Reviews of The Last Tortilla and Other Stories
· Premio Aztlan Literary Prize for the Best Book by a new Chicano writer
· Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association
student home on summer break tastes love for the first time with an older
woman. An old widow invites her equally aged gardener to share her home. Family
members struggle through Christmas in the wake of the death of their mother and
the remarriage of their father. A boy is nearly attacked by a rattlesnake, only
to be rescued by a gruff but friendly INS officer. In his first collection of
stories, Troncoso proves to be a challenging but resonant new voice. Setting
his tales mostly in
"Okay, so I
wasn't going to be a great poet or a legendary writer. I wouldn't lead
revolutions, and I wouldn't compose extraordinary music. I was only a guy who
had just found the world as it was, after throwing out thousands of years of
dreams and nightmares to secure my fragile existence," confides the
narrator in the final story of this earthy collection. He could speak for all
the characters in these 12 stories of Mexican-American life just north of the
border. Typical themes of love, death, coming-of-age
and family life drive the narratives, but the
The reader feels that Troncoso is being more than just faithful to his roots. He has a creative passion to raise ordinary, everyday, transitory human life to its holy ground: to transform it into literature.
Socorro Road, the houses and fields of the Lower Valley: That's now Sergio Troncoso Country. The ditches, the back yards and birdbaths, the cotton fields, the men and boys at work. They're his. In his stories he demonstrates an impressive knowledge of El Paso rural and border ways and of the people who remain close to the earth and its strengths.
In the title story, "The Last Tortilla," 11-year-old Juanito mourns his mother's death. He has a sense of guilt for her death because he assumes that on the day before she died, during a church service, he stared too fixedly at the figure of Christ on the cross-- waiting for Him to move. He believes that, as punishment for such an impertinent attitude, God, in anger, took his mother. Later, in a Christmas church service in Ysleta, the boy's love for his "murdered" mother and his own anger at a "judgmental and vengeful" God make a powerful and unforgettable scene.
"Punching Chickens" is a perfectly paced story about a boy doing a man's work for the first time-- unloading a steady stream of chickens from 18-wheelers and caging them in a warehouse. The pains of that exacting, dawn-to-dark job are rendered flawlessly.
And how the aging Widow Johnson tricks her aging yardman, Don Chechepe, "…asleep under the pecan trees, his mouth as wide open and dry as the caked earth in the cotton fields under the Ysleta sun…," into becoming her live-in mate makes "The Gardener" a gem.
It is a pleasure to see that a good man --intelligent, caring, questing-- as well as a good writer is among us, shaping work that will undoubtedly continue to bring him critical acclaim.
Standouts include "A Rock Trying to Be a Stone," the tale of boyish mischief gone horribly wrong and the anger the narrator feels, expressed in one small gesture. The solitary habits of an intelligent nerd are detailed in "The Snake." The most charming story of the collection, "The Gardener," shows how an elderly woman and her equally elderly gardener decide to seal their friendship. The collection ends full circle from where it began with "Angie Luna," the story of a young man's coming of age with a beautiful, older woman, to "My Life in the City," where the first blush of attraction between a man and a woman, in an otherwise impersonal city, is handled with style and surprising tenderness.
Set in the striking
desert landscape of
In the spring of 1998 I taught freshman English at my alma mater, Edcouch-Elsa High School in the Rio Grande Valley-- you know, in South Texas. It was good to be back home and to have a classroom of students for a semester. I could teach any stories I wanted, but the textbooks they used were nothing short of dull-- stories my students couldn't relate to any more than I could when I was a freshman.
So I searched out anthologies and came up with my own reading list. I made sure the list had a good cross section of authors from Native-American, white, black, gay/lesbian to Chicana/o literature. My students ate it up, but the story that really got them going was "Angie Luna" by Sergio Troncoso. I found "Angie Luna" in an anthology, New World: Young Latino Writers, along with a couple of other stories I tested out, but the students liked "Angie Luna" best. Now, Troncoso has a book full of short stories titled The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, and I can't wait to unleash some of them on my next English class.
I'm a slow reader; however, I make a point of taking a book everywhere I go. During my reading of The Last Tortilla I traveled from New York City to El Paso, and what do you know? Troncoso writes about both cities. I felt as though Troncoso was my personal travel guide-- but more into the hearts of the people in the cities.
The collection begins with "Angie Luna," and you know how a book should open with the best story in the collection, an attention-getter, so to speak. Well, he could have opened his book with any of four other stories ("A Rock Trying To Be A Stone," "The Snake," "The Gardener," "Punching Chickens"), and I would have been hard-pressed not to read the rest.
The students in my class, however, took issue with Troncoso personally. Half of the young women called him a macho sexist, and the other half thought he was a nice man. Mind you, they were basing this on the narrator of "Angie Luna," and it took a while to explain to them that the narrator does not always reflect the views of the author.
Another reason the students liked "Angie Luna" is that some of the story takes place in Juárez, and three of my students were from Mexican border towns. And Troncoso often mentions El Paso and its sister city in Mexico. I like that. Not enough is written about El Paso and much less about Juárez, unless some big company happens to be exploiting the poor there.
In fact, Troncoso loses me when he strays from writing about his hometown. Two of the stories --"Remembering Possibilities" and "My Life in the City"-- are far away from El Paso, and I wonder if the author is trying to placate his readers, since it's a good bet they don't know the first thing about El Paso. I think El Paso and Juárez make for better story material than New York City any day.
shines when he writes about El Paso and the life of Mexican-Americans there. He
has the gift for writing from his heart outward into his reader's heart. When I
was in El Paso two weeks ago, I looked out over my Super 8 motel balcony at the
early evening mountains and tried to imagine the main characters in "A
Rock Trying to Be a Stone," "The Snake," "Time
Magician," "The Abuelita," and
"Angie Luna." As I drove downtown the next morning, I looked for
them, I knew they were close as I walked down
---David Rice for The
The last tortilla, as Sergio Troncoso tells it, was eaten near Socorro Road in the neighborhood of Ysleta, that oldest part --and what he as well as other writers have identified as the heart-- of the el paso del norte settlement. He remembers this event as well as others very well, which means that it took place no more than a few years ago, since Sergio is a young man, and the story comes from the old tortilla-eating places of his birth, described in his first published collection of short stories.
I think his title prepared me for some crude humor, but I found after reading the first pages that Sergio Troncoso is serious and doesn't joke easily. He has much to say and to think about- from food to God, from the Devil who is alive and well in El Segundo Barrio to the ant and tadpole life along the Ysleta irrigation canals. His main theme, predictably, coming from this geography, is separation. His mind dwells at the points of contrasts, the splits of borders. The Rio Grande he names the "River Styx of the Americas." His various characters learn at young ages how to find their particular pasamojado, who will enable them to regularly make the journey back and forth between worlds.
If the stories are read rapidly, the voices start echoing strongly out of the bowl that is El Paso and Juárez, the face of the place that fills the valley between the Franklin and Chihuahua Mountains. The writer knows that great power comes from making an existence on such a fault line, where history so empowers the present that at any time the "mortality of the barrio could hurl itself heavenward." So muses the young Arturo in "The Abuelita," while calling home from Yale to ground himself in "the abuelita's" voice. She, the grandmother, is a praying woman. He, the grandson, is a student of philosophy. She tells him he should come home; he tells her he is studying Heidegger. His grandfather interrupts the call, tells him to "go out and have a beer, or go to a party." The dialogue itself serves to quiet all their individual midnight demons.
In his recent commentaries on the state of Texas literature, Tom Pilkington (in State of Mind: Texas Literature and Culture) expressed an inevitable worry: that perhaps there is no longer a culture from which a good Texas writer can draw a voice that would be distinctly regional. The suburbs of Dallas might as well be the suburbs of Atlanta or the suburbs of Los Angeles; and the "corridor culture" of the interstate Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin-San Antonio-Houston circle seems to be the dominant expression of Texas to the rest of the world. Yet El Paso is a place of its own, which may be why the most compelling literature today is being written by its children, who become scholars of boundary crossing at an early age. After all, the compulsion to learn the truth about life on earth --call it curiosity-- can be as strong and as raw an appetite as lust and as easily entertained as a young man on his first night crossing alone into Juárez, out to meet the city as if it were a beautiful, intelligent, and passionate woman rather than a ring of thugs. Of course it is the metaphor of a young man: "I don't care what anyone else says," he rhapsodizes, "women in their thirties can look great!" But I appreciate Troncoso's style- above all his honesty in telling. Life on the border has given his prose a cutting edge. By attempting to reconcile the seemingly hopeless split in the borderland's daily existence, he has brought forth the most moving story of the collection. In "Day of the Dead" a Juárez maid named Lupe is killed by a car on the Border Highway, and her body becomes a bridge that allows some of El Paso's most unlikely crossers to find their way into Juárez.
In other stories, the character of the precocious barrio boy is developed from an early emergence of intellectual energy, through a filter of summer jobs with seasoned trabajadores catching chickens all day for market, to be honed against racial barriers met in distant university cities. In the end, this character development points toward some sort of cosmic or cosmopolitan citizen- which in subsequent work may even deracinate this very rooted writer whose last name is Troncoso.
Maybe this is his last tortilla. Maybe he will only eat bagels from now on and fall for performance artists with bouncy blond hair. But for now, he has given us a collection of memorable and historically rooted and philosophically provocative stories from that part of our state where culture continues to evolve both bright and dark- while providing us the newest stars on our literary horizons.
Mexican-born author-critic Ilan Stavans is quoted on the front cover of Sergio Troncoso's enriching debut short-story collection that "he (Troncoso) makes art out of ordinariness."
I might have made the same point in slightly less garbled manner, saying Troncoso find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Troncoso is indeed an artist with words in these 12 stories. He is capable of finding wonder and warmth and tragedy in the simplest of lives. No celebrities in this unvarnished world of the poor, proud people of El Paso, a city in which the author grew up as the child of Mexican immigrants, and Juárez, Mexico.
The title story, "The Last Tortilla," is the longest at 40 pages, and it is placed in the middle of the book. It is about siblings in a Mexican-American family that now has a stepmother, Ofelia. The mother had died several years before, but 11-year-old Juanito still dreams of his mother, wishing she were still in his life. His older sisters, Alejandra and Rosanna, think of her, too.
Here's on passage where Juanito is watching a Mexican telenovela that was his mother's favorite soap opera: "Whenever he had come home from school, she had been watching it. He would sit down in the kitchen and show her his latest quiz or homework assignment. She would turn off the volume of the show and carefully study his homework. His mother had always been so proud of him, mounting each A on the refrigerator for a week."
The story's name pops up at the end. It is Christmas night, after a traditional dinner. Still hungry, Juanito steals into the kitchen to heat up two tortillas. The stepmother scolds him, limiting how many he can eat.
My blurb for the book's back cover would be applause and the grito, "Author! Author!"
Troncoso has created 12 memorable short stories that deal with universal themes of family, love, and friendship. Many of the stories are set in the border region of his hometown of El Paso, Texas, and its shared border with Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, in Mexico. This bicultural (Mexican and American) and bilingual (English and Spanish) perspective provides a wonderfully rich background to extraordinary lives in the barren surroundings of the Chihuahuan Desert, the seemingly middle of nowhere. The stories are a reflection of Troncoso's personal experiences of growing up in the desert and moving to the East Coast. Those stories set in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Juárez are especially interesting because of the border issues that are an important part of them.
Some stories are also set in Boston and New York, where the main character is a university student, transplanted from El Paso like the author. The loneliness of separation from family and roots and experiencing other worlds are other themes that emerge in many of the stories-- going across the border or across the country. Troncoso is a master storyteller; he weaves the threads of events in a way that sometimes surprises but always engages. Readers' hearts will be touched by episodes of loss, tragedy, and love; his characters witness and reflect on much sorrow and happiness. The characters' ages range from the very young to the old, but one senses that the author is at his best describing those young adults at a college age; these stories seem especially alive because of their love affairs. Troncoso's stories are a treat for the soul.
A fool once implored his best friend to avoid the collision of disparate worlds at all costs. He imagined that two parts of his identity formed separate worlds that would both be destroyed if they ever came into contact with each other.
In first book of short stories, Sergio Troncoso bravely explores this 'collision of worlds' theory. Like the Río Grande of his native El Paso, Troncoso's stories flow effortlessly between his hometown and Ciudad Juárez, English and Spanish, the Atlantic Coast and the American West, the physical and the ethereal, life and death. And we the readers eagerly shuttle ourselves on the smooth and easy currents of his prose like so many Mexican immigrants stepping into new lives.
Once in these lives, we discover situations unique to those who cross between worlds. A Mexican woman is hit by a car in Texas while evading INS pursuers; a young man from Las Cruces struggles with the cultural shock of attending an elite Boston college; an old janitor apologizes to an angelic apparition of his wife for mistreating her in life. Having emerged from Troncoso's fused worlds, I am struck by the dignity and elegance that he lends the lives of regular folks, and herein lies the greatest strength of this talented newcomer. Troncoso accepts the notion of hybrid worlds and then focuses on portraying the inherent beauty of a humanity that knows no borders.
Please feel free to use these discussion questions for The Last Tortilla and Other Stories for writing classes and workshops.