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New voice in Chicano literature

El Paso Times

Even as a young boy, Sergio Troncoso wanted to excel so much that everyone thought of him as "el terco," a hard-headed over-achiever.

Troncoso insisted on riding his bicycle from Ysleta to the Segundo Barrio to see his grandmother, a distance better covered by bus. It was an early example of Troncoso's spirit and drive.

Troncoso, 38, returns home to El Paso on Saturday to promote his first published collection of short stories, "The Last Tortilla and Other Stories."

The son of Mexican immigrants, Troncoso often is described in literary circles as a promising new voice in Chicano literature. "The Last Tortilla" is drawn from Troncoso's experiences growing up in El Paso, a young boy who emerged from poverty in a shantytown in Ysleta just outside the Tigua Indian reservation called "Barraca" and made it to Harvard Square.

Troncoso graduated from Harvard College with honors and then, as if that were not enough, topped off his academic credentials with a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico and a pair of graduate degrees from Yale, where he now teaches writing.

His fiction --drawn from that menudo of experiences-- is brutally honest: a young man in love with an older woman from the other side of the border, an elderly couple beaten and robbed en route to the senior citizens' center and three boys playing a cruel game that results in another boy's death.

"A series of tales about older men and women explores their vulnerability, loneliness and faith in God as they near death, while other stories concentrate on young adults caught in the cultural gap between their Mexican heritage and American lives," Publishers Weekly said.

The irrigation ditch, the playground that nourished many of Troncoso's childhood fantasies, still runs behind the adobe house that his father built on San Lorenzo street, where Troncoso would hunt for frogs and snakes.

In Barraca, a barrio where families once had outhouses and no electricity or paved streets, the men still serenade the women on Mother's Day. Neighbors still look out for each other.

"The Last Tortilla" is getting favorable reviews and some Hollywood production companies have expressed interest.

"It's a mixed blessing," Troncoso said in a telephone interview from New York. "I care about writing more than anything else. I hope that people look at Chicanos from El Paso as being moral characters, not stereotypes or stick figures but complex people who think, who face difficult questions in their lives and who think seriously about how to weigh the issues."

Troncoso points to a couple of major influences in his life, besides his parents, who taught their four children solid values, including a strong work ethic, respect and tolerance for others.

Doña Lola Rivero, his maternal grandmother, inspired him with her fascinating cuentos of growing up in revolutionary Mexico. She also shared her philosophy: "El que adelante no ve atrás se queda." (He who does not look forward is left behind.)

His paternal grandfather, Santiago R. Troncoso, a rabble-rousing Mexican journalist whose outspoken criticism of the government landed him in jail dozens of times, is credited with publishing the first daily newspaper in Juárez, "El Día."

And though he has trained as an economist and once toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer, it was literature that has captured Troncoso's heart.

"I found that writing stories was how I could put all these things together," Troncoso said. "Writing about my past, exploring ideas and finding my own voice. Unlike other Latino writers, I like mixing philosophy with my literature, although it may not seem obvious."

The Troncoso children learned by example. Bertha helped support the family as a seamstress. Rodolfo, a self-taught draftsman who worked for engineering firms, thinks often of the boy who dared to be different and went so far.

"Sergio has never abandoned his Mexican roots," Rodolfo Troncoso said. "He has always been close to the family."

For his wedding back East, the writer asked that his parents take some Mexican beer and tamales from La Tapatia.

Rodolfo Troncoso, the patriarch of the family, always would pay his children a quarter for every "A" they made in school. And even today, on the rare times when the entire family is together, he still engages them in discussions about Aristotle or some literary work.

All the Troncoso children, Diana, Rodolfo Jr., Sergio and Oscar, obtained college degrees. When Troncoso left home and went to Harvard, his mother would mail him flautas to ease his loneliness.

Laurie Ryan, his fourth-grade teacher, remembers Troncoso as one of the most inquisitive students, the kind of kid who wanted to know not just why, but how snakes crawled. He was self-motivated, she said, the type of student who later would stay up until dawn studying.

Josefina Kinard, now the English department head at Del Valle High School, was Troncoso's journalism adviser at Ysleta High. She recalls Troncoso as an outspoken editorial writer, routinely testing the limits of expression, often writing about sex education, student apathy and other sensitive topics.

"Sergio was the top of all the bright children that I had," said Dolores Vega, who taught him in third grade. "He caught on very fast to whatever we taught."

In citywide junior high math competition, Troncoso won three gold medals.

"It always impressed me that he was multitalented, very strong in both math and writing," said Oscar Troncoso, Sergio's younger brother and an assistant principal at Americas High School.

Troncoso is working on a novel. In this work, he explores the right reasons that might justify killing somebody.


This feature article appeared in the El Paso Times on August 24, 1999.