Esther Chávez Cano died in Juárez on Christmas Day. She was 76 years old. She was a hero, a fronteriza woman who in the early 1990s in Juárez saw the continuing tragedy of women being killed and decided to do something about it. With much help she started Casa Amiga near downtown Juárez. At the time it was one of only six rape crisis centers in Mexico and the only one on the U.S./Mexico Border. She brought international attention the continuing murders of women in Juárez and the uncaring and apathetic response by the Mexican government on all levels--city, state and federal--to these murders. Indeed, as we now know, law enforcement was more concerned with supporting the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. than it was with investigating and prosecuting the murders of women. If anything, the authorities wanted to keep activists like Esther quiet because she brought attention to the vacuum of justice in Juárez. She has received many awards for her work, as the number of obituaries state, but she never veered from the task at hand--helping the women of Juárez.

In 2002, when Cinco Puntos Press was putting together the anthology PURO BORDER: DISPATCHES, GRAFFITI AND SNAPSHOTS FROM THE U.S./MEXICO BORDER, three of us--novelist Jessica Powers, who worked for us at the time, Lee and I—walked over the bridge and went to visit Esther at Casa Amiga. She was a diminutive and very hospitable woman with a quiet way about her but she had a presence that commanded respect. Her work at Casa Amiga was self-evident--women and children were coming and going, and some were staying, being protected inside the walls of the center from husbands or boyfriends who would harm them if they had the chance. Indeed, in December 2001 her receptionist, who had come to the center as a client, was killed by her husband in front of Casa Amiga. When we asked her why she started Casa Amiga, she replied quietly--

“Because I am a woman, because I felt helpless and because I have a conscience.”

Below I am pasting the mostly unedited notes that Lee took during that visit that I found in our archives (Lee also took the photograph above), and below that I am pasting an article by Tessie Borden that originally appeared in the Arizona Republic and that we republished in PURO BORDER. But first, Casa Amiga as always needs financial help. Those who wish to help may do so by making a donation to their account:

No. Cuenta: 65-50227820-0
CLABE 014164655022782007
1427 Suc. Plaza las Torres
Cd. Juárez, Chih. C.P. 32575

Notes from Esther Chávez Cano Interview, June 24, 2002

There is terrible violence against women right now in Juarez. She will give us her list of the names of murdered women with pleasure. She gathered the list from reading the newspapers. She only includes the names of murdered women, not of children, or of people who have disappeared. We asked if she thought the authorities had a bigger list and she said it will do no good to check with the authorities. The authorities will not give us access to names. Everyone who has a list has gathered their information from the newspapers. But what of the women who never get mentioned in the newspapers?

She said, Here is an example of a girl who has disappeared and of what has happened with the mother.  She shows us a photo of a girl, Brenda Esther Afrara Luna, who disappeared two years ago when she was 15. Several months ago (time is uncertain), the mother was told by the authorities that her daughter has been found. But the mother went and looked and it wasn’t her daughter. Then they told her again they had found her. It was not the body of her daughter, but the body was wearing her daughter’s dress. It was very confusing. Esther said there are many cases like this.  The mother in this case has endured a lot of domestic violence herself.

Casa de Amiga was started on February 9, 1999, about three and a half years ago. Esther is the founder. We asked her why she started it. She said because she’s a woman, because she felt helpless, and because she has a conscience. It was funded initially with $31,000 from FEMAP. Last week they received $25,000 from the U.S. embassy [see article below]. It is earmarked for a project to provide therapy for women who suffered incest, rape or violence as children.

Casa de Amiga is the only center of its kind all along the border, the only one in Juarez. There is nothing for battered women.

She mentioned that there have been two deaths in Chihuahua that have similar M.O.s. Why is it different here, we asked. Why is there more violence? This is the border, she said, with its traffic of drugs, its maquiladoras. Poor people come here to seek opportunities, they want to cross the river to live the American dream. In this city there are 500 gangs. There are no opportunities here, conditions are very poor. Have you been to Anapora? It’s a terrible place.

The police hate her. They don’t ignore her. “I would like it if they would ignore me,” she said. They campaign against her. One year and seven months ago, they began their campaign. Governor Patricio doesn’t like her: according to him, she doesn’t do anything right—she’s a terrible director, she steals the money, she herself is a violent woman. And so the stories go. When Esther began talking about the women, Patricio tried to silence her.

In this building, last December 21, 2001, her own receptionist was killed by her husband. This receptionist had four kids, eight years on down, and she was a wonderful worker, good, hard-working, prudent. The husband came to Casa de Amigo to kill her here. From jail, the husband has called for custody of the kids.

When we expressed dismay over this, she said that last week, she had to go rescue a woman who was impregnated by her father. She was 19 and had been raped by him for the last 8 years. She’d had two children. One, a little boy, died of malnourishment. The other, a little girl of 3.5 years, was asked by Esther what had name was. The girl said she had no name. When Esther took the 19 year old woman away, the father went to the Human Rights Agency and demanded that his daughter come back and they agreed to his demands.

There is another girl now who is 11 years old and in the fifth grade. She’s 7 months pregnant. Some woman, a neighbor maybe, took her to a man and he raped her. The father and mother of this girl are separated and she is treated like a puppet.

By Tessie Borden
Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 26, 2002 12:00:00

JUAREZ, Mexico -- It’s 9:30 a.m., and Esther Chavez Cano’s daily personal war with the unwanted problems of this largest of the border cities has begun.

She rushes into her office at Casa Amiga, the rape crisis center that grew out of the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 young women here in the past nine years. Close behind is a staff member describing this morning’s emergency: a neighbor found two girls, 8 and 10, wandering in the city’s El Chamizal park the previous night. They told the woman they were running away from their father’s beatings.

Chavez Cano immediately calls the local district attorney’s office, and one gets the feeling she has done this hundreds of times. In a firm but friendly tone, she calls on the attorneys there to take charge of the children and investigate what they say.

“The authorities just don’t do anything,” she whispers while on hold.

Chavez Cano’s Casa Amiga is the only center of its kind on the Mexican side of the 1,950-mile line that separates the country from the United States. Established in February 1999, it receives funding from both U.S. and Mexican organizations.

Chavez Cano, 66, a diminutive, retired accountant whose mild manner causes listeners to lean in just to hear her, is perhaps the most outspoken and militant voice here on violence against women.

In 1993, she noticed a trend among crimes committed in Juarez: dozens of young women were turning up slain in the surrounding desert. The bodies showed evidence of beatings, rape and strangulation. Many of the women fit a distinct profile: tall and thin, with long, dark hair and medium skin, between ages 11 and 25. Often, they came from the ranks of workers who yearly swell Juarez’s population from other parts of rural Mexico to work at border assembly plants, or maquiladoras.

Prodding the police

“They try to pretend these are not serial crimes,” Chavez Cano said of the local authorities. “It just brings your rage out. It makes you boil.”

Chavez Cano and others formed the Liga 8 de Marzo, an awareness group that collected data about the slayings and prodded police to give the murder investigations high priority - often by picketing the police station, holding crosses bearing names of victims.

No one agrees on the exact number of killings that are related.
Chavez Cano says about 230 women have been found in the past nine years, the most recent in November when eight bodies were discovered in a shallow pit. Some slayings have been traced to jealous husbands or drug traffickers. But a large number share characteristics that make investigators believe a serial killer and perhaps copycats are at work.

After raising awareness of the problem to a national level, Chavez Cano decided someone should work to prevent the deaths, rather than just clean up after the murderers.

Help from elsewhere

With start-up money from the Maryland-based International Trauma Resource Center, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, Chavez Cano opened Casa Amiga near the city center. A paid staff of four and an army of volunteers served 318 clients in Casa Amiga’s first year, providing a 24-hour hotline, counseling and group therapy.

Last year, the center added three staff members and served 5,803 clients, of which 1,172 were new cases.

Chavez Cano now worries about a troubling side issue: child sexual abuse and incest. Fifty-seven of her clients in the first year were raped children. So among her most successful programs is a puppet show that teaches children about “bad” touching and instructs them, in a gentle way, to respect their bodies.
The center takes most of her attention, but Chavez Cano does not let the police off easy when it comes to the slayings of women in the desert. They, in turn, have lashed out at her.

An attitude of disdain

Arturo Chavez Rascón, Chihuahua state’s former attorney general, came in for some of her sharpest barbs because of his comments implying the victims contributed to their own deaths through their dress or lifestyle. It’s an attitude shared by police officers on the beat, who Chavez Cano says discourage families from associating with Casa Amiga.

The center used to receive about $3,000 a month from Juarez for rent and salaries, but that stipend has been cut, Cano said. Now, the center relies on money it gets from donations and showings around Mexico of the hit play The Vagina Monologues.

Tragedy close to home

Recently, the center suffered a blow of a different kind.

In December, Maria Luisa Carsoli Berumen, an abused mother who had become a client and then a staff member at the center, was killed in front of Casa Amiga, witnesses say, by her husband, Ricardo Medina Acosta. The two had had a long and violent history that led to Carsoli Berumen leaving him. A court granted custody of their four children to Medina Acosta. She stayed in town, planning to wait until after the Christmas holidays to resume the custody fight.

On the morning of Dec. 21, the pair argued and struggled outside the center, and she was stabbed twice in the chest as she tried to flee. A black bow at the door expresses the staff’s grief. No one has been in arrested in Carsoli Berumen’s death.

Fighting for respect

“The death of Maria Luisa forces us to work more intensely to instill respect in children, men and women, and to sensitize the authorities to the grave risk for families and all of society that domestic violence represents,” Chavez Cano wrote in a column in the local newspaper.

“Rest in peace, Maria Luisa, and watch over your children so they remain united and sheltered by your loved ones who lament your absence.”


Joe Somoza at El Bar Palacios

I want to catch up now on some things that have been on the back burner for a while.

In October I drove up to the Palacio's Bar in Old Mesilla a few minutes outside Las Cruces. For years now a group of poets have been hosting an open mic poetry series the 3rd Tuesday of every month. Joe Somoza was one of its founding members. Joe has long been a fan of open mic series. He likes the democratic ambiente. I don't go to many but when I do I enjoy myself. Anyway the night I was there Joe read two poems he had written that week. He said he was still fiddling with the poems and reading them aloud to an audience gives him a way to listen to the words different. I enjoyed his reading and the poems very much--playful and pensive and, if I may say, lonely in that way that happens along when we get older. I know the feeling. I drove home (50 miles) with enough energy to write in my journal and take some notes on some poems  I've been working on. And I wrote to ask Joe if I could paste the poems in my blog. Here they are.

Late Quartet

Beethoven must’ve been deaf
by then. But not blind—though
what does that mean?
That two “buts”

don’t make an “and”?
Outside the window, sun and leaves
don’t concern
themselves with my phrasing.

They’re making love this morning,
turning sunlight to
maple trees
for later generations to sit under

the boughs,
or look out their windows
at them while smoking
pensively, as we did,

when cigarettes, cheap then,
made you feel cool, not
though everything you do

kills you
eventually. Is this why Beethoven sounds
so sad, so richly
melancholic, so continually

in the darker tones—that he saw
when he could no longer


The Private Lives Of Words

I don’t want to sound
I don’t want, even, to pretend
to some importance.
So why set the words
down—preserving them.
For others?
Clarifying them
for myself?
Already, you see patterns
start to form.
The words, once
written down, call
to other words.
It’s so lonely
on the long, blank page,
so isolated living in your head,
behind eyes that are
forever looking
at the surfaces of things
from their secure
outpost, wondering
how it would be
inside a locust tree, for instance,
or a hummingbird.
Even inside that old rocking chair
sitting in the living room
since Mary, the ex-neighbor, sold it
at a yard sale.
And it’s stayed
against that wall, overshadowed
by the piano, hardly noticed
beside the shelves of multi-colored novels
that probably
with each other nights—
Hemingway continuing his belligerence
with Fitzgerald. De Maupassant
chatting with Flaubert.
You get some words together, and you
never hear the end of it.


Will U.S. Government, World respond to Border S.O.S.

Will Government, World Respond to Border SOS? This is a good article. For those of you who don't live on the border, I recommend highly keeping up with Frontera Norte Sur, a non-commercial news service located at NMSU in Las Cruces, NM, just up the road from El Paso. It has long been one of the true sources of border-rooted journalism in the area north of the wall. They their eyes and ears on both sides of the wall, and they keep their shoes and hearts on the ground and among the people who live and so often suffer in our region.

A friend sent me these photographs from the December 6 "Marcha para Solucion" en Juarez. Writing this I hesitate to use his name or the name of the photographer which he sent me. So I won't. But I will if he writes me to do so. The march included organizations and people from all political persuasions--juarenses are exhausted, they want and need help. A note about the young boy holding the "NI UNA MAS" sign. He's 12. Six years ago, when he was 6, he carried the same sign in solidarity with the women who were being killed, their murders ignored by the judicial systems at all levels. He told his dad that he wanted to sell hot-dogs to raise money and donate, so that the murder of women in Juárez would stop. Now there's this other thing, this monstrosity of violence as two cartels war on one another for control of the Juárez plaza (the franchise for using the region to transport illegal drugs). The psychological toll on his generation of young people is enormous. These memories don't go away.


Marching for Peace & Justice in Juárez: December 6, 2009

Antonio Briones turned towards the City Hall of Juarez and demanded that something be done to stop the violence. (Vanessa Monsisvais from the El Paso Times. Read more at the EPT website and also the Diario de Juarez [and here] website. Problem with the EPT website is that they don't keep their work online after two weeks but it can be purchased. I don't know about the Diario.)
Sunday on December 6 between 4,000 and 5,000 juarenses mixed with some folks from El Paso marched yesterday asking for peace and justice for their beleaguered city. The drug war between La Linea (the Juárez cartel) and Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa cartel continues. It's merciless, fed by the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion--maxed out and insane. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed since January 1, 2008. Presidente Calderon sent in federal troops, but they've not been trained in the niceties of urban policing and citizen rights so they've caused more problems. The U.S. leadership, of course, cannot understand our own collusion in the bloody chaos. We think our hands are clean, yet our jails and prisons are full of citizens using the drugs or out to make a shadowy living by selling the stuff. The video link below and the photo above are from the El Paso Times. I hope they will continue to keep this video on-line and not archive it. It's inspiring. May the New Year bring peace and justice for the people of Juárez and may the New Year bring sane and just drug laws for the United States. Our drug laws are directly responsible for this madness.

The December 6th March for Peace and Justice in Juarez


John Daido Loori Roshi, a little something for his grave

Half of a Sonnet

1. He wants to feed the whole congregation all at once.

2. What is wrong with them? I’m afraid they’ve all fallen into the same pit.

3. Hoping for a sign of life he stirs the pot again.

4. A live one has appeared. Not all is lost after all.

5. The entire teaching of countless generations is right in his face.

6. Too bad. After all, the teacher can’t do it alone.

7. Although you bump into it everywhere, it’s still hard to talk about it.


This is a found poem in memory and celebration of John Daido Loori Roshi. After I heard about his death on October 10th or so (he died on the 9th), I spent an afternoon reading stuff about him and written by him. These seven lines are the footnotes to his Teisho on Juifeng’s Rice Cake. I liked how they sounded all alone like this, they make some kind of odd sense and so they became my little homage to his life's work. Seven lines for his grave. A half of sonnet. Of course, I never sat with him or met him. My connection was purely through his two books--The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism and The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training. They're strong books, stern books, good books. They were important to me. They gave me the energy to sit and stare at the wall. Loori called himself a "radical conservative" in regards to keeping the traditions of Zen. If you read his books, you'll understand why. He was also a photographer. The photograph of the rocks in water is his.



[Note: Both poet Tom Clark and poet Ron Silliman have much more intimate knowledge and understanding of Jim Carroll and his work. If you want to know more about Jim Carroll, please visit their blogs and do a search for Jim Carroll. I promise you--it's worth the journey. My thing here, for what it's worth, is a dreamy meditation on a man and a poet I did not know. bb]
Jim Carroll (and here) died a few weeks ago. “The Basketball Diaries” Jim Carroll--the playground b-baller who became a poet rock star celebrity. Pure New Yorker type of guy. 16 years old and he was running with the New York City poets I loved. The St. Mark’s poets. 2nd generation. Tom Clark was publishing him in the Paris Review. Jim was going to be the next Rimbaud. That's what "they" all said. Then he was a rock star and Keith Richards of the Stones was playing behind him. Jesus. It must have been a rush. I never knew Jim Carroll. I don't think I wanted to. And I really didn’t pay much attention to the Diaries or his poetry. Maybe I avoided them. I didn't want to step inside. Yet there he was in my psyche living the life. The rep and the rumors and the talk. Yeah, I guess I can say all that scared me. I always figured if I went off to NYC to be a poet that I would get lost in the jingle jangle. I could have walked into Jim Carroll’s song “People Who Died” and live right there in the ether. I loved that song. I didn’t want to die but I could die. I could go that way. The first time I heard it a local hero rocker here in El Paso was covering it. I wanted to scream and shout and weep and laugh.
"People Who Died" by Jim Carroll
(lyrics lifted from St Lyrics website here)

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

G-berg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in upper Manhattan
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet in the head
Bobby OD'd on Drano on the night that he was wed
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Mary took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from a cell in the tombs
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in the jugular vein
And Eddie, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Herbie pushed Tony from the Boys' Club roof
Tony thought that his rage was just some goof
But Herbie sure gave Tony some bitchen proof
"Hey," Herbie said, "Tony, can you fly?"
But Tony couldn't fly, Tony died

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Brian got busted on a narco rap
He beat the rap by rattin' on some bikers
He said, "Hey, I know it's dangerous, but it sure beats Riker's"
But the next day he got offed by the very same bikers

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

G-berg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in upper Manhattan
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet in the head
Bobby OD'd on Drano on the night that he was wed
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

Mary took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from a cell in the tombs
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in the jugular vein
And Eddie, I miss you more than all the others
And I salute you brother

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
Jim Carroll was like my friend Jimmy Walker. Carroll (b1949) started doing cocaine on the streets in NYC at the age of 13. Me (b1942) and my friend Jimmy Walker (b1941) started drinking together when we were 13. Different places, different times. Another difference, it seems, was that Jim Carroll had a father, a bartender in a conservative Irish neighborhood. Both of Walker and I were fatherless, me literally, Jimmy figuratively. Harvey Goldner, another founding member of our drinking club (aka "gang" or "pandilla"), had a figuratively dead father who was happy enough to come home from work and get drunk. And a little bit later Jimmy Douglas, who like me had a father they had put into the ground. All of us fatherless one way or another. We drank hard and often all the way through high school. I’m not proud of that. It’s what happened. We were lost and shy and foolish. Booze was our shield. We battled against the world with our booze. It could have been cocaine very easily but cocaine wasn’t an option in 1954 East Memphis. After high school Jimmy Walker--who like Jim Carroll was easiest the craziest of us all--quit school and went off with the carnival. Then he joined the Army and before long he had jumped off some tower in Germany (the Army said he fell, Jimmy Walker would never fall / he loved climbing the tall trees in his Friday night drunkeness) and he came home packaged in his uniform lying inside a box. But Michael Clemmons was first into that void. I know because Jimmy was with him. Another of the fatherless. They were floating on a log in the Mississippi--Mike and Jimmy, my little sister Patsy and Harvey and somebody else. (I was elsewhere, saying goodbye to a girlfriend). The river swallowed Mike whole. We were 18 then. Mike was a sweet-faced boy who wanted to be a poet. Surely he was gay but it was before that time when he could say, "Sure, I’m gay. What of it?" I hope we would have understood. They found his water bloated body the next day snagged into some eddy on the banks of the river. The undertaker fixed him up fine for his mother. Next in line was Bert Ringold. He put his father’s shotgun in his mouth and pushed the trigger with his toe. And there were others--Horace and Kemp and red-headed Bobby. In the 70s tall David Telder bought himself a gun at an El Paso pawnshop and went into the desert. He was a good friend. I never guessed at his sorrow. It’s happening more often now. Dead people. Jimmy Gardner from AIDS. My little sister Patsy from viral pneumonia and obesity and struggles with depression and addiction. My big brother Bill from alcoholism and a heart attack and depression. Steve Sprague from meningitis. Harvey Goldner from cancer.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me if I had gone to New York. The thing is, I didn't. But I did leave Memphis and all the baggage of my growing up. I wanted to be a poet. I needed to be away from my family. From some daydream I wanted to be in the desert. I went west and not east. Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and now El Paso. I think the work of Snyder and Kerouac pushed me in that direction. I was interested in Zen, whatever that was. I didn't know anything about myself. Whatever would happened, happened. I’m glad I found El Paso. Like they say now, it is what it is. A cliche that makes sense. It wasn’t planned. Jim Carroll’s life was probably like that. Not planned, I mean. Just one day after the next, following our noses. Now Jim Carroll is dead. Why his death leaves a hole in my psyche, I don't know. I plan to buy his books and find out. Meanwhile here Lee and I are on Louisville Avenue in the old Five Points neighborhood of El Paso. We've been in this house 30 years.

If you're reading this on Facebook, go here to watch the video.

I miss Jim Carroll. I miss not knowing him.

May he rest in peace.


Pilgrimage to Cristo Rey Mountain

Woman at the top, kneeling at the statue of Jesus on the Cross, weeping into her cellphone--"Hi, mom. I'm up here on the top. I up here with Jesus. I love you, mom, I love you."

Tattooed man on a cellphone--"Okay, sweet baby, I'm going to hang up. We're going to pray now."

Woman to her mother, hugging her and crying--"He called me a super bitch, he said I don't know what I'm doing."

In the midst of life, we are in death.

They said in the paper that the best guess was that 30,000 people climbed Cristo Rey Mountain last Sunday. I’ve been in El Paso 30 years now and most of those years I’ve said to myself, I need to make that climb with everybody else. Finally I did. The trail is 2½ to 3 miles to the top, depending on where you start; somewhere between 800 to 1000 feet in altitude. The mountain sits at the intersection of three states--Texas, Chihuahua and New Mexico. It was a beautiful day, a cloudy sky to shade us from the sun, just a little bit of a breeze. I started walking about 945am. The trail is only 8 feet across in most places, thick with dust and gravel and stone. I got lost in all the people, just one more pilgrim in the midst of the horde, most of us going up, but others already coming back down--a sea of brown faces, some gringos like myself, the faces of El Paso--kids and babies and parents and abuelitos, cholos and pretty girls, high school kids, tourists, reporters, a barefooted monk from Guatemala in his white robe and purple sash, many other barefooted pilgrims saying their prayers and their Hail Marys, giving thanks and asking for forgiveness. It’s a hard walk. The sore muscles, the bleeding feet, the beating heart, the shortness of breath, the chatter of people, the thirst, the laughter, the worry about death, the drumbeat of the Matachines atop the mountain pulling us along. It was the Feast Day for Christ the King, the last Sunday of October. My friend novelist and poet Ben Saenz once told me the closer you get to the border, the closer you get to Mexico, the more religious the language becomes. And he’s right. The language becomes charged with God-words. blessing-words, prayers. In the midst of the sacred though, people don't forget the profane--they go about their business selling burritos and water bottles, they talk on cell phones, they laugh and hold hands and make promises of love, they trade secrets and they gossip. I got to the top before noon. The Matachines were dancing, the Church bazaar vendors were selling water and pelotas and soda and pan dulce. At the very top loomed Christ on the Cross. We circled the huge statue. Some were kneeling and praying, weeping, lighting candles. A woman slowly sang “Amazing Grace.” Others, like me, took photos and looked down into the valley. A crowd had taken their place, waiting for the Bishops--one from Las Cruces, the other from El Paso. I saw them on the way back down. One was walking, the other (a pudgy guy with big lips) in a white jeep. The jeep was lost in an entourage of banners and people. The trail was only a few feet wider than the vehicle, so we had to climb up on rocks to let them pass. The two bishops blessed us as their entourage crawled higher up the mountain. They were doing their job. I was on the way back home. The downhill journey can be a struggle too. My leg bones ached, my knee twisted when I slipped on some rocks, my feet felt hot and tender. But I was happy and at peace. At the bottom church ladies were making food. I bought a plate of three fresh gorditas for $4 and I wandered back to my car hungry and thirsty and exhausted. I’ll do it again next year.

More photos of the journey on my Picasa account here.

PLAYBOY does El Paso

Luis Alberto Urrea's article about El Paso is in the November issue of Playboy and it’s now on the newsstands. From what we hear, the issue is destined to be one of Playboy's most read issues because Marge Simpson is the cover girl. It's good PR for El Paso. Nationally, El Paso is usually dissed by the media. People wonder why we live here. How come Cinco Puntos is here? In the 1970s when Lee and I first moved from Albuquerque south in search of a job, we asked friends where we should live, El Paso or Las Cruces. “Oh,” they said, wrinkling up their noses like they caught the whiff of something spoiled, “Las Cruces. You don’t want to live in El Paso.” (Why that is / is a whole other subject.) Anyway, Luis’ piece will help people begin to think differently about El Paso. And people (yeah, yeah, 90% are men) do READ Playboy. There are things to do, places to go, people to see. Yes, Juárez is a few minutes away across the river, its suffering remains in our thoughts and prayers, we worry about friends and families, the narco-wars in the recesses of our dreams, but here in El Paso is great music, a vibrant intellectual and cultural life. It's the paradox that Luis was commissioned to write about.

Luis stayed with Lee and me during his visit. I drove him around some during the day, historian David Romo did the same and daughter Susie Byrd took him out for some nite-time excursions around downtown and the Central Side (as opposed to the East Side and the West Side and the North East--El Paso enjoys its multiplicities). I wrote two blognotes here and here about his visit.

Odd thing is that the piece has created a little political controversy in the parochial parts of the El Paso psyche. The reason: Susie is District 2 Representative on the City Council, and her good friend County Commissioner Veronica Escobar made a cameo appearance in the article because she joined Susie on a night-time excursion. Of course they had fun. Susie and Vero, both known for their progressive straightforward politics, are fun to be around. They joke and riff and laugh loudly and they dance. Their faces light up with happiness. Luis fit right in. No wonder, like the rest of us, he loves the fronterizo sounds of the band Radio La Chusma. He gave La Chusma big kudos in his piece. Indeed, he gave kudos to the vibrant rasquache energy of El Paso. In a letter to me he said the Playboy editors wanted him to make the piece meaner, they wanted him to put some diss into his language. But no, he wanted his writing to churn up some love for El Paso. [He was disappointed when the editors chopped his paean to Papa Burgers on Piedras Street.] So he was dumbfounded when a few of the city’s radiomouths started squabbling and bloviating and throwing mud at him and Susie and even Vero. Luckily for me I escaped the onslaught, probably because I’m only a poet and publisher, two occupations that are considered inconsequential among the blabbering class.

Oh, well. Playboy is making some El Paso bucks. I went to the Westside Barnes & Noble and bought three copies for our archives. The clerk told me he was selling them like hot cakes.

Self-portrait with Luis at the Smeltertown Cemetary


George Carrizal, 1945-2009

El Paso artist George Carrizal is dead. David Fleet called me up last Wednesday to tell me. “He was my friend and once he was my lover who I talked to every night. He cared for me and worried about me until the very end.” Artist Cesar Ivan put together a wonderful blog of photographs and paintings to honor George and David wrote a moving tribute to his dead friend which he read at George’s funeral yesterday (Saturday, 10/11/09). This is an act of re-membering in the old sense--putting a life back together in one’s memory, in the collective memory.


I make a good pot of beans

I Make a Good Pot of Beans

Christians like my beans.
Right-wing, left-wing—they like my beans.
Buddhists like my beans.
Muslims and Jews like my beans.
Agnostics and atheists.
Mexicans and gringos.
Vegetarians and meat eaters.
The drunks down the street like my beans.
I know some politicians who like my beans.
Likewise some ex-cons and thieves.
Friends of mine.
All of them.
Poets of course like my beans.
Probably some novelists.
A few holy men, a few holy women
(not too many out there).
Even my kids and grandkids like my beans.
Write me a letter.
I’ll send you the recipe for my beans.


Image from the “Simple Mom” website


Youtubing Lee & Me: Literary El Paso

Marcia Daudistel has edited LITERARY EL PASO for the TCU Press Series which features the literary traditions of Texas cities. I promise you: El Paso's literary history can stand up to that of any city in Texas. LITERARY EL PASO will include John Rechy, Arturo Islas, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Dagoberto Gilb, Antonio Burciaga, Ricardo Sanchez, Rick DeMarinis, Denise Chavez and many many others. It's a humongous book (600-pages plus)--at $30 cheap for its size--and will be available at the end of this month. Lee contributed a story, "When He Is 37" from her collection My Sister Disappear and I have two poems, "The Gavachos in the Photograph" (The Price of Doing Business in Mexico) and "One Way for Middle-Aged Persons to Meditate" (Get Some Fuses for the House). Marcia and El Paso Magazine asked us to make youtube short videos as part of the promotion. If you're in the neighborhood, Barnes & Noble on the Westside will be having an event on October 24th, 4pm, celebrating the arrival of the book. Below are the videos. Lee only reads the first section of her story, and I read "The Gavachos in the Photograph." If you're reading this on FACEBOOK, which doesn't download video from Blogger, click here for Lee's performance and here for mine.

By the way, the photograph at the top (also in the video) is by Pedro Rueles Alvarez. Here's the note in the back of the book about the protographs: "Pedro Ruelas Alvarez, a street photographer, took the photograph of Lee and me sitting in the corner booth by the front window of the famous Martino’s Restaurant on Avenida Juárez just on the other side of the 'free bridge.' We were living in Las Cruces at the time, and we had no idea that we would ever move to El Paso. Ruelas, who charged us three dollars for the photograph, is now dead, but many of the waiters--including my favorite, Moisés II, a dead–ringer for Peter Lorre--are still there. They all make exquisite martinis right at your table while you sit and watch." Now Moises II is no longer there, and with the insane violence of the drug wars keeping the paseños away from Juarez, Martino's is hanging on by the slenderest of threads.


Where was the Drug Czar? Where was the Border Czar?

Drug Czar: Gil Kerlikowske

Alan Bersin: Border Czar

Yeah, where were they? We know they weren't in El Paso Monday and Tuesday, September 21st and 22nd [See Footnote]. That's when the "Global Public Policy Forum" convened to discuss the U.S. War on Drugs 1969-2009. Yes, 2009 is not only the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, it's also the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs. If I didn't enjoy irony, life in the real world would be a lot more boring. The War on Drugs, of course, has failed miserably. In El Paso we only have to walk down the street and cross a concrete ditch of a river over into our sister city of Juárez to know this is a fact. 3200 people have been killed over there in the last 20 months as the El Paso/Juárez Cartel battles it out with el Chapo's Sinoloa Cartel. The forum was arranged in a unique collaboration between academia--led by Drs. Kathleen Staudt, Josiah Heyman, Howard Campell of UTEP and many others--and the city of El Paso led by City Councilperson Beto O'Rourke. The El Paso City Council, you might remember, created a national buzz earlier in the year when it unanimously resolved to ask for a national open and honest discussion about the drug war. Although vetoed by Mayor John Cook with a number of frivolous charges, that resolution and its veto was the stimulus for the El Paso Forum.

The speakers and panels, for the most part, were interesting and very well-informed, and they came from Mexico and the U.S., from the academic, media, political and legal communities. The gist of most of their talks were--as reformed drug warrior Terry Nelson kept hammering at--was that the huge problems caused by the sale, the use and addiction to illegal drugs (everything from the cartels and the costs of drug interdiction) was not the drugs themselves, but the prohibition of those drugs. Hello! The one naysayer to that point of view was Anthony Placido, the Chief of Intelligence of the Drug Enforcement Administration. His speech on Tuesday was compelling simply because it was full of fear-mongering (full of horrific show and tell of dead bodies and brains with holes in them) and faulty logic. The job of the "state," as he kept referring to the government, was security, and the state had to balance its perceived notion of security against civil rights. Very Cheneyesque.

Anthony Placido: Chief of Intelligence, DEA

Actually, I was not going to mention Placido's talk in this brief description, but Tuesday night I heard a chilling story from a high school teacher in the El Paso Independent School District. He was in class, getting ready to give out a test, when police officers arrived at the door of his classroom with drug-sniffing dogs. They ordered all of the students out of the class and into the hall way where they were lined up against the walls while the dogs searched the room for drugs. Like I say, I was horrified. This is Big Brother scary kind of stuff and it's certainly not the way to go about teaching kids to be open-minded and curious about their lives and the world in which they live. I do not understand why the EPISD, the school administrators, the teacher's union or a group of parents have not loudly protested this invasion of the high school. Meanwhile, as was pointed out during a number of the forum panels, it's easier for students to buy marijuana out on the streets than it is to buy alcohol.

Please, Mr. Placido, sit down, take a deep breath and smell the roses. We need to inform you that the drug war has been lost. Not to worry. The cartels have made enough money so they will not go away. There will be plenty for you to do.

Oh, well. I'm told that soon the whole forum will be on-line and I will put links up to the various panels and discussions. You'll be able to be the judge. In the meantime, I'll list several of the on-line resources that speak for some of the speakers, plus newspapertree.com's article linking to some of the many national and internation media articles arising from the forum--

The newspaper tree link. Also, there are a number of other articles there about the forum as well as other pieces about the drug war and life on the frontera in genera.

Judge Jim Gray, a Republican judge from Orange County, gave one of the most compelling speeches. He didn't break any new ground. He simply stated his own history of realizing that the drug war wasn't working and his journey of research to write his book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed. He could have been talking to the Chamber of Commerce or to a religious congregation and his speech would have been the same--full of common sense and honest.

Terry Nelson, a tall gangly ex-DEA agent, spoke with the grit and humor of a guy who has been in the trenches on the other side and realizes he's doing the wrong thing. He's on the board of LEAP, aka Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He's a fun guy to listen to. He came to El Paso earlier in the year to lobby the city council members to stand up to Mayor Cook's veto. Four did (one of whom was daughter Susie Byrd), four didn't. Oh well. Terry Nelson is the kind of guy you'd like to have over simply to listen to his stories.

Ethan Nadelmann
founded and is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Ethan is a drug policy savant, the kind of guy you don't want to be on a panel with because he knows the answers to most all questions, and he answers them with wit and enthusiasm. The Drug Policy Alliance is hosting its annual International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque, November 12-14. It should be a good event. The times, as Bobby D used to sing, are a changing.

Congratulations to UTEP and to the City of El Paso for hosting this event. It made us proud. Below is a trailer to the conference, but if you are on facebook reading this, then follow this youtube link.

Footnote. I should also note that a number of elected officials did not show their faces or send representatives. I saw six City Council members there sometime during the two days (Carl Robinson and Rachel Quintana were no shows). Mayor Cook spoke at the beginning and his assistant Robert Andrade was helping organize during both days, County Attorney Jose Rodriguez spoke on one of the panels and attended several discussion, Congressman Silvestre Reyes sent a representative, likewise State Senator Eliot Shapleigh. It would have been nice to see our District Attorney Jaime Esparza, somebody from the police administration, somebody from the Sherriff's office. The Governor and Texas Senators should not be expected to attend because...well, somehow El Paso is not really part of Texas. Why? I don't know.


Sunday Morning El Paso Texas

Sunday Morning in Sunset Heights,
A Discarded Rose

El Paso & Juárez Sunday Morning
from the little park at the top of Scenic drive

Sunday mornings, when I have the chance, I ride my bike from the Cinco Puntos Press National Headquarters (as John Byrd calls it) through downtown and up through Sunset Heights and Kern Place and across Scenic Drive which skirts around the southern edge of the Franklin Mountains. The mountains on the other side are the Sierra de Juárez. The Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo) cuts through the two ranges of mountains. Hence, El Paso, the Pass. It's a beautiful ride. CPP is a few blocks from the tall buildings on the eastern edge of downtown. If you look closely between the clumps of buildings you can see one of the bridges that crosses into Juárez, but besides and a few other telltale signs recognizable only by folks who live here it seems to be one city. It is one city. A divided city. This side and that side. They say the same thing on the other side. But they say it Spanish.

And it's harder and harder to go back and forth.


Spotting the Almost Extinct White-Legged Byrd in the Wilderness

Hiding out from the rain and eating a cold cheese and sausage burrito

Son Johnny, who is the guy who mostly manages the workings of Cinco Puntos, invited me on a camping trip to the San Pedro Park Wilderness which is northwest of Albuquerque about an hour and a half, just north of Cuba. We've been up there several times together, sometimes with my close friend and Johnny's godfather Steve Sprague. It's the first time I've been backpacking since Steve's a few years ago. It's taken me a while to recuperate from the journey--the altitude, the 40lbs of backpack (we always carry too much), the old joints and muscles. But it was an incredible journey. My friend Joe Somoza wrote and asked how it went. This is what I wrote him.

It was a good trip, but not a simple and easy trip. It was so good to be with Johnny. He sort of took care of me the whole trip--helped me put on my pack, took care of cooking, this and that, a true pleasure. Drove up Tuesday morning and of course stopped at REI where we spent too much money, slipped through Cuba (speeding ticket for $71 on the way to the wilderness, 55mph in a 45mph zone, curling up into the mts, a nice cop though) and got to our car camp at the trailhead about 530. A beautiful night with lots of stars. A steak, a beer, the simple business of being a camper is so nice. Tent. Pots and pans. Sleeping bags. How to get up and piss at night. This needs to be done, that needs to be done. Sleeping is hard to get used to without a comfy mattress. The next morning (39 degrees) oatmeal and coffee and packed our packs and headed up-trail. It was harder that I remember. The higher altitude. 40lbs on my back. And yes, maybe I am older, maybe those goddamned leaves have turned against me, but I pushed on. Would walk maybe 40 minutes and we'd take a break. So beautiful. A little butterfly followed me along, orange-red and black wings, and by god that butterfly was laughing at me. Old man old enough to die. Close to 1pm the skies started to hail. Well, we all know that hail blows away real quick. But not this hail. It kept on. Then it turned into rain. Shit. We climbed under a rock overhang in the midst of a dark forest, the rain dripping here and there on us. It kept up for an hour. We ate a burrito (cold tortilla) with summer sausage and cheddar cheese with Louisiana hot sauce. It was delicious. The rain slackened. We decided to walk some without our packs to find out where we were. After a while the trail opened into a big meadow. A good place to camp. The rain came and went, but we had on our raincoats and stood under trees when it got too heavy. Ran into a fancy grouse hunter with his gun strapped across his back. He said it might rain all night, said maybe it would stop. Thanks a lot, huh? We decided to go get our packs and come back and find a camping place. If it was raining when we got back, then we'd trudge back to our car and spend the night in Cuba. If it cleared, then we would stay. So that's what we did. We came back and the clouds were breaking and the sun was poking through. We had a wonderful campsite high above the creek, enough sun shining through "the ambiguous clouds" (Johnny's phrase). We got very lucky. No more rain. We were able to hang damp clothes and sleeping bags on rocks and got everything (except cotton stuff) mostly dry. We started boiling water to purify and to make coffee and we settled into a wonderful view and later a good dinner. The fire was hard to start--an hour long project where we ripped pages from poem books and novels and used toilet paper and all sorts of fancy teepee structures. Everything was simply wet or damp. Shit. Finally, John remembered a Tom Brown book where TB said to shave sticks for the dry wood inside. So we did that and to make sure we poured a thimbleful of white gas on top. The wood slowly started, and we nursed it and soon we had a good fire that would last us through the evening as long as we dried more sticks before burning. We slept sort of fitful. John was worried about more rain, I heard some sort of animal sniffing around outside, but the night passed and the morning was partly cloudy, the earth happy with a layer of thick dew, a bunch of elk over the next rise talking to each other about the day's activities, all of them looking forward to the mating season, oblivious to the fact that hunting season was upon them. Or were they? Oatmeal and coffee. Delicious. A nice dump in the woods (see photo below). We bushwhacked for several hours looking for those elk. We didn't find them but we had an incredible walk. No sign of human beasts. We had lunch around noon and packed up and started back down the trail. A wondrous rhythm walking downhill full of prayers and beautiful things to see. It started to hail and rain of course, but that was cool. We were ready with raincoats and besides we were going back to the car. On the way home we stopped at the Frontier and re-membered Albuquerque and I took John to the house on Rincon Avenue where he was born and we drove home listening to a mystery on the radio and lost in our own thoughts about the next day.
Love to you,

A wet fire is still a good fire

The almost extinct white-legged byrd
doing his business in the woods

Self-portrait falling down

Camp from Las Vacas Creek

Elk head. Note that the trophy antlers
have been sawed off along with the brain pan.
But at least the hunter took home the meat.

Breaking camp

Heading home

Self portrait 3/4 mile from the trailhead #51

Johnny Byrd in front of the house
on Rincon Avenue where he was born in 1973.
(Just west of 48th Street, west of the Rio Grande,
several blocks from Central Avenue & under the mesa).
Lee reminded me that we'd let Susie run around
in the field without her diapers on.
That's how we potty-trained her.
I guess it worked.
Sort of.



When I was a kid I collected toenails. I liked the big ones the best, the ones like warped dry planks of wood, so I let my toenails grow long—long enough to cut holes in my socks—before I chopped them off. Every two months or so I harvested my toenails. The best crops I cut from my big toes, of course, but my little toes yielded peculiar curled nails that added class and personality to my collection. I enjoyed watching the toenails on my little toes grow. I looked forward to harvesting those nails. The toenails from the middle three toes on either foot were ordinary, normal sized nails but they certainly added bulk to my rising mound of toenails. Oddly enough I reaped bigger and more interesting crops of toenails from my left foot than from my right foot, although the left foot was harder to get to because of the way my body is shaped.

Nobody in my family knew about my collection of toenails. I put the toenails in a 12-ounce Mason jar that I kept hidden in my closet. I daydreamed that scientists would someday discover a miracle drug to something gruesome like cancer or polio. It’s prime ingredient would be toenails. Toenails. Toenails. Toenails. I’d have a head start. By then I’d have a big jar full of toenails. I’d sell my toenails and make a lot of money. It would be a strange accomplishment, but still my mom would be proud of me.

After two years I had collected about a half-inch of toenails in my jar. One day I was talking to my friend Marty. He lived down the street in a house that was dark and sad inside. He had a small bedroom in the back that he shared with his little brother. Marty had a secret he wanted to show me. We were alone in the house. He unscrewed a panel in the wall. It was his secret hiding place. He reached in and pulled out a jar almost half full of toenails. Marty had been saving toenails for almost four years. I didn’t know what to say. I took the jar from his hand and looked at his toenails. Marty watched me. He was smiling with pride. These toenails were his secret, his accomplishment.

What do you think, he asked?

I laughed at him. What are you doing with these nasty toenails? Are you crazy?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Marty wanted to explain, but I wouldn’t let him. I knew already what he would say. I was ashamed for him and I was ashamed for me. Big tears welled up in his eyes. I went home and flushed my collection of toenails down the toilet. Marty and I never spoke about the toenails again.


Round 2: Juarez/EP versus Luis Urrea @ Monument Marker #1

Self-portrait with Luis Urrea at Monument Marker #1

Please visit Round 1, my August 18 blog note about Luis Urrea's visit to El Paso, so that this will make a bit more sense.

Yes, this is the U.S./Mexico Border. It's the first marker set down to delineate the U.S/Mexico Border as established by the 1854 Treaty of Mesilla.) Behind us is where Francisco Madero established La Casita Gris as the capital of the Revolutionary Govermnent. In 1911 he and his little army crossed the Rio Grande (aka el Rio Bravo) and established his revolutionary government to do battle with the armies of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. It was here Pancho Villa, the Italian Garibaldi, Pascual Orozco and others sat and smoked and made plans with the little Madero¹. In the clump of salt cedar trees, you can see a bust of Madero.

To get there, we drove past two Border Patrol vans. One on east side of the river, then crossed the brick company bridge and came along the levee road where another BP agent inside his van asked what we were doing and told us to be careful. We saw pickups pulled up to the banks of the river and Mexican families swimming, having picnics, a few men hovering near the dam that crosses the river, waiting for a chance to slip undetected into El Norte.

Mexican families swimming in the Rio Bravo.

Monument Marker #1 is truly a sacred spot. A contradiction of everything you read about in the newspapers or see on the TV about the U.S./Mexico Border. A few miles from the downtowns of El Paso and Juárez you can actually step across the border here. You can step into Mexico like 9/11 and the great immigration scare never happened. But very few people from El Norte visit it. Maybe they believe everything they read in those newspaper. And, oddly enough, fewer still write much about it. I think most of us want to protect it from the hideous border fence that the federal government put up. I am hesitant about bringing attention to this surreal place, but as the nation's maniacal fear about the border and Mexico continues to grow like kudzu, I'm starting to think it's best people know about it. We need to protect that small open piece of land between two cities, between two states and between two countries. There are no fences here. If a secular place can be holy, then this is a holy place.

And most importantly--geologically and historically--this is the place where the Rio Grande cuts through the mountains (hence, El Paso, or The Pass) and heads east toward the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know why the feds skipped the Monument Marker #1 Park and the Monte Cristo Rey which abuts it when they built their fence. Maybe they too recognized it's a special place in the local and national psyches of both nations. I doubt it.

The beast doesn't seem to have an imagination.

[¹The photograph of Orozco, Baniff, Villa and Garibaldi is found at the Library of Congress FLICKR site here.]


Dreaming a Flat Bridge between Juárez and El Paso

Since Luis Urrea's visit to El Paso, I got sidetracked and I find myself moving around the furniture in my imagination about El Paso and Juárez. That's how I found this postcard tucked into our digital files for David Romo's Ringside Seat to a Revolution. How charming and idyllic it is, so much so it drips with the real blood of irony in comparing to what we have now. It's true, back in the day, the bridge between El Paso and Juárez was flat [*see note], and the Rio Bravo (aka, Rio Grande) was a common resource, certainly not a fenced and heavily guarded dividing line between El Norte and El Sur. Then in the early 60s the Kennedy Administration brokered the Chamizal Treaty which diverted the river into a concrete ditch. It also moved the border at the downtown bridge a hundred yards or so north, over which some pendejo engineer designed, and the feds built, a three story tall bridge. It's meaning was simple--divide one city from the other. These decisions, made in DC and DF, radically altered not only the river, but also south downtown El Paso, especially around the Segundo Barrio and Chihuahuita Barrio. And over the years since the 60s the culture and the politics of the two cities has changed dramatically. It was slow change at first, but then in the mid-90s to now, the change became accelerated. The border on the U.S. side has become a military camp for a number of federal agencies, each elbowing more and more space for themselves, fewer and fewer people from the U.S. go back and forth to enjoy families and friends and entertainment to simply enjoy Mexico, and illegal drugs and immigration have become essential cash industries for the Mexican economy. And so how do we reverse this insanity? How do we make our bridge flat again?

First thought, best thought: Rewrite the U.S. drug laws; remove the capitalistic incentive from the sale of marijuana, heroin and cocaine; and treat addiction as a sickness, not as a crime. But you say this to the bureaucrats in D.C., they just talk gobbley-gook, then they turn around and show you their fat asses. I'm a poet and I should be able to say this better, but, damnit, as I write this, it's Friday afternoon, and I'm tired of the insanity I see.

Insanity like a three-story bridge that should be a flat bridge.


[**NOTE: Thanks to Roberto Camp who a long time ago explained to me that the building of that monstrosity of a bridge was a tipping point in the history of these two sister cities.]