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Know the West

The itch that riles Frontera author Denise Chavez


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.

HCN: Could you give us a preview of your new novel?

Chavez: I can talk about it a little bit, yes, indeed. My novel is called “The King and Queen of Comezón.” A comezón is an itch, literally. So if you have a comezón you have an itch and you scratch it. But a comezón is also a powerful word in Spanish that refers to a longing that will never be satisfied – a longstanding desire that will never be filled – that love that you’ve lost and can never find. Whatever that comezón is, that is the underlying theme of my book. It’s set in a town called Comezón, N.M., and it has at its heart the denizens of this little town who have a great longing in their heart to be loved, to exist, to be acknowledged. It’s a mystery love story. But it’s really a universal novel insofar that it’s about this feverish dance of life – the fiesta! I always wanted to write a book that’s set between Cinco De Mayo and the 16th of September – two Mexican holidays, days of liberation, freedom and a lot of madness and locura. Cinco de Mayo’s different than the 16th of September – that’s when you’re partying, you get down, you get your margarita and what have you, and you get some taquitos and you share the American dream, but it’s not the American dream. And then I feel that the 16th of September is really more of a Latino endeavor. My book is really a fiesta of life, and of longing and of dreaming.

HCN: Kind of a crass question: what is it like to run a bookstore and book festival in the middle of nowhere?

Chavez: Oh, my – well, first of all, we aren’t in the middle of nowhere, we’re in the heart of the Earth Mother here in New Mexico. We’re on La Frontera, so it’s the ombligo, the belly button and the navel of the world, except no one else knows it, but we do, we do. This festival, “The Shamanic Journey,” is probably a combination of many of my own dreams, my own comezón. Over the 20 years, many things have changed. But I have to say, it’s probably one of the most gratifying things of my life because I’ve met so many artists. I’ve worked on healing myself. I’ve danced. I’ve laughed. I’ve sung. I remember dancing with Alice Walker at the Rio Grande theater, this theater we have downtown. Singing with Lalo Guerrero, the great father of Chicano music. To be in the presence of a great human being – an artist, a writer, a filmmaker of this magnitude – it changes your life. Someone asked me, “Well, Denise have you taken all the workshops?” Of course I have. I’ve made capes, I’ve made hats, I’ve decorated sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. I’ve made canes. I’ve done papel picado. I’ve made retablos. I’ve done colored pencil workshops because I’m interested. We’ve learned how to make – you name it. The list goes on and on. If you’ve never made tamales - Wow! - that’s incredible. It’ll change your life.

HCN: Does Taco Testimony have a tamales recipe?

Chavez: No, it doesn’t, but if you come down and see me, we’ll make some tamales. The thing that makes the tamales is what you put inside. And so if you’ve never had chocolate filling on a tamal, or a pineapple or raisin filling - oh, it’s incredible.

HCN: You manage a bookstore out of a 19th century adobe building that once operated as a grocery store. It’s a cultural center and parts of the book festival are held there. Tell us about that.

Chavez: The Border Book Festival’s home base is the (former) Frietze grocery store. Our little grocery store is very special, because it has been, was, until about 20 years ago, the action central of Mesilla. That’s where you got your popsicles, your penny-candy, your cheese, your bologna. It’s just a wonderful place.

HCN: How have things changed since you took over?

Chavez: Well, when we moved in there, all the walls were white. Now we have red, turquoise, blue – Frida Kahlo blue. Before, they sold popsicles; we still have popsicles. We still have sodas in the walk-in refrigerator, but you might also find that we deal a traditional blouse from Chiapas. You’ll find first-edition, out-of-print, new and used books. You’ll find artwork. We always have Mexican coffee ready to go. It’s been a great honor to be in this wonderful grocery store.

HCN: Southwest Latino literature – it holds a place in the American canon, what is that place?

Chavez: Well, it’s a place of the heart. I think that it has at its core a basis of spiritual memory. People remember that this is the place of indigenous people. This is the place of the Hopi, the Navajo, all of our Anasazi ancestors. It’s a place of energy – a place of deep, deep energy. The border is our future. I’m honored be part of that continuum.