Retired Harper educator's memoir named winner of Illinois competition

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story should have read Claudia Baranowski is a librarian with the Schaumburg Township Library District.

When Pascuala Herrera started chronicling her life story, she wasn't planning on publishing it. And then the pandemic happened.

The 56-year-old retired Harper College faculty emeritus decided to self-publish her memoir, "No Siempre es un Valle de Lagrimas (It's Not Always a Valley of Tears)," in Spanish and English.

Now, Herrera's book is the winner of the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project's inaugural Spanish-language contest, De La Pagina a La Fama.

In it, Herrera shares her childhood experiences contracting polio in La Purisima, Durango, in Mexico. Though the odds were against her, Herrera overcame many challenges to become an educator, wife and mother.

"My mother always told me that 'life was a valley of tears,' but I learned that although there were many difficult moments in my life, there were also beautiful miracles that happened every day," said Herrera, of Franklin Park.

Her memoir covers many facets of the human experience, including race, health, disability, religion, poverty, immigration, access to medical care, education, disability rights, miscarriage and adoption.

Herrera retired from the Palatine college in June of 2020 after a 30-year career working with students with disabilities. She now is involved social justice causes.

"I believe that being a Latina immigrant woman with a disability gives me the perfect forum to advocate for positive change," she said. "I feel very touched that my story is helping others and inspiring others. In a time when our country is struggling with diversity and inclusion ... this is the perfect time to share my story."

Spanish author contest

Librarians statewide review hundreds of self-published books by Illinois authors for the Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project, which helps libraries connect local authors with readers.

The Spanish-language contest was launched about a year ago and was the brainchild of a librarian at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin.

"The quality of writing that we received this first year was amazing, and we're really looking forward to seeing this contest grow," Schaumburg Township Library District Librarian Claudia Baranowski said during a virtual announcement of winners. "What we know and have always known is that there are many stories that could be written, should be written in Spanish and should be read by our Spanish-speaking community."

Copies of Herrera's book are available in English and Spanish at the library.

Palestinian convention

American Muslims for Palestine's 14th annual convention will take place in person Nov. 25-27, at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare Chicago in Rosemont.

It's the largest gathering of Palestinians in the U.S. This year's event, titled "On the Road to Free Palestine," celebrates Palestinian rights success stories, while recognizing the ongoing struggle for an independent state against occupation.

It will feature a screening of the award-winning film "Angel of Gaza" and a conversation with filmmaker and activist Ahmed Mansour. The film is a portrait of an 8-year-old Palestinian girl from Gaza who was reunified with her father in the U.S. after a seven-year forced separation. The program includes campus activism, a youth competition, entertainment, bazaar and exhibits. For tickets, visit

Social equity

Oakton Community College in Des Plaines is seeking up to 45 applicants for tuition-free enrollment in its cannabis training programs next spring.

The program is supported through an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant, funded through the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act Social Equity Program. It is designed to offer disadvantaged people and communities of color disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs an opportunity to benefit from the cannabis industry.

Applicants must meet Illinois' Social Equity Applicant eligibility criteria and plan to apply for a state cannabis business license or must have received a business license to enroll in Oakton's cannabis certificates for patient care specialist, transportation logistics, supply chain or cannabis cultivation.

Next spring, Oakton will launch a cannabis cultivation certificate program, offering hands-on instruction in the new cannabis cultivation lab on Oakton's Des Plaines campus. It's the first cannabis cultivation lab at an Illinois community college campus.

In 2019, Oakton launched the cannabis dispensary and patient care specialist certificate - the first community college program focusing on medical cannabis.

Grants will be awarded to qualifying social equity applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. Spring courses start in January. To apply, visit

Black-owned eatery

A new dessert shop, Banana Pudding Twist, opened last week at the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.

The eatery is the fourth new Black-owned business to open in the mall this year, city officials said.

Owners Curtis and Schlise Browley said they added a twist to a traditional banana pudding recipe by incorporating strawberry, lemon, caramel pecan, peanut butter chocolate and chocolate chip flavors. The restaurant offers other homemade treats, including butter cookies and peach cobbler pound cake.

Muslim banquet

"American Muslims are an incredibly unique faith community because we are by far the most diverse," said Dalia Mogahed, director of research for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

I interviewed Mogahed as part of a virtual banquet Saturday for the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago chapter.

Mogahed said the community's diversity is not limited to a mosaic of ethnic cultures.

"American Muslims are the only faith community with no majority race," she said. "We are about equal portions people who identify as Black, white, Arab and Asian. And it's a reflection of our history. There's never been an America without Muslims."

Mogahed spoke about the state of Muslims in America, the community's history, coming of age and growth, including increased representation in public office, media, entertainment, arts, sports, health care and education.

"When you look at the American Muslim community today, half of American Muslims were born here and half were born somewhere else," Mogahed said.

Her institute is working on a survey of Muslims in Illinois in partnership with the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, the University of Illinois at Chicago, CAIR-Chicago and other partners. It explores the experiences and demographics of one of the largest and most diverse Muslim communities nationwide.

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