Denise Chávez has an itch.
It’s an itch to write people’s stories. Not just anyone’s stories but cuentos about regular, working-class folks, who inhabit small towns on the northern edge of the U.S.-Mexico border. Chávez’s characters, as it turns out, not surprisingly, all have itches of their own.
“These people are real,” said author Denise Chávez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, along Interstate 10, near the much larger joint cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, México.
Chávez returns to Tucson for the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona. She’ll participate in a writing workshop Saturday and in a second session Sunday. Chávez’s most recent book is “The King and Queen of Comezón” published last year by the University of Oklahoma Press. She was a judge in the poetry category for this year’s Festival of Books.
Her previous works of fiction include “The Last of the Menu Girls,” a collection of short stories published by Arte Publico Press in 1986, and the novels “Face of An Angel” in 1994 and 2001’s acclaimed “Loving Pedro Infante,” both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She has earned several awards including the American Book Award and the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. She also has written poetry and plays, taught creative writing at New Mexico State University and was the artistic director of the Border Book Festival in Las Cruces for more than 25 years. Presently she and her husband own a bookstore and art gallery.
Chávez was born and lived nearly all of her 66 years in Las Cruces. The characters that inhabit her stories are from her corner of New Mexico, but they could be from any border town. They are “real” in the fertile imagination of this borderlands’ writer who has uniquely captured the quirks and pathos of border communities.
“These are characters in our border reality,” said Chávez in a phone plática from Las Cruces.
As in her conversations and stories, Chávez alternates between English and Spanish. Her language reflects the 150 years of cross-fertilization of the American and Mexican realities created and cemented along la frontera.
While much of today’s border fiction and nonfiction is occupied by immigration, drug smuggling and the militarization of the 2,000-mile region, Chávez steps away from the headlines and instead focuses on culture, gender, and economic and racial class. And her themes are dressed up with humor, sometimes ribald.
“I don’t want to beat up people on the head,” she said. She’d rather double readers over with laughs.
A one-time waitress for six years, Chávez frequently uses bars and restaurants as scene settings where her characters spend much of their time dreaming, complaining, escaping and flirting. In “Comezón,” which in English means itch, one of her principal characters, Arnulfo Olivárez, finds refuge in the Mil Recuerdos Lounge. He avoids the sadness and disappointment at home with his long suffering wife, Emilia, and their daughters Juliana, who is love with Padre Manolito, the town’s snooty Spanish priest, and Lucinda, who is in love with the untrustworthy Ruley Terrazas, son of the more untrustworthy Cuco “Matamosca” Terrazas, the chief of police.
And there are more characters, all of whom have their own itches.
The good writer she is, Chávez continues to evolve and grow. More of her writing, she said, “will become more grounded.” It will be rooted more in her family’s stories and experiences. She feels a debt to her ancestors, her mother (whose image graces the cover of “Comezón) and her two sisters, one of whom died two years ago.
Her itch is to explore and unearth family tales and history, and transform the cuentos into fiction and nonfiction. It’s her manda, her pledge, she said.
If not her, then who will write her family’s stories?
“I feel a debt to my antepasados,” those who came before her.