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<< Back to Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Big Bend Sentinel

David Romo is a man of many parts. He is a psycho geographer, a microhistorian and the grand-nephew of a saint. I had lunch with him the other day in El Paso because I was interested in a book he has just published called Ringside Seat to a Revolution” (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press) and I learned a little bit about these matters as well as a lot about the side effects of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1930 on Romo’s hometown of El Paso, which is the topic of his book.

I’ll start with psychogeography. This, Romo explained, is a technique of observing and recording a city’s essences by taking randomly motivated walks through it. It was developed by a now obscure group of French artists and anarchists who called themselves the Situationist International and flourished between 1957 and 1972. Romo is exactly the kind of fellow who would know about the Situationist International. The ultimate literary expression of psychogeography is a novel by Paul Auster called “Cities of Glass,” in which a detective follows a suspect on his daily walks around New York. When the detective plots the walks on a city map, he finds that their routes spell out the words “Tower of Babel.” Romo’s own strolls around El Paso and Juarez, and through those cities’ twin pasts, did not spell anything out but they led him to some very strange people.

Microhistory is a way of doing history that has become increasingly popular over the last 30 years. While ordinary historians try to understand the past through big events like wars and political movements, the microhistorian looks at the past on a very small scale and focuses on the doings of a group of ordinary people who live in a constricted area, like a 17th-century Chinese village or a Paris neighborhood during the French Revolution. Romo’s Chinese village is the back streets and seedier neighborhoods of El Paso and Juarez with their bars and jazz clubs full of soldiers of fortune an their tiny printing shops churning out revolutionary manifestos, and his book chronicles plenty of offbeat doings.

Ringside Seat to a Revolution takes its title from the fact that many El Pasoans treated the Mexican Revolution, and particularly the several battles in which the neighboring city of Juarez changed hands, as a spectacle to be observed from their rooftops. In fact, for several years the Paso del Norte Hotel advertised that it was the only hotel in the world with a view of a Mexican Revolution.” Romo’s view of the revolution, however, is far more intimate, and it focuses on the peculiar currents that flowed back and forth across the border and the characters that they carried with them. One chapter, for instance, is about Teresita Urrea, faith healer and inspirer of revolutionaries. Another outlines the career of El Paso journalist Victor Ochoa, who thought that revolution was a form of astral projection and invented flying machines in his spare time. A third is about the difficulties of shooting films on the border during the revolution—one gringo director is quoted as saying that the revolution needed was “a director and a scriptwriter.” Every chapter is illustrated with wonderful photographs and is permeated with Romo’s finely-honed sense of the absurd.

A scholarly-looking man in his late 30s or early 40s, Romo grew up in El Paso and went to Stanford, where he majored in Judaic studies. “But all you can do with that,” he told me, “is to be philosopher or teach chess.” He did in fact once teach chess in the El Paso public schools. He also spent five years in Florence, Italy, where he worked in experimental theater and had a radio program. He is fluent in Spanish, English, Hebrew and Italian, reads classical Greek and is working right now on learning Tarahumara. Above all, he says, he is research fanatic, and he spent five years plowing through archives scattered from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles to the Smithsonian in Washington to write Ringside Seat to a Revolution.

Over lunch Romo told me that one of his great-uncles was a priest named Toribio Romo, who was murdered in Mexico during the Cristero War in the 1920s and was canonized by Pope John Paul II as one of the Martyrs of Mexico. He is known in California and Arizona as el santo pollero—the holy alien-smuggler —because he sometimes appears to illegal immigrants and helps them safely across the border. This has nothing to do with Romo’s book. I just thought I’d mention it because I’ve never had lunch with a saint’s grand-nephew before.

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