Above: Named in honor of Denise Chávez's late sister, Faride, this room at Casa Camino Real has transformed into Libros para el Viaje's book distribution center. Photographs by Jay Hemphill.

WE ARE ALL TRAVELERS on the Great Road. My road is El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior Land. Historically, this travel route began in Mexico City and ended at Ohkay Owingeh, Place of the Strong People, 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The Camino Real spanned 1,600 miles through Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico and served travelers from 1598 to 1882. Before that it was an indigenous trade route.

When I sit in the sala of my bookstore, Casa Camino Real, in Las Cruces—and directly on the Camino Real—I imagine the mighty noise of the carretas, the wooden carts, carrying trade materials north. Oftentimes the caravans were two miles long and took six months to reach their goal.

I grew up in Las Cruces, and nearby El Paso and Juárez were my hometowns. They were places I visited frequently with my mother, Delfina, who was born in the small town of Redford, Texas, once called El Polvo, “The Dust.” From an early age, my mother was inculcated with the belief that education and books mattered. Her mother, María Antonia Luján Rede, was the postmistress in Redford, and as a young woman she had traveled across the U.S. with an Anglo settler family and learned English. She often proclaimed, “El inglés es tan bonito—English is so beautiful.” It was her intention that all her children graduate from college, a dream she lived to see fulfilled. My grandfather Eusebio Rede was a hard-rock silver miner in Shafter, Texas, and an avid reader who had subscriptions to many magazines and newspapers. My mother remembered her large family spent all day Sunday at home reading, all of them stretched out happily on their beds. My mother and each of her siblings became teachers. To see the Rede family cattle brand on a wall on the campus of Sul Ross State University, in Alpine, Texas—where they were some of the first graduates—has continued to inspire me.

Denise Chávez, author of five novels, at Casa Camino Real bookstore, in Las Cruces.

Above: Chávez, author of five novels, at Casa Camino Real bookstore, in Las Cruces.

There is nothing like the immutable beauty of nights in southern New Mexico and far west Texas. To describe them is to remember my childhood: eating sandía, delicious watermelon, in my tío Lalo’s backyard in Las Cruces, or falling asleep under the open sky behind my tía Chita’s grocery store in Redford, all of us lying on cots outside because of the heat, hearing the not-so-distant calls of a family of coyotes. My tía Chita was a teacher who started a world-famous lending library across the border from Ojinaga, Mexico, in her family store, her first book being a Sears catalog. Eventually more books took over the space once occupied by Havoline motor oil and pairs of pecheras, or overalls. Tía Chita eventually appeared on Good Morning America and the Today show and received many awards from various presidents for her advocacy of literature.

My little life seemed so small and contained then—perhaps this is why I lived for stories, the ones out there as well as those close to home. Mi tierra adentro, my interior land, was my family—all of them with their beautiful and odd names: my mother’s colorful tío Irineo, who fell asleep in a cave and, as the family legend goes, awakened to find a rattler on his stomach. And then … what happened? How did he escape? Or there was the haunting story of my tía Pascualita, my mother’s beautiful blue-eyed aunt, who had a daughter, Juanita, who was disabled, because, as Tía Pascualita often said with sadness, “It was during the Depression, and I didn’t get enough to eat.”

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A writer and now bookstore owner, I often think about my past and the mysterious deeper past, wondering how those first caravans fared—with their travelers of all types: chickens, goats, horses, men, women, and children, some with good health, others not so lucky. The Jornada del Muerto was just that, the Journey of Death, with harsh travel conditions that claimed many lives.

What books would have been carried by those on their perilous and uncertain journey? Most assuredly the Bible, and Don Quixote. As noted by former New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks, there were more copies of Miguel de Cervantes’s title in Mexico City than there were in Spain at the time of its publication. This would make my mother happy, as she believed the entire spectacle of life and human drama was to be found in this, her favorite tome.

Having grown up in this harsh land was a difficult blessing. Las Cruces, my birthplace, means “The Crosses.” Those of us who were raised here can imagine the early settlers saying, “Look, there are the crosses, death markers on the side of the road where people have died.” Countless travelers died on the Camino Real, on that long journey of unforeseen peril and dread, with its days of relentless swirling dust, unbearable heat, and nights of debilitating cold—days and nights redeemed by the startlingly unparalleled sunsets and the moon rising over the majestic Organs, sacred mountains always standing firm.

I am reminded of the Buddhist gatha—a meditative verse—that in so few words tells me of the rootedness to my time and place:

Mountain. Solid.

BOOKS HAVE ALWAYS GROUNDED ME, as has my border landscape.

The word was my life then, as now, and my writing became my answer to how I want to live with truth. I have continued this inquiry into the heart of the world with my work in Las Cruces, which found its origins in a refugee book drive that began in May 2018.

Several years ago, a friend came into the bookstore looking for Spanish–English dictionaries. I realized then that there was a need to gather books for those refugees and asylum seekers making the jornada today. They are travelers, too, I thought. I contacted Kari Lenander, executive director of the Border Servant Corps, a nonprofit based in Las Cruces, to see how I could help. Then I began combing my bookstore for books in Spanish and sought out gently used books in Spanish from nearby bookstores.

This room, named in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, shows a display of Spanish-language books for Libros para el Viaje.

Above: This room, named in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, shows a display of Spanish-language books for Libros para el Viaje.

At the beginning of last year, I approached the American Booksellers Association, of which our bookstore is a member, and asked if it would support a book drive at its Winter Institute, which was being held in Albuquerque that year. That book drive formally took the name Libros para el Viaje, or Books for the Journey. At the conference, we gathered thousands of books, so many that Fonseca Freight, in Albuquerque, donated its services to drive them to the Mitsubishi dealership in Las Cruces, which became our improvised storage and distribution center.

Casa Camino Real began distributing books to local refugee hospitality centers where families would be sent after being released from the ICE facility in El Paso, en route to their sponsors somewhere in the U.S. by either bus or plane. I also began to distribute books on Wednesday mornings at Peace Lutheran Church, in Las Cruces, following what is, for me, a much anticipated pancake breakfast. My husband and fellow book steward, Daniel Zolinsky, and I spread out a large table of donated books, one side for children, the other for adults. After I introduced myself and the program, families would join us. In time, I began storytelling sessions and language lessons. I knew then that I had found my call to service.

I will never forget the young mother from Guatemala who politely and shyly asked if she could keep the three Isabel Allende novels she found on the table, or the young man from Guatemala who was delighted by an elegant first Spanish edition of The Complete Works of Walt Whitman, published in Bogotá, Colombia, and donated by Enrique Lamadrid and the Spanish and Portuguese Department at the University of New Mexico. Nor will I forget the anxious desperation of a man whose Bible had been confiscated by ICE and thrown in the garbage.

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Every person who took a book was initially surprised by the donations, then delighted, each one a tangible offering of love and peace. Nowadays, when people enter Casa Camino Real bookstore, I often tell them, “This is the temple, and books are sacred.” My belief in the power of a book to heal lives is unwavering.

As word got out, others joined the cause. Books for Border Kids, an organization in Minneapolis–St. Paul, sent nearly 3,000 books to the program, in collaboration with the Wild Rumpus bookstore and the Red Balloon Bookshop. Students from the Wardlaw + Hartridge School, in Edison, New Jersey, mailed more than 300 books for children, and the Children’s Book Council, in New York City, sent 20 boxes of books. Juan Manuel Girón and his Girón Spanish Book Distributors, in Chicago, donated a pallet of books in honor of his Guatemalan parents.

In time, the focus of the project took us farther afield, into Juárez and its suburb of Anapra, a port of entry that was initially formed as a colonia, or unincorporated neighborhood. On entering or leaving Anapra, what strikes me is the proximity to the U.S., to the life many of us know, and to the amenities we take for granted. I can’t help but be moved when I see the disparity between the houses and neighborhoods lying side by side, one luxurious, the other poor. Both nations are connected by the same river, the Río Grande. In Mexico, it is called El Río Bravo, the Brave River.

It has been my great fortune to work alongside volunteers from all over the U.S., Mexico, and other countries in this endeavor to deliver books from my hometown of Las Cruces across these fluid borderlands on El Camino Real. Kari says it well: “There is a recognition of our common humanity here in the borderland. It’s based not on politics or religion, but on people.”

IT WAS THROUGH KARI THAT I BEGAN work with La Biblioteca para la Vida, the Library for Life, founded by Estela Huerta, who was born in Anapra but lived in Los Angeles until she was 13, before moving back home. A church organization in Kansas City suggested she start a library, and while the idea was surprising to her, she took on the task. Through the support of many donors across the U.S., she and her husband, family members, and many volunteers constructed the library. Set on a little hill, the Library for Life occupies a bright yellow house, inside of which colorful displays and well-organized bookshelves serve the community of Anapra. One wall features a large cutout of a tree that says, ADOPTA UN ABUELO—ADOPT AN ELDER. The tree’s limbs hold photos of those in need: a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair, a kindly-looking older man, a young family. If you adopt someone, you commit to sponsoring their needs, which might include basic food, drinking water, electric costs, bus money, money for doctors’ visits, clothing, or shoes. Costales de leña, or plastic bags of wood, rest in the patio, waiting to be picked up by the adopted families. The shelves feature carefully arranged books in all genres for both children and adults.

Denise Chavez with Becca Hamilton, of Border Servants Corps's Border Immersion, at Bibiloteca para la Vida.

Above: Chavez with Becca Hamilton, of Border Servants Corps's Border Immersion, at Bibiloteca para la Vida.

The library also has a monthly pajama storytelling session where young children and the library assistants all wear their jammies and sit on blankets on the floor. On those days, I’ve read Fiesta Secreta de Pizza, an event that included a pepperoni pizza party, and Dragones y Tacos, with the delicious smell of tacos being cooked outdoors on a disco, or large metal skillet, wafting through the patio door of the children’s room. When I contacted the book’s author, Adam Rubin, who lives in Barcelona, he sent the children hundreds of copies of his books.

Biblioteca para la Vida is now celebrating its seventh anniversary. Huerta’s belief is that the library serves to teach respect and friendship to visitors, no matter if they are neighborhood children or a visiting group from the States. Huerta has learned the power of books to gather community.

After one visit to the Biblioteca, where we share a book called Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre (Alma and How She Got Her Name), Kari and I make another stop to visit with la doctora San Juana Mendoza Bruce at the nearby Clínica Cristo Rey, in the middle of this community that is a reclaimed garbage dump, to see what needs she has. As a young physician, Mendoza realized the pressing lack of  affordable care, so she crosses the border six days a week from El Paso to serve her patients. La doctora tells us the story of twins, Valeria and Valentina, born prematurely to a young indigenous Mixteca couple. The twins suffered retinal damage in an incubator, and Mendoza is looking for a retinologist who will take on their complex case and the multiple surgeries they will require.

“What can we do?” we ask, looking at photos of the twins. Though their circumstances are dire, the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit surrounds this little clinic in Anapra. It, along with the Biblioteca para la Vida, have become beacons of hope on this sometimes confounding road of too many hardships. Both continue to thrive because of their willingness to work for the greater good. To tell the stories of these brave and fearless women would require more time—a book or two.

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Before we leave, la doctora shows us books she has collected to give away to young patients and families, books that help young people learn and grow, about animals, nature, the environment. She wants thin books, nothing too heavy. Easy-to-carry books. Books for adults about nutrition, health. I make notes to myself and know that La Clínica will become one of our regular distribution sites.

We travel back to Las Cruces from the port of Anapra. Sometimes, if the traffic is too heavy, we need to cross one of the bridges connecting Juárez to the U.S. This may take hours. Earlier this year, families were camped underneath the Santa Fe bridge in the growing cold. Tarps and tents lined the median strip near the Chamizal bridge as families waited for their asylum numbers to come up.

A book distribution at Chamizal Park in Júarez.

Above:  A book distribution at Chamizal Park in Júarez.​

Memories of crossings will always be mine, whether it was crossing in a chalupa, a homemade wooden boat, from Redford to visit friends, or in a hot car in summertime with my mother, Delfina, returning for a Saturday trip to Juárez to distribute clothing and food to the families of one of the many ayudantes who cared for my sister and me when my mother was teaching school. As I cross now, I think of how mine is one of the myriad stories that flow through the history of the Camino—a steady current that documents the histories of our people, their journeys and travails, their joys and sorrows, and their wondrous and arduous becoming. In the shadow of the Organ and Franklin mountains, near the U.S.–Mexico border, my story continues to unfold, finding its movement and rest in those humble, always magical places like my tía’s makeshift library or my second home in Redford. It was in those places that I discovered who I am, and where I come from.

Today’s travelers are our refugee and asylum-seeking families, migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, most of whom speak Spanish. Others speak indigenous languages, probably the most common of which is K’iche’. Many Portuguese-speaking families have come through, as well.

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The map of the world is registered on this ongoing and never-ending road of migration, with all those who come seeking a better life in this land of hope. Libros para el Viaje. Books for the Journey.

That young girl who dreamed of leaving home and never did, the child who reveled in a well-told drama of the antepasados, her kin who moved north to settle a land of promise, still lives within me. All those people who came before were so full of resolute intent, as strong and courageous as those who still travel El Camino Real, knowing of the hardships and the dangers but moving forward with persistence and commitment because they want a better life for their children. It is to those children I owe my allegiance. They are the children of the world. I have seen their bright eyes, known their unbroken spirits. For them I continue my work. My dream is that someday Valeria and Valentina will hold a book in their hands and know that within their grasp lies a world of hope and love. My dream is that the spirits of all our children—for they are all our children—can fly far beyond all borders and walls, real or imagined.

Story Sidebar

Casa Camino Real, in Las Cruces, hosts Bookends, a program that allows visitors to creatively connect with the stories, art, and culture of the borderland region. The program is currently gathering stories, art, and photographs for a forthcoming anthology titled We Are Here to Represent. The anthology will address the voices of the refugee, asylum, and immigrant families and those who continue to work with and serve them.  

Casa Camino Real also collects books for Libros para el Viaje. Donors have included major publishing companies, including Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and many independent publishers and hundreds of bookstores in the U.S., Latin America, and New Zealand. Authors, artists, filmmakers, and countless readers have also donated. For more information about Libros para el Viaje, contact Denise Chávez at 575-523-3988, comezon09@comcast.net.

Border Servant Corps sponsors a Border Immersion program, which brings high school and college students, as well as working adults, to the U.S.–Mexico border. Such programs enable visitors to speak with first-generation immigrants, visit local organizations working with immigrant populations, meet government officials to hear about border protection and law enforcement, learn about immigration law, and build an understanding of economic policies and realities affecting people on the border.