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.