Pick up a Book, & Step up to the Mic

Mar 2020
10-minute read

As S. Vanessa Zuñiga previewed in November’s blog, along with recording three Literally Literary episodes on The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, we screened the film adaptation for Papagayo at EPCC Rio Grande. Vanessa, my colleague Richie Marrufo and I lectured on different aspects of the film, including the etymology behind the characters’ names, the influence of rapper Tupac Shakur on the film’s philosophy, and the call for criminal justice reform as seen in the real world. At this Papagayo workshop we also passed out Literally Literary bookmarks as keepsakes for attendees and talked to students about the goals of the Humanities Collaborative in case they were interested in applying next year.

Hate U Give Lecture copy Literally Literary Bookmark copy

Thanks to support provided by The Collaborative, we took a trip to the Texas Book Festival in Austin (which Vanessa wrote extensively about in the last blog. Other than the panel I moderated on fiction from the border, one of the terrific opportunities the festival presented was the ability to network with so many authors. Networking with a couple of the writers we met at the festival allowed us the opportunity to prospectively interview them on our podcast, and in the case of the poet José Olivarez (author of Citizen Illegal), invite him to both El Paso Community College and UTEP in spring of 2020 so that our students can experience a taste of what his presence at the book festival was like.

Texas Book Festival Panel Moderation copy 

The week after the festival, I attended a reading by author Sergio Troncoso at Barnes & Noble at the Fountains at Farah in El Paso, Texas. Sergio, who most recently authored A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son, was one of the writers on the panel for which I served as moderator, but at the Barnes & Noble event, I learned more about his background growing up in Yselta in El Paso and his eventually attending Harvard, and the resulting culture shock.

Sergio Troncoso at Barnes copy

The day after Sergio's reading, Vanessa and I judged literary boards at Putnam Elementary School in El Paso, listening to students present their overview of a specific novel or children’s book they chose to make a poster board for. Our presence at literary events like this one at Putnam as well as the literary boards we judged at El Paso's Andress High School on December 3 constitutes one of the goals of Papagayo through the Humanities Collaborative: strengthen literacy and the humanities in our border community.

Andress Literary Judging copy  Putnam Elementary Judging copy

Aside from judging literary poster boards, we also partook of "Read Across the District" at Johnson Elementary School. There, we were assigned to different classrooms and read to the kids for about twenty minutes, thereafter talking to them about what they like to read, why they consider reading important, and how reading affected me in my career. I always come away impressed by how naturally inquisitive and perceptive the mind of a child is.

Johnson Elementary Group Photo copy Johnson Elementary Reading copy

November was also the month when the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP hosted the first Moby-Dick Read-a-Thon in El Paso, organized by UTEP Department Chair and Humanites Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP Principal Investigator Dr. Brian Yothers.  The read-a-thon involved over seventy readers as they read Moby-Dick‑‑one of my favorite novels‑‑from beginning to end. Although I initially only signed up to read one chapter (the one on cetology, which presented its own leviathanic challenges but is also one of I always gravitate toward), listening to other friends and colleagues read aloud inspired me to read additional chapters aloud.

Moby Dick 1st reading copy Moby Dick 2nd reading copy

As part of my involvement with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, in November we hosted a film screening of The River & the Wall at the Alamo Drafthouse theater in west El Paso. Through a trek that starts on bicycles in El Paso and ends on kayaks in the Gulf of Mexico, this documentary underscores the ecological, economic, and sociological effects a border wall has on the state of Texas. Before the screening, we played a recording Vanessa made when she biked with a group across the border into Juarez. After the screening, Vanessa and I shared our thoughts on the film as El Pasoans, and the audience in attendance, including Las Americas paralegals and attorneys, informed us about how immigration policy, particularly in El Paso, affects migrants. Due to Vanessa sharing her video and her experience biking, several of us thought about, once spring weather arrives, possibly biking across the border in the same manner.

River the Wall Screening copy

That same week, Vanessa and I attended a Barbed Wire open mic at Fahrenheit 180, a coffee shop near UTEP. What was most exciting about this one was that the writer and UTEP Creative Writing alum Lupe Mendez was the featured reader. He read some of his poems from his book, Why I Am Like Tequila, and afterward talked to us about his CantoMundo fellowship, and his role as co-founder of the Librotraficante movement that was meant to make books more inclusive and culturally diverse as backlash for the anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona that banned ethnic studies in the classroom. Whenever books are labeled contraband, we in the humanities have an even greater impetus to teach our students about the value the written word has in our society. As Milton astutely observed in that great rhetorical barb of his rebuking pre-emptive censorship, Areopagitica, “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature . . . but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Barbed Wire Open Mic Reading copy Lupe Mendez Reading at Fahrenheit 180 copy

Rounding out November, several of us from Papagayo attended Dr. Brian Yothers’ Mining Books lecture on The Water Dancer, a magic realist novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Organized by The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP and UTEP’s Department of English, Mining Books is a monthly book lecture in UTEP’s Blumberg Auditorium. With The Water Dancer, Dr. Yothers presented us with different ways of conceiving of the novel, not just as one that borrows from the Latin American tradition of magic realism, but one that echoes slave narratives. Further, Dr. Yothers discussed the trajectory that Coates’ writing career has taken, one that began with nonfiction, most notably his work Between the World and Me that is written as a letter to his son and, in my eyes as in the eyes of the late Toni Morrison, continues the conversation on race in America that the writer James Baldwin left us.  Attending the presentation made me look forward to the Mining Books presentation that Vanessa and I will lead in March 2020 of Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse, The Poet X.

For December, the book we reviewed on Literally Literary was Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club, a short story collection that confronts the violence that erupted in Juarez beginning around 2006, and the collective trauma that followed it. For our podcast, we wanted a book that represented the border, “red in tooth and claw” but also rich in taste and its people, and to contrast our previously chosen texts, in that Ben’s book prominently features LGTBQQIA+ characters. Already two episodes in, half of the stories remain to cover, and just like our first two books, for our last episode of the year, we hoped to seat a special guest. The more episodes we record (now going on our eleventh), the smoother and more natural our conversations have been, such that we almost seamlessly oscillate between topics and yet stay on each other’s wavelength.

To put it simply, the first half of our Mellon fellowship has been eventful. By reaching out to the community, attending and contributing in festivals, and hosting Papagayo workshops that tie in to the literary world or our podcast, we continue to fulfill the mission of this unique collaborative. Due to the emphasis on performing literature running like a vein across so many of this semester’s events, I have written some new poems of my own and read them at the open mics. One way or another, I was motivated to step up to the mic, and through this fellowship, I hope that, considering what we have planned for the spring, I can motivate students to do the same.

Written by Jorge Gomez, El Paso Community College
Faculty Fellow, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP



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