He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico.He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.
In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.
His first novel, Carry Me Like Water was a saga that brought together the Victorian novel and the Latin American tradition of magic realism and received much critical attention.
In The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), his fifth book of poems, he writes to the core truth of life's ever-shifting memories. Set along the Mexican border, the contrast between the desert's austere beauty and the brutality of border politics mirrors humanity's capacity for both generosity and cruelty.
In 2005, he curated a show of photographs by Julian Cardona.
He continues to teach in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Carry Me Like Water, Southwest Book Award 1996 (Border Regional Library Association)
Dark and Perfect Angels, Southwest Book Award 1996 (Border Regional Library Association)
Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas, Best Children's Book 2000, Texas Institute of Letters
Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Americas Book Award, the Paterson Book Prize, the J Hunt Award, Finalist Los Angeles Book Prize, BBYA Top Ten Books for Young Adults
Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, Southwest Book Award (Border Regional Library Association), Chicago Public Library, Best of the Best Books for Teens, New York Public Library Stuff for the Teen 2009, Commended Title, Americas Book Award 2009
A Perfect Season for Dreaming, Best Children's Book, Friends of the Austin Public Library 2008 (Texas Institute of Letters), Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year 2008, Kirkus Review 2008 Notable Books for Children, Paterson Book Prize
This lush and touching novel by Benjamin Alire Saenz, a series of interconnected stories of a most amazing cast of characters, is simply astounding....All in all, it is an amazing story, a commentary on life, on the issues that plague us today like border crossings, prejudice, AIDS, being Chicano, being gay, love, death and fear. The dialogue is crisp and interesting, each chapter seamlessly flows like the river into the next. It is poetic, which is not surprising considering Saenz is an eloquent Chicano poet. As in his other book, In Perfect Light, he has created a masterpiece of imagery, color and a unique and beautiful story.