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

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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.

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