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TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2017
El Paso is the sixth largest city in Texas and the 19th in the U.S., with a rich history dating back four hundred years.
Modern literary El Paso may trace its roots to Tom Lea III (1907–2001), muralist, illustrator, artist, war correspondent, novelist, and historian.
The bulk of Lea’s art and literary works concern Texas, north-central Mexico, and his World War II experience in the South Pacific and Asia. Two of his most popular illustrated novels, The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country, are widely considered to be classics of southwestern American literature. Nonfiction works like Lea’s The King Ranch preserve important chapters in Texas history.
From 1915 to 1917, Lea’s father served as mayor of El Paso. As mayor, Tom, Jr., made a public declaration that he would arrest Pancho Villa, after the revolutionary leader's March 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, if Villa dared enter El Paso. Villa then responded by offering a thousand-peso gold bounty on the elder Lea. For six months Tom III, and his brother, Joe, were protected by a police escort to and from school, and there was a 24-hour guard on the Lea home.
TOM LEA, above, in front of his “Pass of the North” mural, historic federal courthouse, El Paso, 1938
The today is one of the visitable literary and cultural treasures of El Paso, connecting regional histories through art in eleven Texas cities (plus locales in Mexico and the state of New Mexico). Along the El Paso portion of the trail, Lea’s art can be found at the historic federal courthouse, the El Paso Public Library, the El Paso Museum of Art, the El Paso Museum of History, and the University of Texas at El Paso.
Every October is Tom Lea Month in the border city. In celebration, the Tom Lea Institute and other community organizations hold exhibits, lectures, classes, film screenings, and tours throughout the month to honor his work.
This tradition of groundbreaking literature continues in Far West Texas, widely supported in individual literary pursuits and group gatherings at the University of Texas El Paso. UTEP faculty include such literary luminaries as Benjamín Alire Sáenz, the first Latino writer ever to win the PEN/Faulkner award; and Tim Z. Hernandez, a poet, novelist, and performance artist whose collections of poetry Skin Tax (2005) and Natural Takeover of Small Things (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and novels Breathing, In Dust (Texas Tech University Press, 2009) and Mañana Means Heaven (University of Arizona Press, 2013) have garnered numerous international awards. Hernandez’s newest work, All They Will Call You (2017), was praised by Arlo Guthrie as “a heart-wrenching read for anyone who cares” about the immigrant farmworkers among the victims of a 1948 California plane crash, a tragedy most recall from a Woody Guthrie folk song.
EL PASO AUTHORS >> At right, from top left: Sergio Troncoso, Sarah McCoy, Benjamín Alire Sáenz, Donna J. Snyder, Richard Yañez, Carolina Monsiváis.
Ben Sáenz’s short-story collection that won the PEN/Faulkner (as well as a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Fiction category), Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, was published in 2012 by El Paso’s own Cinco Puntos Press. Novelist and publisher Lee Merrill Byrd founded the publishing house in 1985, with her husband, poet Bobby Byrd, and named the enterprise after their El Paso neighborhood.
In April 2017, when the Texas Institute of Letters will be holding its annual induction ceremony in El Paso, the organization will honor former El Pasoan Pat Mora with its prestigious Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Mora is an award-winning poet and author of books for adults, teens, and children. Her awards include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Golden Kite Award, and multiple American Library Association Notable Book awards, and honorary doctorates. A former teacher and university administrator, she is the founder of the family literacy initiative El día de los niños / El día de los libros, Children's Day / Book Day (Día). The year-long commitment to linking all children to books, languages, and cultures, and of sharing what Mora calls “bookjoy,” culminates in celebrations across the country in April. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Among the numerous branches of El Paso’s public library system named in honor of local figures in arts, humanities, and leadership, one is dedicated to the honor of a working author from the area. The El Paso City Council in 2015 renamed its Ysleta satellite the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library.
A writer of essays, short stories, and novels, Sergio Troncoso treats border issues, immigration, philosophy in literature, families and fatherhood, and crossing cultural, religious, and psychological borders. Among the awards accorded his work are the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize, the Southwest Book Award, the Bronze Award for Essays from ForeWord Reviews, the International Latino Book Award, and the Bronze Award for Multicultural Fiction from ForeWord Reviews.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Troncoso was born and raised on the east side of El Paso, in rural Ysleta. He graduated from Harvard and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale, then went on to win a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico, where he studied economics, politics, and literature. He was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund's Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters.
Troncoso is currently a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers' Conference and an instructor at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Recently he served as one of three national judges for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
The El Paso Museum of History is host to more than 16,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space featuring five galleries representing 400 years of U.S./Mexico border history. The 3-D Digital Wall is a vast collection of images and videos exploring El Paso’s past and present. It examines its people and its many cultures on giant 3-D touch-sensitive TV screens at the Museum of History.
The main El Paso Public Library Building is itself a mini-museum of contributions from renowned El Paso artists. One of the best vistas overlooking the cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, is from Tom Lea Park, which you can reach by driving up East Schuster Avenue above El Paso High School.
San Jacinto Plaza has been the traditional center of El Paso since before the turn of the twentieth century. Once the home to as many as seven live alligators, the plaza’s fountain, located on the corner of Oregon and Mills, was the heart of a bustling downtown. El Pasoans came from all parts of town to enjoy the plaza and watch the alligators. Although the city ceased exhibiting live alligators in the early 1960s, in 1995 El Paso commissioned artist Luis Jimenez to create a fiberglass sculpture, “Los Lagartos” (left). A children’s book by El Paso author Alejandra Drew also pays homage to the alligators.
In a more contemporary view of the region, photographer Mark Paulda’s El Paso 120 (2014) goes beyond showcasing the scenery to make a powerful statement: “El Paso is not at the edge but instead at the very center of some remarkably amazing landscape.” Paulda takes his audience on journeys to striking destinations within a 120-mile radius of the border city.
National Book Award winner and Rhode Island native Cormac McCarthy came to El Paso in the 1970s to write in “one of the last real cities left in America” and achieved both international renown a following intensely devoted to his distinctive prose But here he’s always remembered as the writer who moved to the border and retreated from the limelight, eschewing signings, interviews, and lectures. The author of Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and Cities on the Plain (1999) bought a one-story adobe home on Coffin Avenue in suburban El Paso that later inspired author, painter, photographer, and actor-director Peter Josyph to pose provocative, unexpected questions in Cormac McCarthy’s House about McCarthy’s work, how it is achieved, and how it is interpreted. Sixty-five of Josyph’s paintings of the house were exhibited in 1998 at the Centennial Museum in El Paso. Though McCarthy departed for New Mexico some years back, his legend thrives here.
Other authors whose works capture the spirit of Far West Texas include Sarah McCoy, Leon Claire Metz, Estela Portillo Trambley. Fans of historical fiction will want to delve into the 2016 saga El Paso, set in the era of Pancho Villa by Forrest Gump author Winston Groom.
El Paso might seem an unlikely outpost of fine printing and book arts, but for decades during the long and varied career of Carl Hertzog, the “Printer at the Pass,” it was the source of Texas’s most prized and beautiful books. The papers of the designer-typographer-printer who taught at UTEP and founded the Texas Western Press are housed in the university’s library. A lectureship named for Hertzog continues today via the Friends of the Library.
In addition to the fine work turned out in El Paso by Cinco Puntos, El Paso–based Mouthfeel Press (right, at their office in the historic San Elizario Art District) publishes and promotes poetry by new and established poets in the borderlands through an annual chapbook competition, anthologies, and community poetry readings.
Another independent press joined El Paso’s literary scene in 2015. Veliz Books seeks quality and original literature from authors writing in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, and is also committed to publishing translations into English because they believe in cultivating artistic and literary connections that transcend geographical, cultural, and political borders. Their current catalog, at www.velizbooks.com, shows three authors.
PRINTER AT THE PASS Above, the distinctive monogram colophon of Carl Hertzog graced many of Texas's finest books.
Poetry and the spoken word are vital currents in the El Paso scene. BorderSenses, a nonprofit literary organization, is devoted to promoting art and literature on both sides of the border through events like the Barbed Wire Open Mic series, which features performances in poetry, music, comedy, fiction, nonfiction, monologues, dance routines, and more. The Tumblewords Project and the El Paso Poetry Project also support poetry workshops and spoken-word performance workshops.
For an excellent selection of works by regional writers, El Paso supports two Barnes & Noble stores and is home to the El Paso Writers League and a chapter of Sisters in Crime.
When writers and authors present a reading or signing in the El Paso area, they are just as apt to cross the border into New Mexico to Casa Camino Real in Las Cruces, the bookstore and gallery owned by Denise Chávez, a performance writer, novelist, and teacher who lives and works on the U.S.–Mexico border corridor in southern New Mexico. Chávez is founder of the Borderlands Book Festival as well as author of The Last of the Menu Girls, Face of an Angel, Loving Pedro Infante, and A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture. Lone Star Literary Life caught up with her by email to talk about writing, her shared culture of Texas and New Mexico, and her newest book, The King and Queen of Comezón (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).
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