When I was about thirteen-years-old in Ysleta, I had this strange, but wonderful odyssey to the El Paso Public Library on many Saturday mornings. I'd check the tires of my old three-speed yellow bike, and strap on a portable radio to the handlebars. From my mother, I'd borrow a bag or pouch to carry water, candy bars, certainly a couple of bags of Cornuts. We didn't have those fancy water bottles custom-made for bicycles yet, nor shock-resistant bike radios.
I warned mis padres when I was ready to start my voyage, and they would remind me to take extra dimes to call on the way, and to be careful, and to avoid the speeding cars and dangerous intersections. My mother would make the sign of the cross over my face and chest before I jumped on my bike. And I would start my fifteen-mile trip from San Lorenzo Street, usually before seven in the morning, before it was too hot, and bike to Alameda (the Border Freeway wasn't yet finished), west, all the way, one stop light and dusty corner after another, to El Segundo Barrio. To visit my abuelita. For an afternoon in the El Paso Public Library.
I nearly died a few times. Once, I was racing across a street corner, on Paisano, and half-slid underneath a bus that suddenly crossed my path. My front wheel was crushed, but the bus missed my body by a few inches. Never told my parents about that little mishap. I also had other nasty scrapes and falls. But I loved it. Loved the freedom of my bike. Loved stopping wherever I wanted to stop. Loved listening to my favorites rock songs on the radio. For me, these bike trips down Alameda defined a glorious El Paso summer.
When I arrived at my abuelita's house on Olive Street, right across the Consulado Mexicano and the old offices of El Fronterizo, Doņa Dolores Rivero welcomed me with hot Mexican chocolate and bizcochos. My abuelito, Don José Rivero, often drove me in his ancient green-and-white Chevy station wagon to the Western Auto on Paisano, in case I needed new parts for my battered bike. But the best part was sitting on their front porch and listening to stories about the Mexican Revolution and living in el rancho near Chihuahua. At night, her cigarette and coffee in hand, Doņa Dolores often told me about Francisco Villa riding into town and stringing up a few cowardly politicians or greedy bankers. Once in a while, with a gleam in her eyes, my grandmother cranked up her old stereo and she'd start twirling my grandfather around to polkas from Los Tigres del Norte.
At my abuelita's, usually in the afternoon after I had a chance to recover from my long bike ride, I would bike to the main branch of the El Paso Public Library. That was my ultimate goal on Saturday. I found adventure books, history books, books about Villa, Obregon, and Zapata, mysteries, stories from Mark Twain to S. E. Hinton. I first read Rudolfo Anaya at the El Paso Public Library.
I had the most splendid time at the library. I found, when it was too hot, that I could go downstairs and read in the cool basement, which supposedly was haunted. I discovered the Southwest Room, which seemed fancy to me and well-lit. I sometimes sat next to the newspaper section, and the big window overlooking Oregon Street, the light making me feel warm and safe. For every mood, for every story, there was a perfect corner in the El Paso Public Library, and I relished my time there. After I had the books I wanted to take home, I went across the street to the funky People's Emporium (which isn't there anymore) to whiff the incense and marvel at the weird gifts and knickknacks that my older sister was always talking about.
I know the El Paso Public Library was essential to me. In so many ways. In giving me the books and the space to let my imagination explore new worlds. In welcoming this kid from Ysleta after a long odyssey. I had no money, but I had a quiet place to read. And that's the only thing that mattered to me. I am no doubt a writer today because I had a place to go, as a kid, where everybody also reveled in the wonder within books.
This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on April 13, 2003.