Sterry Butcher, Small-Town Newspaper Reporter
Butcher, born in San Marcos and raised in Fort Worth, has spent most of the past fourteen years as a reporter at the Big Bend Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Marfa with a readership of three thousand.
I moved to Marfa from Austin in 1993. At the time, Marfa had two gas stations, two restaurants, two bars, one grocery store, a post office, two cops, and an art museum. And I thought, “Wow, there’s everything you need here and nothing more. There’s no excess at all.” I made a snap decision and moved. I had saved some money, so at first I wasn’t working. I was reading the Big Bend Sentinel every Thursday when it came out. A local politician had been writing a column under a pseudonym, and when he wrote something I disagreed with, I wrote a letter to the editor and personally handed it in. When I got back to my apartment, which was just across the street from the newspaper’s office, the phone was ringing. I picked it up, and it was the Sentinel asking me if I wanted a job. I’ve been a small-town reporter ever since.
My work is different every week. Unlike a big-city reporter, who might have a certain beat—you know, like the city council or immigration—I get to cover everything, from junior high girls’ basketball to legislative issues and, lately, the Entrada al Pacifico trade route. It’s a small office; there are only four of us. I go in on Monday, and we talk about how the week is going to shape up, what’s important. Usually, I spend Mondays and Tuesdays just talking to an enormous range of people, asking questions and getting quotes. Then on Wednesday I sit down and pretty much write everything. Wednesdays are long and quite intense. This week—it was a fairly average week—I wrote a little over four thousand words. That’s eight stories. Every year now, I write a couple hundred thousand words. We used to worry a little bit—you know, how are we going to fill up this newspaper? But as Marfa has started to revitalize, we actually get to be choosy about the things we cover.
As I’m writing, my bosses, Robert and Rosario Salgado Halpern, are putting the paper together and e-mailing it to the press. At the end of the day, Rosario’s brother and sister-in-law drive up to Monahans, where the papers are printed. They stack them in their car and drive them back, dropping off papers at points along the way, like convenience stores and the post offices in Fort Davis and Alpine. The first people start coming into our office for their papers at around a quarter to six Thursday morning. And then all morning long you can hear the clink of change in the cigar box up front.
The newspaper here is particularly important because there are so few other media sources in this area. It’s our job not just to report news but to really cast our nets broadly, to bring forth all aspects of life in the community. Otherwise people might not know about them. This puts us in an interesting role, because we’re unusually connected to our audience. When I go to the post office or the grocery store, people constantly give me suggestions and criticisms and tell me how we’re doing as a newspaper. Who has that? Big magazines might get some letters to the editor, but their reporters aren’t being tracked down at home or in cafes to be told what kind of job they’re doing. People put so much faith in our paper, that we’re there to serve them, that we will help them. And of course we’ll write about their granddaughter’s quinceañera and of course we’ll follow up on this important story about water.
A surprising amount of what we do comes from people saying, “Well, I heard a rumor that…” They drop by the office, or we’re just out eating lunch or something, and somebody comes up and says, “Well, I heard a rumor that the bank calendar has nudie pictures in it.” That happened earlier this year. I called the bank and talked with the president, and I found out that the bank had chosen a calendar series this year called “The Americana,” so there were lots of pictures of, you know, purple mountain majesties and waving fields of grain and so on. But apparently, the bank’s order had come after an order of calendars intended for a mechanic, and several of the Marfa calendars overlapped with the end of that run. So amid the amber waves of grain, there were pictures of Miss July. The bank president told me, “January and February started out okay, but in March things really started to go downhill.” People went to the bank in droves, hoping to get one of the “special” calendars.
This week I wrote about the Blackwell School. It was a segregated school here in Marfa for Hispanics from 1889 until 1965, when it closed down. Since then it’s been shuttered and in disrepair, but now it’s going to be reopened as this great community center. So for the paper I went and visited with some of the school’s alumni. I went to Mary Lou Martinez’s house, and she baked a cake, and we sat in her kitchen talking about her Blackwell memories, and then I talked to Maggie Marquez, who told me an interesting story. She’s a local librarian, and she said that when she was going to Blackwell in the fifties, her teacher asked all the students to take out a piece of paper and write down their names and the sentence “I will no longer speak Spanish in school.” Then the papers were taken up and folded, and the class was led outside together with all the other classes, and they went to the flagpole, where someone had dug a hole. A little speech was made about how Spanish should no longer be spoken at school, and then everybody’s names and sentences were put in this box, and the box was lowered into the ground and buried. It was a funeral for the Spanish language. The kids were told that from then on, anyone who spoke Spanish at school would be given three licks. Then the assembly was dismissed.
And so this weekend, there’s going to be a ceremony where Spanish is exhumed. The Blackwell alumni are going to take the box out of the ground and re-embrace Spanish. Discrimination has long been a bitter part of our collective history, and the reopening of the Blackwell School as a community center has triggered a conversation about some of Marfa’s more painful moments. That’s a good thing—it’s an important conversation and a necessary one—but it’s also sometimes uncomfortable. So I wrote about that.