Written Words, As Instruments

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Denise Chávez is a writer, activist, and one of the pioneers of the Chicana/o art and literary movement. Her first book, Last of the Menu Girls (1986), has been widely written about and examined by literary scholars. Chávez is also founder of the Border Book Festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She spoke with Borderlore about the Festival’s legacy, her own writing and activism, and her current project to keep culture and literature alive.

B: You founded and ran the Border Book Festival for over 25 years. How and why did you start the Festival?

D: I was teaching at New Mexico State and I felt an absence of energy here [in Las Cruces]. We were not getting writers here, and we had a dearth of literary events. I said, “Hey, let’s have a book fest!” Little did I know how it would change my life.

Denise Chávez

Denise Chávez, founder of the Border Book Festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

 

We had a meeting for writers at the Holy Cross Retreat house. A few writers came, but no one stepped forward. Susan Tweit, a nature writer, finally did. I became the artistic director and she became the executive director. We got a grant for $4,000 and started. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Sandra Cisneros was one of the first people we brought in. We oversold her event by 200 people because we forgot to number the tickets. We had people screaming in the lobby, including her aunt, who was saying “Let me in, I know her. She’s my niece!” It was pandemonium. But it was wildly successful.

Susan left after three years, and I hung in there for 20 plus more years. We were bringing writers to people and people to writers in an underserved, multicultural community that was lacking that kind of engagement. Rudolfo Anaya, Ha Jin. Alice Walker.

I was a writer and community activist. The Border Book Festival was my coming into womanhood and coming in to full force as an activist.

B: How was the festival a testimony to community, family and culture?

D: We developed the Emerging Voices program connecting to writers to schools, prisons, and shelters.

We brought writers from Mexico who spoke Spanish and Nahautl into the schools. The students had never heard a bilingual artist. It was unbelievable. When the Chicana writer Malin Alegría — she wrote Estrella’s Quinceanera– went into the schools, one girl went up to her and said, “Miss, you’re my color.”

We took Quincy Troupe, this towering black man of a poet into to women’s shelter full of little short Mexicanas. Afterwards he told me, “Denise I’ve never had such a profound poetry experience.” We went into juvenile detention centers and reached kids who’d never been reached like that.

Lupita's room

Lupita’s room in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery. Image from Casa Camino Facebook page.

 

We were well known for our receptions. Forget those little cookies and lemonade. If we had a festival  and an Indian writer was here, we’d have a big Indian dinner. It was beautiful to see the Indian woman in her sari drinking our Mexican café de la olla. That kind of fusion happened.

We did outreach to Mexico. We were the first people to have a Lucha Libre ring with wrestlers from Mexico in Las Cruces. We had animals in the park for an event related to writing about animals. We had belly dancers in the plaza.

When Alice Walker came, we took her to the utopian black settlement, Portales. After civil war, there was place called Blackdom [an all-Black frontier town founded in 1903 in Chaves County, New Mexico.] It is now a ghost town. I was able to connect her to the Boyer family, descendants of Frank Boyer [a Buffalo Soldier who was instrumental in the development of Blackdom].

When Barbara Kingsolver came, she said she didn’t need a huge fee, but she needed a babysitter. So we found her a babysitter. You take care of the artists as if they were family.  You listen to them.

They would get to their hotel room, and they’d find an enormous gift basket with local products — pecans, chiles. Sometimes the baskets were so full they couldn’t get them home!

God is in the details. I continue to believe that.

I always felt that the writers had to connect with community; they had to give deeply of their spirit. I was very selective about who was coming because our community needed high quality. That didn’t mean they had to be rich and famous but they had to be people people. They had to be givers. As a performance writer it was my mandate to find the best people who could speak to audience.

B: People tend to think of writers as quiet and solitary, but performance is a big part of your life. How does it intersect with your work?

D: I refer to myself as a performance writer. I have a degree in theater from New Mexico State. I got a drama fellowship — $200 a week — that helped me go to the university. I got an MFA in theater from Trinity, through the Dallas Theater Center. Theater is a pivotal part of my life.

Everything meets in the center of your being. I know how important it is to be a performer. From the beginning, I made up my mind that writers who came would be performance writers.

We did a lot with the spectacle of life. For the Lucha Libre event, I had my poets in the ring reading, not just wrestlers.

I need to write a book about all of this. I never thought I’d be dancing the aisle of the Rio Grande Theater with Alice Walker and Demetria Martinez.

B: When you stopped producing the Festival, you evolved that work into a bookstore and gallery called Casa Camino Real. Can you talk about that shift and how Casa is reflective of the area’s unique narrative?

D: [The Border Book Festival] was an enormous struggle to get rooted in our community, but it didn’t matter because I knew we were reaching a population that had never been reached. My husband reflected one time that he noticed we had 50 events in one day. It’s harder to move books and tables as you get older. But the Festival had a tremendous impact. After 25 years it was a natural evolution to become archival research center, bookstore, and gallery. So we started Casa Camino Real.

The building is adobe from 1850s. We moved from a place in which our landlord was always talking about mojados, wetbacks. He was a dinosaur in his thinking. We’ve moved to a place run by one of the founders of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, Daniel Soza, Jr., who is a great human rights activist. So we’ve moved from unconsciousness to great consciousness.

My ancestors are buried two blocks away. I am in a place that is centering me not only in the realm of my father’s books and that book reality but also rooting me to the community my father grew up in. This house is a template of what can exist. At one point it was the home of an African American woman named Lula Grimes who worked in the school cafeteria. So I’m surrounded by the energy of this great woman.

Book Table in Frida's room

Book Table in Frida’s room at Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery. Image from Casa Camino Facebook page.

 

Each room has a name: There’s Frida’s Room after Frida Khalo. It houses Southwest regional books, Chicano, and Latino books. There’s a Guadalupe Room, after the Virgen of Guadalupe. There’s a children’s poetry room. There’s the Delfina Room, named after my mother, with an altar to Guadalupe and the Buddha.

My husband asked, “Do you mind if we keep it to one Guadalupe per room?”

I said, “No honey, I can’t promise that.” So we are here for the divine feminine.

B: Books obviously have a great value to you. What is power of words to influence community and culture?

D: We’re working now on creating the Museo de la Gente, the Museum of the People, an archival research center that is a repository for our Chicano books and photography books. We have so many books. We have music, vinyl. We have an erotica collection — I was going through that yesterday and today I am exhausted. It’s amazing to me what people find erotic. But no book is alien to us except those that hurt and denigrate and cause suffering. Books should empower us and makes us better human beings, art too. It has that manda to help us heal. Our gift as artists and writers is to meet that mandate.

I lift too many boxes of books but I know that my life is as it should be, surrounded by spirits of my ancestors and things I love and care about and that I hope will heal others as they’ve healed me. We still have signings and workshops, so in many ways we’re still doing what we were doing. We’re leaving a legacy to the community.

B: Not long ago you were involved in Librotraficante, a caravan of writers who opposed the ban on Mexican-American reading list in Tucson. How was this an example of words as the instrument of justice?

D: Librotraficante is social activism at its best. It gets to the heart of the issue, which is the expansion of human spirit through books. I was in one of the collections that was banned. I knew those writers: Dagoberto Gilb, Sandra Cisneros. It was an incredible roster of people.

I met Tony [Diaz, the founder of Librotraficante] in Houston, when I was a professor of acting at University of Houston. Tony is a great activist, a wonderful alive human being. When he had this concept, I contacted him and said, “You have to stop here [in Mesilla]. We’ll have food for you.” So they came to Mesilla, back then we were in the Cultural Center de Mesilla. It was a former grocery store from the 1840s, and we had the counter packed with books. I closed off the front door with police tape. Hey, books are dangerous! It was a symbolic gesture.

Their bus parked on the plaza and 300 people greeted them there. We had so much food, thank God! This parade comes down from the bus and my sister’s leading it, and they came in and ate and we had a reading. I’ve never seen a community coming together like that. It was phenomenal. It was a statement of solidarity with the fact that you cannon shut down art, culture, literature, or the voices of people.

We are just 42 miles from Mexican border. I encounter things every day that make me realize we’re still in the trenches of human rights. The battles are still going on. It’s very racist here. I have an answering machine message. It says, “Buenos días,” and closes with “Hasta pronto.” One time, someone left a message saying, “We are in America. Speak English.”

I’m a Chicana from El Movimiento. I still believe that art and culture can save lives, that we can make people aware of our distinct humanity. Every single person has a right to express their voice.

That’s another book to write, I guess.

B: Is there a special story or memory from your past that reflects the influence of words and writing on your life?

D: I started writing when I was eight years old. My mother gave me a thesaurus when I was 10. I went to Catholic School and got involved with acting and performance. All my life has been centered on books, creativity, and community.

I still have a copy of my first story. It was about of a willow tree in our yard. It later became part of my book, The Last of the Menu Girls. The story is called “Willow Game.”  There was a willow tree in our yard and this boy came and started messing with the tree. He was a jangled teenager. I remember my mother said, “What are you doing, Billy?” and he said, “I’m killing your tree.” That was a major event that I witnessed.

I’ve always been a witness to story. Whether it was in the evenings eating watermelon on the porch with my grandfather in West Texas or with my aunts and uncles here in New Mexico. My dad was a reader. My mom was reader. We are people who listen to the way people talk, who listen to the movement of their bodies, to music.

My dad had a library, and he’d lock himself in there. I’d hear the sounds of those stories. I made library cards for all the cards in my father’s library. He was a notary, so I notarized all of those cards. My sister said, “That’s illegal to use the notary stamp.” And I said, “I’m eight years old!”

I’m still cataloging books, still a librarian. As I look around here in the bookstore, it has traces of the energy of my father’s library. Every one in my family was a reader.  My grandfather was a minor in West Texas but on Sunday, he had subscriptions to seven different newspapers. They were a family of eight and they would hangout all day and read newspapers together. I was always with people who loved books.

I still have the thesaurus my mother gave me.  I read once that Stephen King says, “Pitch the thesaurus.” Well, I don’t think so.

B: What are you working on now?

D: I’m revising my novel, City of Crosses right now. It’s about the homeless and dispossesd in Las Cruces.  I wrote last November for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a 50,000 word novel.

I’m also in the middle of another novel, waist-deep. It’s called The Ghost of Esequiel Hernández Jr., about a goat herder killed by U.S. Marines in Redford, Texas. He was 18 years old and protecting his flock. For some reason, the Marines were patrolling in West Texas. One shot to the back and this 18 year old was first American citizen victim of the government since Kent state. My novel is about evil of the US-Mexico border, familial evil, and more global universal evil.

I’m getting ready for next November for the next National Novel Writing Month. I already know what I’m going to write. It’s called, Después te platico, which means “I’ll tell you later.” It’s this saying in Spanish. But of course, they never tell you. It’s an avoidance of emotion and life. It’s our Latino situation. We live such veiled lives.

I’m 67 soon to be 68. I don’t want to live with deception and lies.

References:

  • Titles by Denise Chávez include: The Last of the Menu Girls (Arte Publico Press 1986; Vintage Reprint 2004); Face of An Angel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1994; Loving Pedro Infante (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2001); A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture (Rio Nuevo 2006); The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press 2014).
  •  Casa Camino Real is open 11am to 5 pm Wednesday-Saturday, and Sunday from 12-5 pm, at 314 S. Tornillo Street in Las Cruces.

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