Postcard from San Miguel: What borders mean to children


Art from Duncan Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

I was not a real Mexican, and I was not a real American.

Benjamin Alire Saenz

That’s how author Benjamin Alire Saenz recalled his feelings as a young boy growing up in Mesilla, New Mexico, and crossing weekly into Ciudad Juarez for flat-top haircuts. Staring at the giant flags fluttering over the bridge:

I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican one.

kentucky-clubSaenz is the author of Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories winning a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Saenz chairs the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border” was the title of the powerful keynote address he delivered two nights ago at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. The visibly affected crowd quickly rose as one the second he finished the final sentence of the emotionally charged presentation. It was the topic on everyone’s lips the next morning as attendees flocked to the bookstore to purchase recordings to share with others.

Saenz’s talk was preceded by an introduction to Duncan Tonatiuh, the artist/author who designed the conference posters. Although Tonatiuh is young – he graduated from college in 2008 – he already has several award-winning books to his credit.

In an article in USA Today, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, labels Tonatiuh’s Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale “propaganda.” But the author of the fable, in which the coyote stands in for those who smuggle immigrants into the United States from Mexico, believes he has created a bedtime story to which many children in North America can relate.

At the Writers’ Conference, Tonatiuh screened a short video made for him by a fourth-grade class in Austin, Texas.

Many a Kleenix was lifted up to dab away a tear.

It appears Tonatiuh’s book provides a key for teachers to encourage children of immigrants to open up and discuss their experiences.

Perhaps Pancho Rabbit serves as an even more valuable tool for helping children of American-born parents understand and empathize with the issues confronting some of their classmates.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Krikorian. Is that “propaganda?”

Update posted on March 19, 2014: Duncan Tonatiuh will be appearing from 11 to 11:30 a.m. in the Children’s Book Tent at the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5.

If Sandra Cisneros lives here, can I justify the trip to San Miguel de Allende?

Keynote speaker Barbara Kingsolver and an intensive writing workshop led by C.M. Mayo drew my daughter Kate and me to the San Miguel International Writers’ Conference this past February.   The conference sessions were so great, we did not even skip out once to wander the streets of San Miguel de Allende.  Given the allure of San Miguel, that’s amazing; although a visit a few months earlier helped keep us focused.   

As I walked past Sandra Cisneros‘ house on the river this morning, I thought:  Can I really justify traveling all the way to San Miguel to hear keynote talks by someone who lives right here in San Antonio?    

I think the answer is a definite maybe.  A five-day concentrated dose of writing workshops is an incredible experience.    

Plus, the writers’ conference is to blame for this blog.  I am hoping they are planning on prescribing an antidote, a session on how to keep prolific blogging from interfering with working on your novel.   

Note Added:  Button Boxes   

Exploring Sandra Cisneros’ website led me to her memories of  button boxes.  Never figured out what happened to Nana’s button tins. I wanted to inherit them so badly.  They were magical.  Seemed to contain buttons from two generations back.  Buttons so complex to assemble that there is no wonder there were buttonmaker unions.  I’d sit for hours creating button collages in her sewing room overlooking the giant fig tree in the backyard; yet, to this day, have absolutely no interest in replacing a commonplace button on a shirt.   

Aunt Billie
Marilyn Lanfear's "Aunt Billie"


Note Added on September 11:  Which, in turn, led me to the consummate button artist, San Antonio Art League’s Artist of the Year – Marilyn Lanfear.  She is being honored with an exhibit opening on Sunday, September 12, from 3 to 5 p.m.   

“Billie Patterson Moore died in the school explosion in New London TX”   

by Marilyn Lanfear

Mother-of-pearl and bone buttons on linen,
2005-07, 54” x 95.25”

Update on October 20:  Read about Marilyn Lanfear’s exhibit at Glasstire

Update on November 29:  Marilyn Lanfear’s exhibit, “What Is Lost; What Is Found; What Is Remembered,” opens at Blue Star on Thursday, December 9.   She refers to herself as “a storyteller” who creates:

a visual language that depends on and invites elaboration. I want the viewers to have associative memories and make my history into theirs.

The Memorable Mary Denman

“Memory is a crumpled map of lost roads,” said poet Judith Barrington  during the San Miguel Writers Conference in February.  In the days when roadmaps were essential tools, folded and refolded, she recalled, the part that showed what we needed to find would often be lost in the worn out creases or missing corners.

The life of Mary Denman seems a map overly populated with momentous landmarks.  “The Song Lady” of “Toyland Time” on KVDO-TV in Corpus Christi moved on to be the host and producer of a weekly interview show on KENS-TV.  After eight years, she became the  first woman to co-anchor the station’s news.  For many years after, so long she began to refer to herself as “one of the oldest broads in broadcasting,” Mary hosted talk shows on WOAI and KRRT-Radio.

It is no secret that hosts of television and radio shows are pestered to death by those seeking airtime to promote their favorite causes.  I was among the many who warted her often, and, amazingly, Mary always would graciously return every phone call and listen, no matter how trivial the pitch.  Despite her successful ascent up the career ladder, she remained active in such organizations as Women in Communications and American Women in Radio and TV to help others seeking to follow the pathway she blazed.  Mary regards experience as something you share, similar to the way Dolly Levi describes money:

Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.

Mary has never been content to lead her life through the lives of those she has interviewed.  Her effervescence refuses to be corked into the hours of her day jobs and over and over again has bubbled on stage in musical and dramatic roles from “Hello Dolly” to “GBS in Love.”

Mary’s step still has the “spring and a drive” of Dolly Levi, but her roadmap is crowded.  Chancey Blackburn reports Mary now is engaged in perking up the spirits of everyone at the Emeritus Memory Center, where she cheerfully has assumed “her new role of ‘confused aging ingénue’ with gusto and brio.”

Mary’s act always has been an impossible one to follow, but those of us a few years behind hope to reach her age with even a small percentage of her enthusiasm for life intact.

As “Dolly” Denman has belted out numerous times on stage and might even be humming as I type:

For today the world is ripe as a peach,
it’s going to be mine till I reach a 110.

May 9, 2012: Jim Forsyth of WOAI has posted the news of Mary’s death:

San Antonio media legend Mary Denman, who would joke that she was the ‘oldest broad in broadcasting’ has died at the age of 90, 1200 WOAI news reports.

The list of things in radio and  television that Mary was the first to do would go on into tomorrow. Among them, she was the first woman to appear on television in Corpus Christi, when she hosted Toyland Time’ as ‘The Song Lady’ on KVDO back in the early 1950s.

In San Antonio, Denman became the first woman to co-anchor a newscast on KENS-TV, where she also hosted ‘Our  Town,’ a weekday interview program.

She worked in public relations, and  then she joined WOAI Radio in 1975, when the station made the switch to news/talk. She produced talk shows and was the first host of the ‘Morning  Magazine’ show, which aired every morning from 9 to 11.

Eliza Sonneland, who joined WOAI as Mary’s producer and later succeeded her on the show, remembers Mary as somebody  who was fighting for women’s equality before there was such a thing.

“When she was being told that you can’t have a raise, and you are already married and you already have a husband who makes money and he is supporting the family, a lot of people back then would  be going, ‘well, that’s true’,” she said. “Not Mary.”

Mary won the Broadcaster of the Year  Award from American Women in Radio and TV back in 1973, when there weren’t many  woman in radio and TV. She won Joske’s Woman of Achievement Award in 1984, and the National Achievement Award and the Silver Award of Excellence from  American Women in Radio and Television in 1995.

Mary died Wednesday of complications  from Alzheimer’s Disease, according to her friend, former Bexar County Court at  Law Judge Bonnie Reed. She had been in declining health for two  years.

After leaving “Morning Magazine,” Mary hosted ‘Prime Plus’ on WOAI, as well as on the old KENS-AM and then on KLUP-AM until December of 2004.

She also ran a local marketing and public relations agency with her husband, who died in 1991.

Mary was also very active in local  theater, serving on several boards at the San Pedro Playhouse and performing in numerous productions.

“She fought for her right, and she did interesting things. She actually had her face lift recorded and made a  program out of it, to tell other women, this is what you go through, this is  what it was like,” Sonneland said. “She feared nothing.”

May 15, 2012, Update: A memorial fund in honor of Mary Denman can be found at The Playhouse.

May 26, 2012, Update: From the San Antonio Express-News:

A memorial and life-celebration service will be held on June 1, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. at the San Pedro Playhouse.