Monday, April 27, 2015

Ramon Renteria

Yesterday Ramon Renteria officially retired from an illustrious career as a newspaper reporter for the El Paso Times. In my mind, he was that one border voice for El Paso, Texas and the border region that was indispensable. Over the years, I came to know Mr. Renteria as a straight-shooter who understood everything from the politics to the peccadilloes of my hometown, and I valued the many friendly exchanges we had over coffee or through emails. In 1999, Mr. Renteria gave me one of the first interviews after my first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, was published, and I wanted to return the favor today.

ST: As you reflect on your great career as a journalist from El Paso, what changes have you seen that most startle you, what trends, positive and negative, are most important for readers to understand the changing newspaper business?

RR: I've worked 44 years as a newspaper reporter, starting as a general assignments reporter in eastern New Mexico. Thirty-nine of those years were spent in El Paso where I made the rounds of the beats, covering everything from cops to the courts system, the Hispanic community, border issues, Juárez, and education. I also spent four years running a two-person bureau in Las Cruces for the El Paso Times and keeping track of news throughout southern New Mexico. I received a well-rounded education in the field, hands-on reporting– something more valuable than anything you could possibly learn from books or simply listening to someone lecture in a college classroom.

I've gone from fairly primitive technology, a manual typewriter to the electric typewriter, the first somewhat limited newsroom computers to what we now have, the ability to write and transmit news or whatever you write from almost anywhere on a laptop computer, a computer table or a smart phone.

As an old school journalist, I've always stuck to the basics: solid research and reporting and writing with passion.

I've been fortunate to have worked in the heyday of newspaper journalism back when editors and corporations didn’t mind spending money to get the story. The best editors encouraged and cultivated good writing. I always tried to look for the story beyond the basic who, what, where and why principles taught in college journalism.

While the newspaper industry has lost advertising revenue and readers in its print product over the years, I still say that it takes boots on the ground—good reporters and photographers—to gather the content that newspapers now increasingly rely on to beef up their online products. People still enjoy a good read in the newspaper. The good writers, the ones who try to tell a good yarn, are fading from the news industry.

A reporter these days is no longer just a guy with a pen and notepad. You have to constantly reinvent yourself or at least embrace the new technology. When you go on assignment, you’re now expected to not only gather the words and facts but also to bring back or send from the field images, either still photos or short videos. I cast aside the traditional notepad long ago and replaced it with a tape recorder, first a standard cassette recorder and now two digital recorders capable of recording a 17-hour interview nonstop.

I’m convinced more and more print papers will start publishing on fewer days of the week within the next five years but never will disappear. Sadly, the younger generation sometimes prefers to receive its news in daily spurts of social media.

Too many young people no longer read for pleasure, no longer read books, magazines or newspapers. I worry how long we can maintain a literate nation if the trend continues.


ST: Why did you become a journalist, and why did you stay a journalist even after your initial reasons may have changed? What advice would you give young journalists today, in newspapers and in other areas of journalism?

RR: I became a journalist simply because I loved reading and writing as a teenager. Or as I said in my farewell column because “shoveling words is much easier than shoveling cow manure.” Frankly, I was an incredibly shy person, so shy that I refused to take the final in a college speech class. Writing seemed like the perfect escape, the perfect way to express myself. Journalism forced me out of the shell, forced me to learn to listen to what others have to say.

I tell prospective young journalists that they have to be multi-media experts, multi-talented and proficient at not just collecting and writing information but also at shooting and editing photographs and video. That future is here now. If they don’t embrace the new journalism, then maybe shoveling cow manure is a better option.

I could have gone into management, perhaps gone to a bigger market. I chose to continue writing because that’s more fun. Half the fun of being a reporter is being out there experiencing stuff and talking to people. You can’t get the color and good quotes for a story if you’re tethered to a telephone in an office.

The way news is delivered is changing radically but good writing skills still matter.


ST: Your book page has been so important for the community of El Paso, but also for the devotion it has had to Latino writers. Why did you start the book page? Why was it important for you to provide a forum for Latino literature?

RR: I did not start the book page. I was asked to take over the book page more than 10 years ago. For years, the page mostly focused on wire copy or the authors and books that the wire services chose to profile. The page rarely reflected the literature produced by writers in the El Paso and border region or even writers from across the Southwest.

I wanted to showcase Latino authors and other writers from the borderlands and the Southwest but usually found their voices missing on the wire services.

Gradually, I transformed the page, gave it more of a border/Southwest flavor. Lucky for me, New York writer Rigoberto González started submitting reviews showcasing writers and poets from New York to California. After a while, the book page lured other Latino guest contributors and other reviewers who preferred to write about books dealing with the border, the West and Southwest. Not that I’m looking forward to colgar los tenis anytime soon but if anyone were to write my obituary I hope that they at least mention that I tried to give some ink to writers too often still neglected in the mainstream press.


ST: What do you think you would most want to communicate about the importance of writing and reading for you? What ideas might you have to encourage those who may not be avid readers or who may be reluctant about writing?

RR: I stopped reporting and writing for a few years and became a line editor, editing copy that other writers produce. I could point out the people in the newsroom that read on a regular basis simply by the way they wrote. The equation is simple: you can’t be a writer or a good writer if you don’t read. Reading nourishes the imagination whether you write fiction, nonfiction or fact-based journalism.

If I knew how to compel people to become readers, I would be making big bucks in some corporate office in New York City, Chicago or Atlanta. I don’t know. That's a difficult question. If you haven’t acquired a passion for books or the printed word by the time you’re in grade school, it is going to be extremely difficult for you as an adult to sort out what is real or meaningful and what is bullshit.

As for writing, you learn best by writing on a regular basis and rewriting, sometimes rearranging stuff until it hurts. Too many young writers, especially in this business, think that they’re great writers because they have a degree or two or because they can regurgitate facts. Good writing is a lonely endeavor, just you and the blank page or the blank screen and that damn blinking cursor.


ST: What changes have you seen in the El Paso/Juárez area that you think are important, and what would you most want to preserve about the character or ambiance of this city?

RR: When I arrived here, El Paso/Juárez was a rapidly growing metropolis trying to find itself, trying to carve its identity. Middle-aged and older white guys ran the newsrooms and the editorial policies of the two daily newspapers. The Chamber of Commerce pretty well dictated who would get elected to political office. El Paso was trying to change but at the same time clinging hard to the old ways, the old attitudes or systems that sometimes kept Mexican Americans from progressing. I’m not too familiar with how things work in Juárez but in El Paso, the Mexican American population eventually found itself in positions of authority. Sadly, the majority of political leaders snared in the FBI’s ongoing corruption scandal were Mexican American.

El Paso is starting to look more like a big city or a city with big city issues, more traffic congestion, too many schools and not enough children, aging public infrastructure and an eroded downtown core trying hard to bounce back.

I recently interviewed a Virginia writer who has lived in El Paso for a few years. She described El Paso as a big city with a small town heart.

I hope El Paso matures, behaves more like a city, but never loses that small town corazón.


ST: Your homespun humor and your love of detail about all-things-El Paso have often distinguished your columns. How did you come about this ‘writing style,’ or voice? Tell us a bit about the craft of writing from your point of view.

RR: I don't recall how I found my so-called voice. One day as a payasada I decided to inject a bit of Spanglish into the column. Mixing English and Spanish has always been the border’s third language, sometimes even in Juárez. So I started writing in the voice of la gente. I’m convinced that’s why the column has earned so many fans over the years. A lot of people can relate to the pendejadas that I write. Even though I dislike writing in the first person, I have often told readers about my own medical issues, my own brushes with death. Maybe that convinced some readers that I’m not a celebrity but just another vato who hurts and cries and worries and farts just like them. The homespun style sort of just evolved.

My bilingual writing style also pissed off a lot of people. I’m constantly chastised by the language purists. Los güeros insisted that I should stick to English or at least include a glossary because they don’t get what I'm saying. Well-educated Mexicanos and Mexican Americans often accused me of cheapening the language, that I am neither proficient in English or Spanish and that I should shut up and not remind them of their ghetto roots.

I write mostly to amuse myself, sort of like a monkey playing in a zoo. I love the rhythm of words. Once in a while, something somewhat profound rolls off the fingertips. Most everything I write goes through multiple layers of rewriting.


ST: What are your plans, and in particular do you have any writing-related projects as you step away from the newsroom?

RR: I don't have any immediate plans other than to take a break from the daily work routine for a while and spend some time re-connecting with friends and family. Like most writers, I'd like to leave a memoir of sorts for my children and grandchildren. So I’ll be devoting some writing and editing time to that endeavor. Like I said in my farewell column, I love writing and the rhythm of words. Hopefully, I can latch on to some free-lance writing projects such as travel pieces or profiles. The El Paso Times offered to continue my weekly column on a free-lance basis but I've declined that offer for the time being. The newspaper left the door open for me to reconsider. So quien sabe? Maybe the never-ending columnist, as one fan once described me, will resurrect someday. Writing is not a faucet that you can turn off and forget, especially after you’ve spent almost all of your adult life writing– converting snippets of facts and quotes into an interesting yarn that may inform, amuse or inspire someone.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press) is a hilarious and powerful young adult novel with an unforgettable character in Gabi, la gordita, seeking to be true to her independence and integrity while she navigates the disasters and dramas of her senior year in high school. Quintero has created a voice that will resonate for many years to come. I hope this book will find the legions of readers it deserves, students, parents, teachers, and beyond.

Gabriela Hernandez starts a journal right before senior year, and it is this taboo-breaking, gut-spilling text where Gabi is true to herself, where she chronicles her confusions and declarations about being “a bastard child,” teenage sex and pregnancy, being too Mexican or not Mexican enough, her love of food, especially Hot-Cheetos, and society’s hypocritical expectations and pressures on young women, especially Chicanas. Gabi’s journal writing is profane, funny, revealing, and wise, but her experiences and decisions during her last year in high school will keep the reader riveted to the story.

Gabi struggles with her weight and self-image, yet she finds an outlet in writing when a teacher, Ms. Abernard, nurtures her poetry, recommends “secret reading lists” to Gabi and her classmates, and encourages them to read their poetry at a coffeehouse, The Grind Effect. Gabi has early crushes on Joshua Moore and Eric Ramirez, and has never been kissed. But she will change that soon enough, with the aroma of Hot-Cheetos on her “soft luscious lips.”

Meanwhile, Gabi’s two best friends have dramas of their own. Sebastian reveals to Gabi that he’s gay, which goes well, but when Sebastian reveals this to his father the son is kicked out of the house. Sebastian ends up staying with Gabi. Another best friend, Cindy gets pregnant by German, “one of those guys who knows he’s super hot and assumes girls HAVE to like him.” Gabi witnesses the birth of Cindy’s baby and wonders “how something so utterly disgusting can be so utterly beautiful at the same time.” Later, Cindy will confide a secret to Gabi that will cause la gordita to turn (justifiably) violent.

Gabi’s family is also a mess around her, and she must endure, explain, and overcome them. Her father is a methamphetamine addict, who is missing from home for days at a time. Gabi loves and hates her mother, who harangues her about her weight and constantly admonishes her to keep her ‘ojos abiertos y las piernas cerradas.’ Gabi listens and doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice, yet it is the mother who ends up pregnant after having unprotected sex. Beto, Gabi’s younger brother, skips school to paint graffiti art, and seems lost without his father. At the end of senior year, as Gabi is applying to the University of California at Berkeley, she must take whatever steps are necessary to go beyond this family and her life at Santa Maria de Los Rosales High School.

Gabi is in pieces in more ways than one: with emotions that contradict each other, with expectations and pressures that pull her every which way, with “jiggly goodies” in awkward dresses, and with crushes on boys she thinks she likes and those she learns to love. She is trying to put her self together, like a jigsaw puzzle, making mistakes and discovering solutions on the fly, her heart on her sleeve, with a verve that often astonishes the reader. If this is not one of best contemporary books about the teenage soul, I don’t know what is. 

Perhaps the best achievement of Isabel Quintero’s “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces” is what it says about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ about teenage sexuality, and how many adults are captive to a moral system that often denies them their best sense of self. You can be responsible, you can be honest about who you are and what you want, and you can empower yourself, if you can only survive the treacherous shoals of those teenage years. Like Gabi, you will need a razor-sharp wit and family and friends, as long as they don’t screw you up too much. You will need a ferocious independence, even when you see yourself with so many faults and limitations. Finally, you will need an integrity that demands you be true to your emerging self, always.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on April 19, 2015.) 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Heart Is a Drunken Compass

Domingo Martinez’s second memoir, My Heart Is a Drunken Compass (Lyons Press), is a riveting roller-coaster of emotions from a writer struggling with his internal demons, mortality, family disasters, guilt, and the brink of failure. He succeeds to pull up from repeated nose-dives into oblivion, in part, through writing, a hard-won self-awareness, and friends who value his social insights, humor, and irrepressible spirit. My Heart Is a Drunken Compass is a must-read for those who love painfully honest memoirs and first-rate storytelling.

The book continues where Martinez left off in his first memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, a visceral exploration into Mexican-American families in South Texas, machismo, alcoholic self-destruction, and even creativity and self-reliance amid abject poverty. Derek, the author’s younger brother, is bright, and wins a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, only to descend into drinking binges that alienate him from the family. In one of these episodes, Derek passes out, smashes his head, and ends up in a hospital with serious head injuries. 

The author is plunged into an obsession with not only Derek’s mortality but his own, with missed opportunities and the guilt that comes with self-analysis. Martinez questions whether his actions as a brother caused Derek’s alienation and drinking, whether the alcoholic machismo the older brothers mimicked from their father only encouraged Derek’s own imitations of the brothers. Martinez also criticizes his mother’s divorce from his father, yet he also sympathizes with her. The author also escaped to Seattle to free himself of the toxic family environment in South Texas. 

After Derek recovers from non-life threatening injuries, Martinez segues into his erratic relationship with Steph, “the slim-hipped gentile promised to every son of an immigrant family as per the American Dream.” Bossy and bohemian, Steph is also running away from her family and leads the strangely passive Martinez to camping trips he detests and other misadventures in Seattle. Often when Martinez rethinks a decision he has made with her and wants to question or abandon what they are doing, she displays a terrific anger. Yet the sap still loves her:  Steph proposes marriage to Martinez, and he agrees. 

That’s the point where the relationship unravels. Steph continues her strange behavior of promoting half-truths about her past, manipulating Martinez into more misadventures, and finally punching him in another fit of anger. Martinez has had enough and more or less ends the relationship, yet he still goes back to Steph when she proposes another trip. The author meets Sarah, a level-headed and intelligent older woman, a philosophy professor he loves for her mind even if he is also attracted to her physically. In retrospect, Martinez recognizes how Steph ‘cannibalized’ his soul. As the relationship with Sarah begins, Steph is in a horrific car accident that leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. 

The ex-fiancé takes it upon himself to care for Steph, even though her Anglo parents hate him, even though Sarah feels as if she is having an affair with Martinez because of his devotion to the injured Steph. This is the most puzzling aspect of the memoir: this continued and guilt-ridden devotion to Steph as Martinez flounders with alcoholism, fights to keep Sarah, and struggles as a failing writer. It was a godsend that Sarah came his way, and that she is the one who tells him “to write your way out of this.” And he does so, brilliantly. So Martinez finally realizes what he has to do, with a little help from his friends. 

In My Heart Is a Drunken Compass readers are perhaps treated to the importance of the ethical quality of writing. That is, how writing about something happening to you now, even horrific disasters, gives the writer a way to gather meaning from a chaotic present, to process it, and act so that you make better choices. Martinez earns your trust as a writer and a storyteller because of his messy honesty that mirrors the lives of most readers: his heart is out there, in words, and it gets battered, and he also does much of the battering himself, but he still keeps going.

(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on December 28, 2014.)

Readings and Appearances

Reading of excerpts: Crossing Borders: Personal Essays

Take a look at a recommended list of books for children and young adults, novels, nonfiction books, poetry, and short story collections at LiteraryLatino.com.