I had recently read Charles Bowden’s book Murder City as part of my preparation for my fieldwork. One of my friends, Colm McNaughton, had told me about Mr. Bowden’s work years ago and that is why it was on my list.
A few months ago in El Paso, I was invited to a gathering of individuals who were concerned about border issues, particularly the risks that journalists take in covering the violence. Many important speakers were there and the day looked to be a promising learning experience. As I wandered through the auditorium, I recognized Mr. Bowden as one of the members in the audience. His face was just the same as it was on the back cover of the paperback I had. There he was, his tall frame seated sitting on a bleacher bench in the back. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, waiting for the day to begin. He didn’t seem to be busy, so I walked up to him. He perked right up as I mumbled, “Excuse me, are you Charles Bowden?”
“Yes I am,” he said as he smiled and stood up to shake my hand.
“I think you might know my friend, Colm McNaughton.”
“Ah, yes, I remember Colm. Good fella.”
“He told me that I should try to get in touch with you. I recognized you and thought I’d introduce myself.”
Mr. Bowden seemed really eager to help me. He smiled as he talked to me and was more than willing to help out a young guy just looking into a topic he had made a career out of covering. We went to different presentations together, and Mr. Bowden engaged me directly, asking me what I thought and offering his perspective. As the day went on, he started thinking about people he should introduce me to. He took me around the auditorium and eagerly introduced me to people, talking me up. As I left, Mr. Bowden had secured several solid interviews that I couldn’t have otherwise got.
A few days later, Mr. Bowden wrote me again. He had the autobiography of Jose Rivera, the founder of the infamous Barrio Azteca prison gang. Thinking that I might be a guy who could do something with the text, he charged me with the task of reading it and editing it, which I accepted. Over the weeks, I would send Mr. Bowden the occasional update, often telling him about our struggles to get it done by our promised deadlines. The last I heard of him was a kind note offering words of encouragement after I got burglarized.
He died on Saturday for reasons yet unknown – a loss of a man who cared deeply about the border and exposing the horrid events that had come to characterize it in recent years. It was a genuine loss for the community of people who work and study those issues. Fortunately, his words will live on.
Though I didn’t know Charles Bowden for very long, the little he touched my life can only be characterized as kindness and thoughtfulness. I am grateful that I got to meet him and for his guidance along my path, even if was only for a little while.