Views of the Frontier

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El Paso is as far from Texas as you can get while still being in it, a fact that holds a certain appeal to anyone with a love-hate relationship with the Lone Star State. In Literary El Paso, the newest anthology in the Literary Cities series from TCU Press, there’s plenty to love and linger over, and some to skim on the long drive west.

Literary El Paso includes 63 writers with strong local ties, and the selections focus on life in the “Sun City.” The chronology and subject matter range widely, from settling the area at the end of the Pleistocene Era through a 19th-century packed with bandits, outlaws, and Mexican revolutionaries to the Chicano movement that gave El Paso an internationally respected literary voice.

Many authors will be familiar to Observer readers, having appeared in these pages over the years: David Dorado Romo, Dagoberto Gilb, Christine Granados, Robert Burlingame, Pat LittleDog and Elroy Bode, among others. Some writers in the book may come as surprises. The anthology defines “literary” in the broadest sense and includes journalism and academic writing, on their own and sometimes as introductions to poems, stories and novel excerpts. A few previously unpublished pieces appear, including a selection from John Rechy’s forthcoming memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman.

Eschewing chronology, the book’s editor, Marcia Hatfield Daudistel, groups her selections around three themes: History, the Border and Nature. This organization lets Tom Lea open Part I with the beginning of his novel, The Wonderful Country, and appear again in Part III, where, in “Old Mount Franklin,” we see the El Paso icon as a “gaunt hardrock mountain, standing against the sky like a piece of the world’s uncovered carcass.” Daudistel’s thematic organization encourages browsing across subject matter and time, almost as if Literary El Paso were three books.

The historical writing in Part I is mostly straight reportage, with a few short stories, poems and excerpts from novels. Some selections here—including a dry essay on the Tiguas and a matter-of-fact history of the local Holocaust museum—seem like a stretch for a literary anthology even as they round out the picture of El Paso’s diverse community.

El Paso has a cinematic history, and the expected friars, bandits, outlaws, prostitutes, Mexican revolutionaries, cowboys, lawmen and civilizing church ladies all play their parts, with star turns by Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, and Dallas Stoudenmire. This was the first—but not last—period in the history of El Paso-Juárez when, as Bryan Woolley writes, “Homicides were as common as headaches.”

Pancho Villa makes regular cameos throughout the anthology, a contributor to the homicides and headaches and an inspiration for the first big militarization of the border by Gen. Pershing at Fort Bliss. In Amado Muro’s “Sunday in Little Chihuahua,” an old woman who sells strawberries reminisces about her young days fighting for Villa: “How gladly I’d give up my strawberry stand to hitch up my skirts and fight for Pancho Villa again.” The general’s best moment comes in the touching and hilarious portrayal of the grandmother in Sergio Troncoso’s story, “The Abuelita.” Watching Ronald Reagan on the television news, the old lady lashes out simultaneously at the president and her beleaguered husband José. “Ese maldito viejo,” she says of Reagan:

Parece que está loco. Why doesn’t that crazy man go fight himself? What does he have against these poor people? This man talks too much and does nothing. He reminds me of you, José. I remember el General Villa riding into Chihuahua City with his revolutionary troops when I was a little girl. Villa would hang men like this Ree-gaan on the spot. El General hated politicians and bankers.

Troncoso’s story is one of many that draw on the rich cultural history of El Paso and Juárez while sketching the lives of their modern inhabitants.

If one goal of a good anthology is to inspire further reading, Literary El Paso succeeds in adding half a dozen writers to my list, most of them from Part II, the Border section. It showcases the stories, poetry and fiction of the many excellent Chicano writers to come out of El Paso. The list is long: poets Tomás Rivera and Ricardo Sánchez, novelists Rechy, Rick DeMarinis, Sergio Troncoso and Ana Castillo, and many more.

DeMarinis’s “Hell’s Cartoonist” is a harsh and hilarious examination of what its narrator calls the “unfiltered kinetics of doomed life,” which include jolly Midwestern tourists photographing amputees in Juárez contrasted with the minor betrayals of the narrator’s UFO-obsessed German wife. All of which inspires the narrator’s summation: “UFO’s aren’t the mystery. We are.” Troncoso and Castillo tell unforgettable stories: bitter, funny and full of love.

Sharing one rare setting—the same desert mountains, high schools, bridges, streets, shops, two countries, one river—the stories and poems in Literary El Paso at times share a similar voice—open, honest, often irreverent. The grateful reader can feel like Elroy Bode, when he first moved to El Paso in the 1950s and began discovering the city and its people:

So I kept walking—roaming through the streets of Sunset Heights, past the red-brick homes that for decades had been facing west toward the desert, south toward Juárez and Mexico. It was as if they were still faintly hushed from the dramas of the past, and now, though solemn and decorous in the early-night darkness, their burnt-red bricks carried within them the fever of memory, the warm crimson trace of history. Prospect, Upson, Mundy: they were strange streets to me, but as I walked them those first October nights I knew I wanted to know them, wanted to stare past their lighted porches and learn of their hidden lives.

David Cleaves lives in Austin and studied at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. His writing has appeared in the Greensboro Review, the Library Chronicle and Shakespeare Yearbook.