Hands down, the highlight of my AWP occurred at the edge of the San Antonio River on the last day of the conference,
A Read In/Mitote had been organized by Dignidad Literaria, a group formed in the aftermath of the American Dirt fiasco, where I planned to read from Bodies of Agua, my unwieldy essay collection that centers on my wild trailblazer trendsetter mad genius manic depressed ageless extraterrestrial beautful abuela who had died exactly one year before on April Fool's Day, the same day I arrived back in SA from PDX after attending peripheral events of AWP 2019.
This year the conference was happening in my homeland, in my home town of San Antonio, but a deadly virus put a kink in the plans.
I had a couple of readings canceled due to the encroaching pandemic, but little twists of fate led Helena Maria Viramontes, keynote speaker and patron saint of Chicana lit, to inhabit the same circle I occupied (we chose the spot closest to the river, or course) and fate made sure that when my turn to read came, it was right after Viramontes herself, no pressure.
Viramontes listened as I read with her full attention, and said “no,no, keep reading,” when I had finished the carefully timed two pages, and I looked at her like, really? And she looked at me like, yes!
So I did, and when I was done, she (Viramontes!) offered me (Cisneros!) instant feedback, gave me her beatific blessing that I must keep at it.
She said that my grandma’s stories were now my stories. And now it was my job to tell them.
Right there, by our once-wild Yanaguana waters, tamed and re-branded The River Walk so long ago in hopes that visitors and conferences such as AWP would choose San Antonio, Viramontes gave me permission to accept my inheritance and encouraged me to spend it how I see fit.
She even bought a copy of Grunge Tejana, my zine based on "The Ana Files," my only mainstream publication and to be honest, the only essay I've sent out finished into the world.
She even asked me to sign it, so I did: "Querida Helena…"
…the night before after her electrifying keynote, she had signed my copy of The Moths “con mucho cariño.” The well-worn book, y'all know the one, the early edition with the iconic “La Butterfly” painting by John Valadez on the cover. That iconic cover art that no longer features, I was quick to notice, on the new editions they were selling that night. But why?
I remember being in my first Chican@ Lit class ever, 19 years old, at University of the Incarnate Word in the 90s. I bought that book with a beautiful chola on the cover and thought: wowwww, finally, a book for us.
So when Viramontes moved on to the next reading (small groups read simultaneously and rotated at cues given by DJ De La O), I had to take a moment to compose myself. There was no where to go after that, honestly. It was only me and the river for a moment.
On the edges of the event, a group of city maintenance workers were standing by, awaiting their cue to get to work and clean up after the reading.
One man broke from the group and began to approach me. His hair was gray, his eyes were twinkly, and the name Jimmy was embroidered on his shirt pocket.
He asked me what I selling, so I showed him my zine.
“I want one. How much?” he didn't hesitate.
“Ten, but I’ll just give it to you,” I replied.
“Nah, nah, nah, I’m gonna buy it, mi’ja,” he said in that unmistakable, irreplaceable, highly loveable San Anto style that can only be described as home.
He produced a ten from his wallet, and we both exchanged a flicker of happiness, and he didn’t miss a beat: “Now sign it.”
So I did: “Dear Jimmy...”
Helena Maria Viramontes and Jimmy bought my zine within minutes of each other, right there by the river with the wind acting all rowdy, teasing me that it just might flail my skirt up like a sail, right there with the bright barges floating tourists through the downtown river route, right there with all those writers reading to each other on colchas and the sun setting and the conference over…right at the precipice of a global pandemic.
I’ll probably never see either of them again, but this memory is magic--the kind of gift that I can only define as San Antonian in nature
Anel, Helena Maria, Ash, & me at the edge of the San Anto River.
Foto by Emma Hernández.
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