Nine-year-old Lionicio Rodriguez Saenz played the harmonica and accordion alongside his guitar-playing, ten-year-old cousin Romaldo Pérez for farm workers after a grueling day of harvesting beets in Minnesota fields. Realizing their migrant-worker treks prevented their only child from attending school, Sanez’s parents bought him the instruments to infuse musical grace in their hardscrabble lives. Self-taught and musically gifted, Saenz mastered the mouth harp and squeeze box in a migrant-worker world without daily radio, movies, or telephones. Campesino families gathered as the two boys sang Mexican songs and corridos of love, adventure, and beauty. To preserve their voices and strength, the farmers allowed them to act as water boys during the day and entertainers at night.

Born in Escobares, Texas, 1933, along the Río Grande River, Saenz accompanied his family in the annual migrant trips like thousands of campesinos who harvested America’s fruits and vegetables. The Saenz family had lived along the river for several generations, knowing they never crossed the border, the border had crossed them. At seventeen in 1949, Saenz convinced his family to allow him to stay with an aunt in Fort Worth, Texas’ Diamond Hill barrio while they proceeded north to the farm fields. They planned for him to reunite later, but in truth, young Saenz wearied of the work, seeking escape in the city.

Working at odd jobs during the day, Saenz noticed a glaring absence of Tejano music bands in Fort Worth. Aware that urban Tejanos worked as hard as farm workers at Swift Armour Meat Packing Plant, Texas and Pacific Railway, Texas Steel and other manual labor jobs, he entertained them with his new troupe, Nicho Saenz y Los Alegres de Norte. As the lead singer, Saenz played lively Tejano tunes with his accordion at church jamaicas (fairs) and parties throughout Fort Worth. Highly territorial, barrio boys normally didn’t tolerate young Chicanos coming to their neighborhoods looking for girls or trouble. For Saenz and his crew, their music calmed hostile glares at the first waves of lively Tejano polka tunes.

His wife Rosa Maria Garcia whom he had met at a jamaica convinced him to find a steady construction job. Late to work one day after missing his ride, he startled at his boss’s astonished gaze. Saenz learned five members of his pipe-laying crew had died in a cave-in earlier that morning. At his wife’s insistence, he left the construction job and worked as clean up man at Acme Tent and Awning Company where he met T. D. Wynn. A US Navy veteran, the African American canvas sewer helped Saenz to improve his English and taught him to control his temper when harassed with racist slurs freely shot at Blacks and Latinos.

In 1950s Fort Worth, overt White ridicule of non-whites was normal parlance for police to paupers. Segregated water fountains and bathrooms, separate public bus seating, and “No Blacks, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed” store and restaurant signs proclaimed the racial order in the Lone Star State. Wynn related that Black sailors were relegated to cooks and custodians and were never permitted on deck to shoot the big guns. The navy assumed that Blacks’ night vision was too poor to hit anything. In face of racial hostility, Wynn reminded him it was more important to earn a living and to survive for their families in a culture glorifying church steeples and white sheets. Not all Whites walked the crooked path

Nicknamed “Shorty” for his five feet one inch stature by fellow workers, Saenz soon rose to head tent repairer and caught the eye of Rex Palmer, director of the Boy Scouts of America Dallas/Fort Worth region. Dissatisfied with Acme’s response to his tent repair needs, Palmer offered to help set up Saenz in the tent and awning business if he agreed to give the Scouts’ tents top priority. Taking on Wynn as a partner, Saenz opened their business, S & W Tent Canvas Products, at 212 W. Exchange Street in Niles City as the Fort Worth Stockyards Area was then called in 1956. Niles City at the time had a seedy reputation for drunks, prostitutes, and drugs. Saenz continued to work part-time at Acme until they fired him after discovering his new business venture and loss of the Boy Scouts account. Saenz boasted to his family that he was one of the few local Latino entrepreneurs who had a business not in food or construction industries.

An uncomfortable first in Niles City was the presence of a minority-owned business. Carlos Saenz, Nicho’s eldest son, recalled as a ten-year-old in 1960s helping at the store and hearing racial slurs, including the N-word, that White customers hurled at Wynn and his father. For example, an angry trucker howled, “Where’s that stupid spic? He was supposed to have my tarp ready.” Wynn explained that Saenz was picking up the supplies. “You tell that that damn wetback I better have them . . . A nigger and a stupid Mexican opening a business in the Stockyards. That beats all.” When Carlos asked his father why they tolerated the abuse, his father relayed Wynn’s advicete. “Let them talk all they want. They’re still spending their money.”  

In his 20s, Carlos acted as the company’s salesman, driving a Cadillac, wearing a suit, clutching a brief case to prospective customers’ homes in response to quote inquiries. When some White prospects opened the door, he met disappointing glares when they realized the company was minority-owned. It was Wynn’s idea to use initials in their business’s name lest Spanish sounds elicit automatic rejection. 

Spanish paid off in Sanez’s musical gigs. Known as Shorty during the day, he transformed into Nicho, Tejano band leader, at night. Carlos joined his father as a drummer at twelve years old as they played Tejano tough beer joints on north Main Streets such as the Blue Moon Lounge, Escondido, and Connie’s, and dance halls known as the Rocket, the Casino, Guys and Dolls, and Tango. The bars often lacked security and bath rooms, resulting in fist fights, shootings, and pisses in the alley.

Carlos recalled at thirteen-years old driving the band home, members too drunk to steer. The accompanying 1968 photo shows Los Alegres at a New Year’s Party they performed in Dallas, Texas, at the Bridgeport Ballroom. As the band prospered, so did Saenz’s canvas business.

Despite the racism, Saenz’s and Wynn’s hard work, quality craftsmanship, and perseverance stimulated sales. The awning business took on national clients including Bonanza, Black Eyed Pea, and Peoples Restaurants. Several western dining eateries owned by renowned chef Tim Love displayed Saenz’s curtains and awnings. S&W installed many business awnings along Camp Bowie Boulevard, a Fort Worth commercial zone. After Wynn’s death from leukemia in 1973, Saenz kept the “W” in the business name to honor his trusted partner.

Although Saenz’s net worth exceeded over $3 million in the 2000s, he continued to operate the business because his employees depended on the steady earnings for their families. After his wife Rosa died in 2013, Saenz closed his canvas operations in 2015, but not his accordion case. He often played with sons Carlos and Lionicio G. in their band The Latin Express.

In 2007, the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame inducted Nicho Saenz into their Millionaire Band. The Latin Express was inducted in 2008. He last played publically in 2016 with The Latin Express at Casa Mañana, a theater in the round, in a benefit concert for the Fort Worth School District Fine Arts Department. Saenz enjoyed performing on stage, singing, fingers flying, watching jubilant faces like in his youth when he crooned Mexican corridos for farm workers by camp fire lights. 

At his wake at Greenwood Cemetery Fort Worth, his sons and The Latin Express played to “standing room only” Latino mourners, swaying and singing to the tunes of Nicho Saenz y Los Alegres de Norte. Lionicio Rodríguez Saenz died on July 16, 2016, leaving cool shades and mellow sounds to anyone with the heart to hear.




(Riff—a phrase synonymous with tune, refrain, groove, sample, jam, strum, noodle—only here “riff” plays with words instead of lyrics or strings.)
Initially, instead of a short story, I imagined a personal essay, some frank response to the racial maelstrom whipping through our country (much like the irrepressible fires burning west). To say I was bothered by the recurring brutality inflicted upon Blacks being murdered across America—too often by policemen, who suffered little more, it seemed, than a slap on the wrist—is an understatement. I questioned what cataclysm had granted the brazen to act with destruction upon their basest beliefs so publicly. But everything I wrote sounded counterfeit, corny: what did I, a 50-year-old white woman, grappling with white privilege and the nuances of its meaning in the wake of so much bloodshed, have to add to BLM? Then it became a short story, “Skip the Lake,” posted on Medium in the Creative Café publication September 1, 2020.


So, riff. (The editor) Thea says I can get all meta! Honestly, I’m excited. I’m going to interview myself, which I haven’t done formally before. I wonder if I’ll learn anything new about me?


INTERVIEW ERIN: Hi, Erin. I love your story! And might I add how fresh you look? Not at all as if you’ve been tearing through Covid-era Halloween candy that your husband bought way too much of— massive amounts of chocolate, Smarties, the works—and you ended up with just three Trick or Treaters.

WRITER ERIN: Well, thanks, Erin! That remark may have been passive-aggressive, but I think my therapist will be proud to hear that I’m choosing to take it as a compliment.

INTERVIEW ERIN: Fantastic! Let’s get to it. In response to systemic racism in our country, you wrote a short story about two small-town friends, boys who haven’t seen each other since they were 10, and now they are 14.

WRITER ERIN: Right. And they are at the lake that they always came to when they both lived here, to push each other across the lake on a tire swing. These are boys who don’t have much—small town, maybe rural, run-down, stressed economy. Ultimately this is a story about two boys becoming young men who grapple with growing their friendship past the divide of racism.

INTERVIEW ERINDid you plan the events of the story in advance, was it an outline, stream of consciousness . . .


WRITER ERIN: For me, writing is life in question, with discovered meaning as I go. So often, especially if my sense is that it’s probably something shorter—a poem, essay, short story—it starts in my head and I listen. When I let whatever float to the surface, it’s what I’m questioning on a deeper level. Usually not something to which I have much of an answer. So the story is a way to figure out what I think, feel, or believe. I start with a brainstorm of sorts—whatever I hear or imagine.

INTERVIEW ERIN: Why was this the story that floated to the surface?

WRITER ERIN: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Trumpism on fire, the ridiculous election. It’s farcical and tragic at the same time because it happens to actually be happening. Much has been stirred up in the Donald Trump era. To the rise, or really exposure— of what has been there like a cancer underneath. A subconscious intensity of prejudice kicked to the forefront with a President who encourages discrimination, KKK White Supremacy, hatred, and intolerance.

I wrote the story before the election, but the election confirmed something I felt as I wrote: as American citizens, we are about half and half on what could not be more important issues. Truly we are a nation divided, approximating Lincoln from over 150 years ago, and further, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

So Michael Brown and Brianna Taylor and George Floyd and the countless numbers of African Americans who have been mistreated—why is this so fundamentally ingrained? Had racism been baked into the structure of America? All these thoughts swirling in my mind.

INTERVIEW ERINYou wanted to write about racism, but not from your own POV? Why?

WRITER ERINMy point of view is that of a 50-year-old white woman who has enjoyed white privilege. That’s not my fault, but it’s true. I have lived in a certain safety I didn’t even consciously realize was built to protect me.

As I learned more about systemic racism in an effort to make sense of what was happening, particular books (How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi ), the documentary 13th, and the movie based on a true story regarding racism in the prison system, Just Mercy, all helped me understand the dark, buried underbelly.

I also listened to an NPR three-part series “Summer of Racial Reckoning.” One detail in particular wouldn’t leave me. A woman named Stephanie Square said that while George Floyd had seen his share of trouble earlier in life growing up in Houston, he had turned things around. “All he did was encourage everyone and tell you words like, ‘I’m so proud of you; you’re going to make it; you’re going to be an example to a lot of others,'” she said. This was a man who had been reduced to nine minutes pinned to the ground by his neck under the knee of a white police officer. With witnesses. And other white police officers standing around, watching. Crying for his mother. You know, we’ve all got a mother.

So where is our common shared humanity?

INTERVIEW ERINSo you just start writing and this is what shows up?

WRITER ERINYep. Two boys who have known each other since they were little, but at 10- years-old, one boy, Johnny, had to move away to live with his grandmother after his dad died. Now he’s back, and they are 14, where they hung out before—the lake is their sacred space—and the narrator is pushing Johnny across the water on the tire swing.

INTERVIEW ERINWhy did you use first-person?

WRITER ERINThe narrator character says he is strong in body but not in words, although ironically, he is narrating, so he’s using a ton of words, but it’s all internal. The action of the story is when he pushes Johnny across the lake, and Johnny, mid-air, lets out a joyous whoop and screams the N-word. This is nothing new, but the narrator has always been bothered by Johnny’s use of this offensive word, but has never said anything.

INTERVIEW ERINWhy do you think the story came to you from the POV of a 14-year-old boy?


WRITER ERINI often write from the point of view of boys. I have two or three plays with boy characters and scenes that are boys between the ages of 14 and maybe 25. I think in part that is because a boy is necessarily “other”— as a female, I know what it is to be a 14 or 10-year-old girl, but I’m never going to know what it’s like to be a boy. I know what it’s like to mother a boy, to like or love boys, and to marry one—there is a forgiveness I have for boys, a softness, that with girls for me feels more wrought and complicated. Maybe because I am one. When I taught school, I was always the teacher who ironically loved teaching the boy with potential who was not performing to his ability, or the troubled boy, the boy who hated to read; I seem to have an affinity. I’m sure Freud would be all over it.

INTERVIEW ERINThat explains gender, but why the age?


WRITER ERINThere is something about writing from the point of view of someone young. I think almost automatically as readers we have an inherent sympathy for the kid who does or says something stupid or inappropriate. We do not generally extend this same leniency so agreeably to adults. I also think we tend to read underdog characters sympathetically—we are more primed to forgive or at least understand.

INTERVIEW ERINWhat do we understand about these boys that helps us sympathize?


WRITER ERINThe narrator is perplexed about whether to hold Johnny accountable for his words and actions or to let him off the hook, because Johnny has always been loyal, a good friend.

In fact, the narrator is in foster care, and when they were younger, a kid in school called the narrator an orphan, and Johnny punched the kid in the face. So, the narrator feels like he owes Johnny something.

In the past, the narrator hasn’t questioned Johnny’s racism, which is certainly easier in the moment—to say nothing—but the story is the question of whether the narrator will continue to be silent.

These boys are clearly not valued. I purposefully made both boys white, because that dynamic is a part of the equation I find central. How does the white person, who can’t understand in any visceral way what it is to be black, help people who are being marginalized?

INTERVIEW ERINDoes the story answer that question for us?

WRITER ERINIn a way, I hope so. The narrator realizes he can’t continue to stay silent because his silence is acceptance. The only real action to the story is Johnny flying across the lake, screaming the obscenity, and the narrator finally saying, “You can’t say that.” You can’t say that word. And the moment of truth between them where we wonder whether Johnny will accept this new provision, or will it ruin their friendship.

INTERVIEW ERINAnything else you want to say about the story?

WRITER ERINI went back to the story and was surprised by a few images and ideas that were in the text that I hadn’t written consciously. I was reading with the idea that I was going to write about why I wrote it. So I noticed right off the symbolism in the beginning of the rope, that the rope was like a noose, a noose to decide the life or death of their relationship. The story also has a line at the beginning and also at the end, of the sun going up and coming down, like bookends, how we are at the mercy of the passage of time and also at the mercy of past actions or lack thereof. So one of the questions that came up for me was what can we change? What can we do in this second and the seconds moving forward?

INTERVIEW ERINHow is that realization reflected in the story?

WRITER ERINThe narrator chooses to call Johnny out, and Johnny chooses to acknowledge what he has said and that he won’t do it again. And so their relationship changes.

The story answers the question, “At what point are we responsible for our own action?”—even behavior resulting from something terrible— at some point, we own our behavior.

Viewing that in a positive light, everyone has a voice. Even if you’re poor, young, in foster care, even if you aren’t usually listened to, everyone has a voice. The dynamic reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

So the other part of the story is the narrator’s acknowledgement that silence is complicit. One takeaway for the white person wondering what can I do to be helpful is to realize that it is no longer okay just to think racism is terrible. It is now incumbent upon us as people of white privilege to step up when we see racism in any form and to call it out, especially because we’re in a privileged position to do so. To do something about it that isn’t just between our ears.

I also wanted to acknowledge the allure of power in the safety we feel from choosing to stay the same, even if “the same” isn’t “good.”

Near the end of the story, before Johnny has acknowledged his behavior, Johnny offers that his mom made gumbo. This is an invitation. Let’s just be like we are. You don’t have to be mad at me; let’s go home. Johnny uses the idea of home, that they are like brothers, the notion of family as not just biological—to tempt the narrator with love and belonging. The narrator acknowledges that it would be easy and comforting to stay the same. But to stay the same, to stay safe, is to deny emancipation.

You can’t unhear what you’ve heard. You can’t unknow what you know. But the narrator isn’t eloquent. He just says, “You can’t say that anymore.” It doesn’t matter; the power comes from giving the idea voice. That’s the narrator’s victory. Even if Johnny had not said, okay, I won’t do that anymore, it still would have been victory because it’s a change for the narrator from fearful about hurting Johnny to the virtue of standing up for what’s right, even if it means a personal loss, like an important friendship.

First in the story, the narrator is pushing Johnny across the water. But by the end, Johnny has put a hand up and the narrator is helping him stand. The carrot, so to speak, is the gumbo. After an act of enormous bravery on the part of the narrator, and an equally courageous response from Johnny, they get to go home together. They can remain brothers. No lies. They can return to their friendship with this important caveat as part of their relationship. It’s a point of growth for each of them, and hopefully Johnny carries that out to the rest of his world, and the narrator continues to speak about what he believes is right.

INTERVIEW ERIN: Are you glad you wrote it as a short story?

WRITER ERINYes. For me, writing is taking action. It is bringing up the question with no easy answers. There’s a beauty in fiction; I can give a character a thought or a feeling, or a character can figure out what might be moving toward an answer, but the character expresses it for me. I can get out of the way. I can put my words down in fiction and people can read it. Maybe it makes them think in a new way, to question–on their own–implicit biases, what they can change, and what they are willing to acknowledge about themselves. Either way, forward motion in the right direction is the idea.