“Regional press” is a label that sticks in John Byrd’s craw, but when you’re a small publisher 2,000 miles southwest of New York City, there isn’t much you can do about it—except continue to publish books you believe in. Which is what the Byrd family has been doing for nearly 30 years, since John’s parents, Bobby and Lee, started Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso in 1985. Still, John Byrd can’t help feeling dismissed by the establishment book world. “If we were in New York City and publishing books about Brooklyn,” he says, “nobody would call us a regional press. But because we’re in El Paso and we do stuff related to where we live, that’s what they call us.”
But flying beneath the radar isn’t all bad. Being so far removed from publishing’s power centers gives the Byrds (John now runs the press with his parents) the freedom to pursue projects that might never get off the ground with Manhattan’s Big Five—books that would likely be judged too risky, or edgy, or, yes, too regional. As Byrd says, “There’s nobody around to tell us that something might be a bad idea.”
His latest project, for example: taking it upon himself to translate Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s 1986 Mexican cult classic Out Of Their Minds, a novel about a Lennon-and-McCartneyesque Norteño duo that doesn’t easily lend itself to English. The book is full of references to musicians and songs unknown to most norteamericanos, forcing Byrd to not only translate the prose, but also to convert the book’s references into artists and lyrics more accessible to readers north of the border. “It was a whole lot of work, and not one of the smartest ideas I’ve ever had,” he says. “I’m kind of dizzy.”
“Dizzying” is also a fair description of the book’s tempo and trajectory. Ramón and Cornelio are close friends in the bustling border city of Tijuana. (“Just Some Good Old Boys” is the chapter heading, Byrd’s tip of the hat to Waylon Jennings replacing Crosthwaite’s original Norteño nod.) Each morning, “The city wakes up wrapped in a torrent of music,” and Ramón and Cornelio want in. The former learns the accordion, the latter bajo sexto, and the pair begins to land small-time gigs in Tijuana’s notorious nightclubs.
The next 120 pages of this lightning-quick read zip by, the band’s rise and fall mirroring an arc familiar from any number of superstar band bios, that of the Beatles in particular. (After the duo’s final concert—an impromptu set on the roof of their recording studio, natch—fans trade rumors that Ramón’s and Cornelio’s respective romantic partners forced the fissure.)
Out of Their Minds offers plenty for Texas music fans to hum about, including shout-outs to Willie Nelson, Johnny Rodriguez, Townes Van Zandt and other Lone Star luminaries. Cinco Puntos also offers an accompanying Spotify playlist stocked with both English-language and Norteño songs.
“For whatever reason, a lot of Mexican music never crosses into the U.S.,” Byrd says. “But I wanted to make some of the Spanish[-language] music make sense to American readers.”
Cross-border communication has been Cinco Puntos’ fight song since its inception. Many of its books, especially those for young readers, are printed in bilingual editions and, like Out Of Their Minds, set in Mexico or the American Southwest. “In New York, for a long time there was a lot of talk about trying to reach out to the emerging Hispanic book demographic, but that fell by the wayside,” Byrd says. “It didn’t for us.”
Maybe that’s because the Hispanic book demographic has always been core to Cinco Puntos’ mission, not an afterthought. Much of Cinco Puntos’ fiction, nonfiction and poetry deals with socioeconomic and cultural issues affecting Mexicans, Texans, and those who pass back and forth. Even Byrd’s sister, former El Paso City Councilmember Susie Byrd, has gotten into the act, co-writing with U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke 2012’s Dealing Death and Drugs, an exploration of the drug trade and its bloody effects on El Paso’s sister city, Juarez. (See “Challenging the War on Drugs.”)
“In El Paso,” John Byrd says, “we’re so far removed from the traditional centers of political power, but yet we’re living through those policies created there. We can see the street-level effects of, say, U.S. immigration policy. So it’s natural for us to be angry and to want to speak to it—and to also want to offer suggestions for ways those policies could be fixed that would actually help El Paso and help our border communities.”
Sounds like something a regional press, better than any other sort, is perfectly positioned to do.