"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Love-Hate Relationship Between El Paso and Its Chicano Writers





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WRITING FROM THE BORDER
The Love Hate Relationship 
Between El Paso and Its Chicano Writers
by Raymundo Eli Rojas

Author's note: This article was originally published in the now defunct Stanton Street Weekly on May 2-8, 2002. Rather than have it wither away on hard copy, I've decided to republish it on our blog. Many of El Paso's Chicana(o) writers responded to my queries, so my thanks goes out to them. Also, please remember the time frame of 2002. Some forthcoming book titles changed title or remain unpublished. Thanks to Sito Negron, editor of the Stanton Street Weekly for publishing this article.

(c) Raymundo Eli Rojas 2002

Some of them hate El Paso. Some are angry that El Paso has not honored them. There are those who have been gone from El Paso for more than 30 years, but still call themselves El Pasoans. Others are self-proclaimed El Pasoans, but were not born or raised in the city.

El Paso has become like Odysseus' home, Ithaca, and it Chicano(a) writers are in a long exile. Still, as the Don of Chicano Poetry and author of Living Life on His Own Terms, Abelardo B. Delgado states, “You can take the Chicano out of the barrio, but you can't take the barrio out of the Chicano.”
Abelardo B. "Lalo" Delgado

It was a few years into what Felipe Ortego y Gasca, editor of We Are Chicanos, calls the Chicano Renaissance, when people notice the many Chicano(a) writers coming out of El Paso. The city has an aura to it that nurtures authors of all types. Manual Velez, in his book Bus Stops and Other Poems, describes El Paso as having a “magic” that has produced “powerful Chicano poets.” El Paso has carved what is probably the largest geographic niche in Chicano Literature.

Yet being from El Paso and growing up here is less like a bed of roses and more like a bed of cactus. El Paso's Chicano(a) writers are well known for their love/hate relationship with the city. Why is it that many El Paso's Chicano(a) writers do not live in El Paso, yet they write about it often? Does their love for El Paso stop short of the desire to live here? Is it because El Paso does not adequately honor them?

For the most part, I found it's not because they don't want to live here. It is because they can't. Take the late writer and muralist José Antonio Burciaga. In his essay “A Tex-Mex Marriage” from Drink Cultura, he describes a discussion he had with his wife on whether they should move to California or El Paso. Though he wanted to come back, he admits he had to face reality: “...California had better opportunities. In EPT, the opportunities in my field were non-existent.”
Other authors have agreed with Burciaga's “more opportunities” point of view. When I asked playwright Octavio Solis, author of the play “El Paso Blue,” if he'd like to return and live in El Paso, he said, “I can't move there and expect the same immersion of art and culture that I find in the West Coast.” In the same light, he had very nostalgic feelings about his hometown, which figures prominently into his writings.
The life of a writer is strenuous. In addition to writing, most make a living by teaching. With only two institutions of higher education in El Paso, there is not much room for Chicano(a) writers. Ricardo Sánchez, author of Canto y Grito mi liberacion, moved all across the nation before receiving a a tenure position at Washington State University. Abelardo B. Delgado served as an itinerant poet and organizer of migrant workers until finally setting up home near Denver.

Historian and El Pasoan Oscar Martínez, author of Troublesome Border, admits that although he's from El Paso and was comfortable in his tenured position in UTEP's history department, the University of Arizona offered better pay and more research opportunities. While he took the position at U of A, much of his research focuses on El Paso and he makes the drive often.

The prolific Ray González, professor at the University of Minnesota, who recently authored The Hawk Temple at Tierra Grande at the University of Arizona Press, said, “El Paso has produced so many Chicano writers because the rich tradition of the people on the border developed and influences the imagination of its citizens.” He says that because El Paso still has its own “distinct culture,” writers can't help but be inspired. “You have four or five hundred miles of desert between you and the rest of mainstream America and even Mexico,” he says.
Olga A. Garcia Echeverria

Even Chicana(o) writers who only spent a few years here have opinions on El Paso's writer-producing power. Olga A. García Echeverría of East L.A., who has Con el nopal en la frente and Other Urban Tales from the Barrio forthcoming on Calaca Press, spent three years in our city getting her master's in fine arts from UTEP's creative writing program.

Talking about El Paso, she says, “When you are there in that schizophrenic, dusty city-town desierto, you have no choice but to look at yourself. Writers in El Paso can't hide behind skyscrapers or Hollywood signs. In Los Angeles, my senses are many times numbed. In El Paso, my senses were awakened. I learned to write what I saw and tasted and smelled and felt.”


THE RECOGNITION (or LACK OF) FACTORS


Can our city and its people be blamed also for the lack of recognition our city has given our Chicano(a) writers? With the exception of Benjamin Alire Sáenz, UTEP (UT El Paso) has not hired many Chicano(a) writers.
Benjamin A. Saenz
In the early 1970s, Felipe de Ortego y Gasca was the first Chicano writer hired by UTEP's English department. After two years, he was gone. Ortego supported Chicano(a) students during unrest on campus and accused the university of racism, which made tenure unlikely. Theresa Melendez, who served in the English department, left in the early 1990s after being the only Chicano(a) in the department for almost 20 years. Seeing the university's budget and salaries for its professors, Melendez was grossly underpaid in comparison to her Anglo colleagues.

Carlos Morton
When Carlos Morton first taught at UTEP in the late 1980s, the university would not put him on tenure track. A Fullbright Scholar, Morton is the nation's most prolific Chicano playwright, and Latino playwright at that. Many universities of higher grade have sought him out. Yet, he cannot land employment at UTEP, even after several tries, “I'd move (to El Paso) right now,” says the award-winning playwright now at the University of California at Riverside, “if I could get a decent job...”

Currently,* the only tenured Chicano professor in UTEP's English department is Saenz. He and a professor from India are the only tenured minority professors out of a very large tenured faculty. There are two other Chicano(a) professors, but they are not tenured. Knowing the history of that department, tenure may be very unlikely.

On the other hand, we must give credit to UTEP for holding an event in 1999 in which Delgado, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, who wrote the novel Sor Juana's Second Dream, and Las Cruces, NM writer Denise Chávez, writer of Loving Pedro Infante, honored deceased El Paso writers like Arturo Islas, Burciaga, Estela Portillo Trambley, and Sánchez. The English department, Chicano Studies, and MECHA, UTEP's Chicano(a) student organization, sponsored the event.

If writers are disappointed, most of this disappointment in El Paso is geared toward the city's lack of recognition of these deceased writers. Richard Yañez teaches at St. Mary's University in Indiana. A graduate of Ysleta High and UTEP he will be coming out with Paso del Norte: Stories from the Border.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

“When Yevgeny Yevtushenko, of of the world's greatest poets, came from Russia to speak at UTEP,” Yañez remembers, “he introduced the audience to Ricardo Sánchez' widow and children calling Sánchez one of the worlds greatest poets. Like so many of us, they were and are better celebrated away from home.”

Ray González resents his hometown for its treatment of Arturo Islas.

“El Paso has not honored its Chicano writers because most people don't care, plus the cultural tensions on the border have always dictated a marginalization of its writers and artists,” González says.
Dennis Bixler-Márquez, UTEP's Chicano Studies director agrees. “Why are we waiting until these writers die to honor them. It makes no sense. The obvious is to honor them when they are alive.”

In the Bible, Jesus said that a prophet is never welcome in his homeland. Octavio Solis uses another biblical reference on El Paso: “generally prodigal son's have never fared well.” Delgado states, “In a way we brought it on ourselves. We left! But many of us had to leave and we become more national poets.”

Times are changing according to historian Dr. Oscar Martínez, saying, “For a long time El Paso did most adequately recognize its Chicano writers, but that has changed in recent years.” Almost every year there is an event in Ricardo Sánchez honor.

Then there is the question of the sexuality of writers like Arturo Islas, John Rechy, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba. Did they leave El Paso to come out of the closet? Though I am not knowledgeable on when and where these writers “came out,” Gloria Anzaldúa relates in a segment in The Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza that for homosexuals there is a “fear of going home.” 

Ramon Renteria, in an Oct. 2, 1999 interview for the El Paso Times, asked Rechy if he would consider doing a book signing in El Paso. Rechy responded on how El Paso has “never been in a hurry to celebrate him.” Yet, the next year, he returned as the keynote speaker at the Stonewall Gala. Rechy returned frequently to visit him mother, until she died, and Gaspar de Alba is frequently in El Paso. “El Paso is home...” she shares in a fall 1999 interview with El Paso Times' writer Gutavo Reveles, “it's where my family and a lot of my friends live.”

COMING HOME
Arturo Islas

Islas also returned frequently, but only for visits. In fact, UTEP's English department honored Gaspar de Alba and Islas with honorary visiting professorships. In the afterward of Islas' last novel, La Mollie and the King of Tears, his late 1980s visitation in El Paso is described as one of the most intense writing periods of his life. Then again, he also describes the period as a period of deep pain.
Above, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, (photo from UCLA website)

Carlos Flores, who now makes his home in Laredo, Texas, just finished a novel called Friend of a Minor Poet, which has a character who portrays some anger toward El Paso.
Its protagonist says, “El Paso would have killed me if I had not left.” Flores adds, “you can include me among Chicano(a) writers who have not been able to recover from their hatred of the place, and my life in South Texas, a difficult region in its own way, has been nothing less than an exile from El Paso.” Many writers have painfully mixed feelings about their home.

“I think that writers don't really hate El Paso,” says Abelardo B. Delgado, “they hate the experiences they had in the city. Some of us do not have fond memories. We hated growing up poor and putting up with the abuses, the racism, and the miseries.”

In one of the last interviews she gave, the late El Paso author Estela Portillo Trambley, writers of Rain of Scorpions, talked about the tremendous support she received in California for her work. “California is my state,” she emphasized. “I would like to live in California if most of my family were not in El Paso!” 
Cover Image, Our House on Hueco by Carlos Flores
                  

El Paso's Chicana(o) writers' relationships with their family, whether good or bad, keep these writers returning to visit and keep El Paso in their writings. As writers ages, find spouses, find careers, and begin families, the decision on where to live is not only the decision of the writers. “I would live there,” adds Sergio Troncoso, authors of The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, “if living there was only up to me, and not the rest of my family.” Delgado says writers generally have “other lives.”
“Many people picture us at typewriters** in the back room, but for many of us who are active, writing only comes in our spare time,” he says. He also honors the writers who still live in El Paso: “Writers like Juan Contreras and Salvador Barcorta never left. When I'm with other El Paso writers, we are always extremely proud of being from El Paso and we let people know that.”

In a 2000 Pluma Fronteriza interview I had with Troncoso, he talked about his exile from El Paso. “The whole point of when you're on the border you have to ask that question: Where is your home? That's the most basic literary question that they've been asking since Homer – Odysseus trying to get back home.”
Above, Sergio Troncoso Photo: Facebook

Taking Troncoso's analogy, we must ask ourselves those questions. Are our Chicano(a) writers like Odysseus trying to find a way back home, trying to find themselves? We must not leave out the self-interest of writers and the distraction of other cities. Is El Paso always on their mind as it is in their writing? Like our Greek hero, will they return alone, without their army and leave countless widows and mothers wondering what happened to their sons?  
 

El Paso could be like Ithaca, but it can also be like Odysseus' beloved Penelope, a beautiful spouse waiting for her hero to return. But we can interpret the Odysseus and Penelope analogy in two lights. 

On the other hand, El Paso may be the nagging spouse that will make our writer/heroes take their sweet time in returning and engage in every adventure and infidelity along the way.

 fin

*2002
**Until his passing, Lalo Delgado wrote using a typewriter
Photos of Saenz are from the UTEP website. 
Cover of The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes is by Cynthia Farah Haines.
Cover image of Paso Del Norte by Rich Yanez from University of Nevada Press
Cover image of Our House on Hueco by Carlos Flores from Texas Tech University Press
Image of Arturo Islas is a well-circulated photo and probably by Cynthia Farah Haines, but not sure.
Photo of Olga Garcia from San Diego City College International Book Fair website
Image of Time Magazine from, well, Time Magazine

Raymundo Eli Rojas is the editor of Pluma Fronteriza a quarterly publication dedicated to Chicano(a) and Latino(a) writer from El Paso, Las Cruces, and Cd. Juarez.

AFTERWARD by Raymundo Eli Rojas

I had a more extended article with more quotes, like some from Dagoberto Gilb, that I did not get in time for publication. I lost the article when my drive crashed last year, so I had to retype this article from the hard copy of StantonStreet Weekly.

Pluma Fronteriza celebrates 10 year this year (2010). Actually, we were ten years last year, but we're on Chicano Time. We hope that PF has helped to highlight El Paso Chicano(a) writers. 

Since 1997, I took it upon myself to write book review on books by El Paso authors in the El Paso Times. In addition, after many years of not seeing any news on the many Chicano(a) writers who are UTEP alumni, we grew tired. 

Many of these writers don't know this, but with the news they would give PF, in addition to putting the news in our newsletter, we would make press releases and send them to the alumni magazine. 

In fact, Rechy was later honored as a distinguished alumnus. A program was later named in honor of Ruben Salazar. We were surprised that our alma mater knew so little about it's own writers. 

I hope to write more on this article when it turn 10 years old in 2012, so if the world doesn't end, you'll have to wait for more commentary.

Nevertheless, I think Oscar Martinez was right, that the recognition of El Paso writers has grown. Especially the last 8 years, the writing community has flourished, with PF's help, El Paso writers better know who's who among El Paso writers, and many more writers have come along, as well as come to study at UTEP. We like to say PF played a small, tiny part in this.

Next week: Lunes with Lalo, Interview with J. Michael Martinez author of Heredities, Report from the Lalo Delgado painting unveiling at UTEP, Review of Free, Free at Last, Los Cuatro, and Crazy Gypsy.

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Your calo juarense for today is: le sacas - le tines miedo - You are afraid.
                                                    -- Glosario Del Calo de Cd. Juarez, Ricardo Aguilar Melantzon






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