Highway 90 stretched out, icy and black, with dirty gray snow melting on the edges of the curb. With precious cargo, my friend Gregg Barrios by my side, I kept my eye on the road as I took him home from his dialysis appointment. It was SNOW-VID in San Antonio, Texas, and six inches of snow had fallen on the city.
He needed dialysis three times a week. In a city that had been without power for most of the previous days, his dialysis center was still closed, still without water, and so was every dialysis center he could go to except for the one by SeaWorld. He had arranged a ride there from his friend, Velma, but she could not take him home much later that evening.
“Of course I will take you home,” I said. He had not asked me to do this. Despite grading, writing, wife-ing, and mothering for the past many years, I’d met Gregg about once a month for breakfasts that lasted five to seven hours and included viewings of movie trailers, snippets of plays he’d written or was writing, readings, his sharing new works with me, or me reading something of mine to him. We talked about everything from politics, arts, medical autonomy, health, family history, and yes, tacos. I would leave and tell my friends and family I had been at the University of Gregg Barrios all day, and they all knew this would keep happening for as long as I could keep it going because the treasure trove of history he held in his mind was unmatched. This was one of the biggest privileges of my life. He knew it. I knew it.
Naturally, I checked in on him during the storm. He lived alone in a beautiful and ornate two-bedroom apartment in a historic neighborhood in San Antonio, replete with enormous nopales in the front and a bright orange front door. Normally, he would drive himself to any and all appointments in his brand new red Cadillac, and when we went to breakfast, he insisted I meet him at his house so he could drive, often with Sade playing in the background, him setting the scene for a drive just like an artist would, sunroof down, taking an extra turn into an extra pretty street even if it was out of the way to hear the fullness of the song and to enjoy the ride to the best breakfast taco place he loved—Mary Lou’s on McCullough because “where else do you see Cantinflas, Warhol, and Diego Rivera in one place,” he would say. All the waiters knew his order, his preferences, a pancake after his two tacos, decaf coffee for both of us while we sat for hours talking. They spoiled him.
Thankfully, for me, Gregg accepted my offer to pick him up and take him home. The city was just starting to thaw out, but inside of my car, Gregg, with wobbly legs from the procedure, kept my little car warm and my imagination well-fed as usual with yet another incredible, mind-bending story.
While I drove, we lamented the situation that caused SNOWPOCALYPSE in San Antonio, the Texas grid, the greed, the impact of this on the poor who were disproportionately injured, even killed by this weather, our own frozen limbs in our homes without electricity. How was it even possible?
Gregg told me a story about another power debacle in the state of Texas, in the city of Cristal in 1977 when he was a high school teacher there—and worked also as a blazing, creative genius and a prolific playwright. In Crystal City, the Chicano-run city council refused to accept the high prices that the natural gas vendor, Lo Vaca, had set during the country’s gas crisis. There had been a previous contract, and the city council was holding the company to the letter of previously agreed upon prices, holding the prices down for their citizens, refusing to pass on the astronomical price increase to them. He told me this fight went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, but after all their efforts, the city lost. The Lo Vaca gas company, with the law on their side, cut off natural gas to the entire city for over a decade. Gregg provided me details of the story while we looked into the black, cold road, me praying not to hit an icy patch, him aghast as ever at the historic and present injustice, unfazed by the fact that this happened forty three years ago.
“It’s still happening,” he said, “I mean, look at us now! Dios Mio!”
Never before in the history of our country, Gregg told me, had this ever happened. “Only to Chicanos,” he added, “but we fought back–with wood burning stoves.”
As winter was approaching in a city where temperatures regularly got down to the thirties at night, the city secured army surplus wood burning stoves for its people, most of them Mexican Americans who worked the farms or the canning factory, as Crystal City was the “Spinach Capital of the World. The city lights were weak as we drove.
“When that Governor Briscoe had the opportunity to give us relief funds to this city so that we could get warm, he said no, ya ves? He called our city ‘Little Cuba.’ Look that up.” How could I keep driving sixty miles an hour in the darkness when I wanted to stop and take notes, be his student as well as his friend and take this story in, this story I’d never known.
“Now we have another governor willing to let us freeze,” his criticism of state, local, and federal politics always sharp and always current, especially now as we both faced going home to an ice-cold house. I thought the story was over, that that was his point, but no. “And then Jane Fonda got involved and her husband invited me to speak in California about it, you know? To tell the world what was happening here in Texas.” That was Gregg. Of course he hung out with Jane Fonda in the day. It was hard to concentrate on every detail of his story as the road had me in terror, and as the night sky did nothing to help me see, but he floored me with the fact that Jane Fonda not only listened to him and shared the outrage, but she herself donated solar panels to the cause.
And the story ended with Gregg saying what he often said after he told me one of his wonderful, maddening, and inspiring stories, “and I wrote a play about it.” And then, more details about the play his puns, the wonderful actors who brought it to life, and like a drummer waiting for the big crescendo, finishing with, and “Angela Davis wrote the preface for it.”
This was a normal day for Gregg to live in these memories of action, activism, and creativity, but the most beautiful moment in the car with him that night was when he told me the title of the play: Dale Gas, Cristal.
By then, we were almost to his house, and when we got to his house, I did not come in as I usually did for more stories, more albums, more history. It was time to call it a night.
Amigo, lindo, your work and words live, still teaching us, inspiring us to act, to be courageous as possible in our lives. That, you were on this blue ball of a planet you loved so much.
The world could not fit all that you planned for it, the plays you did not finish, the edits of your collected poems that were nearly done: your already devised titles for future works like the full story of Fred Carrasco, a lifetime project for you coming out later this year, a story that has Tommy Lee Jones and many others interested, the work for the social justice for la gente that was your WHY all along, the complicated gente, tu gente. You were willing to tell the unpopular but honest story of the marginalized, the Latino, the queer, the hidden stories of the DJ, the dancer, the Pulizter Prize winner. Your plays are alive and magical, and they tell the story of our time.
Dale Gas, dear Gregg, on your journey into the dark and shimmering light.
Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño is the author of VirginX (Finishing Line Press) and Lavando la Dirty Laundry (Mongrel Empire Press), which has been translated to Albanian and Macedonian and published in Macedonia (2021). Her work has won several awards including the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, the Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, the Menada Literary Award from Macedonia and several others. Natalia is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She works as a Professor of English and as an affiliate Mexican American studies faculty member at Northwest Vista College. Her publications appear in Open Plaza, Plume, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Bordersenses, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, The Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and several others. Her work also appears in several anthologies including Mirrors Beneath the Earth (Curbstone Press) Contra: Texas Poets Speak Out (Flowersong Press), Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century (Cutthroat Press), and most recently in Chamisa: A Journal of Literary, Performance, and Visual Arts of the Great Southwest (University of New Mexico).