Denise Chávez believes that art can — and should — make a difference in everyday lives. "Why is the arts community so mute?" asks Chávez. "On the one hand, it’s a terrible time — people are so fearful, afraid of each other, afraid of people who are different, afraid to learn something new. But it’s also a great time — in all crises, opportunities appear."
Chávez, an award-winning novelist, is trying to yank
literature out of its comfortable niche in bookstores and
coffeehouses, and use it to bind the bitter wounds of La Frontera,
the U.S.-Mexican border.
On a scorching July afternoon in
1994, Chávez invited local writers to join her at the old
Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, just outside her native town, Las
Cruces. There, Chávez, already celebrated as a playwright,
actress, and one of "Las Girlfriends," a group of rising Latina
literary stars, outlined her vision.
She imagined a
reading series that would bring literature to the places that
needed it most, ranging from colonias —
the unplanned settlements of shacks along the border — to
prisons and women’s shelters (HCN, 3/12/01: Hung out to dry).
She envisioned a book festival that would attract nationally known
writers, artists, and publishers to a region that was culturally
rich, but financially impoverished.
"Who will help?" she
remembers asking, and hands shot up. Thus was born the Border Book
Festival, dedicated to uniting a divided region through words and
Today, the book festival is readying for its
12th run. Its Emerging Voices workshops have reached hundreds of
writers in schools, community centers, colonias,
and prisons. It has attracted standing-room-only audiences to hear
Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker and Tony Hillerman, along with other
writers whose voices are less well known but just as rich and
Surviving budget crises, board mutinies, and
migrations from venue to venue, the Border Book Festival has
remained true to its motto — Leer Es Vivir, To Read is To
Live. It still follows the strategy Chávez articulated on that
hot afternoon in Mesilla: to use border culture, from food to
literature, to erase boundaries, enlightening people "one taco at a
Today, the festival and its outreach programs have
found a home in Mesilla’s former D.C. Frietze Grocery Store,
one of the area’s oldest adobe buildings. There, Chávez
and other dedicated volunteers run the Cultural Center of Mesilla,
a combination bookstore, library, festival office, and education
center. Chávez continually hatches ideas for new programs,
such as "Tacos 101," a public series featuring chefs cooking and
discoursing on the origins of characteristic Mexican food. She
recently pioneered Lucha Libre, a daylong celebration of the
Mexican masked wrestling tradition.
mother was a teacher who prized language; her father was a lawyer
who was mentored by legendary New Mexico Sen. Dennis Chávez
(for whom she is named). She grew up in the 1950s, when it was not
chic to be Latina, when Southwest culture and art were not cool,
and when there was a stigma to being raised by a divorced, working
Chávez made her literary reputation by
exploring the perils and blessings of her culture and home
landscape; her novel Face of an Angel won the American Book Award
in 1995. With the Border Book Festival, and now the Cultural Center
of Mesilla, she seeks to heal the region’s divisions, and
nurture its gifts.
"The U.S.-Mexican border is an edge, a
diverse place, a place of great energy, not a place to fear," says
Chávez. "Seeing the border differently is what the Border Book
Festival is all about."