Healing the border with words
by Susan J. TweitDenise 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."
That’s why 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 culture.
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 compelling.
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 time."
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.
Chávez’s 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 mother.
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."