Reader Marshall Carter-Tripp writes that it’s “tiresome to read another slam about El Paso” (“Dialogue,” this issue). No one, she explains, not “even the Observer,” has anything good to say about her hometown.
We have no way of knowing for sure what Carter-Tripp will think of the current issue, but one thing we do know: El Paso, Juárez, and the border in general loom large. Among the highlights is an excerpt from the prologue and several chapters of Ringside Seat to the Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923 by “micro-historian” and occasional Observer contributor David Dorado Romo. After years of archival research and random wanderings, Romo discovered a wealth of information about underground trails, forgotten ancestors, lost photographers, and music he had never heard before. As he confesses, although he was raised in both Juárez and El Paso, he spent a large part of his life trying to get away from both of these cities, determined to live “some place where things were happening, where matters of significance occurred.” Yet something kept drawing him back to “this place that so many consider nothing more than a vast cultural wasteland.” We know the feeling.
Perhaps the best-known chronicler of life and death on the border these days is Luis Alberto Urrea, a novelist-poet-professor who was featured in several panels at last fall’s Texas Book Festival in Austin (two panels on border violence—one in English, one in Spanish—along with a terrific one-man show, a conversation moderated by author and journalist Jan Reid).
Urrea hails from the other end of the border, as we like to say in Texas: He was born in Tijuana and grew up in San Diego. His latest book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, belongs on an updated list of Great American Novels. Twenty years in the making, the book is based on the life of an intriguing young woman who briefly lived in El Paso at the end of the 19th century, influenced the course of Mexican history, was a media celebrity in her day, and whose story is included in Romo’s Ringside Seat to the Revolution. (She was also, not so coincidentally, Luis Alberto Urrea’s great aunt.)
San Antonio journalist and playwright Gregg Barrios interviewed Urrea for this issue. He also wrote the Afterword, which reveals a little-known border connection behind Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, one of the great plays of the 20th century.
Other border and Mexico-related articles include Debbie Nathan’s review of Trail of Feathers, about the 1998 disappearance and death of San Antonio Express-News Mexico correspondent Philip True; James E. McWilliams’ review of the updated edition of The Death of Ramón González, a beautifully rendered examination of agribusiness and pesticides in the Mexican countryside; and “Witnesses to History,” a photo essay based on the eponymous exhibit at the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Texas State University in San Marcos.
With our first issue of 2006, we welcome back our loyal readers. If you received a holiday subscription and you are new to the magazine, welcome to the Observer. We’ll be back in two weeks with our January 27 issue, featuring our consistently fine reporting on the nefarious activities of state and national politicos, political columns, and more Books & the Culture (including our regular Poetry Page).
Finally, one more thing: Long live border rats—people attracted to an area that so many “consider a cultural wasteland,” and who write about its possibilities as well as its pain.