Meet the small El Paso publishing house behind the book Beto O'Rourke co-wrote about legalizing pot

Cinco Puntos Press has been publishing books that invoke a "sensibility of border life" for decades, including the only book authored, in part, by O'Rourke.

From left:  Lee, Bobby and John Byrd are the owners of Cinco Puntos Press, which published presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke'­s book, "Dealing Death and Drugs."

*Correction appended.

One night seven years ago, Bobby and Lee Byrd got a visit from their daughter Susie. She and a colleague of hers on the El Paso City Council, Beto O'Rourke, had written a book making the case for legalizing marijuana. And the publishing company that Susie's parents ran, Cinco Puntos Press, was preparing to publish it.

Susie Byrd and O'Rourke had spent a year writing and researching "Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico." But her father recalled that O'Rourke was having second thoughts.

O’Rourke was preparing for a congressional run and faced an uphill battle. The incumbent, Silvestre Reyes, was a fellow Democrat on his eighth term in Congress. He had powerful allies in Washington (he'd go on to receive endorsements from President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton) and held the lofty title of chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Bobby and Lee Byrd at their desks at the Cinco Puntos publishing house in El Paso.

According to Bobby Byrd, O’Rourke’s political advisers were arguing the book was a potential problem. Byrd's understanding was that they were advising O'Rourke that it would be best to cancel the book altogether or buy the rights from the Byrds in order to kill the project. Although O'Rourke had been openly questioning the wisdom of the drug war for years and had publicly pushed for Congress to consider legalization, his advisers appeared to be concerned that the book would only amplify attacks framing him as the pro-drug candidate. And O'Rourke was already not the establishment favorite to win.

Bobby Byrd recalled Susie making the visit to his home that night, visibly upset that their book might have to be shelved. She also said O’Rourke would be calling Bobby shortly to discuss the situation.

That night, Bobby Byrd went out onto his porch and had a long conversation with O’Rourke.

"I said, you know Beto … I know you and I know that you say that you’re not going to be the usual politician," he said he told O’Rourke. "And a lot of people know this book is coming out; we’ve been advertising it." (Asked about the Byrds' recollections around the book's publication, Chris Evans, O'Rourke's campaign spokesman, disputed their accuracy but declined to comment further on those discussions between O'Rourke and the Byrds.)

In the end, O’Rourke decided to proceed with the book. Although Reyes made O'Rourke's views on drugs a central issue of the race, O'Rourke won the primary with 50.5% of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff and cruising to a win that November in a district that Republicans haven’t won since 1963.

“He made that decision because he knew it was the right decision and he knew he wasn’t going to change something he and Susie worked hard on," Bobby Byrd said. "They believed seriously in it.”

For politicians planning to run for president, writing a book is a common step ahead of launching a campaign. In October, Little, Brown and Co. published the memoir of O'Rourke's fellow Texan in the presidential race, Julián Castro. By January, Castro was a candidate.

But O'Rourke's timeline has been far more unorthodox. For most of last year, he was making a high-profile run for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Just four months after narrowly losing to Cruz, O'Rourke launched his bid for president.

That's left Cinco Puntos Press in the unexpected position of having published the only book co-written by O'Rourke, a rising presidential candidate. In recent months, the firm has drawn interest from larger publishers inquiring about republishing "Dealing Death and Drugs," according to Bobby Byrd, who said Cinco Puntos is still deciding what, if anything, to do next with the book.

Yet the Byrds' original interest in publishing a 144-page examination of the impact of federal drug policy was less about politics and more about the philosophy that's rooted all of their decisions as publishers for decades.

"We’ve lived here 35 years, and everything about it we find interesting, and we try to bring books that come up out of this culture, but we don’t lock ourselves in there," Lee Byrd said.

From novels to young adult books to poetry to nonfiction, much of Cinco Puntos' output has reflected what Bobby Byrd called “a sensibility of border life" rather than a commercial strategy.

"We act like a nonprofit in a sense, but we just find things that interest us, and always this place where we live has deeply interested us," Lee Byrd said.

The Byrds started their company in 1985 after their kids suffered injuries in a playhouse fire four years earlier, prompting them to re-evaluate their lives. The couple decided that careers as technical writers were no longer for them.

They opened their new business out of their home and called it Cinco Puntos — Five Points — for the El Paso neighborhood where they lived. Their goal from the start was for the works they publish to reflect the border city and community they lived in.

Bobby Byrd said the company's approach drew questions almost immediately. Why were they publishing bilingual books? “Well, we live on the border,” he would say. But people would then ask who would buy those books. “They didn’t know there’s a huge Mexican-American middle class scattered across the United States."

"As years passed, we started getting orders for Minnesota and Maine and Connecticut because of this great diaspora that happened,” he said.

The company got lucky with a few early successes, including a bilingual illustrated children’s book about La Llorona, the Mexican ghost story of the weeping woman who cries for her children. It's sold upwards of 600,000 copies, according to the company.

Eventually, the company moved out of the Byrds' home and into a hard-to-miss building with a sign painted bright orange, blue, teal and red in downtown El Paso, about a mile from the Rio Grande. Their son, John William Byrd, came back from Austin in 2004 to help them manage the publisher's finances.

The offices of Cinco Puntos Press in downtown El Paso.
The offices of Cinco Puntos Press in downtown El Paso.

The Byrds eventually decided they wanted to a do primer series for young adults on border-centric issues. And they decided to ask their daughter and O'Rourke to write it.

The book makes the case that the benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh any negatives and that legalizing it would curb violent crime.

"At some point we must challenge our elected leaders to enact laws that reflect reality and not an unattainable ideology. At some point we must own up to our complicity in the murder and brutality in Juárez and limit the inputs that we control," O'Rourke and Byrd write. "And at some point we must come to a reckoning, much the same way we did 80 years ago, and repeal a prohibition that does more harm than good."

The book was never a huge seller – it's sold about 3,500 physical copies and about 500 digital copies – but has seen a recent surge in interest, according to the company. And while they haven't yet published another book in what was envisioned as a series on the border, they hope to someday soon.

It's not the first time Cinco Puntos has found itself drawing national attention for one of its publications. Back in 1999, the company used a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate and publish a Mexican children's book called "The Story of Colors." The book's author was Subcomandante Marcos, the main spokesperson of the insurgent Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which controls a large amount of land in the Mexican state of Chiapas. When the chair of the NEA at the time, Bill Ivey, learned more about the $7,500 grant, he took the unusual step of unilaterally revoking it.

The scandal ended up on the front page of the New York Times and a foundation offered to replace, and then double, the grant money revoked by the NEA.

"It was a strange media frenzy, a true boon to Cinco Puntos," Bobby Byrd wrote on his company's website. "But real ideas and issues got lost in that frenzy, the most important of which is the indigenous struggle for autonomy and land in Chiapas."

"The Story of Colors" remains for sale, as is the book O'Rourke co-wrote, though the Byrds say they are almost out of copies. What's next for "Dealing Death and Drugs" remains up in the air. Bobby Byrd suggested a future reprint might be worthwhile, with an update from either author, when they can get to it.

Copies of "Dealing Death and Drugs" which Beto O'Rourke co-wrote with Suzie Byrd at the offices of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso.

O'Rourke's presidential run, in a way, follows up on this same initial intention the Byrd's had for publishing the book — helping the larger public better understand life on the border. Win or lose, Bobby Byrd says that he’s excited to see O'Rourke running for president because he will draw attention to how people in El Paso actually live their life.

"We’ve always been governed by [lawmakers] who don’t have any sense of the border. They come here in their cars and they shake hands and they don’t know jack shit," he said. "This really has the opportunity to impact the way we are governed."

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how Chris Evans, Beto O'Rourke's spokesman, characterized O'Rourke's conversations with the Byrds prior to the publication of a book O'Rourke co-wrote.