EL PASO – We usually wait until people die to celebrate their lives, children’s birthdays excepted. How short-sighted of us. Bobby Byrd, poet and co-owner of Cinco Puntos Press (CCP), just turned 70. His wife, Lee Merrill Byrd, also a writer and CCP co-owner, planned a surprise (?) party for him just as she has done for at least the past three decades.
Upon graciously approaching the microphone to speak to his audience of well-wishers, Bobby noted, “I see that all my lives are present here this evening,” or something very close to that. He went on to mention the various groups of people represented: the guys he played basketball with at the “Y,” his neighbors, fellow soccer coaches, fellow writers and coworkers, muckety-mucks, etc. (he didn’t say that), and most importantly, his family.
This was a community gathering, community in the best sense of the word: something for everyone and everyone bringing something. It was potluck, semi-planned. There was a brinca brinca for the kids, the San Patricios band, discada (even vegetarian tacos).
This past Sunday, photos and a column by Ramón Rentería ran in the El Paso Times. Ramón spoke of rituals and how a wide cross section of El Paso transcended differences of ethnicity, language, and politics to unite around the celebration of a special moment, how El Pasoans routinely do that, how that best defines this city. I do agree with Ramón’s assessment, but I think there are other layers of meaning to be peeled from this event. And it isn’t as if Mexican-Americans ever had a big problem with güeros, only the pinche güeros.
We each have multiple selves, a variety of roles and interests, so the people we end up knowing throughout our lives represent different aspects of us or different time periods of our lives. Sometimes we have to fragment ourselves, keep some parts of us distant, separate or hidden from other parts. The theories behind this include: “it wouldn’t be professional” or “someone might disapprove” or “it could be embarrassing” or “these were just childhood friends.” What I find wonderful about El Paso, and I suspect Bobby Byrd and others do too, is the acceptance of all parts of ourselves, a sort of unconditional love from a community. I felt it very strongly when I first arrived nearly a quarter century ago, and although I have come to think of it as a given, something I am entitled to, it truly is something very special.
I came here as a new professor with very young children who are now grown and I taught hundreds of students at UTEP for 21 years, even a few children of former students. Now that I am retired, I design jewelry, take some photos, write a blog, and generally do whatever I feel like doing. People still come up to me and ask: “Are you Julian’s mom?” “Aren’t you Dr. Howard?” “I think you made a ring for my friend.” Yes, that’s me, all of them. And, as I looked around at the people at the party, I saw many people who have multiple roles in this community, comfortable in themselves and unfragmented. People had occupations; they weren’t them… They were more than what they did for a living. David Romo, author of
Ringside Seat to a Revolution, published by Cinco Puntos Press (naturally) said: “Fronterizos, people who live on the border, are unclassifiable hybrids”. Yes, we are. Not dichotomous. We are this and this, not this or this.
The other thing I saw at this gathering was the love and respect for and from each generation to the others. From the smallest babe in arms to the oldest bald or white haired viejito/a, no one seemed out of place. It is common these days for events to be age segregated. It is also common to hear the older generation to make disparaging remarks about the younger one, or vice verse. Yes, there was a brinca brinca, but the children mingled easily around not only their parents, but other adults that they were familiar with. Everyone was accustomed to this arrangement; there would never have been a gathering “for adults only” in this crowd. And even though alcohol was plentiful, there was also no apparent concern that someone would get out of hand, ugly or violent. Not this large group of folks.
Bobby Byrd’s birthday party was about more than a ritual, about more than transcending ethnic boundaries or language barriers. It was about community, about family, a family (inherited and acquired) large enough and tolerant enough to accommodate everyone, to embrace and cherish each member. One very special member of the family was turning 70. Here’s to that family. They know how to live.