The Border Book Festival: Where the spirit sings the vibrant literacy of poor and working class border communities

This past Saturday, with Perla Batalla and her band behind me, I read my poem "My Name's Not Rodriguez," to several hundred people at La Plazita of Mesilla, New Mexico. Perla sang and the band played the Mexican classic "La Llorona" during my reading--they also mesmerized everyone with beautiful renditions of other Mexican and Latin American favorites. We had already done this in two schools--a high school in the border town of Santa Teresa and at Crossroads, an alternative school of last resort for middle and high school students.

The young people were blown away in both schools. I also spoke to an alternative school, San Andres in Las Cruces. Our school presentations and the concert at La Plazita were part of the 15th Annual Border Book Festival, one of the most important and vibrant community literacy festivals in the country. Also on hand were the Chicano writer Benjamin Saenz, "Democracy Now!" journalist Amy Goodman, as well as storytellers, poets, and filmmakers.

My reading at the Mesilla Community Center was packed. The next day I also had a Platica on issues of gangs, indigenous healing, writing, and more. And I was privileged to introduce Amy Goodman on Sunday to another packed audience at the Mesilla Community Center. Amy is a riveting speaker with true stories about arrests and even humorous efforts she's had in bringing out the truth and pressing news of the day.

Years ago I was fortunate to be on "Democracy Now!" with Amy and her colleague, Juan Gonzalez, at their renowned firehouse studios in New York City.

The Border Book Festival is the brainchild of my good friend, and amazing Chicana writer, Denise Chavez. I have been here at least three times, once winning the Premio Fronterizo (The Border Prize) for my writing. Denise is the heart and soul of border literature. Her books have won acclaim and awards, including "Face of an Angel," "Loving Pedro Infante," and "A Taco Testimony," among others. But it's also her spirit of community building that she must be recognized for. With the Border Book Festival, books, ideas, vision, dreams, poems, and stories come together to teach and honor community. This year, Denise also organized a silent auction with prints from artists like Diego Rivera. And she made sure, as in past years, that schools and young people benefited from having distinguished writers, artists, and musicians as her guests.

Benjamin's presentations were also right on--he's my age and also one of those renaissance writers (a marvelous poet, but also a novelist, children's book writer, young adult writer, and screenwriter) and one of the University of Texas at El Paso's most renowned professors.

I was proud to talk about Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore--we are forever linked with Denise and the Border Book Festival since the first major fundraiser for our fledging cultural space took place more than seven years ago in Las Cruces. Also to be thanked is John Randall, another great friend and supporter, who organized the Chicano classic book auction to benefit the Border Book Festival and Tia Chucha's. This goes to show that for us, there are no borders. We have similar goals, aims, and direction.

John Randall, rightly so, was this year's recipient of the Premio Fronterizo--he's done more than most people to respect and promote Chicano writers from the earliest to the most recent.

I'm truly honored to have friends like Denise and John--and Denise's husband, Daniel, who was my mosca, my chauffeur and all-around caretaker during my stay this year. I have many good friends in the Las Cruces/Mesilla area--close also to my birthplace of El Paso, Texas. Whenever I come here, I'm reminded how fortunate I am to be from La Frontera.


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