Youngsters’s e-book ‘¡Muchas Gracias Maria!’ celebrates El Paso, Juárez

Like much in the Borderland, the children’s book “¡Muchas Gracias Maria!” is much more than it seems.

The story of the young boy who goes to Juárez to pick up a birthday piñata from his grandmother is a celebration of love, family and the diverse cultures in the region.   

It also is a way for author Luke Lowenfield and artist Hal Marcus to honor their grandmothers, who helped them realize the beauty of Mexico and the people of El Paso and Juárez.

That respect for those who have gone before us is shown in the book’s dedication, which is “to all the ‘Marias’ who have cared for us from generation to generation.”

“His grandma (Patricia) was from Mexico,” Marcus said of Lowenfield, “and my grandma (Latife Marcus) was Arabic and Jewish who came here from Syria, lived in the barrio, and she learned Spanish before she learned English, and as a child I would go with my grandmother twice a week to Juárez to buy fruits and vegetables for my father’s grocery store, so I was immersed in the Mexican culture as well as also being a Jewish Arab in our culture, so I had this connection with Mexico that went to my grandmother and so did he.”

That appreciation of the people who make up this land helped inspire them to take on their second book together. Their first is “Buenas Noches El Paso.”

“So, mixing going to Juárez, mixing the story of the immigrants, mixing the story of giving thanks to a special woman in our lives, it just said yes,” Marcus said during a recent interview at his art studio.

“I liked it because it was celebrating women and how what a big part of our lives they are growing up, especially here on the border. And I just like telling them thank you, gracias.”

Marcus came up with the idea of carrying on the story of the boy from their first book. This time, he travels across the border.

“It was the same kid, the same parents and I like this book better than the other book personally. I have more of myself into it, but also because it is cross cultural. Literally, the kid goes to Mexico for the first time and he comes back and he has this bicultural experience.

Lowenfield said being culturally inclusive was an added motivation.

“We wanted children here — I think  ethnic representation in literature is very important for kids, for all of us to be able to open a book and see something of ourselves reflected there. And so we wanted the kids of El Paso to have that experience where they can open this up and say, ‘Wow look at my city,  look at my family.’ There are other kids all over this city that have these close relationships with their grandparents, some even great-grandparents,” he said.

“We’re a very special place where we get to enjoy these multigenerational relationships and cross-cultural relationships and so for both of us having this connection with a Maria, with our abuela who gave us a very personal family connection to the Hispanic heritage that we all enjoy here as El Pasoans, it was a special thing for us to do.”

It also is a way to help the city heal.

Marcus said, “Aug. 3 happened here in El Paso. Then we thought, my God, this is exactly what El Paso needs because it is so innocent, and pure and it’s through the eyes of a child and it’s not political, so that gave us more fire to work harder and make it come out and share it with the world — so, all of those things put together, plus all of the creativity and the camaraderie and the social life that we had.”

Their first book sold about 3,500 books in its first three months out, through Savage Goods, cafes, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores Literarity Book Shop and Brave Books, as well as people calling.

“That was like phenomenal to us. So we had a feeling that the next book would follow in the same footsteps,” Marcus said.

Marcus also wanted children to learn El Paso’s place in the world. “I wanted the kids to know where they were on the planet, and in the United States.”

“So, he’s sitting here with the map and they are pointing right there to El Paso and he’s right there next to Mexico, so he’s beginning to learn this is where we live.”

He added, “And I thought that was important for children to know that we are not in New York, we’re not in Dallas, we’re not in Chicago, we’re not in L.A. We’re where we are on the map. So, that is one thing that we’re real proud of.”

Lowenfield added, “And El Paso is a place to be proud of.”

Marcus said, “So, it’s putting him in context of their geography and in their culture. And for many of them, they can’t go to Juárez or they don’t go to Juárez, so … maybe they will want to.

For Lowenfield, 36, his love of children’s books goes back to his own childhood.

The native El Pasoan said, “I grew up with a mom (Rhonda) that loved children’s books. I have three brothers, so there’s four boys. You can imagine how rambunctious and rowdy we were. So, she would just get us to wind down the day every night by sitting in bed reading children’s books. And so then when I had my kids, it was just natural to do the same thing.”

He said, “The more books I read, the more I loved them and the more I saw great messages here and some things that I’d like to share personally with my own kids.”

He started sketching children’s books and putting them together for his children, Parker and Jackson.

“And after some time with that, my wife (Stacey) said, ’Hey, you know some of these are getting pretty good. You should keep developing that and see if you could come out with something that might actually extend beyond the household.’ And I was like OK, that sounds kind of intimidating, but I’ll try. I’ll give it a shot, and so that’s why I went to the children’s literature program with Penn State University online and that was kind of the place where this ‘Buenas Noches El Paso’ poem came. And so I figured, OK, I’ve got the words, but now I need an artist and came to Hal, and it turns out I didn’t even know he had already done a children’s book 20 years earlier before I had.”

Artwork by Hal Marcus celebrates the Borderland in “¡Muchas Gracias Maria!”

Marcus said, “He came to the gallery and he was buying some artwork and stuff and he was kind of shy. And he told Patricia (Marcus’ wife), I’m looking for an artist to do a book. Well, it just so happens I popped in and I said, well, tell me about your book. I said let’s go to my studio because I’m working on a painting, so it was right in this room he read me the poem. It was ‘Buenas Noches El Paso.’ I immediately liked the title. I just thought it had a ring to it. And after he read the poem, I said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and he was like floored because he was pretty nervous.”

Lowenfield said, “I was stunned.” He said he had expected to get a referral to another artist, but hadn’t hoped that Marcus would sign on.

Marcus said they wrote up an agreement and got to work immediately, using a publishing company, Paso al Sol, that Marcus had started to publish his own work after an unpleasant experience with a major publishing company that had handled an earlier children’s book he had written.

Lowenfield said the inspiration for “¡Muchas Gracias Maria” came from Marcus.

“Hal had this idea, I think it was almost a dream or an inspiration, a vision that came to him, and he called Sam (Trimble) and I on a Saturday morning, and he said, “Luke come over here, I’ve got to share (the idea for the new book).”

“We had been having a lot of fun with the first book, so we both had this openness to see, well, maybe there’s another one,” Lowenfield said. “We’ll keep going if the doors keep opening. And when he had this idea and called to share it with us on that Saturday morning, we all said yeah, that’s great. Let’s run with it.

Trimble, who is helping Lowenfield and Marcus promote their work, said: “That’s the really cool thing. Like in the beginning of the thought process was this idea that for the people that are here, it’s something that’s representative of our daily lives, and we don’t realize how special it is until you take step back and look at it. And for the people that aren’t here, the neat thing about this is so many people start sending it (the books) all over, and then those people are like, ‘So that’s what the border is like? You just hop back and forth and you have family and friends on both sides and it really is just kind of like an imaginary line, that really it’s like one community?’ That’s what really is so special about this story to me.

“The Bridge,” by El Paso artist Hal Marcus, is among the artwork in “¡Muchas Gracias Maria!” that celebrates the Borderland. Luke Lowenfield, who wrote the book, said Marcus created a larger version of art used in the book. It can be seen in the Casa Ford Service Department area. “I thought, I want this to be in the busiest place that we have so it can get the most eyeballs on it. And the guest lounge there at Casa Ford has the most people that come through. And so that is where it’s on display,” he said.

Marcus said in the book, the boy experiences the bridge, immigrants, the Rio Grande, Santa Claus, and the big piñata and riding in a truck with his grandmother.

“And he is here and they are selling elotes and paletas and he doesn’t care if he’s in line for five hours. This is like a cultural experience. You know, people are washing your windows and there’s a Christmas tree and there’s the X and there’s an American flag and a Mexican flag and balloons and … this does not happen anywhere, except for like one mile from here. Nowhere else on the planet are you going to see this scene.”

Pandemic impacted promoting book

Promoting the book during a pandemic has posed a challenge.

For their first book, the two read to children in person.

With the pandemic, Lowenfield said, they have gone virtual, reading it to them via Zoom, “through the computer, like we’re all doing these days as we’re distanced and trying to get through this time.

They also are having drive-by events at which people who have purchased books in advance can drive up and he and Lowenfield will put the books in their cars.

“They are already signed. We also did that down at the Hal Marcus Gallery. We might do it one more time before the end of the year, where you pay in advance, so it’s contactless.”

Despite their efforts, their expectations for their second book are more modest.

“We’re not going to do nearly as much this year as we did last year,” Marcus said.

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“I mean, if we sell 500 books this season, I will be very impressed because people have other things on their mind, like survival, like life and death situations. And we know, I know, that these books are classic and they’re going to have a shelf life forever. So, we’re just going to have to say, you know, it is what it is. We’re trying to get them out. They make great gifts.”

The books also can be bought online.

“And you can give this to your grandma, your aunt and uncles, your nieces, your nephews. You don’t have to be a child,” Marcus said.

“And it’s easy, inexpensive and we also have these ribbons that go around the three-book set,” Marcus said. “It’s just a perfect Christmas gift.”

Lowenfield added, “It’s a way to kind of send out El Paso to all our friends and family across the country.”

The Rotary Club of El Paso also recently gave copies of “Buenas Noches El Paso” to 4,500 Region-19 Head Start children as part of its reimagined 2020 Children’s Christmas celebration.

Each book costs $19.95, but they also are being sold in a three book set of “¡Muchas Gracias Maria,” “Buenas Noches El Paso” and “Aunt Alice Alligator’s Animal Alphabet Album,” an imaginative, alliterative work that helps children learn the alphabet.

Lowenfield said the idea for that book, written and illustrated by Marcus, came from the Plaza de los Lagartos and originally was published as a softback in the ‘90s, but was reimagined as a hardback version for sale this year. It was designed by Jud Burgess of Brave Books.

“So, this is a great book, too, that we just had designed and we put out as a collector’s edition,” Marcus said. “It’s all local and it’s all about El Paso and it’s fun.”

The books can be purchased at https://www.buenasnocheselpaso.com, through special events, by calling the Hal Marcus Gallery at 915-533-9090 and at Barnes & Noble. The gallery currently is closed due to the pandemic, but phone calls are being answered.

“The three-book set is normally about $50,” Marcus said. “Sometimes, you buy two, you get one free. The books all fit together.”

He added, “We also have coloring books for kids. If you buy the three-book set, you get a free coloring book.”

Lowenfield, who also has a law degree from the University of Texas, is known for his appearances in commercials for his family’s auto dealerships. At the Casa Auto Group, he does legal, human resources and risk management work, as well as general management with his brothers.”

“And some commercials, too,” he added, smiling.  

Lowenfield said working with Marcus has led to a friendship between what those who know them call “the unlikeliest of duos.”

“The one thing that just sticks with me is I’m so grateful to Hal for illustrating these children’s books because I think that kids deserve great art in their literature. And for each child in El Pao and across the world to be able to hold and look at and study and see artwork from a fine artist who has been doing this in this area for over 50 years, I think is such a gift to the community. So, I’m really glad I got to partner up and I’m really grateful for you putting all those talents in here for all the kids to enjoy.”

Marcus, who will be 70 in six months, said, ”It’s just been … especially during these times, just to have a project that you believe in, that you are working on that is good, innocent and pure and fun, and it’s about our community and the beauty of it, the innocence of it.”

With all that is going on in the world, he said, “I just think it’s really, really important to keep that purity and innocence. “

Marcus added, “Believe me, we would never have done this if we had thought we were going to make any money. We’re collecting nickels and dimes and we’re selling books here and there, but if we counted all the hours ….”

He turned to Lowenfield and said, “You probably spend as much time here as you do at your auto place. You know, just because we love this.”

Lowenfield laughed and said, “It’s a joy.”

Marcus said, “We are basically just a bunch of friends doing some really fun stuff. But we had to be a little bit more creative because of the pandemic. But still, we’re going to keep on.”

For now, they all hope their work increases awareness of beauty that living on the border offers.

Lowenfield mentioned a part of the book in which the child understands and appreciates the diversity of the people who make up this land.

He noted a part of the book in which the boy is crossing a bridge, “with a world of people in every shape and size and I wonder what it would be like to see life through each of their different eyes.’ “

“And that was kind of the spirit of the book, too,” he said, “to have a different perspective, to consider each individual’s perspective and respect the dignity inherent in each individual, that they are living a life and they are affected by their circumstances and they are bringing all of that with them — and we are, too.”

“¡Muchas Gracias Maria!” by Luke Lowenfield and Hal Marcus captures the beauty and diversity of the Borderland while celebrating family.

Book signing

From 2-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, Hal Marcus will be signing books at Escamilla’s Fine Art Gallery, 1445 Main Street, in the Placita Madrid Building in San Elizario. For more information, call 915-474-1800.

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