The itch that riles Frontera author Denise Chavez

  • Denise Chávez poses outside the Cultural Center de Mesilla, an adobe brick building that she said was built in the 1840s, in Mesilla, N.M, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2005.

    Norm Dettlaff

Year after year, artists and authors, wrestlers and dancers, mariachis and chefs and people of all ethnicities have gathered in the tiny town of Mesilla, N.M., for the Border Book Festival, an unusual celebration of Frontera art and literature. The festival, which attracts internationally known writers and publishers to this impoverished region, features Latino-centric craft workshops, poetry readings, parades and literary talks. It’s all orchestrated by one woman: Denise Chavez, a novelist, playwright, poet and actress.

Chavez, who won the American Book Award in 1995 for her novel, Face of an Angel, as well as the 2003 Hispanic Heritage Award for literature, runs a cultural center and independent bookstore in Mesilla, a town just south of Las Cruces, historically known as the place where the Gadsden Purchase was signed. She's taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico and is now digging deeper into the art of healing, which she's exploring as a topic in this year's April 19 – 22 festival, whose theme is "The Shamanic Journey/La Jornada Chamánica."

In a recent interview, she shared what it means to experience life through art. She talks about her new novel, The King and Queen of Comezón, which she recently completed. And she discusses why she loves La Frontera -- the complex, occasionally explosive world of the U.S./Mexico border.

HCN: So, an easy one. Your 2006 memoir, Taco Testimony, shares memories of your mother while you were growing up. What did your mother teach you about growing up in the Southwest?

Chavez: My mother was actually a Texan from far West Texas, so I grew up between Texas and New Mexico. She was born in a little village called El Polvo, Texas – “The Dust,” Texas. That was a wonderful experience because we went back and forth between worlds. And in a way, that was a preparation for all of my work as an artist, a writer, a human being – to navigate landscape, navigate boundaries – and to feel comfortable and functional, because here, when I was in Las Cruces, my father’s family mostly spoke English. My mother was a Spanish teacher when we got to Tejas. Most of the people spoke Spanish all the time, so I grew up in a very wonderful bilingual environment full of stories, culture, history. My mother taught me flexibility, endurance, the ability to get along with anyone.

HCN: A lot of your work has focused on dispelling the fear that embroils cultural wars. You once said that, “People are afraid of differences in language, food, customs and ways of living.” Is the Southwest too complex to overcome these fears?

Chavez: No, no, the more complex the better. My husband is French and Russian. He speaks Italian. He’s learning Spanish. His Spanish is pretty good. I think that the more complexity we have, the richer we are. We’re like a gemstone. You turn the gemstone around, and one aspect comes into the light. You turn it around, and you see something that you didn’t see before. Nothing can ever be too complex. Just recently I went out to eat at a Mediterranean restaurant here in Las Cruces. It was very interesting to see our Anglo waitress confounded and troubled by the fact that she couldn’t communicate fully with certain people at the table. There was a discomfort. But that’s what’s so exciting about traveling in Europe or to Mexico, being in New York City, is that you’re able to attune yourself – interact with language, sound, music, color, difference. We’re all one family. If you grew up in a family that didn’t embrace culture and difference, than truly I do think that it’s a sadness.

HCN: And so what do you think that art and literature can do to alleviate those fears and sadness?

Chavez: Well, it’s more than alleviating. I think it can enlighten, empower. When you read a book, you embrace a world. When you see a dance, you understand what it is to move. One year, I had a Country-Western singer that came to our festival. I will never forget him. He was an Afro-American cowboy who said that he had written 300 ballads on horseback, and I thought, “Wow, this is fabulous.” The more interesting, the more colorful, the more enthusiastic and joyous I feel as an artist.

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