Don Vito Cantú, illustration from The Hands of Cantú, 1963 Chinese ink painting, 9" x 7" © James D. Lea
Toribio, illustration from The Hands of Cantú, 1963 Chinese ink painting, 9" x 7" © James D. Lea. Collection of the El Paso Museum of Art, gift of Mary Lewis Scott Kleberg.
How The Hands of Cantu started is kind of interesting. One winter's day in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, we passed a little, funny bookshop and in the window was a copy of Horses of the Conquest by Cunninghame Graham. Well, I went in and bought the book and I read it with a kind of super interest. …It was a story about horses, about the nineteen horses..that Cortès brought onto the continent. I began to think about how the fine Mexican horses had originated…and I read all I could read…And I then began to think about where the Indians first got their horses. You know, all of the experts say that it was from the Coronado expedition, when they let some of the horses loose or traded them to Indians…And I sort of thought that maybe the Indians had had something to do with horses before Coronado…
I suppose I had just pure fun writing The Hands of Cantu…The main character is Don Vito Cantù, a great horseman and breeder of horses, who established a hacienda in the state of Durango in the early days of the Spanish Viceroy Mendoza…I did these illustrations, which were a new departure for me. My previous illustrations had been pen and ink line drawings, and these used half tones. And they were beautifully reproduced.
You know, [The Hands of Cantu] didn't have a wide [audience]…but it got a very warm response from people who were interested in the subject. I've had people comment, "How do you write Spanish in English? You do it so that I feel like I'm reading Spanish but it's in English."
It's a book I'm very glad I did because I got letters from old horse people that said, "Oh, I'm glad you wrote the book because I want to have my boy read how a horse should be trained." …And the people in South America liked it very much. But it was never translated in Mexico. It was about Mexico, but I think it's very interesting that Mexico would have no part of it because it was about one of those dirty Spaniards, the conquistadors. That's really what my agent told me."
Tom Lea talking to Adair Margo in Tom Lea, An Oral History, El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995, pps. 121 – 122.