Thursday, September 28, 2017

Interview of Chicana Icon, Denise Chávez at her bookstore: Casa Camino Real in Las Cruces, NM by Juliana Aragon Fatula

Denise Chávez
Artist, Writer, Bookseller, Activist
Casa-Camino-Real-Las-Cruces-New Mexico
Casa Camino Real is a bookstore, art gallery and community resource center that celebrates literature and the arts in the borderland region of New Mexico, Texas and Northern México. Located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 42 miles from the U.S./México border on the Camino Real and on the original Las Cruces townsite, we believe books are for everyone. When you enter our historic adobe, our motto is "This is the temple where books are sacred." We focus on Chicano/Chicana/Latino/Latina, Southwestern and Borderland literature but are building an impressive collection of books from New Mexico settler families.

This interview took place this summer 2017 in Las Cruces while I attended a writing workshop with the Chicana activist and writer: Denise Chávez. We sat in her bookstore and chatted like old friends, which I'm happy to say, we now are friends, comadres. She gave me more than an interview. She gave me a peek into her past. We laughed and laughed because Denise is very theatrical and very funny. I couldn't upload the video I took because I'm not that tech savvy; but here are the transcripts. Due to tech difficulties, namely I didn’t know my battery would drain so quickly, I wasn’t able to record the remainder of the interview; however, by answering a couple of questions and describing in great detail her stories, she answered many of my questions. Next time I meet an icon, I’ll be sure to have a backup battery.
J: When I was thinking of coming to interview Denise Chavez I had a bunch of questions but I really just wanted to have a chat with her and get her perspective on life so I’m going to ask a couple of questions. My husband said, “Don’t ask those questions.” And I said, “I’m going to ask those questions…”
D: Yes, those are the questions to ask.
J: He said, “Ask those later.” And I said, “No. Those are the first two questions.”
D: All right.
J: The first question is who betrayed you?
D: Well, I think the first betrayal was my father when he divorced my mother when I was ten years old and the betrayal was this. He didn’t let us know that he was leaving and I was the person who went to the door and the man is standing there with papers to say that my father has left and he’s divorcing my mother. It was a hard jolt and whether it was a betrayal… now that I think about it, we were better off separating and then divorcing eventually; but his …I’ll continue the story…It was hard that he didn’t have the strength of will to say goodbye to us; so that’s the way I always talk about him divorcing us. He didn’t have the respect for my mother. He didn’t say good bye to us; but then again he never did leave, because my father moved to Albuquerque; well, first of all to Santa Fe He was a lawyer an assistant DA and he was working up there. But he would come down …cuando…now and again to visit his sister and his mother. 
     My dad was a character and we loved him. But he would come down …cuando…now and again to visit his sister and his mother and stay with them.  And he would call us and say let’s go and eat. And it was difficult. My aunt lived down the end of the street…my mother always wanted to go with us, but he never wanted her. He was cruel.  But then, again he kept coming back because after a while he would stay at the house. He was always bringing his laundry and he would throw in his dirty laundry in the back of this pea green Pontiac that the hood wouldn’t come down and he had a coat hanger that would keep the trunk down and my mother referred to is as Jaws at the car. So, my dad is throwing his laundry in the back of his trunk no paper bags no plastic bags and he’s driving up eventually my mom would do his laundry; they may have slept together occasionally. And she always said goodbye to him with a huge roll of toilet paper so she’s helping him tend to his life and then on the other hand this is the strangeness and the beauty of relationships; they loved each other but they couldn’t really get along.
     My father was an alcoholic; my mother was a very devout Catholic who went to Mass every morning but she was very tolerant but he was impossible and so when he was possible he was still impossible; but she always taught us to love him and he remained in our lives even though he came and went and came and went. That same car, when I moved to Santa Fe and I was living there I drove that car around, too. I remember my dad lending me that car for a month maybe because I was having trouble with my little bug. He was a strange, complicated, little man but an interesting character to write about yes.
     So in a way it was betrayal but on the other hand it was good he was gone so sometimes you have to look at those things for the good. What is the betrayal? It could have been earlier but it also led to my writing… I talk about this incident. I came out of the house and our neighbor was this jangled teenager who had psychotic problems and he was pulling branches. I detail this in my short story the Willow Game. He was pulling branches and in other words denuding the tree and really going at it and my mother was out there and she said, “Billy what are you doing?” I changed the names a little bit. He says, “I’m killing your tree and I write about that in the Last of the Menu Girls. It was an awakening of darkness. He was an unhappy person and I’ll never forget that tree because we loved it. As children played in it. The branches were good for hitting their sisters and the neighbors…it was a love tree. And he did kill it. So, in my mind I couldn’t understand that sense of evil and darkness. He eventually moved to a boy’s home. He was not well.
     You don’t understand as a child that darkness that betrayal and then one day I was in school Holy Cross Elementary school and some strange little boy that I didn’t know strange because he was a stranger. Just literally came up and punched me in the stomach. And I doubled over it was an aggression by somebody that I didn’t know and I just…ugh ugh ugh…just crawled back. That was so painful. Somebody striking you and I went back to the classroom and I never spoke of it; but I later on I wrote about it. It’s hard to write about things like that. I was able to think…Thank God for writing.
     Because in this day and age its random violence. I don’t understand why people are stabbing people and jumping people and doing violence against Muslim teenagers that seventeen-year old girl or the people on the train or whatever. People are unhappy and that’s why they’re so dark and evil so maybe really earlier probably around the same time that punch and I write about that punch. That punch that punch…I think is something different. But that is a sense of betrayal. That’s a very good question. Thank your husband. 
J: Okay, the next question. Who did you betray, Denise?
D: Too many people. I’m eating some chocolate here. I think you’re always regretful about that whether it was somebody in grade school…one of my friends stole my miso. I knew she had stolen my miso and it’s pretty hard to confront somebody who steals your prayer book. And I saw her and she had glued a piece of paper over my name and I had to confront her; probably got her in a little bit of trouble. But that was okay because I felt it was just; because number one, my mother had gotten me the prayer book; I had plenty of prayer books, and I realize now, she came from a poor side of town. Why didn’t I just give her that prayer book?  I had others. Why did I have to confront her and humiliate her and peel the paper off and it’s a small thing to talk about…
J: How old were you?
D: Ten. In a way, it’s good, yes, and in a way, no, and this is the workshop we’ve done today. When is it good to speak truth? What is truth? On the one hand, I had to stand up for myself. She had stolen my prayer book. On the other hand, I didn’t have the compassion or understanding as a child to just say, “You know what? It’s okay.” And I never did speak to anybody about it. I wish I had been able to talk to my mother or somebody and say, “Look, Gloria, stole my prayer book. What should I have done? I had no one to talk to about those questions you have when you’re a young girl or a child. What was the right answer? I don’t know maybe I did need to confront her, because I had to speak up for myself, but did I? I don’t know. Now, I would just let her have the prayer book. So, whether it’s that or…
J: There are many kinds of betrayal.
D: Many kinds of betrayal. Dating your ex-boyfriend’s brother; or whatever the story is, you never know what that betrayal…or betrayal to yourself that’s the worst kind of betrayal when you disappoint yourself. I should have acted better. Why did I beat…why was I so rude and I have a tendency to be curt sometimes.
     My mother was a no-nonsense person and sometimes I’m hard on people. I realize that my hardness comes from a wounded mother who was abandoned. My husband understands this, but it’s hard to be around a woman, who you gave gifts to, for Father’s Day. The check was never in the mail. My mother was always struggling to pay her bills. The bills were mounded high and it’s like I’m still living from my mother’s story of lack.
     But it’s like you know you…lets change that story; because my mother, pobrecito, got three dollars here, five dollars there and she always had bills. I’m always ferreting out and paying this and doing that; so that sense of betrayal that you have there that you feel about yourself. Why can’t I make money? Is it that I’m living the story of my mother who never had anything?  And I realized maybe I am; maybe I’m living out the scenario of people that didn’t have much; and so you feel a sense of, you know…I’m a talented, creative person. Why can’t I make money? Because there are other things that are sometimes more important.
     I’m very generous in our bookstore. Sometimes I find myself giving a lot of things away and hey, it’s okay; because here we are at this workshop... I’ve got a donation of count ‘em five fans. Before you came here I was missing three ceiling fans. These ceiling fans are new; that were donated, by friends. And then Manuela gave me a fabulous floor fan and another little fan that I have to put together. So, in the course of calling out to the Universe that I need fans, and it’s still hot; but we have fans; and instead of one fan, I have five new fans; so in a way, money is not everything. Fame and everything. I don’t know. I’m very rich.
J: On that note, I want to ask you what do you want your legacy to be? When you leave this world and people talk about you, what do you want them to say about Denise Chavez?
D: She was generous. She loved words. She loved culture, art, and she made a good cup of coffee; but more than that, I hope that I was able to…I feel that our community center is here to enlighten, empower, and inform people. Inform, empower, and enlighten. Hopefully there are a couple of people that felt some security in this place.
     I refer to our bookstore as a sanctuary business; so I hope people come and remember that they felt comfortable here. Like I used to feel in my mother’s house. She made everybody…I remember she had a sign over the door that says, “May all guests be received as Christ.” She loved life. She was a very religious person. I might not have that sign, but I liked the beauty of it: May all guests be received here with goodness and light and love and with god-ness and then she had a little sign over her desk; and it makes me very emotional, and I think about it too...Do I oppress others with my gloom? Do I oppress others with my gloom? In other words, pick it up, be cheerful.
     I sometimes fall into darkness and I get depressed; but I hope that people will remember that I had joy and that I was happy; and that when we sat here and drank our coffee, we were…that you felt comfortable; and that the characters in my book, and I talk about my writing, brought you some happiness and laughter and maybe a few tears. Let’s cry a little bit. Because it’s very good to cry and we did in this workshop. We’ve had a wonderful time of laughing and we cried a little bit too.

J: Well the next question is a little bit of trivia. Let’s go back to the seventies. What were you wearing and what music were you listening to at that time? I see you have a huge vinyl collection.  
D: Well, I love the Beatles and George was my Beatle. I graduated from high school in ’66 and I’m not sure when the Beatles came to the U.S. It was in high school cause my dad got tickets It was maybe when I was a junior or sophomore. Something like that. My dad got tickets for the Beatles at Red Rock Amphitheatre; and we went there, camped on the campground. We sat in the third row when the Beatles came. And who’s the opening act? Let me think about this. Oh, god. Now I can’t remember; but it was a wonderful opening act.
J: When you remember you can send me an email.
D: And I will. But here’s the thing. We were there. My dad got tickets. My oldest sister, Foddy and my sister, Margo, a cousin of my brother-in-law’s, and we were all there screaming. I’ll never forget looking back up…so I might have been enjoying the Beatles.
     My mother was a character. As devout as she was, but she would take us out of school because she drove us, picked us up out of school; so we could hear the Dave Clark Five in Albuquerque; and so we’re driving on a school day to hear Dave Clark Five! She was…she…they loved music and they…I remember my mother loved, The House of the Rising Sun; and she never knew that it was about a bordello. (Laughter) No. She just loved the music. She just thought it was fabulous. So, I grew up with people that loved music. I was probably listening to a lot of music.
     I had a flip. And I’ll show you my flip. It was fabulous. Yes, I curled my hair and I had big rollers; but I had such an incredible flip and a wonderful hairdo and I was looking very mod, very hip. Minis. And my mother made a lot of our clothes so my sister and I looked…she would go into a store and see a pattern and then she’d make her own patterns.
     So, we were always muy modern whatever that style was; we looked good. We were cute girls and so here I was with my flip and my sister had a fall…I never did…we wore wiglets. I wore false eyelashes and then sometimes I would fall asleep. We used to go drinking in Juarez dancing more than anything else. There was a group of us that loved to dance so we’d go dancing and I remember coming home and falling asleep with my false eyelashes on and I couldn’t open my eyes in the morning.
     So, I was just an interesting, attractive…and thoughtful young woman. I was working as a waitress. I started my career as a waitress. And I worked as a waitress for about six years. I loved working with people. And it was one of the best jobs I ever had; because the training…for a writer…to learn service. To learn about people. I was in la posta a Mexican restaurant; so I was learning about life, people. I worked in the hospital; and it was good. There were years of training and understanding what the world was about. It wasn’t easy. My mother was very strict; but in retrospect, I realized, that was very good.
J: Okay. The next question is who were you reading? Who were the authors or the names of the books that you were reading in the seventies?    
D: I read a lot and I was studying…by then I was at New Mexico State University; and I was reading a lot of American classics. I was introduced to Garcia Lorca as a freshman in college and he stayed with me from all time. My first poetry teacher, Keith Wilson. I was in theater; so a lot of the people that I studied were playwrights: Lillian Hellman, Chekhov. I was in many of the plays; so I acted in most of Chekhov…our director was a Russian man, so we would do plays, Chekhov I was in his plays: Uncle Vanya, Ivanov, and the Cherry Orchard; and so forth, but he was doing very interesting things during…we did world drama; we did restoration drama and I never forgot that I wore a white wig and we did eclectic interesting work. el fin.
Comadres Juliana and Denise


  1. Denise made me feel safe, comfortable, and happy in her bookstore. She has a way of offering food, coffee olla, and love that makes you forget all your troubles. Her bookstore is a sanctuary.

  2. What a lovely interview with a remarkable woman! I so enjoyed reading this, Juliana. Excellent questions!

    1. Thank you, Linda. I try to make you proud since you are the writer who invited me to join the Stiletto Gang.
      Do you know Denise? She's been very supportive of my writing. also, I just added stilettos to one of my character's wardrobe. I use your writing book like a textbook and study it and mark it up. I love it.