EL PASO, Texas – Dagoberto Gilb creates colorful images with a few words, drawing scenes in an audience’s imagination like a skilled painter.
The El Pasoans present at a recent lecture here are his canvas and also his inspiration. This border city in the Chihuahuan desert is the main setting for many of the stories written by this internationally published author.
“I have written 72 short stories and all of them except for three are set either in El Paso, or L.A.,” Gilb said. For the first time since he wrote Pride a feature in the Texas observer in 2001, Gilb, read it here, where it originated.
The piece about the meaning of pride uses images familiar to most El Pasoans and Chicanos. “The desert land is rock dry and ungleam; it is brown, brown like the skin is brown, beautiful brown,” read Gilb.
Gilb takes pride in his culture and heritage and his life’s story is very pertinent to many sitting in that room.
Gilb’s mother crossed the border illegally from Mexico to Los Angeles, California. There she met his dad, an Anglo from L.A. who divorced her when Gilb was very young, so she raised him on her own. He learned the meaning of work at an early age, something he thanks his father for.
“When I was 13 I got a job; I think he taught me to work,” Gilb said. “My parents divorced when I was so young. I never lived with him, but I did have a really good connection that I’m glad of.”
Before he became an established author, he worked as a carpenter here and he recalled a project at the University of Texas at El Paso campus from 25 years ago. “My first high-rise was the three story add-on to the museum on this campus,” Gilb said.
He never imagined he would be back at UTEP in a room-full of people hanging on his every word. “I didn’t know when I started to be a writer that readings had anything to do with being a writer. I just didn’t like the idea that readings had to do with standing up here in front of people and having them stare at you,” said Gilb.
It would make him mad that those same people praising him today were the ones hustling him for cheaper labor during his time digging up jobs as a remodeler. “I knew if I walked in to their house and said I’ll hang your door for $75 they would sneer at me,” said Gilb.
He wrote his first publication Winners on the Pass Line while working in El Paso. It was the first book published by Cinco Puntos Press, a local company that has been publishing books related to border and Chicano culture since 1985.
Since then, Gilb has published seven books, stories in more than 19 publications and has received a collection of awards including the national Whiting Writers’ Award in 1993. His stories have been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, German, Spanish and Dutch.
Still Gilb keeps true to his roots and ideals, which he transmits through his writing. “I’m much more interested in the little things in life; I focus on the very small things,” said Gilb. “Life is about the experiences. Even if they are not the ones we wish we had, they are all significant.”