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Reviews of The Last Tortilla and Other Stories

Troncoso, Sergio, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, University of Arizona Press, September 1999, 220 pp. ISBN: 0-8165-1960-9 (cloth), $40. ISBN: 0-8165-1961-7 (paper), $18.95.

·        Premio Aztlan Literary Prize for the Best Book by a new Chicano writer

·        Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association

A college 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 El Paso and Juárez, he weaves remarkable fiction from unremarkable lives, homing in on the small braveries that hide in the creases of day-to-day life. Although the longest story is only 40 pages, each one is an organic whole, full of characters who have lives as complete as the reader's. Troncoso eschews cheap sentimentality, relying instead on the straightforward narrative strength of his realistic stories to make his points. Enthusiastically recommended.


"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 El Paso setting lends them cultural depth. In "Punching Chickens," a teenage boy's first job is unloading chickens from trucks. At the end of the day he is bloodied and fatigued, but he is rewarded with the respect and camaraderie of his fellow workers, and the conviction that he will not quit or complain. 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. The title story brings these themes together as a lonely widower remarries a woman his children despise. The grown children hold on to Mexican traditions as much as possible, but speak a mix of English and Spanish, while the youngest, 11-year-old Juanito, is confused by the actions of adults, including his stepmother's rationing of tortillas. The prose may be plain and unadorned, but these stories are richly satisfying.

---Publishers Weekly

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.

---El Paso Times

A native of El Paso, and the son of Mexican immigrants, Troncoso attended Harvard University and then Yale, where he studied international relations and philosophy. He currently makes New York City his home, but El Paso and the experience of navigating between cultures are the basis of many of the stories in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories. However, Troncoso traverses more territory than the Mexican-in-an-Anglo-world one has come to expect from other Mexican-American writers. His stories explore differences in age, class, the college-educated vs. the street smart, and ideas of what it means to be Mexican north and south of the Rio Grande. But these ideas are not at the forefront of each story. What the reader will encounter is Troncoso's ability to magnify the small gestures and events of life that are packed with meaning, but go unspoken because language to describe them is elusive. Fortunately, Troncoso finds the precise words to describe these events and crafts them with great care.

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.

---Austin Chronicle

Set in the striking desert landscape of El Paso and its sister city, Juárez, Troncoso's border stories spotlight hard-working, often destitute characters who make difficult moral choices. From the earnest gardener who refuses money from his widowed employer in "The Gardener" to the young man who conceals the dark side of a neighbor's accidental death in "A Rock Trying to Be a Stone," these richly defined characters mirror the lives of real people. In the title story, a family copes with the loss of their mother. The eldest daughter, Alejandra, comforts herself by filling her mother's shoes. As she prepares dinner for her father and siblings, she hears her deceased mother's voice. The writing is graceful; the story is told without flourish or explanation. Troncoso effectively puts you inside the distracted mind of Alejandra. He also provides a mouthwatering description of making tamales reminiscent of the therapeutic meals in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. In "Angie Luna," Victor remembers the summer he returns home from Amherst College, to El Paso. He meets Angie Luna, a beautiful Mexican woman with whom he falls in love. Several times Victor crosses the border into Juárez, where he attends his first Mexican party. He worries about feeling out of place. He reflects, "I wasn't a real Mexican, and I wasn't American either." All matters of identity seem unimportant as their love grows. The border appears permeable, almost nonexistent. The river that would normally separate them is porous, and the people on either side, fluid. But when Angie Luna quits a good job to care for her ailing father in Chihuahua, and Victor returns to college at his ivy-league school, the border becomes a wall. Troncoso's stories describe the mental life, struggles, failures and victories of a people living between two worlds.

---Austin American-Statesman

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 iin 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.

Troncoso really 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 Kansas. I wanted to meet them. But his New York characters are empty to me and only reinforce the old saying "Write about what you know." Write about home. I liked most of the stories in this book. And more important, I think my students will like them too.

---David Rice for The Bloomsbury Review

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.

---The Texas Observer

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!"

---Albuquerque Journal

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.

---Multicultural Review

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.

---Weekly Alibi

Please feel free to use these discussion questions for The Last Tortilla and Other Stories 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.