Announcer: Conversations with Other Writers,
with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist, C.M.
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
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
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,
Nature of Truth, is a philosophical novel about obsession,
violence, and the pursuit of truth at Yale.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
you talk about your sister?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
written a lot about reading and the culture of reading both in
your essays and in your novel the main character
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.
C.M. Mayo: You wrote in
your ChicoLingo blog, Friday May 18 , 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.
Did you see
that hot woman giving the paper?
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?
A Playboy Bunny,
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
Good Man is Hard to Find." She reads the entire story, word
just an audio.
I can Google it and find it? [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQT7y4L5aKU ]
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.
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.
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.
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
our generation, having gone through high school and college and
graduate school as wellyou 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 timenow we're just in a completely
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 countryand 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 scientistsbecause 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
I had cousins
from Delicias who were blonde and blue-eyed and they didn't speak
a word of English.
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.
Exactly. What's so interesting to me about your latest novel,
This Wicked Patch of Dust, is precisely how there's this
community that you think is going to fit into this boxMexican
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 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.
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
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.
Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence,
edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, was published by
Arte Público Press in 2013.]
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
What's going to happen with your book? When does it come out?
Sergio Troncoso: Well, I think 2013.
Do you have a title for it?
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.
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.
Yeah. Down with Arizona House Bill 2281!
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
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.
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.
So anybody can find you on your website, which is
Just my name,
Then my blog is ChicoLingo.com.
I'll spell my name in case people
it's a funny name. It's
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.
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
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