really happening?!” glances.

Our Earth Angels, Josh and Iliana (yes, they are real).

“Are you all angels?” I half-joked. “Angels?” Iliana shot back, “with this lonja?!” She affectionately squeezed her love handles. We all laughed, and I knew they were our gente.

As we continued chatting, it was revealed that this was not the only reason our lives were brought together. They shared that they are currently praying over and looking for land to build their new church (a process we are familiar with because our church recently purchased land). As fate would have it, Josh is also in the process of writing a book, and we talked about our experience with self-publishing.

Before parting ways, we stood in a circle and prayed for one another. A simple thank you did not perfectly capture the amount of gratitude we felt in our hearts. Still, we said it multiple times and hugged their necks before leaving. Josh took out his wallet, removed a $100 bill, handed it to Beau and said, “For water, sunscreen, snacks and souvenirs.” And just like that, they were gone.

We felt like kids in a candy shop, with both parks now ours to explore (it was a two-for-one deal that day)! We had a spectacular time, and counted it as an early 10-year anniversary celebration (August 9th). We will never forget how much Josh and Iliana blessed us that day, and it has inspired us to continually pay things forward. More importantly, it was a good reminder that we serve a God who loves us.

Bonus: we explored the new Star Wars portion of the park that just opened this year! It was Beau’s childhood dreams realized.

Pasteles Jaque Mate

To know Luis Gutierrez Beattie is to know joy, generosity and incredible laughter! A family friend of many years, it comes as no surprise that his business, Pasteles Jaque Mate, is exploding in popularity and appeal. A Brownsville native who grew up across the border, he recently began managing the business that his parents started more than 30 years ago.

His mother, Rocio Beattie, began baking in the late eighties out of necessity. In 1992, Luis and his parents went back to the drawing board, contemplating whether they should open up a restaurant or dessert shop. An only child, Luis shares, “In my house, it’s a democracy. I started drawing and it (the idea) came to me; I made the logo, came up with the name and wrote ‘Pasteles’ on top.” The idea he came up with at the tender age of 8 is a registered trademark.

In 1998, they opened up a storefront in Matamoros. Craving something sweet larger than a cupcake, but smaller than a regular cake, Beattie created her own mold for the mini-cake. Soon after, Luis went off to college, receiving a Bachelor’s in Marketing and later obtaining an MBA. He traveled throughout the United States working as a marketing manager for multiple corporations. While he enjoyed the varied experiences, he missed his family.

After a series of events, Luis approached his mother and asked her to teach him how to bake in December 2018. “I was so nervous,” he said, “(because) the brand and the legacy were all in Matamoros. I took a leap of faith and started baking from the heart. Thank God, everything flowed as if I had been doing it all my life.”

Luis tells his customers that he does not sell cakes, but sells joy and happiness instead. Pasteles Jaque Mate is a local, home based cake shop that currently sells via 100% deliveries in Brownsville. “People’s faces just light up,” he indulges, “and for those who are skeptical, they become fanatics!”

Bestsellers include The Tropical (“Summer in a Bite”: a vanilla cake with pineapple and bananas hidden beneath the frosting, topped with coconut and pecans creating a moist, fresh texture) and Tres Leches (different from traditional versions: not too sweet and invites you for another bite). The Selva Negra (chocolate cake drizzled with hot chocolate with cream cheese frosting and cherries on top) is also quite popular. Each flavor on their menu is the result of Beattie’s years of experience, a decadent collection sure to delight the taste buds.

Selva Negra

About a month ago, a potential reseller from a local restaurant challenged Luis to create desserts with higher profile ingredients for their menu. The result: The Premium Collection. Luis took a couple of weeks and put exotic and luxurious twists on his top three best sellers (The Tropical, Tres Leches and Selva Negra). The premium version of Tres Leches (El Dorado) uses (pure) Madagascar Vanilla and hosts a 24-kt gold leaf on top. “You’re eating actual gold!” he exclaims.

The Tropical

The Tropical Premium (El Millonario) includes caramelized, charred pineapple, a recipe for Bananas Foster (think butter and cinnamon) and toasted coconut on top. This particular cake boasts exotic preparation and is my husband’s personal favorite. When Luis catered my first book signing event, these were immediately devoured by guests. The flavors are amplified in the premium version!

The Selva Negra Premium (El VIP) is a posh, dark chocolate cake with imported cherries from Italy (Luxardo) infused with a special syrup, paired with cream cheese frosting, and topped with chocolate ganache and Ruby Chocolate. Ruby Chocolate is the most recently discovered, fourth kind of chocolate in the world.

Luis regularly receives messages from customers raving about his desserts, saying they can’t wait to continue eating, but trying in earnest to make them last. For generations, students in Matamoros would run to his parents’ cake shop after school, buy a mini-cake, get picked up and go home. Now those people have grown up, and they’re bringing their children.

“My idea is to put a storefront here in Brownsville. I want to find something with a drive-thru, ideally,” Luis concludes, “I want to expand to other cities as well. Being able to bring all this joy to so many people is something you can’t put a price tag on. That’s what drives and fuels me. I need to share this love and joy with as many people as possible. “

My family and I have been recipients of this love and joy on multiple occasions. Most recently, Luis messaged me on Facebook when he heard I was having a book signing. “G,” he wrote, “do you have anyone catering your event?” In his generosity, he donated a dozen of his three top-sellers. People ate them up! When I interviewed him for this story, he came over and gave us a Premium mini-cake, El VIP. He stood beside us, eyes wide and mouth agape, as my family of five devoured it in less than one minute!

Pasteles Jaque Mate at my book signing

With Father’s Day around the corner, why not gift your favorite Dad an artisanal mini, medium or even large cake? If the way to a man’s heart is truly through his stomach, you can’t go wrong with these delightful treats. They are baked fresh daily and made in small batches for maximum freshness. Orders are taken via their Facebook page. Let’s order from Pasteles Jaque Mate, and enjoy a dessert that will make the whole family smile, while simultaneously supporting a local business.

It was about to go down…

VIPKID: Most Frequently Asked Questions

Many people are interested in joining our company, but find themselves unsure of what that might mean. Thus, I put together a quick list of the questions I am typically asked. If your question is not included, please follow-up with me regarding your inquiry. Here are the most common queries, in no particular order:

1. How much can you make?

When you join VIPKID, you can make anywhere between $14-$22 per hour, and the rate is based on your first interview with the company (make it a good one!). There are incentives for basic actions, like showing up to class on time and ending on time, too. Thus, if you are hired at $16 per hour, for example, but manage to teach two classes in that hour well, you really walk away with $18 for that time block.

2. What is the teaching like?

The classes are each 25-minutes long, one-on-one. There is a sister organization you can apply to join, the Jack Ma Foundation, which teaches classes of students in rural China. In this case, you do teach whole classes. Most of our VIPKID clientele are affluent; the children have access to computers and technology in their homes. In the rural education project, that is not the case.

Teaching my precious Jack Ma Foundation students.

3. What are the teaching hours?

Because of the time zone difference, optimum teaching hours are between 8 pm and 8 am our time. We are considered independent contractors, not employees, and we can pick our own hours (when we teach, how often and at what times). “Peak Peak time slots” (those that are most likely to be booked) are currently 6-8 am. This will change to 5-7 am when daylight savings time ends.

I know teachers that instruct most of their classes in the mornings, and others that prefer evenings. Currently, I do a small mix of both. It’s really up to you and what works best in your current situation.

4. Do we have to lesson plan or grade?

Not at all. All the curriculum is provided, and at the end of every lesson, you type a brief review of how your student did. At the end of assessments, rubrics that you can easily fill out are provided.

There is no grading of papers, either. Everything is done 100% electronically. Hooray for saving trees, am I right?!

5. Is there accountability?

I’m so glad you asked! Of course there is. Each lesson is filmed from the moment you begin until you finish. Parents are encouraged to rate teachers on a scale of 1-5 apples. In the event that you receive less of a rating than you think you deserve, you are able to playback the video, watch yourself, and contact the company.

6. Are my taxes automatically taken out?

They are not, but they will give you a 1099 at the end of the year. You will need to pay taxes on it, so depending on what bracket you fall into, be prepared and plan accordingly.

7. Do you enjoy it? What are your least favorite parts of the job?

I LOVE it! I get to teach and contribute to our family financially in the comfort of our home. Most mornings I teach in my pajama pants and a t-shirt (they only see our torsos). The children are precious and eager to learn! The bonds I have formed with them and their parents are unique and special. I especially enjoy working for the Jack Ma Foundation, and seeing 35-40 beautiful Chinese faces on my computer screen twice a week.

The hours can be challenging. In fact, when I have referrals that do not continue with us, it is because they found the time difference too taxing. I am (currently) slowly transitioning from teaching in the wee hours of the morning to evenings. I’ll let you know how that goes.

8. What does my online classroom need to look like? What if I don’t have space in my house to sacrifice?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We have teachers all over the world, since it is a remote job. Some that live in apartments in New York City literally use shower curtains as their backgrounds. Traveling educators use a science project board as their background.

Keep it simple. You are the face of the business you are building. This also goes for props. The main items I use are flashcards, and occasionally a small white board. Since I work with 4 and 5-year olds, I have characters that I have printed (the company and fellow teachers provide us with helpful links) and glued onto popsicle sticks. That’s it!

9. Can I do this full-time, and are there benefits?

Yes, you can certainly work for VIPKID full-time, but the job does not come with benefits. I have heard of instructors leaving their traditional brick and mortar schools when they join our company. I’m not sure when they sleep, but they do very well, earning up to $56,000 their first year.

Most of us working for VIPKID do it as a part-time job in order to earn supplemental income.

10. What are some of the biggest learning curves you have experienced?

There are many cultural differences between the US and China that become apparent as you work for VIPKID. And that’s because China was a country I was already familiar with and loved! Even so, sometimes the rigidity of working for them takes me by surprise.

Learning how to teach via my computer posed some new challenges. I would liken it to teaching while looking in a mirror; everything is backwards and you need to get used to presenting and holding items up to the screen. It is imperative that you have a strong internet connection at home. There will be times that you or your student experience technical difficulties. If it happens on the student’s end, you are not penalized. You can be if it happens on yours.

As I stated in the beginning, please do not hesitate to contact me if I did not cover your particular question. There is never any pressure from me when you apply. I come alongside you as you need me to. This is my referral link. My code is GIANA0001 (those are zeroes). I look forward to you joining us!

Dear Mr. Miller and Zach Brooks

Mr. Miller

As happens more frequently than I’d like to admit, I was shopping at H-E-B recently in my workout clothes (which may or may not result in actually working out) when I ran into someone of utmost importance. Purse in hand, I glanced at the plants in the entryway of the store, checking for sales, when I saw a familiar figure out of the corner of my right eye.

It was Mr. Miller, my beloved 8th grade Science teacher, at Cummings Middle School. I had run into him a few times over the years, but on this day, he looked quite different. “Mr. Miller!” I waved. “Oh, hey…” he responded, smiling with a hoarse voice, and giving me a side squeeze. He felt quite thin under my arm, and somewhat frail. I glanced up at him and saw he wore a bandana over his head, covered with a cap, and he was missing his typically thick eyebrows.

We began conversing like two old friends. I asked how he was, and he honestly and graciously told me the truth: he was not well. He had just finished about 6 rounds of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with throat cancer. “Oh, no” I lamented,”I’m so sorry.” He shared that his prognosis was good, but the treatment had been harsh. As he continued talking, I listened through a sort of haze. I had a hard time accepting that he, Andy Miller, a lifelong Yoga practitioner and eater of all good things, had cancer. “I know,” he said, “I tried doing things right and still…”

At the end of our brief visit, I told him I would keep him in my prayers, a sincere gesture that seemed so small when spoken out loud. He thanked me and we went our separate ways.

I spent the next several minutes in the grocery store trying not to run into him again. My out-of-body experience clouded my pressing need to purchase food and other essentials. I read through my list and placed items in my cart with a heavy heart. It was not until I drove away from H-E-B that I allowed myself to cry.

Visions of 8th grade rushed my memory. My classmates and I sometimes ate lunch in Mr. Miller’s classroom, because that was the cool thing to do, while munching on Flamin’ Hots, licking the red powder off our fingers. I hated science before being his student and was not especially fond of it afterward. He made lessons relevant, told great stories, was funny and treated us all with respect.

Once my middle school career came to an end, we loosely kept in contact over the years, in large part because my younger sister, Erin, was good friends with his daughter, Rossina. We occasionally visited them in their home, and together with his lovely wife, it was a perpetually peaceful environment.

Zach Brooks

I fell in love with teaching by accident and fell even harder when I met my first group of 5th-grade students in August of 2005. 23-years young, fresh and a possessor of a heal the world mentality, I was ready to inspire my children to dream and chase down their biggest goals.

What I did not anticipate was how much they would inspire me. Originally trained not to show emotion as an educator, there were quite a few times I shed tears that academic year: tears of joy, sadness, frustration, and confusion. Some I couldn’t help but share in front of my pupils, too.

One such student was Zachary Brooks. A handsome fellow, with dark hair, light skin and hazel eyes, he walked with a bounce in his step, had a slightly raspy voice, and was quite the charmer. He also possessed an old soul, which I appreciated (takes one to know one), and we talked all things Rolling Stones, books, life and even The Wiggles (who remembers the “Fruit Salad” song?).

That class was nothing short of magical. I managed to choke out a graduation talk, in between sobbing, on the last day of school. Single and away from family in the state of Iowa, those children were mine. The thought of them moving on to another school was painful. Because of the stage of life I was in, I gave them everything: all my time, love, attention, affection and energy.

The Reunion

Zach Brooks (to my right and your left), and another beloved student from my first class, Michael.

My family and I decided recently it was time to introduce our children to Iowa. Thus, in February, we all boarded a plane and enjoyed a week in the Midwest. Prior to our departure, I posted an all-call on Facebook, inviting friends and former students in the Des Moines area to drop by a small reception a dear friend was hosting for us. Zach was one of the first to respond. “Boom!” he wrote, “count me in.”

He showed up with a cake, some of the best beer in Iowa, a book and a card. I wouldn’t open the card for a couple of days. After tucking the children in for the evening, I sat on the edge of an antique bed in the master bedroom of our AirBnB, and read the following:

Mrs. GH,

First things first, I’m not sure my handwriting has improved much since the 5th grade. Heads up!

When I think back to past educators, mentors and individuals who helped influence my life, very very few had your level of impact.

It’s hard to believe that I can recall so many memories from when I was ten (that was 13 years ago, by the way), but over these past few days, I’ve been able to identify a number of conversations and events from that school year that I’ll never forget.

Whether it was invading Southridge Movie Theater for an early viewing of The Chronicles of Narnia, learning what the word “zany” meant, attempting to bust into a pack of fruit snacks during the ITBS, or the incredible amount of LOVE you had for each and every one of us; all of those thoughts flood my memory with ease.

What an honor it was to be part of your very first class EVER! Thank you for going above and beyond. You’re the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time)! Your favorite “Rolling Stoner,” -Zachary Brooks

In the End
When I’ve done public speaking gigs to encourage educators, I try to remind them that we have the best job in the world! We can make a rap sheet of why it’s difficult, and argue about how we’re underpaid and unappreciated, but too many have already written and spoken about that.

Bottom line: what we do matters. Few other careers have the potential to inspire whole generations like we do. These two stories I shared belong to a collection engrained in my memory and heart (and sometimes, my computer). I know I’m not alone. So teachers, thank you. Keep fighting the good fight, and please, enjoy summer break!

Behind the Scenes: Stories by the Seashore

My book, Stories by the Seashore, has been on the market for a little over a week now. I am honored by the support you all have shown: from liking my author page to sharing links, writing reviews and purchasing and reading my stories. Thank you so much!

Within a few days of my book release, I had three people approach me on different occasions and tell me that they, too, would like to write a book one day. Thus, here are my top five steps for making that dream a published reality!

1. Eliminate distractions

I was inspired to write my first book in December of 2017. I decided, shortly thereafter, that if I was serious about accomplishing this goal, I had to get rid of major distractions. In January of 2018, I quit social media cold-turkey (Facebook and Instagram, my main vices).

I didn’t announce it, so some wondered if something happened. I was off of Instagram for about 6 months, and Facebook for 10. It was a rewarding, peaceful time, with those extra, weekly hours going towards my book. Looking back, I have absolutely no regrets.

2. Time is on your side

When I began working on my 40-day devotional in December of 2017, I told myself it would take me a year to complete it—the book would be edited, published and put on the market by December 2018!

Christmas-time rolled around, and I realized that was not a realistic deadline. While I was finished with all 40 entries at the beginning of the month, I still had not sent them to an editor or thought about the book cover. If it was going to be a work of excellence, I needed more time. Ultimately, it was ready and available for purchase on Monday, March 25, 2019.

3. Get help

Those that have gone before you are your friends. Reach out to people that are already published. A cousin through marriage, Sonya, was a lifesaver! She literally saved me thousands of dollars. An author of a couple of books, she told me self-publishing (through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing) was the way to go! (I had researched going through various publishing houses, too.)

She also encouraged me along the way, and reminded me that my book was meant to be read. She went above and beyond, periodically checking in on my progress. “How’s your book coming along?” she’d ask, “I can’t wait to read it!”

4. Find an editor

I cannot stress this point enough. As a writer, I am constantly rereading and editing my work. I call my husband, a voracious reader and excellent writer, my first editor.

We knew this project was big and important enough to merit a professional editor. I had previous writing project experiences where I enjoyed being edited, and others where an editor stripped me of my voice, resulting in my entry sounding quite different.

Sonya reassured me that this was part of the process each time. I was delighted when my highly-qualified editor, Luci, made me sound superb while keeping the overall feel and tone of the book.

Editors make us look good! We would be lost without them.

5. Let go of perfection

That was a difficult phrase for me to write. Once my husband uploaded the manuscript onto Kindle Direct’s program, we constantly went over the entries, introductions, and acknowledgments, tweaking parts each time. We took turns feeling frustrated and wanting to pull our hair out!

We had to get to the point where we said, “We’ve (our whole team) all done our best. It’s ready.” I would like to say this resulted in an absolutely perfect book, but it did not. It is, however, a good book.

Overall, I found self-publishing to be a user-friendly experience as a first-time author. I could not have done it without help, though! If you, too, have a dream to write a book one day, my question for you is, “How can I help?”

Here is the link for my book, Stories by the Seashore.

The Epitome of a Ninja

In February 2017, my son and I walked into Galvan’s Martial Arts for the first time. They were hosting a free Anti-Bullying Seminar, and I took the opportunity to take my then 5-year-old oldest child on a date. He participated in the self-defense seminar and gushed about the “Ninja Turtle Weapons” (translation: nunchucks, swords, kamas and bo staffs…) displayed on the wall. Typically quite reserved, he had a huge smile on his face the entire time. At the end of our date, he looked at me, and said, “I want to do Taekwondo.” Two years later, he has not lost his passion or drive in studying martial arts.

Run by Emmanuel “Manny” and Martha Galvan, 5th degree and 2nddegree black belts in Taekwondo, respectively, Galvan’s is a medium-sized mixed martial arts school in Brownsville, Texas, that also offers classes in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai Kickboxing. A self-defense student since the age of 3, Mr. Galvan grew up studying the martial arts along with his older and younger brothers.

A lover of stories, Galvan remembers taking an aptitude test in high school. “Every answer I gave, at the end said: You should look into being a Martial Arts instructor,”he continued, “If you do not know martial arts, start doing it now.”

Master Manny, Martha and Alex with Jack at a previous test day.

Martha adds, “When we did start at the beginning, our old school was really small, and it had a window. Meme (the oldest Galvan brother) and Manny were the head instructors,”she smiled, “and Alex (the youngest Galvan), my little sister and I would line up in the front (of the window) as students until we started filling up the school.”She added with a chuckle,“Everyone would come in and we would ask, ‘Oh, how did you hear about us?!’”

Together for more than half of their lives, the Galvan’s display true partnership on and off the mat. As a parent and educator, I am impressed by the discipline displayed by all the students in class, and the ease and organization with which the school is run.

A traditional firstborn, our son toes the line, but if reinforcement is ever needed, all I have to do is say, “Maybe I should talk to Coach Manny. . .”And it is met with a desperate cry of, “No, no!”I know I am not alone in this as a parent.

When we first enrolled Jack at Galvan’s, there was a questionnaire that asked which skill (of those listed) we wanted him to gain. My husband and I quickly agreed: confidence. Comparing our current 7-year-old to a then 5-year-old that started, in many ways, is like looking at another little boy altogether. Where he was slightly cluttered and disorganized, he now keeps a clean bedroom. Where he was nervous and shy, he now takes more initiative and is brave. Teachers at his school have also taken note, sharing fun stories with us.

My husband and I attended our first ultimate fighting party in December with some friends. One of our buddies, Chris, and a guest, both martial arts students, kept swapping stories about a local legend. We listened intently, eyes wide and mouths agape. “Who could this person be?” I thought to myself.

Tales of a man taking down opponents with a single kick or hand strike were swapped. It wasn’t until later in the evening that it was revealed: the person they were talking about was Manny Galvan, our son’s head instructor.

“You would have never guessed, right?” Chris continued, reacting to my face, “he doesn’t go around bragging about how good he is or how everyone is afraid to fight him. He’s humble. He’s the epitome of a ninja.” 

As the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I am forever thankful that Galvan’s Martial Arts is part of our village.