Elena was born in Morenci, a copper mining town in southeastern Arizona. The corporation that owned the town demolished it in the late 60′s. The people of Morenci, mostly Mexican American, who had lived there for generations, were forced to abandon their homes.
Before running the CETA Program for the County of Sonoma, Elena taught at Santa Rosa Junior College in California. When she moved north to Mendocino County she started a bilingual program for Mexican children and taught ESL and Spanish. Later she taught U.S. History and Spanish at Mendocino High School. In 1990, she retired from teaching and began writing Suffer Smoke. In the fall of 1996 she returned to teaching with a position at Sonoma State University where she taught Chicano/Latino Studies classes.
“Growing up in a large extended family and the close-knit Chicano community in Morenci gave me a strong sense of family values and allowed me to see first hand the importance of a community working together. My father, Valentine Herrera, like all the other Chicano miners, was active in the labor union. Through the union, the miners were able to obtain equal pay, better working conditions, medical benefits, and a pension plan. Because of my upbringing, I have always been an activist, striving to make things better for the oppressed. I feel that it’s crucial for those of us who have ‘made it’ to give back to our people by helping others not so fortunate.”
The loss of her hometown has haunted Elena for many years, but it was not until 1990 that the town itself started haunting her dreams. It was then that she started writing the stories of her people—the Chicanos of Morenci. The result was a book of short stories, Suffer Smoke published by Arte Público Press in 1996.
In 1999 Elena returned to her roots in Arizona with her husband, Kurt. In 2001 the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC) funded her to create an oral history website of Mexican Americans in Morenci during the Great Depression and World War II. The AHC and the Arizona State Historical Parks also funded her to perform as Teresa Urrea in a Chautauqua in 2001. In 2005 Elena completed a project on the living history program at Old Tubac Schoolhouse through an AHC grant. A Road Scholar, she is currently on the AHC Speakers Bureau and not only does Chautauqua but also two other presentations: “Growing Up Chicana in Morenci” and “Día de los Muertos.”
In 2002 Elena published Water from the Moon (Writers Club Press), a collection of short stories about Morenci for young adults and adults young at heart. Her other publications include Rediscovering My Spirit, a collection of poetry, and La Familia Limón Díaz, a family history. “The Hershey Bar Queen,” a story from Suffer Smoke was published in Las Americas Review (Arte Público Press 1994), in The Floating Borderlands (University of Washington Press 1998), and in The Strange History of Suzanne Lafleshe and other stories of women and fatness (The Feminist Press 2003). “The Getaway,” a story from Albóndiga Soup, her new manuscript, was published in the anthology, Fantasmas (Bilingual Review Press 2001). In 2002, the Catalina Players of Tucson sponsored two readings of her play, “Teresita.” Elena is currently completing work on a new book, Albódiga Soup.
A co-founder of the woman writers collective, Sowing the Seeds, Elena is co-editor of two anthologies of their stories and poems. Sowing the Seeds, una cosecha de recuerdos (Writers Club Press 2002 and Our Spirit, Our Reality, celebrating our stories (Wheatmark 2012).
Although writing is her primary passion, Elena is also an artist. She sculpts in paper mache and clay and enjoys creating masks and sculptures with Native Meso-American and Southwest Native American designs. Samples of her work can be viewed online at Passion4Art. She sells her art at various arts and crafts shows in Arizona. She teachesclasses in pottery, book making, writing, and drum making in her studio, Casita TzinTzunTzan, in Tucson.
Elena is one of the poet moderators for the Facebook page “Poets Responding to SB1070 and several of her poems have been published on La Bloga. In 2007, she received a Latino Arts Award from LULAC for her work with Sowing the Seeds. Elena recently received the 2012 Arizona Commission on the Arts Bill Desmond Writing Award for excelling nonfiction writing and the 2012 Arizona Humanities Council Dan Schilling Public Humanities Scholar Award in recognition of her work to enhance public awareness and understanding of the role that the humanities play in transforming lives and strengthening communities.