Laredo, the Birth of a Writing Residency

When you read the words Laredo, Texas, what do you think? Dusty cattle ranches? Lawless border town? Vacqueros? Mexican drug cartels? Or perhaps something else? Maybe graceful architecture, verdant spaces, warm people, vibrant arts scene, and incredible cuisine?

The media has not been kind to Laredo. Once a Spanish colonial city with beautiful architecture and rich heritage, you'd never guess it from portrayals in the "Streets of Laredo" television series that depicted a Western town that looks more like it ought to have existed in Nevada than the more sophisticated Laredo. Recent media hasn't been much better. Sensationalizing the drug violence south of the border, various television and print media have reported that the crime and violence are just as high north of the border. A misdemeanor maijuana bust for possession of a joint that no one would bat an eye at in Cleveland, OH, becomes a harrowing story of drugs, corruption, and violence for Laredo. They don't tell you that Laredo stacks up as far more safe than most U.S. cities. Nor do they mention that the drug-running across the border extends throughout the U.S., into Canada, and around the world. That Mexican and other crime syndicates operate in every city.

So when I consulted for the Texas Historical Commission in Laredo, I was saddened to realize most people will never know what a cultural treasure the city is. Blasita Lopez, Director of the Laredo Convention and Visitors' Bureau faces overcoming these misconceptions every day. "What would you think," I said to Blasita, "of hosting a group of writers for an artist residency here, so they can experience Laredo for themselves?" And presumably write about it. Blasita loved the idea, and the Artsmith Laredo Writing Residency was born.

Travel writer and founder of Modern Day Nomads, Tiffany Owens, helped get the word out so writers could apply for the residency. Travel photographer (and brother extraordinaire) Bob Johnson agreed to join the residency and take photos for the writers to use, if they choose. From the applications, five writers, one photographer, and one videographer were selected from across the U.S. and Mexico. We met December 3, and for the next two and a half days went on a whirlwind, behind-the-scenes look at Laredo, including cooking classes, meeting celebrated ballgown designer Linda Leyendecker-Gutierrez, bird-watching, and meeting with the Laredo Bridge Manager and Homeland Security's Customs Border Protection Regional Manger. We went on Laredo's new CaminArte art walk and Streets of Laredo Artisan Bazaar, to see the works of local artists, makers, and craftspeople. We heard Mariachi music and ate incredible border cuisine.

We gained new friends, a few pounds, and a greater appreciation for a city that deserves recognition. Laredo reminds me of San Antonio twenty years ago. You'll find historic Spanish colonial to arts and crafts buildings and homes, some of which have been neglected due to a wounded economy. You'll also find restored architectural treasures due to the improving economy. In the short time we were there, one of the first homes along the Plaza de San Agustin and also the former headquarters of the Republic of the Rio Grande were undergoing restorations. One of the city's early grocery stores and residences has been remodeled into the restaurant Siete Banderas, which opens later this month and is bound to be the hot new downtown dining destination. Local architects are working on plans to restore the Plaza Theater, and new construction is planned along the riverfront.

I mention all this not to get you to invest in downtown Laredo real estate, but to share with you the beginnings of a new writing residency whose mission, loosely, is to support the people who write about place, and also a city whose heritage needs and deserves preservation. I'm not sure how the residency will evolve from here. Those who experienced it are just beginning to share their feedback. Blasita Lopez has indicated they would be willing to host again, and she and I will chat next week about when we might do another residency. If you'd like to be kept up to date on when the next Laredo writing residency will take place, and also when the application period will open, as well as information about our Orcas Island residency, sign up for our mailing list. Until then, safe travels!


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