How a San Antonio Author Uses Fiction to Shed Light on Mexican American History
San Antonio author Rudy Ruiz knows there is no rewriting history.
But in his last novel, valley of shadowshe mixes history, his own experience of growing up near the border, and lots of fiction to see what it might be like if certain events had turned out differently.
It wasn’t until Ruiz studied literature and creative writing at Harvard that he remembers being exposed to books by Latin American authors. There’s more representation on the shelves today, Ruiz says, but there’s still a lot of work to do. “This book has a Latino hero and a Native American heroine,” he says. “People can see themselves reflected in that, but I also think it’s important that people from outside of those backgrounds embrace these characters as heroes.”
valley of shadows is officially out on Tuesday, September 20, and Ruiz will be celebrating with a book launch at 5:30 p.m. at The Twig Book Shop. Here he tells us about the novel, which is available in English and Spanish.
How much research do you have to do for a book like this? Is it difficult to weave together history, family history and fiction?
There are just a lot of events in the story that I didn’t learn much about in history class or heard much about growing up. One day my family and I were at the (Bullock) Texas State History Museum in Austin and saw a small exhibit about this event that happened in 1918, the Porvenir Massacre. I hadn’t really heard of it before.
It was basically this tragic event that happened in a small West Texas border town. Some young Mexican boys were accused of rustling cattle and before you know it the whole town became like a powder keg and the Texas Rangers and US Cavalry entered and before all was said and done , 15 Mexican American boys and men were executed without any kind of trial or evidence. What happened after that, as you can imagine, was that the rest of the Mexican American townspeople were so scared that many of them fled and went south of the border.
It was an event that was kind of forgotten and swept under the rug of history. It took 100 years for a historical monument to be built in memory of those who died in this tragedy. I thought it would be very interesting to tell a story set in that time, including situations like that, where through fiction I could explore an alternate reality or a possibility of how things would have could be.
So in this book, there’s a former Mexican American lawyer who’s thrown into the situation of helping this West Texas town solve this mystery and series of murders and kidnappings. In the process, he and his friends and comrades are able to stop a variety of atrocities. It’s almost a reimagining of what the story could have been.
East valley of shadows a prequel to your first novel, The Resurrection by Fulgencio Ramierz?
It’s a prequal, but it’s really a standalone story. It’s further back in time, so it’s kind of a historical fiction novel. It’s a lot of things – it’s a western horror story and it’s also in the style of magical realism that I like to write in. It’s set in the 1880s, mostly in West Texas, and so it goes back and forth in time.
The way you write about the border in your books, it almost becomes one of the characters. Can you talk about that and your relationship with the border?
I live in San Antonio, but I grew up on the border. My father and grandfather were cattle ranchers, so I grew up riding horses and watching westerns and Mexican westerns with charro-type characters like the hero of this book. A lot of those experiences as a kid and growing up kind of helped me visualize and kind of create those characters and their world, even down to the names. Cisneros is a character’s last name and it’s my grandmother’s maiden name. Some of the land and some of the old ranches and even the people that were portrayed in the book were real, and then I built some sort of fiction around it.
Many of the problems our society faces today at the border are problems it faced more than 100 years ago. Through fiction, people can make connections and become more empathetic.
This book talks a lot about a place and a time and how people can belong to a place, but the place belongs to them too.
In this story, which takes place in a mythical city, it’s basically a city that used to be on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, but the river changes course and ends up on the American side of the border. Our hero is a little out of place because he’s had his badge taken away and he’s sort of retired and in hiding. He lost his country and his wife and his badge. And then this series of tragic events happens, and he’s kind of reluctantly lured out of retirement because they need someone to solve these crimes. But the border and the river itself seem like characters in how they affect everyone and everything around them.
Why was it important that this book come out during Hispanic Heritage Month?
It’s a very rich cultural story. There’s a lot of history in there. In some parts of the story, the hero is in his youth when he was a military officer in Mexico during the war between Mexico and France, which people don’t quite know. These historical aspects relate to Hispanic heritage and the importance of Mexican Americans.
You talked about the importance of diversity in book characters and story types. Has it gotten better since you were a kid?
I’ve always loved to read and loved to write, but growing up in the 70s and 80s, the school reading list was made up of English or American authors, not people of color. It’s something I didn’t really experience until I was in college and started reading literature written by Latino, African American, and Asian American authors. It really opened my eyes to the importance, as a writer, of sharing your culture, your stories and these various perspectives. In our country, I think it helps to develop empathy and understanding for people from different backgrounds.
I think we are definitely making progress. There’s more diversity in the books that are being published now, but at the same time, we’re still underrepresented. There is still room for a lot of growth and for more Latino authors to be published. And all of that feeds into the entertainment industry because a lot of TV shows and movies are based on novels, so when you don’t have as many diverse novels, you don’t have as many movies or shows with these prospects. It’s a slow process of change and progress and it just takes time, but it’s happening.
Tuesday, Sept. 20, 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
The twig bookstore