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Saving Our Culture

Published on May 10, 2012 by in Columns

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I always imagine Paradise as a kind of a library.”  This quote was one of the many thoughts racing through my mind one evening last week, as I sat at a small wooden table in the Cultural Center de Mesilla, surrounded by books.  Across from me sat Denise Chavez, the renowned author and the Center’s founder.  Within weeks, the Cultural Center will be closing its doors—and I knew this might be the last conversation we had in that space that has become sacred to me.

Denise In Center

Author Denise Chavez, in the Cultural Center de Mesilla

“This is the temple,” Denise told me, “and books are sacred.  In our Center, people have found peace and joy.”  Throughout Mesilla, rent is skyrocketing.  One day after this year’s Border Book Festival, Denise was notified that the rent on the Cultural Center would be almost doubled—a crushing blow to the Border Book Foundation, the 501(c)(3) organization that pays for the space.

As we sat around that table in the middle of that long, narrow room, we reflected on the great memories born there.  Denise told me stories of people who have visited from around the world, of regulars who drop in for a cup of café de olla, coffee brewed with piloncillo and canela.  “I look around here, and everything has a story,” said Denise.

For 15 years—since I began studying Chicano Literature at UNM—I’ve occupied this world of indigenous writers.  I’ve traveled the Southwest to attend readings and book festivals.  And there is no public space that is so closely married to the Arts and culture as Denise’s little Center on Calle de Parian.  Sitting around that table last week, we mourned its loss.  And we began dreaming about the opportunities it presents.

Denise Chavez

“This is the temple, and books are sacred,” says Chavez.

Denise has a dream for the Center’s future home.  “We see a space for books, art, a children’s library, a resource room with multicultural materials.  We envision a ‘Museo de la Gente,’ a People’s Museum and resource center with books in many languages, celebrating our local history and our families, as well as writers and artists from our regional landscape.”  And, of course, there should be a kitchen.  Denise’s recipe for the perfect cultural center would include literature, art, music and food.

The Cultural Center de Mesilla was opened in 2003, and was originally intended to be a hospitality house for the Border Book Festival.  It quickly took on a life of its own.  “It grew as a bookstore and art gallery, a gathering place and an environment where people were welcomed by books and café de olla.  It has become a Cultural Center, a resource center and a workshop and meeting space for our local, regional and global community,” says Denise.

She’s currently looking for the Center’s future home.  While she loves Mesilla, she is also open to relocating to a space in the Mesquite District or Downtown Las Cruces.  One question kept arising in our conversation: “How much does culture really matter to a community?”  To what lengths are we willing to go in order to preserve our cultural identity, and to preserve our families’ stories, recipes, and art for future generations?  That remains to be seen.

One thing is clear.  Denise isn’t ready to quit.  “I don’t believe in retirement.  I’ll always have my boots on.”  If you know of a space that might be suitable for the Center’s future home, you can call the Center at 523-3988, or e-mail

Preserving our culture, as New Mexicans, will take a community effort.  If we’re going to preserve, empower and educate our community, we must do it together.  We must not rely on someone else.  As the Hopis say, “We are the people we have been waiting for.”

Originally printed in “Pulse,” 05/10/12.
© Damien Willis, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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