Brownsville author shares ‘Chrismas’ Tex-Mex take on popular poemdfwnewsa | December 15, 2023 | 1 | East Texas News , South Texas News
BROWNSVILLE — The crowd was standing-room only inside Tuesday evening at Búho, Brownsville’s lone independent bookstore located on East Washington Street.
Some in attendance sipped wine and held copies of Italo Zarate’s short book, “La Night Before Chrismas; A Christmas Cuento.” The book is a Tex-Mex take on Clement Clarke Moore’s popular Christmas poem, “The Night Before Christmas”.
The opening lines to Zarate’s version are recognizable, but very quickly spin-off into his humorous, and at times colloquial, rendition of a South Texas Christmas.
“T’was la night before Christmas
When all through the casa,
All the creatures were craving
Mamita’s corn Masa.”
Zarate, the 87-year-old Brownsville native, read the story with enthusiasm and energy, engaging the crowd with his sharp wit. In true Tex-Mex fashion, his story jumps effortlessly between English and Spanish.
Many times throughout the reading the crowd erupted with laughter, a testament to Zarate’s sense of humor.
The reading ended with Zarate pulling out sleigh bells and shaking them as he led the crowd in singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The crowd erupted into applause, and soon after formed a line to have their copies of Zarate’s book signed and have their pictures taken with the new author.
For Zarate, Tuesday’s event was a long time coming. His book was published in 2022, but it was largely based on a poem written by his father and published in The Brownsville Herald over 70 years ago. He keeps a clipping of the poem in a frame, which he shared with the crowd during his presentation.
“When my dad passed away, he left me a whole bunch of stuff,” Zarate recalled. “I found this poem. The Herald had printed it in 1949. By popular demand, somebody asked for it to be reprinted three years later. It didn’t say anything about who wrote it, they just reprinted it. When my dad passed away, I saw it, I read it and it made me laugh.”
He said that he was inspired to re-write the poem and improve on it.
“It was funny, but I felt that I could make it funnier,” he recalled.
He sent his revised version of the poem to The Brownsville Herald and it was published three years ago. A friend approached Zarate and told him that he ought to consider publishing the poem in a book.
With the help of artist Cristina Piecuch, he was able to get illustrations to accompany his story.
“I said, ‘I’ll (order) 1,000 books so I can sell them cheaper. I can do it. I can move around.’ All of sudden, I can’t move as fast,” he joked.
He began selling his book at flea markets, reading his story to anyone who would stop and listen. He said that even if customers did not buy his book, just hearing them laugh was payment enough for him.
“If they wanted to buy it, fine. If not, no problema,” he said. “My payment was that they laughed.”
After a few months, Zarate decided to take his book to the newly opened Búho.
“He actually came to me a little less than a year ago when I first opened my doors to the public,” Búho founder Gilbert Hernandez recalled. “He came with the idea, ‘Hey, I have this book about Christmas and you should sell it.’ At first I was a little hesitant because the thing about local authors — the best way to make themselves known to the community is to do presentations. Because it was specifically a Christmas book, I asked if he could possibly wait until the Holidays approach to make it happen.”
Hernandez noted Zarate’s persistence, making multiple visits to Búho to check in and remind Hernandez about his commitment to presenting his book in the local bookstore. He said that he decided to promote the event through the bookstore’s social media accounts, and the community responded.
“The response was phenomenal,” Hernandez said. “It was a full house. It was easily — no exaggeration — one of the top three events that the store has ever had.”
Búho sold out of all its copies of Zarate’s book, but did restock on Friday — just in time for “Chrismas.”
“It’s not exactly a children’s book. It’s not quite G, but it’s not quite PG-13 either, so we could call it PG,” Hernandez explained with a laugh. “On top of that, it’s the fact that it perfectly captures the cultural and linguistic nuances that only exist in the Rio Grande Valley. That book could only come from Brownsville, from someone with his specific sense of humor. That’s what makes it special.”
Zarate said that he hopes to continue taking his book to other bookstores and sharing his story to anyone looking for some South Texas holiday humor. He said that he hopes his story can become a Christmas tradition in the same way that the film “A Christmas Story” is for many families on Christmas Day.
“That’s what I want my little short poem to do,” Zarate said. “I started working on this to make people laugh.”
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