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El Paso native writes about life, love on the border

Associated Press Writer

EL PASO, Texas - Even as a high school student in a poor community of Mexican immigrants, Sergio Troncoso was prodding people to think about moral issues. Writing for his school newspaper, Troncoso focused on topics such as the disparity between rich school districts and poor ones. More than 20 years later, after expanding his mind and developing his skills at Harvard and Yale and as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico City, Troncoso has published his first book - a collection of short stories that delve into the thought processes and deepest feelings of fictional Mexican-Americans living in this border city.

"Some of the best writing," says the 38-year-old New York transplant, "is not just fancy footwork or fancy words, but something that pushes your thinking a little bit, something that elevates you or shows you a new world or a new way of looking at things." In "The Last Tortilla & Other Stories," which was released in September, Troncoso shows readers the worlds of a college student who falls for an older woman from the other side of the border, of a lonely old woman who invites her elderly gardener to move in with her, of two young women and a boy trying to cope after the death of their mother and remarriage of their father.

Troncoso drew on memory for some of the characters in the 12 stories: There's the tough old woman who worries about her grandson as he studies far from home at Yale; there's the fat boy who wins math contests and prefers to be alone, much like Troncoso as a child. Inspired by Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, Troncoso wanted to portray moral dilemmas that people face.

He wanted to explore the mental life of common Mexican-Americans in his childhood community of Ysleta, an area of desert, irrigation canals and cotton fields on El Paso's southeastern edge. And he wanted to dispel stereotypes.

Minorities in particular, he says, "tend to be stereotyped very easily as some sort of visual being without some sort of thought process." Troncoso, who studied philosophy at Yale, continues to ask moral questions in his first novel, which has not yet been published. He says the book is an update of sorts of "Crime and Punishment," asking when is it right - if it can be right - to kill someone.

His fascination with philosophical questions stems in part from childhood conversations with his maternal grandmother, a strong-headed yet uneducated woman who lived through the Mexican Revolution and with whom Troncoso was very close. The two would talk at length about life and death, about why people are here, about why there is evil in the world. He not only inherited his grandmother's strong will but his paternal grandfather's love of writing. Santiago Troncoso was a newspaper editor and publisher of El Dia, the first daily just across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, Santiago Troncoso was thrown in jail dozens of times for writing about government corruption. In the '70s, his grandson followed his example, writing editorials for the high school paper that were so critical of administrators that many steered clear of him, says Josie Kinard, his journalism adviser back then. Though he grew up in an area where many children struggle with poverty and to learn English, Ms. Kinard said she always knew Troncoso would "make it."

Bilingual and an avid reader, he was unusually driven and had an opinion about everything. "I thought he was going to become a politician because he could argue something so much," she said with a laugh. Whether insisting on a point of argument or on the completion of a task, it is Troncoso's determination that has led him where he is today, agrees his brother, Oscar. Besides publishing "The Last Tortilla & Other Stories," Troncoso has become an instructor at Yale, where he teaches economics and writing during the summer.

"He's very passionate about whatever he does," says Oscar Troncoso, an assistant principal in El Paso. "He goes into things 100 percent." One of those things, as a young man, was answering his own philosophical question. His parents were recent immigrants from Mexico, as were his neighbors, but he grew up just north of the border. Was he American, or was he Mexican? He went to Mexico City for a year to figure it out.

What he found was, "I was this third 'other,' this combination," he says. Since then, Troncoso has come to peace with being that "other," being someone capable of easily switching between two languages, two cultures. "It's sort of a person living between two worlds all the time," he says. "I think I resolved it."


During the first two weeks of January 2000, this Associated Press article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman, El Paso Times, Brownsville Herald, Laredo Morning Times, and other newspapers.