Interview by Chris Gorman
How does “Valley of Shadows” relate to your previous novel, “The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez?” Will there be a sequel?
“Valley of Shadows” is a stand-alone prequel. The novels are set in the same universe. One aspect about “Valley of Shadow”s that I’m particularly excited about is indeed the potential for sequels, both for specific mysteries and crimes that the protagonists can tackle as well as the larger arc of their own character development and relationships.
Tell us about the protagonists we meet in “Valley of Shadows,” Solitario Cisneros and Onawa.
Solitario is a former Mexican lawman haunted by a family curse that keeps him from hanging on to those he loves. He is lonely and isolated and afraid to engage with the world, but he is also driven by a strong moral compass and a sense of duty, old world values I think make him a fascinating and relevant hero.
Onawa is a gifted Mexican-Apache seer. She has been connected to Solitario since she first saw him on the verge of taking his own life and saved him. Onawa’s love for Solitario is as pure as her distrust for the rest of society. Their natural chemistry makes them vital to each other and to those around them, although Solitario’s curse stubbornly keeps them from fulfilling their growing mutual attraction for each other.
Can you describe the role of the U.S.-Mexico border in “Valley of Shadows?”
The premise of “Valley of Shadows” demonstrates how the man-made border is an arbitrary construct that can change on a whim, and upend the lives of everyone who lives in the region. In the book, the Rio Grande shifts course and strands a whole Mexican town north of the new border. As the residents scramble to survive and profiteers rush in to take advantage, we explore the very real effects of war, greed and climate displacement on human lives. All of these were pressing issues back in the 1800’s as they are today.
Did any historical events inspire “Valley of Shadows” and its characters?
The Rio Grande actually has changed course a couple of times since it became the border, and I thought it would make for a fascinating premise, especially given the growing concern over climate displacement and refugees globally. Additionally, a number of atrocities committed by the Texas Rangers back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s inspired me to imagine a world where the unheard voices of the Native American and Mexican-American communities of the time could be brought to the forefront and cast as heroes rather than only villains and victims. The Porvenir Massacre was one such event, in which Texas Rangers slaughtered innocent Mexican children. I yearned to create a world where heroes like Solitario and Onawa could save those lives and reshape reality.
How did family history and experiences growing up influence your writing?
I began riding horses on my father’s ranch when I was a toddler. I’m better at writing than I am at riding. But I have very fond memories of those days out on the ranch with my father. The ranch, located in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, was the last scrap that my immediate family owned of a once sprawling tract of land that straddled the Rio Grande. The ranch, El Dos de Copas, was originally part of the much larger Caja Pinta. My paternal ancestor Juan Jose Cisneros, and his wife Maria Antonio Villarreal, established Caja Pinta back in the 1700’s. They were one of 13 families on an expedition to first settle the region, founding what grew into modern day Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas.
The ranches and their history at the crux of the U.S.-Mexico War play a palpable role in my novels. The ranches have personalities of their own. Caja Pinta is grand and majestic, a wide-open and spiritual place that connects its inhabitants to nature and to whatever lies beyond this material world. Some might call it magic. Others might call it God. Regardless, it is a place of boundless possibility. El Dos de Copas is small, scrappy and defiant. It is literally the lowest card in the Spanish deck of playing cards. But it keeps playing. It never gives up. It is a place of beleaguered hope.
In my novels, the family ranch of Caja Pinta, its division by war and the family’s subsequent destruction through greed, violence and pride are at the heart of a multi-generational curse that plagues the men in the Cisneros family and, by association, the women they love. In the books it is called La Maldición de Caja Pinta. This curse that burdens the men in the family and dooms them in all matters of the heart charts challenging destinies for Fulgencio in “The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez” and for Solitario Cisneros, Fulgencio’s ancestor, in “Valley of Shadows.”
The idea for the curse fit perfectly into my passion for magical realism, but it actually stems from a family legend that indeed the men in my family were cursed. Fortunately, for me, I believe it to be a very colorful – if symbolic – fiction, a more palatable way of explaining our human flaws and failures, our past inability to overcome the burdens of our own histories, social barriers, and bad habits.
It is Solitario Cisneros’ seemingly futile desire to escape the powerful family curse that drives him to flee Caja Pinta, leads to his involvement in Mexico’s war against France, and lands him in West Texas at the start of “Valley of Shadows.”
Weaving together historical events, family lore, local legends and sheer fantasy in a seamless way is what makes writing magical realism so exhilarating and immersive for me as a writer. Hopefully, it is also an engaging way for readers and new generations to learn about the complex past while dreaming of a better future.
How does your advocacy of multicultural communities tie in with your writing?
I want to tackle issues that are relevant to social justice today and build empathy while also giving readers hope and inspiration that we can build a better and more harmonious world.
Magical realism is popular among Latino authors, but you chose to also blend this with Western themes. What inspired you to do this?
To be honest, my son asked me to write a Western horror story. My children have always inspired me to spin yarns and tell stories so it was a lot of fun to rise to the challenge in my own personal style and literary voice.
You mentioned that “how the West was won” narratives often over-simplify and gloss over the impact on natives of the West – how did that influence your writing?
I grew up watching classic Western movies with my dad. The Mexican and Indigenous American characters were always either villains, drunks, or comical sidekicks. The women were usually little more than shallow love interests. I thought it would be fascinating to tell a story from the perspective of a Mexican-American lawman and an Apache healer. These characters come from communities that were facing tremendous hardships and persecution. Yet, they often fought for justice, stood up for their people, and even helped diverse communities survive at times when people had to band together – despite their differences – to overcome life-threatening situations. There are many untold stories of unsung heroes throughout the history of the Southwest. My hope is to help those forgotten people – that often gave their lives for their families and communities – attain a visible presence, an audible voice, and their respectful place in the modern American narrative.
As I delved into the book, I realized that the same issues that plagued America in the 1800’s still permeate our society today. Social injustice, police brutality, racial hatred, discrimination, systemic racism, poverty, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments. When you hear those terms, you think of the last few years. Ironically, those are the same themes that dictated much of life for people all through America’s history. We can only change if we learn from our past.
What themes are explored in “Valley of Shadows?”
Isolation, fate, memory, “belonging,” self-determination, war, borders, climate displacement, spirituality, faith, and the resilience of the human spirit when we choose vulnerability and love over fear and hatred.
Can you discuss how the themes in your book foster cultural understanding in an effort to bridge cultural divides?
Ultimately, my writing is about empathy. It’s an invitation to the reader to walk in the shoes of somebody else, if for but a few pages. I hope that when a non-Latino reader becomes immersed in one of my stories or novels, they will experience some of the emotions, some of the challenges, some of the aspirations of the characters whose thoughts they inhabit. And, my goal would be for them to emerge from the book, entertained but also more empathetic towards the situations of others from different cultures. If we can see into each other’s worlds, we can find common ground and appreciation and that can lead to good things: like lasting relationships, collaboration, love, and healing.
What’s next for you?
I have several sequel ideas for “Valley of Shadows,” along with a couple of manuscripts that are already completed. One is a modern day immigrant story and the other is a border Bildungsroman set in the 1980’s and loosely inspired by my own upbringing.