Sergio Troncoso grew up in Ysleta, a small community on the eastside of El Paso. The border town also happens to be the setting for the majority of short stories published in his first collection The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press).
A writer with a keen sense for character development, Troncoso manages to make the Mexican-American people that populate his fiction all too real and human in the span of a few pages.
More importantly, you need not have grown up in la frontera to identify and sympathize with his characters. Troncoso's protagonists may be ordinary folk, but the moral and philosophical questions they face are undoubtedly universal.
A good example is "Espíritu Santo," the story of two ancianitos striving to keep their faith in God and create a sense of community in the face of the evil and random cruelty they experience in their own barrio.
The themes may revolve around age-old questions, but Troncoso's characters are deeply rooted in border town culture. And one of the author's goals is to take you there-- to place you smack in the middle of the glaring light of the Texan desert and to invite you to smell the frijoles and flautas cooked in modest kitchens.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that The Last Tortilla and Other Stories won the 1999 Premio Aztlán for outstanding Chicano/Chicana fiction.
The prestigious national literary honor --that includes a $2,000 cash bonus-- was established in 1993 by Rudolfo Anaya and his wife Patricia to honor great works of literature which reflect the Chicano culture and experience.
Troncoso, a graduate of Harvard and Yale, also attended UNAM for a year. He now lives in New York City. The writer credits his maternal grandmother, Dońa Dolores Rivero, as one of his greatest influences. He says she gave him the strength and courage to fight for his dreams, and in many ways, remains his heroine.
The author took some time recently to talk to LatinoLink about his short story collection, life in a border town, and his next project.
LatinoLink: Many of your stories are set in El Paso and have the border as the theme. Was this by design?
S.T.: Well, that's how I grew up...being able to write and speak in English and Spanish without any trouble. And I physically grew up about half a mile from the border. I would go jogging from my house to the Border Freeway. So this sort of bicultural-bilingual existence is how I grew up.
In fact, later, when I went to Harvard, it kind of shocked me that not everyone knew Spanish and English. This shows what a sheltered life I lived in El Paso. It was shocking that not everyone was Latino because in El Paso seventy percent are Latinos. The bankers are Latino and the lawyers are Latino and the politicians...it's not a big deal to be Latino. You're the majority there.
So when I went to Cambridge, it was a big cultural shock and that's why I started studying Mexican history at Harvard. It's sort of stupid that living in El Paso and going to a public high school that's ninety-five percent mexicano and where everyone around you speaks Spanish, you learn almost nothing about Mexico.
LatinoLink: Did it also surprise you that most people don't have the experience of living in a place like that and probably wouldn't be so adept at switching back and forth between cultures and languages?
S.T.: It's a wonderful thing and I'm really proud of my Mexican heritage. That's really the main reason why I wrote the book. I wanted people to understand the moral character of the people in El Paso. When I left El Paso, it caused an identity crisis in me. I think [this happens to] a lot of Latino writers. The more I read people like Rudolfo Anaya, Gary Soto and Denise Chávez, the more I realize the question often is where do you belong.
I think the answer is something like you belong in this third other place called la frontera, where being bicultural and bilingual is the norm. And I went to Mexico to answer that question. After Harvard, I went for a year to Mexico City on a Fullbright. I wanted to see if I was a mexicano and not an americano. And when I was in Mexico, I found out I'm not a mexicano. I'm an American, but not the typical American.
So I had to find out those answers. Where do I belong? What's my primary language? In fact, it's both.
LatinoLink: Where do you think you belong?
S.T.: When I went to Mexico City I had a Mexican girlfriend....At the end of the year I said 'me quedo aquí o me voy.' Rosi, my girlfriend, wanted me to stay. So there was a big tug of war in my own heart. I said, 'I could actually stay. I could actually get married. I could actually not come back. And who cares, I could become a Mexican citizen.'
But ultimately I
decided that I really belonged here, in this sort of third way, en la frontera, between two cultures at all times. You know,
it's just a third culture. I think what people don't understand is that
LatinoLink: Maybe Mexico City and Washington are more alike than any border town.
S.T.: I think so,
in the sense that they're all about politics, medio
salvajes and nationalistic. You know, los mexicanos say, "los
pinches gringos nos van a chingar,"
But on the border, even los gringos who I knew, los güeritos son mas mexicanos que some of the Latinos I meet here in New York. They speak Spanish, they're comfortable with Latinos. They live with seventy percent of them all the time. It's a place where you affect each other...and it goes both ways.
LatinoLink: In addition to exploring the border as a metaphor, what is your motivation for writing stories?
S.T.: A lot of them are character-based. And they almost always start with a philosophical question in mind. Not that I have an answer, but I have a question I want to ask. In "Angie Luna," I wanted to write a love story, but I wanted to write about identity. Where do you belong?
And the character, Victor, he's getting into the mainstream by going to Amherst, but then he comes back to El Paso and he falls in love with a beautiful mexicana.
So he's being
pulled in two directions. Self-identity is the question there. In "
LatinoLink: One of the things that struck me about the stories is that although I come from a very different place, I had no trouble identifying or sympathizing with the characters. Did you try to make them universal?
S.T.: I hope so. I'm a very rooted writer. In fact when I got interviewed by Texas Monthly, they asked, 'Why does El Paso produce all these writers?' I said, 'No, no, no. I'm not from El Paso. I'm from Ysleta, which is a neighborhood on the eastside.' And Ysleta is a very particular community.
I wanted to write about where I'm from. But you're right, with universal characters and universal questions. Some guy from Brazil wrote to me and said, 'I could identify with the character in "Angie Luna" because I'm going out with this woman who's from a different province and I'm trying to find out where I belong.' I think stuff like that makes me believe that somehow I'm doing things the right way.
These are characters rooted where they are, but I hope whoever reads them can identify with them.
LatinoLink: Is this your first collection of stories?
S.T.: Yes, and I just wrote a novel called The Nature of Truth. It's an update of Crime and Punishment, and there's a publisher who wants to buy it. So if everything works out, I should have a novel out in about a year.
LatinoLink: So did it surprise you to get this much acclaim and the Premio Aztlán for your first collection?
S.T.: I'm shocked and I'm very happy. To tell you the truth, particularly because it's coming from Rudolfo Anaya. I think that's why the Premio Aztlán means something very personal and very important for me. Rudolfo Anaya has always been a great influence on my work. I don't remember how many times I've read Bless Me, Ultima. He's always been very important for me when I was growing up.
This interview appeared in LatinoLink on March 16, 2000.