“I like this town because it’s edgy. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s itself. And there’s a lot of stuff to do here. I mean when people say there’s nothing to do in El Paso, I do want to say ‘what the fuck’s wrong with you?’ ‘Do you live in a hole?’ There’s lots of things to do here.”
-Benjamin Alire Saenz
The only Latino to win the PEN/Faulkner award walked through campus wearing a light red button shirt, and his earphones in, carrying a messenger bag. He was so unsuspecting, he appeared to be another student, although he is the Stegner Fellowship poet, Benjamin Alire Saenz.
Saenz has shown the subtle and intense beauty of the border in his work. Despite the wide array of awards under his name, his humility perhaps is one of the characteristics that he has picked up in the border region of El Paso, and that he now exemplifies just in his very way of being.
“I never expected the kind of success that has come my way,” said Saenz. “But I believe that you have to earn your audience, and be gracious and be nice. Say ‘thank you for reading my book.’ I try to be gracious to my readers.”
A lot of literature is based out of New York, Paris, London, and many other inspiring cites. Benjamin Saenz has shown that inspiration doesn’t just grow out of metropolis. He shows that El Paso is not in the shadow of neglect. There is a narrative that belongs to its people.
“I believe that a writer’s job is to bear witness, and I want to bear witness that the border is not just a fucking metaphor, that we are people. And I want people to see us. When I create characters, they feel real, and they’re Mexicans.”
Saenz has shown duality in his characters; the fact that they live on the border and are not all illegal immigrants or drug traffickers. They are unique, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful, searching for answers.
“Someone said this past Christmas – there was two guys walking down, and it was something I heard when I was growing up – this guy says to the other one, ‘No te agüites, mañana es Christmas.’ I love that. The word agüitar and then instead of saying Navidad he said Christmas. I love that,” said Saenz when asked how the city has impacted his writing.
And when a friend of his lectured him on how that mixture of language is ruining the beauty of the Spanish language, he replied:
“Oh, shut up. This is how we survive.”
– By Aimée Santillán & Antonio Villaseñor-Baca