An Open Letter to Helena María Viramontes about the 12,000 writers coming to San Antonio in March, and The Conference about Books in a City that Doesn’t Read
Bárbara Renaud González
10 December 2019
Maybe you remember me? We met at the Gemini Ink Writers Conference last summer in San Antonio…People say we resemble each other, but I think it’s because we’re both Latinx and about the same age, who knows. You’re definitely the superior writer, and I’m sure the nicer one too.
I am proud that you’re the Featured Writer at the upcoming AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) 2020 Conference to be held in San Antonio in March 4-7—over 12,000 writers from around the country will be here! The Latinx writers in San Antonio are especially proud you’re getting this kind of recognition. I’ve read all your books, and have told everyone that Their Dogs Came With Them, published in 2007, should have won the Pulitzer. Still don’t understand how a Mexican-American story set in Los Angeles with thirteen protagonists facing gentrification wasn’t even nominated.
I know your husband, Eloy, is from Texas, and that you are familiar with this state. But now you will be a star among thousands of writers, agents, publishers, teachers, students, and your story will have a distinctive impact.
I’m probably too dazzled by seeing someone who looks like me sharing her acclaimed stories with an audience who doesn’t know us very well. As a native Tejana, and writer, I know how difficult it is to get our stories published, on our terms, in our language, and I am hopeful that your presence here will expand the window to the American immigrant future we represent, but rarely get a chance to tell at the national level.
People have told me that San Antonio isn’t magical reality, but how does a city where one-quarter of the city’s residents are considered illiterate host thousands of writers without a single major bookstore in the inner city, no kiosks, an under-funded library, one very recent citywide bookfair, no Xicanx media executives, in a majority Latinx city where the Tex-Mex culture is prominent, responsible for the millions of tourists who come here, with a segregated inner-city public school system, where students are subject to a testing frenzy that boxes them so they read but don’t like reading—host the AWP?
What do you call this if not a magical celebration of books without readers?
I know about the lack of reading—because I’ve taught at community centers, community colleges, and at universities here. Been to Boston, San Francisco, Havana, Central Europe, and know what cities look like, feel like, with a literary life. Here, there are four Catholic missions in San Antonio, not counting the Alamo, which glorifies war. Or as Sandra Cisneros once told me, it’s here to remind us that we won but really lost the war. The military presence hangs over us like a benevolent patron. Guns are sacred, —the Bible, the altar, a political confessing that is almost too late. Many people have been hyped into worshipping the professional basketball team here, the Spurs, with candles, not voting. And yes, we have world-class writers here, but the vast majority of the white writers don’t speak, read, or write Spanish. They don’t have to. And because of the insane fear of other languages that is part of our tragic history, there are plenty of Tejanx, Xicanx, Mexican-American writers, who don’t speak Spanish either.
The illiteracy of San Antonio impacts everything. Very few writers here have read Elena Poniatowska or Eduardo Galeano, for example, of the Latin-American canon—equal to John Steinbeck, Comac McCarthy, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin. The results: my students aren’t woke to reading, and have little interest in substantive, current cinema. We don’t have a Latin American/Xicana arthouse or equity theatre in San Antonio, either. Few have seen the Cesar Chavez film, the James Baldwin film, and barely know anything about Selma. The Suffragettes film? Forget it. Harriet Tubman? I doubt it. Most of the writers I know haven’t visited Oaxaca, Monte Alban, the Olmec colossal stone heads in Xalapa. The elite writers haven’t ventured into the working-class barrio—the Westside of San Antonio. Illiteracy becomes cultural illiteracy: Haven’t seen many sophisticated friends at the annual Conjunto Festival, where Annie Proulx’s accordion story rises from the Texas yeast of immigration, war, land.
What is it like to remember a language you have forgotten? I need to read that story.
What do you call a literary loss equal to the urgency of climate change? Over 50% of the 5,000,000 public school students today are Brown and Black, and I’m being conservative. One-fifth of the nation’s public school students are of color. What does it mean when they don’t know what the civil rights movement means to this country? When they are cynical about democracy and believe in the military as a way of life? And have accepted metal detectors, abusive police, rape, diabetes, polluted beaches, as normal, even though they intuit something is not right?
And what will happen to us when my students realize differently?
They need your book, Helena. Many books.
San Antonio is over 60% Latinx, and the Tex-Mex culture is prominent, responsible for the millions of tourists who come here and bring their dollars. But the money doesn’t go to the public schools, the libraries, though it goes to Fiesta! And the River Walk you will surely be visiting.
Will the 12,000 writers become aware of who we are and our storytellers while they’re here? My experience with NYC publishers is watching how they cringe reading our Tex-Mexiness, our walkouts and protests, our baile and crossing the border unsexiness. The publishers want stories about borracheras, Frida Kahlo, drugs, the Border Patrol, and tacos, if possible. The novels and poetry and history? We are just too ethnically confusing. Anybody but us. The publishing world understands the Caribbeans, Africans, Haitians, Indians, Vietnamese, the Middle Eastern writers. I love them too. We Tejanx, Central Americans, are not understood—too familiar and too strange, the cousin who doesn’t belong at the family dancing party because? We are agricultural people like Cesar Chavez, peasant-class, half-slaved, with faces that are still foreign. Too Mexican, not enough Mexican. Not Black enough to confront the guilt. Not island enough to make anyone ashamed. Too diverse, mixed, and from Texas? Polkas? The accordion? Really? Where’s your cowboy hat and boots? The invasions and interventions are stored at the Alamo—and we are not allowed to perform in front of it… Yet we are everyone’s future, and bipolar rages.
We are just not the coolest on the block, incapable of telling our own stories. Except that we are the writers four hours away from the Rio Grande, where our primos, thousands of Central American refugees are desperate to cross into a country that denies the American heritage pulsing in their bloodlines, the ancient poetry of languages, coffee, bananas, and corn, on their breath. I can hear their heartbeats from here—a fado, adhān, a canto ondo.
I’ve lost count of all the protests, the marches, the debates and chingazos I’ve suffered standing up for justice in this state. Probably lost every single time. How I have loved this state that I was born in, that now wants to require me to show my passport if I’m stopped. Just try it.
I have loved so many other—American stories, stories by writers who have made me dare to say it, to love fierce, discovering the diamonds in the cottonfields, becoming a writer-witness to books burned before they are even written. Those are the books we have to write about Texas.
It is my magical reality that someone like you will read this letter, explaining what is almost untranslatable about who I am, encouraging those 12,000 writers to find the beautiful in the ugly and the nightmare in the dreaming that is me, us, Texas.
Bárbara Renaud González
San Antonio, Tejas
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Helena María Viramontes is the 2020 AWP Keynote Speaker. She will present on Thurs, March 5, at the Lila Cockrell Theater, Henry B González Convention Center.
Bárbara Renaud González is a Tejana born in South Texas, who grew up in the Texas Panhandle. Her novel, Golondrina, why did you leave me?, was the first Chicana novel published by the University of Texas Press. She has a collection of essays, Las Nalgas de JLo (Aztlan Libre Press), a collection of columns, articles, reviews, and poems, most written by Renaud González between 1995-2005 when she was an independent columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.
AWP 2020: Literacy and Literature in San Anto
Pablo Miguel Martínez
Every year, approximately 12,000 poets, writers, publishers, and literary scholars gather in major cities in the U.S. and Canada to talk shop at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
During breaks from a schedule brimming with panels and readings—but often lacking in meaningful diversity—conference attendees stroll through a bookfair that draws 800 U.S. and international presses.
It’s a giddy week if you’re an author, published or hoping to be, for it affords attendees an unparalleled opportunity to network with peers and meet publishers. Like most professional conferences, AWP is by turns exhilarating and exhausting. It is also expensive, especially for under-resourced authors.
The 2020 conference will be held in San Antonio next March. Over the past 20 years, during which I’ve attended the conference semi-regularly, it’s been held in cities like Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Washington, DC, all of which boast vibrant literary ecosystems.
Last year it was held in Portland, Oregon, home to Powell’s Books, which bills itself as the world’s largest independent bookstore.
San Antonio last played host to the gathering in 1980. Much has changed since then. There have been important demographic shifts: Today San Antonio is the country’s largest minority-majority city (there are bigger cities, such as Los Angeles, with large ‘Hispanic’ populations, but those populations are not the majority, as we are here in San Antonio). However, that growth has not yielded the kind of power—economic, political, and otherwise—that generally accompanies majority status.
Latinas and Latinos, who comprise about 64 percent of San Antonio’s population, bear a disproportionate part of the burden that comes with one of the country’s worst income inequality and economic segregation.
Arguably, one of the more dispiriting local statistics, and the one perhaps most relevant to a gathering of writers, is San Antonio’s persistent illiteracy: Nearly one-quarter of the local population is illiterate; of that number, about one-half is classified as functionally literate. This explains much: abysmally low voter participation, poor public-school performance, and the pressing need for a larger skilled workforce to meet growing demands, which leads to importing labor from elsewhere, domestic and international.
Little of this matters to most AWP Conference attendees who, if previous gatherings are any indication, will go from the airport to conference hotels to the Henry B. González Convention Center and back. (When he won a 1961 election, González, a San Antonio native, became the first Hispanic American to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress.)
Those who venture beyond the narrowly circumscribed conference precincts will see traces of sites inhabited by indigenous people for millennia. They’ll see how Spanish missions, built by descendants of those earliest people, set in motion a colonization that still casts a long shadow here. (Or, as a famous African American writer, during a tour of the near-West Side, said plainly: “This is apartheid.”)
A local friend who traveled to Portland for last year’s conference said a few people asked her if they’d be safe here in San Antonio. How pervasive the effects of the inflammatory, racist—and inaccurate—rhetoric that defines too much of this juncture in U.S. history.
Recently, my excitement over sharing my city with thousands was tempered by several threads in which only one aspect of our city’s diverse realities—based on an outdated misperception—has so far made an impression among online observers and commentators who express an interest in coming to San Antonio next March: affordability.
I’ve been utterly dismayed by comments on social media, many similar to these: “It’s so much cheaper than the coasts” and “It’s far more affordable [than other conference sites]” and “An interesting, delicious, and cheap city.” While this may true to some extent, the comments skim over deeper dismissive and derisive waters. (Because most writers are socially-engaged and curious thinkers, connecting the dots won’t be a challenge: If things here are more affordable than in other conference cities, it’s likely because of low wages earned by hospitality-industry workers, a majority of whom are brown.)
I associate the comments with others I’ve often heard about anything made in Mexico, comments to which I’m acutely sensitive and which drive me to defensiveness. “Made in Mexico” is synonymous with inferior quality, some suggest. “Tell them about Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan and los tres grandes,” my father, indignant, would say.
Many years ago, during a family trip to Mexico City, my father took us to Bellas Artes to see an art exhibition. I overheard a British tourist whisper to another member of his tour group about the opera house: “You wouldn’t call anything that comes out of there grand.” The easy, often unchallenged denigration.
These days I fume at the way Mexicans are vilified and dehumanized in political discourse. (The historical precedent for the reviling of Mexicans stretches far back: Walter Prescott Webb, described as one of Texas’s most influential scholars, said that Mexicans, who he deemed inherently violent, have impure blood.)
It angers me because I see many young people of Mexican descent internalize shame. How else to explain the toxic less-than mentality that manifests itself in ways that are sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising, and always painful? For example, San Antonio is home to one of the country’s largest MLK marches (the largest, by some estimates). This is a beautiful, inspiring fact.
However, this raza-majority city’s annual observance of civil-rights icon César Chávez is, by comparison, a far smaller event. The self-silencing, together with a willful neglect that is systemic, makes stories, essays, and poems about the lives of Chicanas and Chicanos all the more important, now more than ever.
A few weeks ago, walking along Dolorosa Street (listen to the poetic sorrow in that name!), I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the “Hecho en México” logo. We smiled knowingly at each other. The shirt speaks to a historically-informed ethnic pride that counters the bigoted narrative about all things and people Mexican. It also tells the world that the “affordable” and more brutal label, “cheap,” slapped on Mexico’s exports, be they produce, culture, or, most concerningly, human labor, belie the strength, diversity, and beauty of Mexico and its people, including those of Mexican descent here in San Antonio, once part of Mexico.
At the 2018 AWP Conference, 847—or 53 percent—of a total of 1,591 presenters were white, compared to 143 Latina and Latino presenters, or about nine percent of all presenters.
If next year’s statistics are comparable, it will be more disturbing, given the backdrop of San Antonio’s demographics. Clearly, AWP must heighten its outreach efforts if its annual gathering is to accurately represent the diverse and ever broadening communities of authors.
How can any organization credibly claim to serve its constituents’ needs and interests if segments of that constituency are routinely underrepresented in its programming? Conference planning must be a big tent, a big table—a bigness that welcomes and inspires the sort of “insightful dialogue” AWP notes as a hallmark of its annual meeting.
Given its location, the 2020 conference affords AWP a remarkable opportunity to develop ties to communities of raza writers. And all attendees should lend their support by attending a Chicanx-focused panel. We should make a concerted effort to buy books by Chicana authors. And to every out-of-town participant: Please consider this a personal invitation to attend an off-site event that features gente.
My father, who was as fiercely proud of his Mexican roots as he was clear-eyed about his American reality, often used the worn adage familiar to many people of color: “You have to be twice as good to get half as much.” San Antonio’s Chicana and Chicano poets and writers are more than twice as good; ‘great’ is an apt description. AWP’s 2020 Conference will be an important platform on which to showcase work that is at once rich and undervalued.
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Pablo Miguel Martínez’s literary work, which appears in many publications, has received support from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
Martínez’s collection of poems, Brazos, Carry Me (Kórima Press), received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry. His chapbook, Cuent@, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. He is a Co-Founder of CantoMundo, a national retreat-workshop for Latinx poets.