Remembering San Antonio writer Gregg Barrios and the stories that won’t die

click to enlarge San Antonio poet, playwright and journalist Gregg Barrios grew up in the South Texas town of Victoria before landing in New York City, then San Antonio. - COURTESY PHOTO / GREGG BARRIOS
Courtesy Photo / Gregg Barrios
San Antonio poet, playwright and journalist Gregg Barrios grew up in the South Texas town of Victoria before landing in New York City, then San Antonio.
The following is a remembrance of San Antonio playwright, poet and journalist Gregg Barrios, who died earlier this month at age 80.

Gregg Barrios missed his calling. He shoulda been in the movies, but then his life was a movie of secrets, spicy revelations, tissue-wrapped journals, photos, hidden closets and cabinets filled with famous and sometimes rubber-banded papers brimming with stories he said he wanted to write, and didn’t.

I was always in awe of Gregg’s love of literature — an achievement and a courageous love given that we both come from Texas, a place where people like us with our overwhelming love of stories sometimes find no place to tell them, no money or time to write them. Deserving better, we are simply different angles of the Texas story with parallel, daunting, pasts barely understood in this country.

Back to the movie. What I know to be true: Gregg’s begins with the marginalized story of a highly gifted, literate gay boy from a middle-class home in Victoria, Texas. He was in Vietnam; I’ve seen the photos. From the G.I. bill, he was able to graduate from college, and he ended up in New York City during the time of Andy Warhol’s Factory — a gay glitterati for sure — before teaching school in Crystal City, Texas, in the years following the startling Chicano political takeover that changed Texas for good. We’re talking Jose Angel Gutierrez and La Raza Unida –the rise of Chicano! In South Texas in the era of MALDEF, Willie Velasquez, Rosie Castro, whose twins hadn’t been born yet.

How do you begin to make sense of a life like Gregg’s? How do you tell the story? Which one?

Many know Gregg for his plays and poetry, his friendship with Sandra Cisneros, as a boardmember of the National Book Critics Circle, which confers one of the most prestigious literary prizes a writer can dream of. The latter is a singular calling, requiring a life of books, a depth of literary criticism, and I suspect in Gregg’s case, an advocacy for Latinx — particularly [email protected] — writing, something this country is still stumbling with.

But this is where the movie gets really interesting. I know Gregg for the stories he didn’t write.

The first one is the story of the San Antonio pugilist Tony Ayala Jr. Known as “El Torito,” 22-0. Probably San Anto’s most famous boxer, he died in 2015. Coming from a family of boxers, Ayala ended up in Huntsville after being convicted of violently — brutally — raping a woman. Gregg told me he wanted to write this story, he recited details that weren’t published, told me details about Ayala Sr. no one knew about. We’re talking Netflix series potential.

The next story that Gregg didn’t write was about the drug kingpin Fred Gomez Carrasco. Texas prisons became notorious in 1974 after Carrasco, imprisoned in the “Walls” unit of the Texas prison system, engineered the longest prison siege in American history. The rooftop escape attempt included a deadly shootout, the deaths of two TDC employees and of Carrasco himself. Gregg made friends with Carrasco’s widow, showed me her papers and whispered things I will never forget, which almost made me sorry for the family.

The last story that I remember Gregg didn’t write was about the notorious Candy Barr, a Dallas stripper in the ’60s who was having an affair with Jack Ruby, the guy who killed Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is a long, convoluted, story — the kind of stripper-FBI-Texas governor story with a lot of sex, passions and criminal lovers that Gregg adored. Since Candy Barr had connections to Victoria, Texas, Gregg interviewed her or got close. I don’t remember.

Trust me, no one could have written these stories like Gregg Barrios. All I know is that he didn’t want to hurt the families and didn’t have connections to publishers at the time. Still, he wanted to be famous — including, the respect that comes with it — not infamous. He wanted to belong. We all do. We want to tell the Texas story, but Texas, chingao, doesn’t want to hear it.

So, the end Gregg ended up making other writers even more famous in his last chapter. End of movie.

Or is it? I hope someday one of you will tell his story. Make sure you juice it up, because he would have loved that.

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