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.