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Reviews of From This Wicked Patch of Dust

Troncoso, Sergio, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, University of Arizona Press, September 2011, 240 pp., ISBN-10: 0-8165-3004-1, ISBN-13: 978-0816530045 (paper), $17.95; also available on Kindle and Nook.

·        Best Books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews

·        Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association

·        Notable Book by Southwest Books of the Year

·        Silver Medals for Fiction and Multicultural/Indigenous Literature categories in the Nautilus Book Awards

·        Finalist for Reading The West Book Award in Adult Fiction from the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association

·        Shortlisted runner-up for biannual PEN/Texas Southwest Book Award for Fiction

Troncoso tells the story of a Mexican-American family as they come to terms with their cultural heritage over a span of 40 years.

The new novel from Troncoso (Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, 2011) follows Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martinez and their four children in the border town of Ysleta, Texas. As the children grow up, they feel the pull of their parents’ love for Mexico and the opposing force of their own identities in America. Cuauhtémoc is able to retire early from working as a draftsman and travels with his wife, living off the income from the apartments owned by the family. Pilar, a Catholic mother who is stern but instills strong values in her children, is a hardworking housewife who sold Avon to help with the bills. However, she worries that she hasn’t done enough to fill her children with her beliefs: “Pilar was overcome with incredible sadness. Why had her children abandoned the church? Why had they become like grains of sand scattered throughout the desert?” The oldest, Julia, becomes Aliyah, converting to Islam and moving to Tehran with her husband and three children. Francisco is overweight and attending community college, but works tirelessly at the apartments, playing the role of the good son. Marcos becomes a teacher and a member of the Army Reserve, marrying a white woman and living near his family in Ysleta. Ismael, the youngest, goes to Harvard and marries a Jewish woman, escaping the confines of his home in Texas only to meet with the labors of life as a man torn between his duties as a husband and his aspirations as a writer. Troncoso seamlessly intertwines the struggles the grown children face with their parents’ desire to help them become independent and proud Mexican-Americans. The prose is powerful in an unassuming way, making for a captivating read. The author carefully paces the book, with each chapter plotting an era in the family’s lives, ultimately joining the family’s collective narrative of religion and family obligation with the current events of the time. Troncoso is clearly adept at his craft, telling a story filled with rich language and the realities of family life closing with a son reassuring his mother, and literature reassuring them both.

With its skillful pairing of conflict over religious and familial obligations with the backdrop of a Mexican-American family’s love for one another, Troncoso’s novel is an engaging literary achievement.

---Kirkus Reviews, starred review

In a media market where cultural stereotypes abound, it’s refreshing to read a novel featuring Latino characters who are nuanced and authentic. Sergio Troncoso’s latest, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, follows a family from humble beginnings in a Texas border town through several decades as its members move beyond their Mexican Catholic culture to inhabit Jewish, Muslim and Ivy League spaces.

Cuauhtémoc Martínez is a draftsman, while his wife, Pilar, supplements their income with Avon sales. Both are Mexican immigrants. The story opens in 1966 with the couple moving their four children — Julieta (the oldest), Francisco, Marcos and Ismael — from Pilar’s parents’ home to Ysleta, a town near El Paso.

Pilar warns her kids about the irrigation canals behind their new house: “It’s full of spiders and frogs and snakes and niños de la tierra. If one bites you, you will die.” But as her children grow into adults, it’s their departure from the family’s culture, traditions and religious mores that concerns her.

Francisco, overweight and shy, struggles with college while helping his father maintain an apartment building the family owns. Marcos becomes a teacher and a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve. Ismael, nicknamed Mayello, has a quick mind that takes him to Harvard, where he dreams of being a writer and marries a Jewish woman from a wealthy family.

Julieta’s passion for social justice leads her into causes such as Nicaragua’s Sandinista movement, creating a chasm between her and her mother. When Julieta blames America for some of the world’s injustices, Pilar is angry. “Their thriftiness, Cuauhtémoc’s steady work, and her extra income from Avon had become their investment in the Olive apartments, a financial godsend. These opportunities had come to them only because they lived in America. And now Julieta was calling the American government criminal.”

When Julieta leaves Catholicism for the Muslim faith, the family rift opens wider. Pilar wonders how she failed. “Why had she not succeeded in transmitting her culture, her faith to them? What had she done wrong?”

Troncoso is a straightforward storyteller with a spare style. Even at his most lyrical, he never gets in the way of the story. In one lovely passage, young Ismael foreshadows his future by trapping a crayfish pulled from an irrigation canal. “As the animal tested the walls of the cardboard for an opening” Ismael “pinched its slimy green back with his fingers and carried the cangrejo up the bank.” It flailed “wildly in the hot air, its tail surprisingly potent. The hard antennae brushed against Mayello’s fingers, but the claws would never reach his flesh as long as he pinched his fingers tightly around the lower back of the crayfish.”

Later, Ismael feels similarly boxed in, caught between the world into which he was born and the one opened to him by education: “One reader of his thesis praised the original research in Spanish, in Mexican archives not yet unearthed by Harvard professors, but lamented the writing ‘from someone whose native language is obviously not English.’ Yet Ismael’s language was not Spanish either. He was in between languages, using one to succeed in the other, yet not quite an heir to either. … Where did he belong? Above all, Ismael wanted desperately to find his voice.”

These middle spaces have long been fodder for writers, though the El Paso-born and Harvard-educated Troncoso has created new, empathetic characters to explore it. No, the real beauty of this book is that it mines the rich diversity of tradition and culture among Latinos, as well as the commonalities they share with other Americans — love of family, faith and country.

Latino readers will enjoy a book that shatters the myth of Latinos as a monolithic voting bloc, but the book will appeal to anyone who cares about the issues and contemporary politics that affect families of any color.

---Beatriz Terrazas for The Dallas Morning News

What is it to be American, Mexican, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim? What is it to struggle – for sustenance, for the freedom to choose who you want to be? Effortlessly, with elegance of style, Troncoso weaves a tapestry of lives, of human beings who by the end of the book feel not just real, not just intimately close, but undeniable, inescapable, a part of ourselves.

---Miroslav Penkov, Judge for PEN/Texas Southwest Book Award for Fiction (shortlisted runner-up)

Their conversation is so well-grounded in knowing detail that Troncoso makes what might seem fantastic, a brother and a sister so far from Ysleta and so impossibly far from one another, both believable and moving….In the final essay in his collection, “Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?” Troncoso answers, ‘to define ourselves,’ and ‘to challenge ourselves.’ In his novel, he has done this brilliantly.

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

“One reads From This Wicked Patch of Dust and can only pause for a moment to say, ‘Yes.’ Sergio Troncoso writes with inevitable grace and mounting power. Family, in all its baffling wonder, comes alive on these pages.”

---Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Sergio Troncoso's admirable second novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust tells the story of the Martínez clan and how it copes when its individual members make decisions that threaten the harmony and unity of the entire family.

Spanning four decades and two continents, the book opens on a more humble note, in Ysleta, the "misnamed, misplaced swath of earth in what had been a prehistoric sea." But for Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martínez, the border was a place of fresh beginnings and new opportunities.

For the couple's brood of four, however, growing up in the '60s and '70s where the values of Mexico and the United States converged also meant attaining different freedoms and having the privilege of picking and choosing what each wanted from both worlds.

Though the novel attempts to showcase the disparate lives of the four Martínez children, the focus is on the maturing of Julieta, the oldest, and Ismael, the youngest.

As the only daughter, Julieta enjoys space to thrive that her mother never had. She hops from college to college, eventually finding direction with a group of liberation theologians who take her to Central America.

Ismael, "pudgy and painfully shy," is also "the smartest kid at Ysleta" and quickly outgrows the "I-don't-care attitude" that he witnesses in many around him. He becomes politicized and aware of his duty to those less fortunate than he, even as he struggles with being a scholarship kid in an Ivy League school.

But the more important part of the journey toward adulthood is in the siblings' changing attitudes toward religion: Julieta, who considered her parents' version of Catholicism "ignorant and oppressive and materialistic," becomes a Muslim convert; Ismael, removed from the culture of Catholicism ("God existed in Ysleta, but not in Harvard") builds a life with literary pursuits in New York City, partnered with a Jewish woman.

Cuauhtémoc and Pilar can only watch, question and advise from a distance as an estranged Julieta (now Aliyah, who wears a chador) moves to Tehran. And though outsiders might think the Martínezes are "recreating the wonders of Al-Andalus, Muslims and Christians and Jews together," the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deployment of middle brother Marcos to Iraq finally ruptures the precarious family ties.

Troncoso resists a comfortable ending and challenges readers to envision the Chicano family within a global context because, as this novel illustrates, the safety of home is no longer true in the post-9/11 Americas. That pessimistic sentiment is balanced, however, by Pilar's unwavering belief that the family is always worth fighting for.

From This Wicked Patch of Dust presents difficult lessons about growing up and growing apart, but there's also genuine heart and pride in the depiction of the "four children, four worlds" that spiral out of a single immigrant dream.

---Rigoberto González for The El Paso Times

Throughout the novel, Troncoso writes stories from the different perspectives of the Martinez parents and their children. Each perspective from the Martinez parents, I could see glimpses of my grandparents in their narrative – proud Mexican immigrants who sacrificed everything so their children could have a better future in America. I could also see myself in the Martinez children as they tried to embrace their Mexican culture and family traditions while being young and enjoying American culture.

I loved the different narratives of each of the Martinez children as I could relate to their stories in one way or another….

The story that really hit home for me was the moment when Ismael received the call from his mother that his dear abuelita had passed away. It was as if this story was taken from my own life experience. The guilt and sadness Ismael felt for living so far away from the family were feelings I’ve felt before. Family is a huge part of the Mexican culture, especially our abuelitas who are typically the matriarch of our families…. I was devastated that I lived so far away and couldn’t be with them at the end of their lives. But just as in the book, my family reminded me how proud my Mamá and Papá were of my accomplishments and that they understood why I couldn’t see them often. It was the very reason they came to America – to see us succeed, complete our education and follow our dreams. I cried reading this beautiful and powerful scene in the book as I felt like I was reliving those hard but powerful moments in my own life….

Troncoso does a wonderful job in depicting this same struggle that many Latino children face growing up in America. For modern Latinas everywhere, I highly recommend reading this book. Even if you’re not from El Paso or a border town, there is one story that you can relate to growing up as a Latina in America. Whether it is religion, moving away from family, pursuing your education, or even his intermittent use of Spanish and English throughout the story, Troncoso delivers a heartwarming and beautiful story that you can identify with.

---Sasha Monik Moreno for The Modern Latina

Tales of young families struggling to build a better life are nothing new. Yet Sergio Troncoso breathes fresh air into the American assimilation story. Born on the border with sharp eyes and ears for his surroundings, Troncoso brings us forward from 1966 to the present day. We watch kids maturing and moving away from the Mexican traditions their parents hold dear: The daughter who partied wildly in Juarez during high school reverts to devout Catholicism in college and finally settles in Islam, where she finds she is once again an immigrant, welcome but never quite fitting in; the letters home from the son whose reserve unit was activated for Iraq seem to lead inevitably to a sealed coffin in the wicked dust of Texas; and the youngest son, who shares Troncoso's Harvard education and devotion to writing, is congratulated by his siblings for the way he can combine all their stories and spin a new one. This story is recognizable as their own, yet it's also wholly universal.

---Mary Armstrong for The Philadelphia City Paper

*Books To Know: Top Ten Books of August 2012:

Mexican couple, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc, settle in a shantytown on the border of El Paso, Texas, with the hope of providing a better life for their four children. The novel, deemed a Notable Book by Southwest Books of the Year, follows the family’s story as the children pull away from their roots. The message is an enduring picture of the immigrant experience and the price of success.

---Miriam Laufer for The DC Spotlight Newspaper

Sergio Troncoso has written a wonderful, heart-warming, universal tale of a family. This story can be about any American family and their struggle to work, pay bills, raise children, save them from the streets, get them through college, and live long enough to see their grandchildren.

What’s fascinating about From This Wicked Patch of Dust is that we have not one hero, but a whole family’s worth– Pilar, the mother, who wants to get away from her past and start anew in America; Cuauhtémoc, the father, who will do anything for his wife and children, even embrace a new country; Julieta, the only daughter, an activist-turned-rebel; Pancho, the caretaker and handyman; Marcos, the soldier and teacher; and Ismael, the baby and writer.

Often Pilar looks at her children and thinks: “this family seemed like leaves in the wind, from the same tree, yet floating to their own private destinies.” But that is the fate of all families, be they American, European, Asian, etc. Children grow up and move away to follow their dreams and create their own lives.

Ismael sums up Troncoso’s tale best of all: “I wrote a story. It’s about our family…. It’s about Ysleta. It’s about how we lived, how we tried. It’s about how we were together for a time. I, I didn’t know what else to do…. How else to remember us…. It’s just a story, just words. But it’s what I can do. It’s how I can make sure no one ever forgets.”

And, this reader certainly will not forget. Bravo, Sergio, Bravo.


“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….

One of the characters, like Troncoso, goes to college at Harvard and becomes a writer, marries a Jewish woman who works in the finance industry and raises two sons in New York City.

The stories are told in vignettes that capture a moment in time….Troncoso avoids clichés, with one character going through an interesting and surprising transformation in the book.

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

---The Hispanic Reader

“An irresistible read, this compelling novel explores a family’s conflicted desires: to honor the past that connected them closely to one another and to embrace the future that launches them toward separate destinies- to belong and to be free. Sergio Troncoso delivers a moving and unforgettable story of Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martinez in search of a better life for their four children, despite the dawning apprehension that pursuit of such a dream might ultimately cost a family much more than relentless self-sacrifice and unflinching toil.”

---Lorraine Lopez, author of The Gifted Galbadón Sisters and Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories

Writer Sergio Troncoso graduated from Harvard, studied philosophy at Yale, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. But he started in a Texas barrio. In his latest novel, he tells the story of upward mobility in a family much like his own.

My father once said, “College may be the worst thing that ever happens to you.” Not a college man himself, he wanted educated kids, even though he feared it might erode the family—a common worry among parents who want better for their children than they had themselves. El Paso writer Sergio Troncoso knows this story. In his novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust he tells how education and wanderlust fragment a tightly knit immigrant family.

1966. Mexican migrants Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez move their young family to Ysleta Pueblo, the oldest village in Texas. Here, Señor Martínez puts his talents as a builder to good use. He and Pilar manage to lift the family from poverty. When the children graduate high school, they have choices.

Troncoso divides his novel by dates, giving snapshots of important moments in his characters’ lives. For Julia, the adventurous daughter, 1966 is a bad year. The Beatles are on the radio, and she, a teenager in a shack without electricity. After high school, she gets out. She dabbles in college, travels abroad, taps her parents’ bank account again and again, and finally finds herself in the Muslim faith raising a family in Iran. Meanwhile, her studious brother, Ismael, lands a scholarship to Harvard, marries a Jewish girl, and moves to New York. Days after 9/11, he grieves Al-Qaeda’s victims. He can smell them roasting in the rubble.

Julia and Ismael identify deeply with their adopted Muslim and Israeli cultures. They can’t speak to each other without arguing. And their mother, Pilar, can’t stop fretting about her headstrong children. In the end, Pilar laments ever coming to America: “We didn’t belong in Mexico and we don’t belong here,” she says. “We’ve been abandoned in this evil desert.”

But it’s not all dread and regret. The family argues, yes, and they worry, but they stay in touch—in two languages. Spanish peppers the English in these pages. Spanglish. A wonderful hybrid that expresses mutating cultures.

From This Wicked Patch of Dust is an ambitious book, full of insight into complex American identity. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. Because Troncoso tells the story in snapshots, the characters don’t really drive the plot. They serve the ideas behind the story. Still, there’s wisdom in these pages and compassion for fragmented families in a mobile, complicated world.

---NPR affiliate, Arizona’s KNAU

Sergio Troncoso's new novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is a tightly focused and affecting work of fiction that has much to say about family, fidelity, religion and politics without ever seeming heavy-handed and pedantic.

Troncoso's prose is crisp and clear, with nary a wasted word, and he manages to deftly handle numerous storylines over a long period of time in just 240 pages….

When the novel begins, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez have just moved to Ysleta, Texas (where Troncoso himself grew up), a neighbor of El Paso, with their four young children. The year is 1966. The novel then tracks the members of the Martínez family, and their various failures and triumphs—their births, educations, marriages, careers and deaths, and their ascendance from poverty to the middle class and beyond—over the next 40 years. Despite the shortness of the book, the plot rarely feels rushed or incomplete.

Part of this success lies in Troncoso's characters, each of which is given a distinct personality and appearance, with verbal and physical mannerisms that can be easily imagined in the reader's mind. As we watch these characters develop, we see their personality traits as children inform the choices they make as adults and ultimately manifest themselves as habits and/or neuroses. For example, as a child, Ismael, the youngest, is uncommonly bright, and we see this carry throughout his high school years as he becomes editor of the school newspaper, and then earns a scholarship to an Ivy League university. But at the same time, we see Ismael's shyness as a child come out in his constant fear of being rejected and his sense of being a fraud in any new or unfamiliar setting.

If any character is given short shrift, it is the eldest child, Julieta/Aliyah. Her transformation—from a slightly rebellious and sullen teenager, to a Central American freedom fighter, to a Muslim convert living in Tehran—never feels fully developed. But that aside, the plot is carefully constructed and for the most part feels believable, because Troncoso isn't the kind of author who conflates melodrama with plot. The events of the story arc feel real, like ones that might actually occur in many families. And it's nice to read a book that finds a solid middle ground, without a sickly sweet happy ending or one in which everyone ends up dead or bleeding.

Troncoso's novel also succeeds because of his ability to summarize in a clear, concise way—a necessary skill when skipping five or 10 years between sections. Early in the book, Troncoso sums up Pilar and Cuauhtémoc's courtship and move to the United States in just a few pages. Like many contemporary authors, Troncoso wants his novel to reflect the diversity of American life, and he does so by working in elements of history, philosophy, economics and more. But it's Troncoso's restraint and brevity that make his digressions engaging and meaningful. Take, for example, his summary of a method for calculating elevations that Cuauhtémoc uses in his work as a draftsman, which sheds light on his abilities and ultimately his success:

"Ándale pues." The ‘new method’ was the one valuable skill Cuauhtémoc had salvaged from his brief foray into California: a way of calculating an average depth for any terrain, with dozens of reference points from the many hills and valleys within a particular plot of land. He used this average depth to determine where in the landscape to fill in, and where to cut in, so that the company achieved a relatively flat building site with the least movement of earth. When the quantities in question were tons of dirt over hundreds of acres, the right calculations could save the company significant money.

This is not simply the author showing his diversity of knowledge, but also an interesting tidbit that helps explain something about the novel's main character—in this case, how Cuauhtémoc's knowledge of this calculation helped him succeed in his job, which has specific importance and implications for other aspects of the novel.

In From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Sergio Troncoso has constructed a heartfelt and believable portrait of a family growing apart and coming together again as the individuals succeed in America on their own terms.

---Tucson Weekly

This is the story of an immigrant family in search of the American dream.

The novel begins in 1966 with the Martinez’s family move to the shantytown of Ysleta. Cuauhtémoc and Pilar, proud of their Mexican heritage, imagine a future for their children in which personal success, family unity, and cultural heritage go hand in hand.

The four children, however, take different paths as they enter in contact with realities very different from their childhoods.

Ismael, the youngest of the brothers, receives a scholarship to help him attend Harvard College, “where the Kennedys went.”

Tears of joy stream down Pilar’s face when she hears the news from her son, but the grandmother, however, begs him not to go, because he will feel so lonely so far from from his family.

Narrated from the different perspective of each family member, the novel questions the significance of family when distance and new loyalties intervene. The novel presents a complex image of family dynamics and the forces that operate to define where we belong.

---Spanish News Agency EFE

From This Wicked Patch of Dust sweeps through a tumult of time from the mid-60s and through 9/11 and its aftermath. As the novel whirls in and out of expanding cultural identities--Mexican and American, poor, ambitious, and smart, Catholic, Muslim, and even Jewish--and yet stays centered on a family in the borderlands of Ysleta, it details a past that is more the cultural future. El Paso deserves big books, and Sergio Troncoso gives us one here- in a voice that is both his and ours.”

---Dagoberto Gilb, author of The Magic of Blood and The Flowers

From This Wicked Patch of Dust is a breath of fresh air compared to novels populated with winos, dysfunctional families, men who beat and abandon their partners, alienated children. Sergio Troncoso doesn’t lean on tumultuous social and family upheaval to craft an arresting story of mom, dad, two sons, a daughter, and cultural migration. There's upheaval indeed, but Troncoso keeps it just outside the right margin, in the space between the turning pages.

Despite the ominous tone of its title, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is a novel about decisions, luck, and the pursuit of happiness in the early 21st century. The title is not a facile metaphor but irony borne of a young mother’s frustration. Brought to her knees the day she moves to Ysleta, Pilar shakes a handful of dirt and repudiates this place’s wickedness. By dint of determination, hard work and good character, Pilar and her family will prosper on this patch of dust.

---La Bloga

Read an excerpt of From This Wicked Patch of Dust and Troncoso’s short essay on his blog Chico Lingo, Why I Wrote From This Wicked Patch of Dust. Please feel free to use his discussion questions for the novel for writing classes and workshops.

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

Essays: Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories? and A Day Without Ideas