A Conversation with Donna Snyder: An Advocate and Speaker for the Unseen

Apr 2022
10-minute read

I was happy to speak with Snyder since she was enthusiastic and bubbly to talk about her work. I decided to talk with her because I wanted to focus on her poetry and on the literary community in El Paso, Texas, and nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico. I wanted to direct my attention to her work as a writer, a leader with the creative writing community and as someone involved in local activism in El Paso throughout the years.

Snyder previously was an activist attorney who represented immigrant workers, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people. At the end of her career, she “prosecuted misdemeanor environmental crimes and consumer fraud, earlier having begun a law practice in Dinétah, formerly known as Navajo Indian Country.” She said that “when on the reservation, I hadn’t started writing yet.” Snyder took some of the Navajo Indians to Santa Fe before a Congressional subcommittee on environmental issues. At a state legislative public hearing in Farmington, New Mexico, Snyder recalled an older resident who claimed, “she speaks the truth!” Donna Snyder’s legal practice involved “winning a class action on behalf of disabled Indigenous children against two United States government departments.” During other litigation against the national government, she traveled around the country for advocacy, investigations, and lobbying “on Capitol Hill in D.C. for legislation enacted into law. Another notable case included winning a federal consent decree” in a case representing a group of farm laborers. This case was extensively reported throughout Mexico, noted in USA Today, and widely covered across West Texas and New Mexico.

When I asked Snyder what inspired her to build a reputation as a writer and performer of the spoken word, she responded that she first started writing prose and poetry in her thirties when she lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She attended weekly workshops presented by Natalie Goldberg and her associates, where participants were invited to write and read aloud in a fashion similar to Tumblewords. These workshops helped Snyder develop her reputation as a performer and writer of the spoken word throughout the state. She had only one publication at the time, and at her second public reading, at the Santa Fe Actors Theater, she was the last or featured reader despite her lack of experience. It created a “somewhat uncomfortable position” but “got a standing ovation.” Snyder added that she “became addicted . . . that was a huge rush to me. I still thought of myself as a lawyer. [That was the] second time I performed poetry in public."

Donna Snyder Pic 1

A year later, Snyder moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then Las Cruces. At the time, Las Cruces had a literary group called SPLAT, which held an open mic every Thursday night and was hosted by Michael Mandel. “Open mics are more conducive to poetry than prose,” said Donna Snyder. She wrote poetry that she kept in a personal computer folder called “poetry like substance” because she didn’t think of herself as a poet. In 1988, Snyder also attended the Sitka Writers Symposium in Alaska mainly because Barbara Kingsolver was on the faculty. Snyder submitted work for one-on-one feedback and was praised for her poetry. She was acknowledged much more for her poetry than her prose.

I knew that Snyder had an office in Segundo Barrio early in legal practice in El Paso, representing low-income people in various cases. I asked about her relationship with this neighborhood. She replied that she moved to El Paso in 1995 for a job position with groups that worked with people with physical disabilities and mental illness. Around that time, Donna began to present the Tumblewords Project weekly workshops, initially in Segundo Barrio at Armijo Library, Chamizal National Monument, and La Fe Clinic. Later she moved the Tumblewords workshops to Memorial Park Library in the Five Points (Cinco Puntos) area of Central El Paso. She had various presenters, including one from Jamaica “by way of Brooklyn” and another from Puerto Rico who taught at the Chicano Studies program at UTEP. Snyder explained that she “wanted to bring people to Segundo who have never been there before.” She also had a law office in this neighborhood and was active with her work with the Farmworkers Union. She met with farmworkers and organized readings and events in the area. From 1996 to 2002, Snyder received many grants from the State of Texas and the City of El Paso to use for workshops and readings in Segundo Barrio and other South Side bicultural centers. Much of that time, Snyder gained funds from the State of New Mexico for readings and workshops presented in Old Mesilla; Mesilla Park; and San Miguel, New Mexico. In the following years, she continued giving workshops in Segundo Barrio and Cinco Puntos without grants. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Snyder’s book reviews and poetry were widely published in zines, anthologies, and journals. Virgogray Press in Austin, Texas, Chimbarazu Press in New York City, and NeoPoiesis Press in British Columbia have published her poetry collections. Her fourth poetry collection will be published in 2022 by Gutter Snob Books of Trinidad, Colorado.

One of Donna Snyder’s poems that is well-respected and well-known is “A Neon Desert the Only Sea,” based in Segundo Barrio, the site of UTEP MA student Adam Heywood’s SoundWalk that he is currently developing. There was a repetition of the line “Are you paying attention?” which describes how attention can be directed in a place, especially regarding what is hidden and to be avoided. Snyder demonstrated that there were “unknown bodies beneath the ground,” meaning unknown histories, cultures, and ancestries in this space. They are what has been silenced over time, but some of their last traces are still seen. Segundo Barrio represents a palimpsest, in which its original form has been altered, but the layers of its earlier forms remain visible.

I asked Snyder if she had any experience with Duranguito, the site where I am designing my own SoundWalk. She stated that she was previously in a band with Dr. David Dorado Romo, a historian who specializes in borderland studies and advocates for the historic preservation of Duranguito. Snyder read poetry and went with Dr. Romo to the Mexican embassy every Friday, where she demonstrated at the Paso del Norte International Bridge. Snyder also mentioned that she was invited to speak at the Border Patrol Citizens Academy and did improvisational theater with some officers.

Ms. Snyder participated in many literary capacities where she served as the editor for art and poetry for Return to Mago. She was the fiction editor of the international anthology, Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind, and edited I Can Sing Fire, a chapbook by Anne Lombardo Ardolino. Ms. Snyder worked as the assistant general editor for the El Paso Bar Association and editor of its poetry page, “focusing on writing by local lawyers and judges.” She had volunteered as Poetry Curator for Newspaper Tree, a political periodical that published poets from all over the United States.

Donna Snyder Pic 2

Donna Snyder worked with the Border Workers Union, La Mujer Obrera, Union de Trabajadores Agrícolas, the El Paso Branch of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, and other groups on behalf of people with developmental disorders and other disabilities. After Snyder had moved to El Paso, she said she “trained police officers once a week” and mental health workers and psychiatrists for twelve years. Ms. Snyder simultaneously took part in Tumblewords, which was the only opportunity she had to write.

State senator and former county attorney José R. Rodríguez hired her to advocate for those with drug addictions and mental health conditions. Snyder was nominated for and awarded prizes for her activism and advocacy for “people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and drug addiction, and her work on behalf of immigrant workers and indigenous people. In 2012, the Mexican American Bar Association named her outstanding El Paso lawyer for the year.” Donna Snyder is well established in helping others in the El Paso community she calls home. Through our conversation, I learned that she managed to build a platform to give voice to those who have been silenced and unnoticed.

Written by Tatiana Rodriguez, Undergraduate Research Fellow
El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

All images courtesy of Tatiana Rodriguez.


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