Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Digital Media < Podcasts < Conversations with Other Writers <


Recorded summer 2012 via Skype, Washington DC to New York City

Main (Notes)
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Announcer: Conversations with Other Writers, with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist, C.M. Mayo.

C.M. Mayo: Sergio Troncoso and I were both born in the same place in the same year: El Paso, Texas, 1961. My parents, from New York and Chicago, landed in El Paso because of my dad's military service, and with his honorable discharge, we left for California almost immediately after I was born, so I have no recollections of El Paso. But Sergio, son of Mexican immigrants, grew up there steeped in the rich culture of the Ysleta Barrio. Many years later, when we'd both become writers, our paths intersected and so many times in fact at writer's conferences and book fairs, that I'm not sure when and where exactly we met.

I think it was when we had lunch with our mutual friend, the writer José Skinner, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, and I think that was in Chicago, or maybe it was Austin.

On another occasion, we hung out for a spell with the writer Sarah Cortez at the Texas Book Fair. Then there was a long lunch with Literal magazine's editor, Rose Mary Salum at the Feria de Libros in Guadalajara. This is kind of how it is for many writers. We're all spread out from California to Philadelphia, Brownsville to Boston, Houston to Salt Lake City, Utah, Miami to, in my case, Mexico City. We spend most of our time alone and with our families and non-writer friends. Then, for fleeting moments but a few times a year, if that, there's a little fiesta of literary community at an event, a book fair, a conference. Of course, in the meantime, we communicate online and now we have Skype. This software that enables us to have real-time voice and video conversations from computer to computer.

One of the reasons I started this series of occasional podcasts was that I don't get enough of this community. I love having old fashioned, writerly conversations, and I suspect that you, if you're listening, do too.

Sergio Troncoso is the author of four books. His latest are the wonderful novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust from University of Arizona Press, and a collection, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays from Arte Público Press. Troncoso's first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, won the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize and the Southwest Book Award. His second book, The Nature of Truth, is a philosophical novel about obsession, violence, and the pursuit of truth at Yale.

Troncoso graduated from Harvard College and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to Mexico where he studied economics, politics, and literature. He is a member of the Hispanic Scholarship Funds' Alumni Hall of Fame and PEN. In 2012, he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

Troncoso teaches writing workshops at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center and is a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers' Conference. He writes the blog ChicoLingo.com about writing, politics, and finance. Our conversation took place this summer, 2012, by Skype from my office to Sergio's in New York City.


C.M. Mayo: You've written in your essay "Literature and Migration," "against much of popular American fiction, my stories are not primarily to entertain the reader but to unmoor him. I want the reader to face, through my characters perhaps, what he will not face himself." I think you've done that so beautifully in your novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust. Maybe we could talk about that a little bit more. It's somewhat loosely based on your own family, isn't it?

Sergio Troncoso: Yeah, it is. You know, it's fiction but the emotions are true. That's what I would say. The characters and what happens in that family is not necessarily my life or my family's life, but the emotions are true. I wanted to do something very different because I wanted to write about a group as a protagonist, not an individual, and really get to this idea of what is culture. The culture you get is from your family primarily at the beginning. But then after a while, after people start becoming individuals, the kids when they're small are mostly tied to the parent and doing what the parent does. And then part of growing up is splitting away, creating your own life. You live, I think, a bifurcated existence in a family of a group life and an individual life. At a certain point, you fragment and start pulling away. All these questions from this Martínez family that begins in Ysleta is, I think, questions for our country.

How are we still a country when the Republicans and the Democrats don't talk to each other? You know, you have these fragmented antipodes, religious differences, racial differences, class differences. In what sense are we still a whole, a we? How are we still a we? That was the central question in the novel, and I wanted to play it out through this family. One of the siblings, Julia, adopts Islam and her Mexican parents are shocked and so there's a lot of argument and problems with that.

Then the character more tied to my feelings and my life ends up in New York, marries a Jewish woman and so you have this huge messy family arguing things like 9/11 and trying to still stay together even though they're being pulled apart.

C.M. Mayo: You describe so well that small community, very contained, close to El Paso in Ysleta and then how, as time goes by, the world opens up and the children, as you did, you went to Harvard and your sister did end up going abroad. And I read in your blog you have a brother who's right now deployed in Afghanistan.

Sergio Troncoso: He just returned and he's okay. He finished his tour of duty. It was an 11 month tour of duty and he's back in one piece, which of course thrills my mother. She's been praying every night, lighting candles to the Virgen, but he's fine. He just got back.

C.M. Mayo: In your novel you showed us so well how the transformation over just one or two generations is so dramatic. I think that really is a story that can be told— it is sort of the quintessential American story. I can also say, from my family, which is Irish from New York and Scottish-English-Welsh and where the family is now, scattered all over and I'm married to a Mexican and my sister's in California... There's this centrifugal effect.

Sergio Troncoso: If you try to go back to where you were as a kid, that's gone. But that doesn't mean you're not a family, and that doesn't mean you don't have connections and relations and you have to adapt through using…you know, some of the reviewers have commented about the dialogue and how they love dialogue all through the phone or we're having a dialogue right now through Skype. That's how you try to maintain these relations through using technology, you're in different parts of the world, uou may even adopt a different religion, politics but you're trying to stay together with who you were in a new way and in an adult way. I think that's a struggle we definitely face.

I think sometimes we fail. Sometimes we don't remain together as a group. I had a very serious fight with my father and it took three years before we spoke ever again. I even wrote an essay about it. I wondered before we made up, before we actually finally came to peace with what happened, I wondered if he would die before we made our peace. Luckily, we did but sometimes it just doesn't come back ever, that togetherness.

C.M. Mayo: Can you talk about your sister?

Sergio Troncoso: Sure. My sister, she was a Chicana. She would probably still consider herself a Chicana from El Paso. She was heavily into liberation theology as a university student at UTEP and then she went to different places, finished her degree eventually in Washington DC. I think at American University but skipped around the United States. She went to Central America, influenced by sort of the radical wing of the Catholic Church doing liberation theology and all sorts of things and eventually converted to Islam. She's a polyglot so she knows Farsi and Arabic and French. The interesting thing is they have five kids, Irani-Mex. My sister married an Iranian professor of political science, whom she met in school. He's a wonderful person, very studious, very focused. Their kids are just brilliant kids.

Fatima, the oldest, my niece is in her late 20s. She's finishing a doctorate at the University of Maryland in gender studies, comparing Latin America and certain Islamic Middle Eastern countries. She's also a polyglot.

The youngest niece, Magdieh, started as a 16-year-old at Johns Hopkins in an undergraduate program. A brilliant mathematician. So these kind of mixtures and mezclas and mestizo are making interesting, wonderful new people.

You know, I have another niece who wore the chador... My sister I think is a more conservative Muslim than her kids, which is typical. Just like my mother was a more conservative Catholic than I became or my sister became. But another, Magdieh, just spent a year in Puebla at the Universidad a Las Americas. She got a scholarship and she spent a year there perfecting her Spanish. So you have all these crossing borders, so to speak. My sister's family, just like my family, are all these bridges. It also can leave you very lonely because at a certain point you don't know, well, where do I belong? Who am I?

C.M. Mayo: One of the things you wrote in your essays that really struck me was, "on good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone."

Sergio Troncoso: Right. I think that's my reality. If you're curious and if you're open to the world, whether it's a new religion or going to the synagogue, if you grew up going to posadas, and you're now going to High Holy Day services with your wife whenever she goes, she's not that religious. Or you celebrate Ramadan with your sister. If you wanted that experience, you want to learn about the culture, it makes you a voyager, a traveler, an explore of cultures and languages, but it also, at a certain point, you kind of turn back and say, where am I? Oh my God, I'm on a cliff! I am so alone. Can I go back? You can't go back. In a way, it's exciting and you really do learn many new things and it teaches you, I think, to be a humanist. That's what it taught me.

When I look at somebody and I just met them for the first time and I have a certain impression, I say, Sergio, cut that out. Try to find out who they are. Get beyond that appearance or that initial impression. I don't know their religion or their point of view and I'm getting this initial reaction. Keep going forward. Find out who they are. I think that's what it does because you find wonderful people everywhere and you also find…you know... can you say "assholes" on your podcast? You know, you also find assholes everywhere. It's just the way it is. A lot of people who never left El Paso or I'm sure in Muslim communities or Jewish communities, never left their own little community, don't want that openness, don't want to explore somebody new or a culture.

It took me a long time to get here. Believe me, I had my own narrow points of views. And it's never a kumbaya moment. One of the things we learn is there's no kumbaya moment. It's individuals. You'll find great individuals. I love my nieces. Why? Because they're really smart, they're intellectual. They are going at school like they're just cracking open a nut and their minds are just these powerful tools, just like me. They're not following what I did. I'm not a mathematician, but you can just see the joy and the study and the focus. I certainly love that.

C.M. Mayo: I can relate to that very much because, as you know, I married a Mexican and live in Mexico. I think living abroad definitely changes you. Marrying someone from a different background definitely opens up your mind very broadly.

Sergio Troncoso: Can I ask you a question? Why are some people like that? Why do some people say let's try this differently? Let's go live abroad. Let's go look at this religion. I may not adopt it but I just want to see. And other people don't want to leave their little home, their little community. Some are cerrados, as I would say in Spanish, they're close-minded. Is that just a function of character you think?

C.M. Mayo: I think it's stressful to consider new things. And it's very stressful to live in ambiguity where you say, well, I don't know. I meet this person and as you were saying, don't judge people. So you meet this person and you think, oh, that's a Chicano or that's an African-American and I've got that all figured out. But to stand back and say, well, OK... they look this way, but maybe I'm wrong about them. You know, I'm sure somebody who just met one of your nieces on the street would never guess that their mother was from El Paso and their father was from Iran. They just wouldn't guess that. People don't necessarily walk around with full information on their forehead! Not knowing, living in ambiguity is…knowing how to live in ambiguity and how to stay open and at the same time navigate the world, I think it's stressful. I think it's hard for people. And so it's just much easier to have certainty. It's just emotionally, psychologically easier, and so people do what's easy.

Sergio Troncoso: I think you're right. I think a lot of it has to do with the kind of parents you have. I mean, I have parents who were very traditional Mexican parents but when I wanted to go to Harvard…they didn't even know how to apply to a student loan. I thought Harvard was near Chicago when I was a kid in Ysleta. I had no clue, but they said, try it. They said go ahead. If you can do it we'll scrape up whatever money we can and we'll send it to you but you'll have to do most of it on your own.

Next door to us were Mexican parents just like my parents who said, "Oh, m'ija, don't go." We're going to hug you so tightly that we're going to choke you. You're never going to go beyond this street.

Why are some parents saying, "try it, go do it! I don't know what it is. I don't know what Harvard is or Yale is or this other world but give it a whirl." And other parents…I think they're forms of love. My parents allowed us to go because they loved us.

Just like when I was a 12-year-old and I biked 15 miles through Alameda Street in El Paso, most 12-year-olds don't do that. But my parents said as long as you don't get killed and take dimes. At that point, you put dimes in the [phones]…there were no cell phones. Do it. Try it. I think my parents taught us to give it a shot. You know, go and try this, to their detriment in a way because some of the kids never came back. On the other hand, I think they said this is how we want to run our family. I notice that, too, in Jewish communities, in Muslim communities there are some parents who say, "Go try that, even if it's different from us. Go explore that. That's okay, that's actually good."

Other parents who just keep them so close and don't want them out of their sight. If there's an opportunity they might not even tell the kid, because if they allow them to go they won't ever see them again.

C.M. Mayo: I've seen that. There's a close analogy with reading in families where the kids just watch television and the parents just watch television, and families where the children are encouraged to read. I am always completely befuddled by people who don't read. I can't understand why. It's like being in a candy store and you can have anything and you eat the stale bread in the corner. I mean to me that's what watching television is.

You've written a lot about reading and the culture of reading both in your essays and in your novel the main character…well, I realize it's a story about a family but I think clearly the main character is the one who seems to be based most closely on yourself and how important reading is for him.

Sergio Troncoso: Ismael.

C.M. Mayo: You wrote in your ChicoLingo blog, Friday May 18 [2012], you had a piece on why read. I have all these quotes I noted down. It was such a good essay. "We are becoming accustomed to a culture focused primarily on images." Then you go into talking about television and what kind of gulag is it when its inhabitants are too stupid to understand they are its prisoners. Finally, this I could really relate to— I live in a different milieu of my own creation. I just stopped watching television. I watched the Mexican Presidential Debate, other than that, I have not watched television.

Sergio Troncoso: Did you see that hot woman giving the paper?

C.M. Mayo: Actually, I missed that one. That's another blessing of not watching television. Those of you who are listening to this a long time after the event, the first Mexican Presidential Debate of 2012 had a moderator who had been…hadn't she been a Playboy Bunny?

Sergio Troncoso: A Playboy Bunny, right.

C.M. Mayo: And she wore an outfit that was quite inappropriate actually. I was just appalled. I think the average Mexican was amused, but deeply offended actually by that.

Sergio Troncoso: It is. It's disgraceful but I think watching TV is watching images and mostly just reacting. That's what I think. Reading is more something where you have to consider and weigh and think in a way that is very different from just watching an image. I think the more we become an image culture the more we're just reacting. I like this. I hate that. Not I'm going to think about it or I'm going to get beyond the surface. I think that's what's happening to us. We've created this gulag and we're becoming most stupid, to be blunt. You see this in many people. They just have no interest anymore in reading.

I think what you'll see though is you'll see these pockets of people who refuse to go there, who know that the debates are so abysmal, whether it's a Mexican Presidential Debate or Romney and Obama. I mean, they're idiotic. They're just kind of blurbs that have nothing to do with thought that's complex that could be dangerous or could be courageous. It's all about a little tiny blurb that sticks in somebody's mind. Most people's brains are shrinking. That's what I think. [Laughter]

You know, I've even read…my father-in-law is a neurologist so he sends me these articles all the time but he actually said there's been studies in which people who are constantly problem solving, whether it's puzzles or whether it's reading or whether it's whatever mathematical problems that you just do for fun, their brains and the number of neural connections grow over time. Where people who don't do that, their neural connections shrink, some of them die off and you can't get them again. The brain is like a muscle. You use it, it becomes stronger. If you don't use it, it atrophies. That's what's going to happen with most of us who are just used to being on the boob tube.

C.M. Mayo: It's very 1984 out there in a lot of ways. Let me come back to this other issue of being a writer in this world where suddenly it's not a choice of, do I watch television or, do I read a book, but it's a choice of, do I listen to a podcast, do I visit someone's website, do I read someone's blog, do I engage with Twitter, do I go to YouTube?

With this digital explosion I feel like the world of image and this more proactive, more thoughtful world of engaging as a reader kind of overlaps because there are some videos that are just really inane but there are some that are wonderful. I'm a big fan of the TED videos, you know where people get up and speak on specific subjects. They're very polished and very informative. You can have your sandwich at lunchtime and watch a TED video and actually learn something.

So in that sense, an image-heavy diet of media could actually be good because it's engaging my mind, it's getting me to think, it's getting me to learn. But we're really in this world that was unthinkable to us when we were in high school and college. Our generation, born in 1961, we really started writing in a world where you either self-published, in which case nobody ever read anything you did, or you got an agent and went to a New York publishing house and then they would try to get you publicity in newspapers and magazines and maybe if you were really lucky and maybe you were Truman Capote you could be on TV. But basically that was what you were looking at. Now, suddenly, anybody and everybody can start a blog, a podcast, a video, engage on Twitter, engage on YouTube.

I've been very fascinated and very engaged with it. I wouldn't say that's true of everyone in our generation of writers but that's true for you. You have ChicoLingo blog, you have a YouTube page, you have a podcast feed on iTunes. Can you talk about how that's affected you as a writer?

Sergio Troncoso: Well, it gets me to readers and that's why I do it. People discover me and have interactions just like we're having right now. So, I think I tried to use the technology to reach out. For example, when I was doing my thesis at Harvard you did not have in your computer on your desk basically libraries of the world, and now you do!

It also worked the other way around. It became more democratic. Anyone with a little digital camera could do a stupid YouTube video or a great YouTube video like a TED video. I tried to use the technology to put a more thoughtful face out there, at least for me. I love it. I'm definitely a techie. I created my own website. Nobody ever helped me with it. I do the whole thing and I learned over many, many years and a lot of mistakes and I love hearing from readers.

I believe these little communities exist out there. People who are still serious readers who love a little more content rather than the fluff. who might still look at who's wearing that hot dress or whose abs are perfect and whose abs are not. But there are also people who want to read [books] by James Joyce or Catherine Mayo or Emily Dickinson and they want to hear what you have to say in a video. I think that would be cool.

One of the coolest things I discovered recently on the Internet, Flannery O'Connor, the namesake of one of the prizes you won, was reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find." She's reading it in front of an audience. I love hearing her voice and the audiences reaction to that. I don't know if you've heard that.

C.M. Mayo: No, I haven't.

Sergio Troncoso: It's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." She reads the entire story, word for word.

C.M. Mayo: On YouTube?

Sergio Troncoso: Well, it's just an audio.

C.M. Mayo: But I can Google it and find it? [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQT7y4L5aKU ]

Sergio Troncoso: Yeah. You can probably find it. If not I have it somewhere because I Twittered it and put it on Facebook. The other exciting thing I found recently, I listened to all the [Jorge Luis] Borges lectures at Harvard. He gave five lectures at Harvard and that's his voice.

C.M. Mayo: I have to write this down and go find it. I had no idea. It's like these riches are just appearing on the Internet.

Sergio Troncoso: Absolutely. And you can have it in your house. See, that's the thing. We used to have to go to Widener Library or New York Public Library to find it. You can actually do it all at your house. I think that's the wonder and the greatness of the Internet. You can now listen to all five Borges lectures for free, and you were never there. You can listen to Flannery O'Connor reading one of the best stories I think probably written, certainly in a long time.

I think that's why I use YouTube. I want to just have a voice. That's the reason why I started writing in the first place. I wanted to have a voice. The Internet allows me to have a voice even if I say, uh, and duh and blah, and my abs are not perfect, and blah, blah, blah. I think my readers will probably overlook much of that.

C.M. Mayo: I found it wonderful to have it because writers in the past were so dependent on gatekeepers. So, if I want to say something I can say it and maybe I'll have only two readers but it's there, and you can read it.

And also to not be dependent on shelf space. It used to be that your book would come out and it would have a lifetime of about cottage cheese on the bookshelf, and then the books would come off the shelf in order for the next season's books to come in. People really couldn't get your book unless they special-ordered it, which was a laborious process, most people didn't bother with, but now they can just click on Amazon and get your book. Effectively, your books are available much longer than they were. Of course, you're now competing with many more people because anyone can publish a book and anyone can start a blog. There's no filter there.

For our generation, having gone through high school and college and graduate school as well—you did grad school at Yale and I did grad school at University of Chicago— we didn't have the Internet, and yet, when we started publishing our books— we both brought out our books about the same time and continued on at about the same time—now we're just in a completely different milieu.

Sergio Troncoso: Yeah. It is a little crazy and there's a lot of junk on the Internet, but there's also great stuff. There are these writers that you admire and you can connect to them. One of the best uses of the Internet for me is talking to students live. Just like right now on Skype and I've done that with a lot of high schools, a few colleges. The kids are there, they're in the classroom and I'm here in my office and they ask me questions. We go at it for an hour, an hour-and-a-half. They read my story before we get online and I don't have to go anywhere. No planes, no getting stuck in Kansas City for two days. I was stuck in Kansas City this weekend.

C.M. Mayo: I saw that on your Twitter feed. You were tweeting with a Delta Airlines agent.

Sergio Troncoso: It was awful. They started offering me money. That's why I did it, by the way. The Twitter thing on Delta because I could get back at Delta. And it worked! As soon as I started tweeting with Delta and telling them, your airline sucks, they just canceled my flight. Then they send a plane that doesn't work. Then they send the third plane in which 100 people are stranded and you can only fit 20 people! Everyone's scrambling to be one of those 20 to get on that plane to get back to New York and that's it or you're there a third day. So I said I'm going to burn Delta. This is democracy of the Twitter. You can now hit back at corporations and say, look, they're treating me awfully. Yeah, they responded because they don't want the bad PR. I think that's great about the Internet.

C.M. Mayo: One of the last topics but a really important one I want to touch on- it's topical and these podcasts are intended to be online for a long time so this may not be news by the time you're listening to this- but I think it's a timeless topic in a way: Arizona House Bill 2281, which went into effect January, 2011. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the law in the State of Arizona says it is "illegal to teach books in public and charter schools that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for peoples of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of peoples as individuals." The target for this really was Mexican-American studies.

But if you stop and think about it, a book that promotes resentment toward a race or class of people, I think I would probably include every single readable novel published on planet Earth. I mean Huckleberry Finn, anything by Edith Wharton, anything by Flannery O'Connor. I mean come on, this is ridiculous. It's really sort of Bavaria 1937 there. I've seen on the Internet Librotraficante and Tony Díaz and his group, Nuestra Palabra, in Houston has made a really valiant effort to publicize this and fight it. But I'm surprised that there's not more reaction to this, that there's not more outrage. I'm really surprised because I think it's absolutely outrageous. It's fascist.

Sergio Troncoso: I agree. I think Jan Brewer and John Huppenthal, the Attorney General in Arizona, they're idiots in my mind.

C.M. Mayo: Jan Brewer is the governor, right?

Sergio Troncoso: Yeah, they're idiots and they really are targeting Latinos. I've read these books that they banned and it does not create some sort of resentment. What it does is it gives you pride in the history often never told to Latino, Mexican-American, Chicano students that is an invisible history because you're an invisible culture in a bigger white culture. I have personal stories about that, things that happened to my family that later became part of history but were excluded from Texas schoolbooks and in many ways still are.

I'll give you an example. My grandfather, Santiago Troncoso, he was an editor and publisher of El Dia, one of the first daily newspapers in Juárez in the '20s and '30s. He was deloused whenever he would cross the border. That meant he was sprayed with kerosene and chemicals and even at a certain point DDT. This happened for decades. This started during the Mexican Revolution and continued on to the '50s. They had delousing centers that looked like concentration camps where every time you would cross the border they'd say strip, take all your clothes, we're going to spray you with chemicals and then you've got to put your clothes back on. Now you can cross, because you're a dirty Mexican.

So, a friend of mine, David Romo, wrote a book about this. It's all there, it's all history, it's all immigration history. They don't talk about this in Texas. They've never put it in a Texas schoolbook, and yet it really scarred thousands of people that came over.

Imagine when you come to this country—and of course it didn't disinfect anything, it just created all sorts of skin problems and created all sorts of self-esteem problems. It's not a part of Texas history until recently when Romo's book, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, became such a popular book.

He also found out that German scientists—because he went to German academic journals in the '20s— came to El Paso to look at the delousing procedures and were praising in German academic journals, praising El Paso for using a watered down version of Zyklon-B. They said, "shouldn't we use this or think about using this for our pests?" Of course, Zyklon-B is what was used to kill Jews in the showers of the Nazi death camps. Where might they have gotten this idea? From El Paso! From the INS in the '20s and '30s and '40s when they were using that!

So, all this history is there, it's always been there but you hide it. You know, the "Remember the Alamo" state, "you don't want to talk about all this crap we did to Mexicans and still do to Mexicans." And Arizona is replaying that.

I think we don't want to talk about that history. When we talk about that history, "oh, you're going to make all these white guys look bad." These people who are members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Mayor of El Paso during the Mexican Revolution was reportedly a member of the Klan. They don't want to talk about this. To not talk about it, they decide to ban books. That's what they're doing in Arizona. In many ways replaying these things, trying to whitewash history.

It is a disgrace and it is awful that you don't have more…I've heard some African-Americans calling it out. I've heard other people calling it out but there should be more outrage in this community of what Arizona has done banning books that are actually good books teaching you about history. Mexican-American history in which of course not everything is rosy for a certain part of white culture that really discriminated against and in many ways harmed Mexican-American students.

I think a lot of it is, we're in a recession. People are afraid of their jobs. They need to blame somebody, and they need to score political points. [For] Jan Brewer, an easy way to score political points is, "blame the Mexicans for it. Let's blame Mexican-American students and what they're teaching them." Of course, people in these programs had a higher rate of graduation than people who were not in these programs. It doesn't teach you to hate a culture, it teaches you to understand where you are, what's your history and then to be proud of that history, and to succeed later in life and not to be close-minded, but to say, we shouldn't let these things happen.

I would love to go into Jewish communities in Arizona. There are a lot of retirement communities, and talk about the Romo history that he discovered in El Paso and say, this happened to the Jewish community. You cannot let this be repeated. The banning of books now because the group is Mexican-Americans or Chicanos. This kind of cycle happens all the time. I think if you would do that you'd have a lot less people from the Jewish community being quiet. They would be outraged. They would say, "there's a connection here."

I think we need to do that repeatedly. It's easy to blame the powerless, the dark skinned other, that person with a funny accent, for all the ailments in our society. They can't defend themselves. And students who can't vote. Of course, it's easy to blame them. They're the easiest targets for power hungry politicians.

So I think that's what's happening in Arizona. It is a little shocking that there is not more outrage, but I think also people are callous. I've seen it many groups. "They're doing it to them. They're not doing it to us so why should I worry? You know, it's not my problem. They don't have any money. I don't want anything from them. They're relatively powerless, poor so why bother. Why bother defending them or speaking out against the banning of books or the banning of Mexican-American curriculum in Arizona."

It's surprising how people are callous. I think people get more callous as the economy worsens. I think we saw this in Depression. People look out for number one. Maybe that's why you had such a muted reaction outside of the Mexican-American community. I wouldn't say it's completely no reaction because I have heard many African-Americans speak against it and a few other people who are not white people.

C.M. Mayo: This could really be turned towards anybody, the way it's defined. Although we know the context is it was anti-Chicano studies, if you look at the wording, it could be applied to absolutely any book you want. I find it really frightening.

Sergio Troncoso: I remember seeing an interview from one of the school board members who voted for the ban of Mexican-American studies in the Tucson School District. He said very bluntly, this is aimed at Latinos. In fact, as soon as he said that there were calls for his resignation and he resigned because he said basically what they were doing anyway. So, although it could be applied to anyone it was really aimed at Mexican-Americans they just couldn't be so bold as to put that into law and say, "we want to ban Mexican-American studies."

I've been to Tucson. I wrote even a blog piece about this, Phoenix is very different from Tucson. The political power in many ways, the population centers are in Phoenix. The politicians from Phoenix are the ones who are driving this ban and also a lot of people told me when I was down there for the Tucson Book Festival is that many of these people are outsiders, people who came from California, recent immigrants into Arizona to retire from the Midwest and are not native of the state and the people who have…I was talking to somebody who is blonde and blue-eyed who has four generations in Arizona. She was telling me, "this is outrageous, this is stupid. We've lived with Mexicans all our lives. We've intermarried." They were outraged and these were Tucson people saying they were outraged at what Phoenix in many ways is imposing on the Tucson School District.

So there are a lot of complexities that we don't see. It's not the entire state of Arizona but the powers that be are not necessarily even native Arizonans, they're just people who came from the outside and now live there and are just trying to recreate something perhaps they couldn't do in Indiana or couldn't do in California.

C.M. Mayo: The complexities point is one I completely understand.

Sergio Troncoso: By the way, when I was at Tucson Book Festival, the only person who spoke in favor of the ban was another Mexican-American writer that I met. I'm not going to name the names. But you're imagining it's all the gringos doing this to us. No, that's true. There's a swath of "Hispanics" who favor the ban and are trying to become white or whatever you want to call it. But it is complex and I think we should not try to reduce…we should try to say it the way it is.

C.M. Mayo: I didn't grow up in El Paso, although I was born there so I'm not a border person in that sense, but I married a Mexican and have lived in Mexico many years, so maybe not in a geographic sense but in a cultural sense I feel like I'm really a border person. Of course, now I'm doing a book about Far West Texas, which is also very much about the border and this idea of families who've intermarried and had cross-border families for many generations that might not necessarily look the way you might expect them to look. Someone might look very Mexican whose name is German and someone whose name is Pepe González and they might look like you would expect them to be named Claude Magillicutty or something.

Sergio Troncoso: I had cousins from Delicias who were blonde and blue-eyed and they didn't speak a word of English.

C.M. Mayo: I think this is one thing that people who get their image of Mexico from the American media just completely miss that, that Mexico is multi-ethnic. It's had a lot of German, Italian, French, English, Lebanese, a lot of immigration from other parts of the world and it's pretty mixed up. I know a lot of Mexicans who've traveled in the U.S. and when people say, "where are you from?" and they say, "I'm from Mexico," they're like, "don't make fun of me." "Yes, I'm from Mexico!" "You can't be Mexican. You don't look Mexican. Your name's not Mexican."

Sergio Troncoso: So they have this image. They can't liberate themselves of what is a Mexican in their head. It's like a shackle in their minds.

C.M. Mayo: Exactly. What's so interesting to me about your latest novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, is precisely how there's this community that you think is going to fit into this box—Mexican immigrants near El Paso in this Mexican-American community— but then it turns into something very different and based on the real world. These trends and realities that really happen. The daughter goes and works with the Sisters of Mercy in Italy and the son gets a scholarship to Harvard. Now we're all connected right in our living rooms. You can Skype to Afghanistan from your living room!

Sergio Troncoso: A writer I really like, Rigoberto González, said, "Sergio embedded the Mexican-American community in the global sphere, in all of life, and we've got to get out of the barrio." We are out of the barrio. We have been out of the barrio, some of us have been at least.

Sometimes with stereotypes we shackle ourselves and say, "we can only write about X, Y, Z, gangs," or, "we can always write about familia from the barrio because that's what New York wants."

The other reason why I don't necessarily think New York publishing is what you should have your goal at, because there are editors and agents that have no clue as to what's going on, on the border or what's going on with Mexicanos, but they have an idea, which is usually a kind of weird little stereotype of what they are. So they want that cookie cutter repeated and repeated and repeated. I think you have to resist that.

That's why for me if New York publishes what I write but not try to manipulate what I write…I was once at a New York publisher, a very famous one, I won't name who it is. Everyone would be thrilled. They called me in their office and said, "we're interested in some of your work but will you do this?" Their idea for a good novel for me was a Chicano at Harvard in which he goes through sexcapades, you know, relationships and discovers who he is through his sexcapades. He said, "you write some of these scenes really well." I have a few short stories in which there's sort of romance going on and hot and heavy stuff going on, but, "the hot Latino at Harvard," it's ridiculous! Of course, I said, "that's not what I do. It may sell a lot of books for you. Maybe you can get somebody else to write that for you but that's not who I am or what I'm doing."

You have to resist not just the stereotypes other people have of you but the stereotypes you may have of your own community in your mind that prevent you from doing more expansive work or from testing these boundaries. All you have to look at is your own family.

No one fits in a nice little cookie cutter anymore. I think that's rare. Whether people will write about it and buy the book, that's a different story.

C.M. Mayo: What are you working on now?

Sergio Troncoso: I've been editing an anthology that's tentatively entitled…we keep changing the title... about violence along the border and how it's affected culture. We have Mexican writers writing from different…everything will be in English but their work has been…some great Mexican writers writing about how it's changed their lives, their communities, their families and also Latino writers writing everywhere from Texas to California and how the border used to be intertwined, families on both sides, communities going back and forth and how the border violence has ripped that apart.

[NOTE: Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, was published by Arte Público Press in 2013.]

C.M. Mayo: And also 9/11.

Sergio Troncoso: Absolutely. The paranoia, the xenophobia. It didn't used to be this 40 foot or whatever-it-is fence on the border highway in El Paso, now it is.

I wanted to take my kids to Juárez. They were dying to go to Juárez to see it but there's so much warfare going on I wouldn't dare do that, and yet they're missing out on finding out about where their grandparents grew up and where they went to eat and just hanging out in Juárez, which I used to do all the time. I would do it every week. I would drive there and occasionally you had to give a mordida to a policeman or something like that would happen. It certainly was safe. I didn't fear for my life. I didn't see armed people, the army with machine guns, on top of Jeeps looking at me.

So, it's really destroyed the border in many ways. The place where you could sort of interact back and forth between countries and cultures and so I wanted to write about that or I wanted other people to write about it. I'm editing it with Sarah Cortez, who's also a good friend of mine. People who haven't lived on the border may not have realized how connected the border was to each other.

C.M. Mayo: Yes, because I think people have this idea that Mexicans were over here and Americans were over here, and they don't understand the border culture. I saw that a lot when I did my book about Baja California and the border as a culture can go pretty deep on either side.

Sergio Troncoso: I want to ask you a question because you brought up 9/11. My question is this, are you defined by your enemies? What I mean is that 9/11…You know, I live in New York City, I was here when it happened. I remember the day. I wrote about it because a newspaper called me that same day and said, "Sergio, we need a piece by 2:00." So I had to write it and it appeared in a lot of places because it was a very emotional piece. But I think what happened to us as a country is that in some ways we were defined by that act. We started acting in a much more close-minded way, in a much more xenophobic way. Just as if I'm sitting in my house here in my apartment and somebody comes and attacks me because they get into the house and suddenly I'm sort of a carefree, flippant guy becomes paranoid, becomes worried, becomes, "I can't sleep at night." I start putting extra locks on the door, creating more walls in which before I was more free. So, the question is, are we defined by our enemies even though we don't want to be? That bothers me. I think that's what 9/11 did to us. I think it created more of these walls along the border and more Arizona problems, banning Mexicans and of course there were no Mexicans on those flights that felled the Twin Towers and attacked the Pentagon.

But suddenly, the easiest target…we couldn't get to many of the radical Muslims or the radical people who did this to us, but we had an easy target here in our country and that's who we aimed at because we could do it. I think that's what happened to us. We got defined a little bit by our enemies. Can we ever avoid it? Does that just take time after a while to get rid of that? Will we never get rid of that? I wonder.

C.M. Mayo: It's a story that we tell ourselves. That's one of the reasons why writers, even if not everybody reads our books, you can tell a story that's maybe a different story and then even if people don't actually read the book they learn the story and they repeat the story or they hear the story from somebody else. There's a sort of narrative structure. I understand a lot about 9/11 because I was in Washington on the day that that happened. It was pretty terrifying.

I also think though that where we've gone as a culture with this has a great deal to do with money. I think the same as with the problems on the border. I mean, I think the border has been very affected by 9/11. When I've been talking to people near the border in West Texas that comes up over and over again. "It was like this before 9/11 and then..." A lot of families would cross the river or even toss things across the river. "Get Grandma her medicine in Presidio and toss it back so she doesn't have to drive all the way to Ojinaga," that kind of thing. You can't do that anymore.

So, 9/11 I think affected people but also the problems of violence at the border have so much to do with the drug war now. With all of these things you really have to say, who's making money out of contracting services for TSA, for prisons? There are people who've made massive fortunes on these services provided to the government. They have lobbying firms in Washington. I just don't think we always think about what are the true incentives behind some of these things.

Part of it's a story that we tell ourselves. We are in danger and we have to be careful of Islamic fascists, yes. But part of it also is there's somebody in Washington with a lobbyist who's making a lot of money out of providing security services that maybe we need and maybe we don't.

Sergio Troncoso: Or building private prisons, filling them up with undocumented workers and then getting paid a lot of money by the federal government to house them. That's a huge moneymaker. Or these like Sheriff Arpaio and all these others along the border who fan the flames of danger and insecurity along the border and they can get huge federal grants to have three or four police cars per sheriff, per policeman and brand new office buildings all for "9/11 security." So there is a lot of private money and incentive to keep this 9/11 industry going.

The same thing, by the way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. These military suppliers want to keep that war going because they're making hundreds of millions of dollars. Dick Cheney's friend supplying our soldiers over there who don't want to be there, many of them who don't want to be there. You want to call it the military industrial complex. Now it's sort of the border security industrial complex that wants to keep 9/11 at the forefront of our mind because they make tons of money on it.

C.M. Mayo: What's going to happen with your book? When does it come out?

Sergio Troncoso: Well, I think 2013.

C.M. Mayo: Do you have a title for it?

Sergio Troncoso: Our Lost Border. Or The Lost Border. But it could end up being something else. It depends on the publisher. I'm writing stories. I just finished a story on a Mexican-American in Iraq. I interviewed Marines to understand their life in Iraq. You know, what is the smell of the desert like in Iraq that's different from the smell of the desert in El Paso? The sand has a different consistency in Iraq than it does in El Paso. It's not the same kind of sand. It's more of a clay sand. These incredible, riveting stories. One of the largest segments of the military are these Latino soldiers that rarely get any kind of press, and what's going on in their minds. A lot of it is because my brother went through it. I'm interested in hearing their stories. They have phenomenal stories. It's just a matter of picking and choosing which version of one I want to tell, so I'm working on smaller pieces, and working on this anthology, and also planning another novel.

The blog I kind of ignored when I was traveling for my books. But the interesting thing is several pieces on the blog have been picked up by these major publishers. How they find it, I don't know. Pearson Longman just called me last week and they said, "we want to print two of your pieces from the blog in a textbook on writing." You want to pay me this amount? They said, "yeah, we'll pay you that amount." That was great. It was like a blog. I never expected…a blog I just write because it's something burning in my mind and I've got to write it. Then when somebody finds it I'm almost shocked. When somebody pays me for it, that's even more shocking to me. I don't tell them that. I'm a hard negotiator but secretly in my mind I'm shocked. You want that? They said, "we want that." A few days in which the writing life is not miserable.

C.M. Mayo: As a wrap-up thought, one of the things that's so interesting to be publishing now as opposed to 10 years ago, 20 years ago is that when you bring a book out it can have the typical launch. You know, you have a publisher, they launch it, you try to get reviews, you try to get some gigs for reading, do a book tour, get on the blogs, all the typical stuff you do. But the books now are not really dependent on being found on a physical shelf. We're able to offer our books throughout the world, online. People can find it one way or the other anytime, almost anywhere— probably not North Korea or some places that don't have Internet connection, but there are fewer and fewer as time goes by, so—

Sergio Troncoso: Or maybe some places in Arizona.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. Down with Arizona House Bill 2281!

But when you bring a book out now it really has a potentially very long life. That's always been true but I think it's more true now that it can come not only wrapped in a physical cover but it can also be made available digitally as an e-book, as online excerpts, but also just that people can find out about the book online.

Sergio Troncoso: Yeah. I'm gratified when I get these emails from the middle of nowhere that somebody read an excerpt I put on my website.

I like to put a significant amount of stuff on my website. I've always believed that when I was a poor kid and I had no money and I went to the public library to read stuff because I couldn't afford it, I should have some of that, now as a writer, some of that [available] free online. Not all of it of course. I want to get paid, but it's important for me to be available to that person who may just discover me by chance. I think that is great, and having that long shelf life matters to me the most. That's one of the reason I'm actually very happy to be published by University Press. As long as I sell the books they keep reprinting.

C.M. Mayo: They keep them in print longer.

Sergio Troncoso: Every book I have is still available, it's just my job to sell them. Their money is as green as New York's. I have no problem with that. I like that part of the Internet, that your book, if you want to, can be there for a long time.

C.M. Mayo: So anybody can find you on your website, which is…

Sergio Troncoso: Just my name, SergioTroncoso.com. Then my blog is ChicoLingo.com. I'll spell my name in case people…it's a funny name. It's S-E-R-G-I-O T-R-O-N-C-O-S.com.

C.M. Mayo: People can write to you directly through your website.

Sergio Troncoso: Oh, absolutely. My email is right on my front page of my website and it's just SergioTroncoso@gmail.com.

C.M. Mayo: Sergio, I thank you so much for this interview. It's been such fun to visit with you and hear more about your books, and I wish you so much luck with everything you're doing.

Sergio Troncoso: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I love reading your work. I'm looking forward to seeing more of your stuff.


Announcer: Visit again for more Conversations With Other Writers as well as other podcasts with your host, C.M. Mayo at cmmayo.com/podcasts.