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Reviews of Crossing Borders: Personal Essays

Troncoso, Sergio, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, Arte Publico Press, September 2011, ISBN-10: 1-5588-5710-9, ISBN-13: 978-1558857100 (paper), $16.95; also available on Kindle and Nook.

·        Best Books of 2011 by The Hispanic Reader

·        Bronze Award for Essays in ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year Awards

·        Second Place for Best Biography in English in the International Latino Book Awards


Sergio Troncoso's Crossing Borders: Personal Essays is an engrossing and revealing peek behind the curtain of one writer's creative process, development and struggles.

The reader is treated to crisp and evocative prose that wades into the murky waters of ethnic, religious and familial identities….

In three heartbreaking interconnected essays, "Letter to my Young Sons (Parts One, Two and Three)," he begins: "Two weeks ago, Aaron and Isaac, I learned your mother Laura has breast cancer." We are plunged into the world of surgical options, chemotherapy and physical therapy. Troncoso skillfully and in exquisite detail allows us the privilege of entering into his world as the disease affects not only his wife but also all who love her.

The fact that Troncoso's beloved wife is Jewish imbues many of these essays with a sense of wonder and appreciation of a religion and culture vastly different from the Mexican Catholicism of his youth. In "Fresh Challah," we learn of his newfound love for the traditional Jewish bread, which he can find in his favorite New York bakeries: "The loaves of Challah glistened under the bright white light, and seemed soft and steamy from the other side of the cash register." Troncoso brilliantly uses challah as a springboard for an exploration of his El Paso roots as embodied by his late grandmother, Doña Dolores Rivero….

Troncoso has already made his mark in the literary world. But if Crossing Borders is any guide, he will continue to spin stories and explain the writer's life for many years to come.

---Daniel Olivas for The El Paso Times


Troncoso’s literary text begins with an emphasis on his own experiences, but his focus is much broader and profound. Taken in by his clear yet captivating prose, the reader is pulled into a text of philosophical reflections that focus on religious and ethnic identities as well as what he has learned from various members of his family….

Ultimately, Troncoso’s writing is the voice of someone intent on touching the souls of others, and in ‘Chico Lingo Days’ he speaks out: “So I seek my audience with a vague hope to be heard.” Indeed, this author’s desire is “at once to sanctify and upend life, to lift it from what it is, to focus thought into words and create a call to what was and what is when we live.”

---Donna M. Kabalen de Bichara for Camino Real from Instituto Franklin


In this collection of sixteen essays, Sergio Troncoso writes about family, fatherhood, education, illness, love, politics, religion, social issues, societal responsibility, and writing. He observes that his clear, direct writing about difficult questions "has sometimes condemned [him] in academic circles" and that his writing is also "overlooked by those who never desire to think beyond the obvious and the popular." Troncoso chronicles his transformation from "a besieged outsider needing a voice" to "an outsider by choice deploying [his] voice," creating an intellectual borderland from where he tried to push his mind with the philosophical ideas that form the framework of his writing.

In the first and title essay, Troncoso examines the many types of borders—geographical, linguistic, cultural, and religious—he has crossed since leaving his childhood home in El Paso. Having grown up in poverty mere steps from the Mexican border, he made his way to Harvard and Yale; he now lives with his wife and sons in a modern high-rise apartment building in New York City's Upper West Side. Troncoso credits his education for providing the tools to "traverse the chasm from literacy to literature." A lapsed Catholic, he now celebrates the High Holy Days with his Jewish wife and their sons. He reveals that these frequent border crossings have often left him asking: "where do I belong, who am I really and who am I becoming." These questions serve as the book's main focus, as the writer works out the answers for himself on the page, encouraging his readers to ask and answer them as well. His job as a writer, he explains, is not merely to entertain a reader but to "unmoor him." Troncoso artfully selects case studies and examples that prick the reader's conscience and linger long after the book is closed.

Three of the essays in this collection are letters to his two young sons, documenting their mother's battle with breast cancer. He celebrates their life together while simultaneously contemplating a possible future without his wife. The letters offer an intimate portrait of a family in crisis and reveal the wife's ordeal and the writer's anguish. They also depict the complexities of a large hospital and provide a personal look into our nation's health care system.

In many of the essays, Troncoso focuses on Latinos living in the United States, shining a bright light into the dark corners of social ills and injustices that plague our country today. A champion for the rights of immigrants who have come to this country for a better, more prosperous life, he condemns politicians and politicos who reach back to "ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution," claiming their intent is to stop critical thinking, which he deems the measure of good citizenship.

In one passage, Troncoso regrets being unable to introduce his children to Juarez—where his parents were born and where, when Troncoso was a child, the family went each Sunday to visit relatives—due to the drug and gun violence that render the city unsafe. He directly blames the "voracious drug habits of the United States and the millions of dollars of American guns illegally exported to Mexico" as well as Mexico's ineffective government and corrupt local police. His claim begs the reader to question and analyze the impact of current drug and gun laws and the proposed wall to separate the two countries.

Troncoso discusses the multidimensional plight of illegal immigrants in "Chico Lingo Days." He denounces the phrase "illegal is illegal" as a stupid tautology that "glosses over the complex context of undocumented workers in the United States and how many of us benefit from their work." Troncoso emphasizes that their work—repairing our roads, building our houses, working in the punishing sun to pick the perfect fruit we buy so cheaply in our markets—benefits all of our lives.

Recently, President Obama announced some major changes in U. S. policy on immigration. Although these new guidelines fall short of the sweeping changes proposed by the Dream Act, this country may soon embrace the children of illegal immigrants, many of whom fled impoverished, hopeless lives in Mexico, crossing the border into possible prosperity in the United States. I imagine Sergio Troncoso hearing President Obama's announcement, pausing for a moment to smile, and then turning back to the page to remind us all that we've so much further to go.

---Cheryl Wright-Watkins for NewPages.com


The essays of Crossing Borders range from the personal and family history to the politics of Latino literature to the terrorism of fundamentalists and drug cartels. For example, “Literature and Migration” establishes Troncoso’s desire to write “philosophical stories questioning the basis of morality” while at the same time setting out “to write so my father and mother could understand me.”  Meanwhile, in “Apostate of my Literary Family,” he writes about his frustration in championing Latino literature as a board member for a non-profit literary organization with literary elitist tendencies. The three-part “Letter to My Young Sons” is a heartbreaking and life-affirming account of his wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer and their struggle to combat it.  Troncoso is adroit in handling the complex language and science of oncology in “Letter to My Young Sons”– he writes with the precision of a journalist, while still giving it a heartbeat.  “The Father is in the Details” is a charming essay about the quotidian life of a writer and father; whereas the essay, “This Wicked Patch of Dust,” brings us the gloomier side of fatherhood in which Troncoso, now playing the role of the son, describes a trivial quarrel with his father that results into a years-long rift.  He handles this essay like a literary piece, giving way to dialogue, story arc, and characterization. Also included in this collection are posts from Troncoso’s blog, “Chico Lingo,” which range from how to negotiate Christmas traditions with Jewish life to the border violence brought on by the drug cartels.

Troncoso’s essays are lucid, philosophical, and erudite without being condescending to the reader.  Crossing Borders signals a shift in writing about what it means to be Chicano and a writer in the early 21st century.

---John Olivares Espinoza for The Packinghouse Review


We live in a complex time. Troncoso is a complicated man trying to understand a complicated world. In his quest for understanding, he eloquently shares lessons learned in 16 provocative essays.

These very personal essays cross several borders: cultural, historical and self-imposed.

For example, he contemplates writer's block in "A Day Without Ideas," comparing it to a deathlike existence where nothing matters and he will ‘simply be there.’

In a painful letter to his sons detailing their mother's struggle with breast cancer, Troncoso the writer reveals his true identity as Troncoso the frightened, caring, and strong father.

He takes on the 9/11 attackers, in a piece called "Terror and Humanity," not with hatred or revenge but with a plea for basic humanity. “To be human is to engage with, to care about. To be human is to love another. To be human is to communicate with someone, even if you are only shouting at them. The most human of all is discourse. With nature. With other human beings.”

In "Fresh Challah," he writes, with some anxiety and plenty of honesty, about major contradictions he has embraced--he is a Chicano from El Paso, educated at Harvard, attracted to Judaism, and now living the intellectual life in New York. The careful reader picks up on Troncoso's exuberance for his situation even though he documents despair and uncertainty. The writer deals with the consequence of his choices and, as Hemingway explained, he likes it so much it has become a vice.

Troncoso also embraces his Latino identity and what it means to claim that identity. He enlightens about racial politics, bicultural anomie and the “irrational fears of non-Latinos to the growing Latino community.” However, his most moving words are about his beloved and feared abuelita, the grandmother who, even “if her dark brown eyes were downcast and weary she was poised for a fight.”

Here is Troncoso on his tough-love relationship with his grandmother: “I wanted to ensure she did not have a hard life anymore; I wanted her to enjoy an elusive peace in her soul. Most of all, I wanted her steely optimism never to be crushed by evil. She had always been tough, and she also knew how to hurt her toughest grandchild, the one with such a sharp tongue. So we understood each other only too well.”

Although many of the essays were written years ago, the collection remains timely. We owe it to ourselves to read, savor and read them again.

---Manuel Ramos for The El Paso Times


“Sergio Troncoso takes us on his journey from El Paso to New York, from child to husband, and student to father. He describes the solitary struggle of the writer, and the social and political hurdles overcome. Troncoso understands that in emerging from his chrysalis, he can never go back- nor does he want to. But the lesson is clear: You give something up to gain something else. As they say in the mercado in Chihuahua, ‘What will you take for it?’ Troncoso paid quite a lot, and it is worth our while to witness this journey from native son to the bloody birth of a public intellectual.”

---Kathleen Alcalá, author of The Desert Remembers My Name

Though clearly set in turn-of-the-21st Century Manhattan, there is a timelessness to the story. The reader can imagine two boys, once grown, and again, when they too have young children, and then again, decades later when their parents are elderly or perhaps no longer living, reading and rereading, mining ever richer veins of meaning in these heartfelt letters from their father.

---C. M. Mayo for Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices


More a collection of chronological essays than straightforward memoir, novelist Troncoso (The Last Tortilla and Other Stories) depicts those important events and influences in his life that took him from the dusty streets of the Ysleta barrio in 1960s El Paso to the refined and elegant spaces of Harvard, Yale and New York.

The “borders” of the title are many: intellectual, emotional, political and religious; he describes his travels across each with wit and style. Particularly gripping are three “letters” written to his young sons during their mother’s successful battle with breast cancer while still in her 30s. While stretched between two very distinct cultures (southwestern Mexican-American and northeastern Jewish), Troncoso remains a strong advocate for a more prominent Latino voice in the American literary world.

---Peter Fekety for REFORMA, the National Association to promote Library and Information Services to Latinos


Crossing Borders is a series of personal essays by author Sergio Troncoso that bring you into his family and his personal growth. Troncoso writes about crossing personal religious and cultural borders, as well as literal borders, and brings the reader into experiences they are not likely to have on their own. Crossing Borders is a book the reader will get invested in, if only to learn more about the family being talked about in the essays. Most heartwrenching are the three pieces entitled “Letter to My Young Sons,” which details their mother’s battle with cancer and shows a father’s love for his children. If a reader only reads one essay, though, it should be “Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories,” a piece that shows the importance of preserving heritage and teaching the world things that they may not know about Latinos. In all, Troncoso’s book is a piece of artwork and a piece of heritage that everyone, not just Latinos, should take the time to read.

---Melissa Boles for Portland Book Review


In his sixteen personal essays, Sergio Troncoso explores many borders. He is somewhere in between, mestizo. Whether from the border in El Paso, Texas, or from the Ivy League steps of Harvard University, Troncoso clings to the powerful figures that shaped his childhood. He values his abuelita, a woman tough as nails, who remains open to love, as well as his father and mother, even though his relationship with his father has proved treacherous and twisted at times. Troncoso appreciates his father and the sacrifices he made to raise four children who would go to earn graduate degrees. But the writer does not believe his father should lord over the family with his “fake power and ridiculous pronouncements.”

Throughout his essays, Troncoso establishes a recurrent theme of the need to battle dominant power structures. As an established writer in New York, he refuses to bow down to the elitists’ view of literature. Instead, he shows readers that it is wrong to assume “the only stories that matter to our community [Chicanos/as] are stories about picking grapes, or gang warfare, or the racism which we do face everyday, subtle as well as brutal.”

This racism or paranoia of illegal immigrants angers Troncoso. He writes about the times he stayed in a hotel for a conference and reflects on conversations with the cleaning ladies. Hauntingly, he recalls one woman, an illegal immigrant, Maria Teresa, who told him she wanted her children to be just like him when they grew up- educated. Another, Julia, longs to learn English but has no time because she works two jobs.

Troncoso calls his readers to take political action, hoping to expose the truth that America profits from illegal immigrant workers but refuses to accept them or allow them to become citizens. Troncoso explains the United States blames immigrants for its problems because “they are powerless, and dark-skinned, and speak with funny accents.”

The writer appears powerless not when he exposes racial tensions but when he recalls the battle that his Jewish wife Laura fought against breast cancer. Here Troncoso describes how his life came to a halt. He captures the pain he and his family suffered watching Laura struggle to live. He also crosses another border when he finally attains his Jewish-in-laws’ approval after having loved their daughter during her pain.

When Troncoso focuses on moments of humanity and frailty, he is most successful, whether writing to create an individual face for immigrants, refusing to let them be dehumanized, or giving a face to cancer by sharing his wife’s story.

The book is not adorned with rich, poetic language; Troncoso writes clearly, plainly, and purposefully. Readers may find that the writer’s style does not always remain consistent from one essay to the next, but the stories are entertaining; they cross borders and challenge the definition of American identity.

---Danielle Dahmann for Southwestern American Literature


Sergio Troncoso was born in the shantytown of Ysleta, in El Paso, Texas, in the bosom of a humble family like so many others on the border.

When he was a child, he recalls, there was no running water or electricity in the houses of this neighborhood a short distance from the border with Mexico.

Troncoso, however, had a childhood amply enriched by books and by family histories that were all around him.

His life changed radically after he obtained a scholarship to pursue a college education at Harvard, an unimaginable achievement in such a humble community.

A large part of his literary work is born from the challenges of this experience, in his essays that comprise Crossing Borders: Personal Essays as well as his recently published novel.

In the 16 essays of Crossing Borders, the distinct borders —linguistic, cultural and interpersonal— are explored that the author needed to navigage throughout his career.

In an intimate manner, these reflections reveal the challenges of being a writer, an intellectual Latino, and in addition, a husband, father, son, and grandson.

The frankness with which Troncoso approaches painful themes is surprising, as he does in the three-part letter to his sons in which he relates his wife’s battle against breast cancer.

In the third part, for example, the author describes how each bump the taxi crossed on their way from the hospital to their home caused his wife intense pain.

Once at home, one of their sons rushes to hug his mother, but the father has to intercept the boy with his own hug to remind the child to be gentle with his mother.

With tears in his eyes, their older son tells her of his day at school, while the baby slides next to his mother and lays his head on her lap, holding her arm with his tiny fingers, almost without moving “as if in a trance.”

It is these details that fill the simple and accessible prose of these essays with life, demonstrating how from such personal experiences emanate a universal message about what unifies us, despite our many differences.

---Spanish News Agency EFE


“Touching and intelligent, this book shows what it’s like growing up an intellectual on the border of the US and Mexico. It’s often painful, often funny, but always precise in expressing how rich and challenging life can be, how sometimes moving away from home can bring you even closer to your family and heritage.”

---Daniel Chacon, author of and the shadows took him and Unending Rooms


“Without words I can’t return and easily remember and appreciate my life behind me,” Mexican-American Sergio Troncoso writes. “I can’t see the road I traveled and how much I changed. Without words, I feel as I have never existed.”

In his two recently released books, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays and the novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Troncoso tries to bring more meaning to his life and the world.

The title of Crossing Borders comes from the fact that Troncoso’s life bridges two cultures – as a former resident of the border town of El Paso; as a husband in an interfaith marriage and as a writer who belongs to an almost all-white literary group. In the 16 essays, Troncoso tackles issues such as the drug wars, immigration, and literature. But Troncoso is at his best when he gets personal.

In an unusually honest essay, he talks about an intense argument with his father. He describes how much he loathes some of his father’s characteristics, yet still loves him. He also discusses his own role as a father to two boys. He can be temperamental toward them, too, when he succumbs to the pressures of life. But he is a devoted work-at-home father who admits his career takes second place to his children. “To make a good home for my children, I have sacrificed the only thing that matters more than my family: I have novels in my head which I may or may never get a chance to write,” he says….

Troncoso is an elegant writer whose work will make readers grateful that he writes his life down.

---The Hispanic Reader


"Border-crossings is a metaphor for the experience of Hispanic-American professionals traversing America’s ‘borders’ on their way to making a better life for self, family and country. Troncoso’s use of short stories, as if entries in a personal diary, captures important life-impacting times along his journey from the barrio through elite higher education to a life as a caring father and husband even while continuing to navigate the nearly always invisible barriers of exclusion. Readers interested in modern day acculturation will want to read and reflect on this rare opportunity to crawl into the mind of a talented, Latino author who writes about a common Latino professional’s story, and draw from his openness lessons intended to make us all better people.”

---Frank Alvarez, President and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund


“In this collection of essays, Sergio Troncoso takes the reader on an intensely personal look at his musings...the inner workings of his mind as he seeks his truth, his reality through reflection. Sergio draws the reader into his exploration of the meaning of truth through relationships: with his wife and cancer, his sons, his parents, his grandmother, his culture, with his Ivy-League colleagues and much more. These unadulterated reflections look at the emotions of fear, anger, disappointment, love and self-realization. His self-questioning commentary and analysis invite the reader into an intense and emotive dialog with her own reality again and again...long past the initial reading. I loved the work.”

---Nora Comstock, President and CEO of Las Comadres para las Americas


Please feel free to use these discussion questions for Crossing Borders: Personal Essays for writing classes and workshops.

Short stories: Angie Luna, The Snake, A Rock Trying to be a Stone, and Espíritu Santo.

Essays: Imagine Ysleta, A Day Without Ideas, Fresh Challah, and Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?