Bobby Byrd, a child of the South who became a leading literary voice of the U.S.-Mexican border, died late Monday in El Paso. He was 80.
Byrd was a poet and with his wife, Lee Merrill Byrd, co-founded Cinco Puntos Press, an independent publisher that helped develop numerous Hispanic and border authors over the years.
“This poetics of mine is like a three-legged donkey,” Byrd wrote in “Otherwise My Life Is Ordinary,” a 2015 collection of his poems. “A goofy-looking pack animal that stumbles along beside me. Damn thing just materialized haphazardly when I was growing up.”
Bobby and Lee Byrd started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985 out of their home in Central El Paso. They built it into one of the nation’s premier independent publishers before selling Cinco Puntos last year to New York-based Lee & Low.
Among the authors published by Cinco Puntos Press was El Paso’s Benjamin Alire Sáenz. In 2013, Sáenz’s collection of short stories published by Cinco Puntos, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club,” was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, one of the nation’s highest literary honors.
“Bobby was a sentimental man and understood the gift of tears — something we had in common. We had a profound respect for one another and the unapologetic affection we had for each other was present in our every encounter — even in our disagreements,” Sáenz said. “I treasured our friendship just as I treasure the friendship I have with Lee who is as strong and as lovely a person as I have ever known. I will miss my friend.”
Other authors published by Cinco Puntos Press include Sergio Troncoso, Dagoberto Gilb, Sonia Patel, Luis Alberto Urrea, Philip Connors, and David Dorado Romo.
“I felt I learned from every exchange I had with him, about literature, El Paso, or social and political commitment through art,” said Troncoso, an Ysleta native and past president of the Texas Institute of Letters. “I can’t imagine he won’t be there at Ardovino’s for another charla about the Southwest. I will miss him very much.”
Romo said Byrd’s interest in his research ultimately led to his first book “Ringside Seat to a Revolution,” published by Cinco Puntos Press.
“He was older than me, but we were more like brothers. I never saw him necessarily as a mentor — we were just brothers (and) fellow explorers of El Paso, especially in the underground cultural scene,” Romo said.
Mark Moses Alvarado, a musician and community development professional, was in El Paso last week at Byrd’s invitation to teach music in Segundo Barrio’s Armijo Center as part of Basketball in the Barrio Camp. Alvarado lives in California, but lived in El Paso for several years.
Alvarado said about 30 participants of the Basketball in the Barrio went to Byrd’s home Sunday evening to read a poem by Byrd, “Basketball is a Holy Way to Grow Old.” He said as they were reading the poem from outside his bedroom door, a rain and thunderstorm came over them.
He said Byrd knew they were there and everyone was in tears as they walked away after reading the poem.
“It was just such an emotional event,” Alvarado said.
Cinco Puntos Press generated controversy in 1999 when it published “The Story of Colors/La Historia de los Colores,” a children’s book by Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of an Indigenous uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
The National Endowment for the Arts agreed to provide Cinco Puntos a $7,500 grant to publish the book, but revoked the money after a reporter called to ask about the grant, fearing reaction from Mexican officials and others. The Lannan Foundation provided Cinco Puntos with a grant that allowed them to continue publishing the book.
Byrd was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. His father was killed in a plane crash in 1945 while training Army pilots. He and his siblings were raised by their mother Charlotte Stanage Byrd, and the family’s African American maid, Darthula Baldwin — whom he called Tula.
In 1968, Byrd was a university professor in Memphis. On April 3 of that year, he went to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in support of striking sanitation workers. It was the last speech King ever delivered; he was assassinated the next day in Memphis.
“I don’t remember much of that day. But I remember walking up the church steps, the freezing cold and being among young black people and feeling so happy. We were going to hear this incredible speech,” Byrd said in a 2018 interview with the El Paso Times.
Bobby and Lee Byrd brought their young family to El Paso in 1978. They both were highly regarded writers before starting their own publishing house in 1985.
Survivors include his wife and his three children, Susie Byrd, Johnny Bird and Andy Byrd.
Funeral arrangements haven’t been announced.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Bobby Byrd’s age. He was 80. It also incorrectly listed his birthplace, which is Memphis.