Local Author Chronicles Early Life in South Phoenix
Joe Abril has stories about life in the old days of Phoenix. Boy, does he have stories.
He remembers his mother telling him about his ancestors, who came from Mexico in the late 1890s. He has anecdotes about himself and his brothers working the fields in the 1940s when much of the city was agricultural. He recalls the days of horse races down the barrio streets in what is now the central city.
Unlike a lot of people whose family’s oral histories get repeated time and again but never recorded, Abril put his on paper. The result is Echoes of Life in Phoenix: Living, Loving and Growing in the Barrio.
“Very few books are written about south Phoenix, Hispanics in south Phoenix, and their way of life in those days,” said Abril, who still calls south Phoenix home.
The book is part history lesson, part genealogy and part memoir, and it’s already sold out its first print run of 300 and it’s into its second run. The last extended Abril family reunion counted at least 583 attendees, so family and friends have been the first customers.
“Some of my sisters and brothers are buying eight to 15 at a time,” Abril said. “A lot of people from Arizona know my family and once they see my name, they’re interested in it.”
But he hopes others can relate, too. It’s already on the shelves at all of the Phoenix Public Libraries, said Yolie Hernandez, production director for the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues, which published the book.
Even though the institute charges a fee to authors based on the length and number of photos, it is selective about which books it will accept. It must relate to Hispanic social issues or history.
“A manuscript will go through a review process,” Hernandez said. “If a book is very interesting, we will read the whole manuscript, but usually we can tell in two to three chapters.”
Abril’s book was one that she read the whole way through.
“I think his honesty in regards to telling the story will ring true to many people and they will relate to it even if they’re not Latino,” she said. “What I like about his book are the characters.”
For instance, there is the colorful tale of the neighborhood drunk who falls into an outhouse (Abril said he changed the man’s name to protect his family from certain embarrassment). In another chapter, he talks about a stern but ultimately kind man who scares the wits out of him and his brothers after they stole watermelons from his field. Stories of shining soldiers’ shoes, selling menudo to neighbors and going “junking” to earn money for holiday gifts take the reader back to earlier era.
And there is the moving story of his eldest brother Carlos, killed in action during World War II, and the imprint his death left on the family.
Abril said the drive to write a book came from his late mother, who was always pushing him to do something with the family’s stories.
“It was my mother who told me all those little stories,” he said, “and no one else would listen, but I did.”
Abril, who has a doctorate from the University of New Mexico, started writing mini-biographies of his siblings to read when he would emcee family reunions. Every year the reunion is dedicated to a different brother or sister, in descending age order. When they’re done, they rotate through them again.
In 1996, after retiring from teaching at Phoenix Union High School, Abril started putting together the book. He finished in 2004 and contacted archivist Christine Marin at Arizona State University about publishing it, who put him in touch with the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues.
Hernandez immediately wanted to publish it: “It was humorous; it was insightful,” she said. “The way he wrote it was without any resentment or bitterness.”
Abril said he is sad to see a way of life get pushed out.
“I wish there were still some neighborhood horse races on our block, but like I say, (it’s) progress. But I don’t know if it’s positive or negative.”
Copies of Echoes of Life in Phoenix: Living, Loving and Growing in the Barrio are available at all La Canasta restaurants in Phoenix and Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Amazon.com, or order from Abril at (602) 278-9422. It retails for $16.99 plus $3 shipping and handling.