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Posted on: June 9, 2021

My Unlikely Friendship with El Bilito

Denise Chavez

Writer Denise Chávez' unique take on Billy the Kid...

By Denise Chávez 

As a Sureña, a Southern New Mexican, my life is full of the Legend and Lore of this place I call home. As a writer I have been followed by the Ghost of Billy the Kid for years and now claim him as Spirit Kin. I’ve spoken about William “Henry” McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias Henry Antrim, alias “The Kid,” known to Hispanos as “Bilito,” to Border Immersion groups at my bookstore, to a busload of people from Kansas including one bored and skeptical retired law man who wondered where the nearest federal prison was after unhappily finding himself in the hinterlands on a Mystery Tour in Las Cruces. He was only appeased as I regaled him and his rag-tag group of fellow tourists with the story of how Billy was imprisoned and escaped from the jail in Mesilla. The only other thing that interested them was the handmade clay pot, in which I made my well-loved Mexican café de olla. 

Billy the Kid 2When I was a waitress in Mesilla at various restaurants, and later ran a cultural center and bookstore a block from the Plaza, I gave historical thumb nail sketches to my customers about Billy and yes, led many obligatory tours to the former jail where Billy was housed, now a gift shop where my charges stopped to buy peanut brittle and scorpion key chains.

I have also stood in a packed tour bus full of gleeful sprightly Senior Citizens sprung from a nursing home on a day long adventurous jaunt to the Mission Trail in El Paso. At moments almost at a loss for words but not quite, I reached out to the group with questions that were answered by one or another sage and knowledgeable elder. We discussed John Wesley Hardin, who is buried in the Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, but somehow his life paled to that of Billy the Kid and yes, someone in the group had something to add to the legend.  

Billy the Kid 4Whenever I have pulled out the stories of history and legend of Southern New Mexico with our cultural mix of Mexican and borderland art and culture —Tortugas Pueblo, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, adding the allure of Pedro Infante, as well as the story of our neighbor Juárenses, the comic Tin Tán and singer, Juan Gabriel, “Juanga,” always we came round to the story of Billy the Kid, our own tarnished but beloved bad boy, a Robin Hood to some, a bloodthirsty villain to others.

The plot is good. Young man comes west with his mother, becomes an orphan, later an outlaw through a series of unfortunate circumstances, another story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, set against the Lincoln County War. Our Billy becomes a renegade, is reported to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life, or maybe only 8, depending on whose account you are reading, and escaped death countless times only to be tracked down by the famous lawman, Pat Garrett, at the home of his supposed true love, Paulita Maxwell. And he was only twenty-one at his death! In an interview when Paulita was an older woman, she said she was only infatuated with Billy, but that isn’t going to convince those who believe she was his soul mate and was carrying his child when he died. Nor will it convince those who believe Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, who stated he was in fact really Billy the Kid and had escaped to live his life in a town called Hico in Hamilton County, Texas. I have corresponded with Billy fans from Australia to down the road and the conversations have always been lively. I never called Billy out, but he keeps coming back to start another conversation with me from the great beyond where his story will never rest.

So, what gives?

Billy’s life is a great tale that has been embellished by so many. I read somewhere that more books have been written about Billy the Kid that anyone else in the history of literature. I believe it. Billy the Kid 6Someone years ago slipped me some confidential information about Paulita and her true relationship with Bilito. There’s a book in me about Paulita and Billy, if only I can find those notes. And even if I can’t find the notes, I am up to the task. I will talk about Billy’s love of Hispano culture and of the turbulent and troubled New Mexico of his time, of his connection to this land, to its people, how well he spoke Spanish, and how he loved to dance. He wasn’t a handsome lad, but he had the charm and the charisma that has kept his legend alive for all these years since his death on July 14, 1881.  He is like a James Dean movie star riding into our history, and we can’t let him go. We want to know more. Why did he go back to the Maxwell hacienda when he escaped from the Lincoln County Courthouse? Was it to see Paulita that one last time to say goodbye before he went into hiding? And why was he cornered and killed in the Maxell house, possibly in Paulita’s bedroom, only to have his body moved to another room? There are so many questions. And they have possibly been answered in one book or another. The only problem is that the more books you read, the more confusion reigns.

I feel a bond with this troubled legend, his story of passion for life, and feel a tenderness when I see the only photo of him with his young man’s face and loose, careless, and youthful stance. His is a spirit to be reckoned with. He belongs to us. He is ours. Uno de los Nuestros. He has come into my life and now is part of my story. And there’s also Paulita—yes, she has her story. Yet to be told.

Love. Now that’s the real stuff of Legends.

Denise Chavez is an award-winning writer, playwright, and teacher born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Chávez taught creative writing at New Mexico State University, New Mexico Community College and at the University of Houston. Later, she created The Border Book Festival in her hometown of Las Cruces. Currently she is developing, along with her husband, Daniel Zolinsky, a Borderland Art and Resource center, Museo de La Gente/Museum of the people, archiving the history and story of her borderland community. In 1985, she earned the Rockefeller Playwriting Fellowship. She has received various awards, including the American Book Award in 1995, New Mexico Governor's Award in Literature in 1995, the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize, the Mesilla Valley Author of the Year Award, and the 2003 Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature. She earned the Lifetime Achievement Award, Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize from the University of New Mexico in 2016. Chávez has also been awarded a Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. She serves on the editorial advisory board of the Latin American and Latinx literature, philosophy, and arts journal Chasqui.

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