On a crisp Sunday in early October, an audience gathered at the Connecticut Literary Festival for the panel “Families Living Between Two Worlds” to hear authors discuss “how family values from their heritages” shape their work. Mexican-American author Sergio Troncoso read from his new collection of short stories. He was followed by authors Okey Ndibe, Chandra Prasad, and Ines Rivera. Following the short readings, each discussed the family values that helped shape them, and the values they left behind in order to become who they are today. After their allotted fifty minutes, the authors were hurried off the dais to make room for the next group. With the discussion unfinished, they went on to sign their books and talk with readers.
I followed Troncoso to the signing table and bought his new collection of stories, A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son. The fifty-eight-year-old author is gregarious and generous; readers ask him questions and he listens intently. With a red pen and glasses tucked into his white-and-grey striped shirt pocket, he signed my book with a friendly smile and was eager to explain the ins and outs of the short stories. He stayed at the signing after the other authors had left. When his books sold out, he sent his wife, Laura, to their car to retrieve additional copies.
Troncoso grew up along the dirt roads of Ysleta, Texas on the very outskirts of El Paso with no electricity or running water. In the 1950s, his newlywed parents left Juarez, Mexico to build a life in America. They began in a small adobe house that they soon expanded. Troncoso began learning the value of hard work after school when his father would have him and his siblings help with additions to their home, whether it be an extra bathroom or bedroom. In high school, he spent weekdays after school, weekends, and summers renovating his father’s rental properties. He applied his work ethic to his studies, earned a scholarship to Harvard, and later completed two graduate programs at Yale University: a master of arts and master of philosophy. Though he now lives in New York City and has a house in Kent, Connecticut, Troncoso’s heart never left south Texas.
Troncoso’s writing explores the hardships of transitioning from home to an unfamiliar place that can be welcoming, but sometimes hostile. “It’s about trying to find who you are as you move through these different places,” Troncoso said. “Are you still the same immigrant from Mexico or Guatemala? Are you morphing into an American and what does that mean? What values are you keeping from your home culture, and what values are you adopting in your new culture to create this hybrid?” It’s about trying to find who you are as you move from the comforting walls of home to rebuild your entire life, determining what family values you’ll keep close to your heart, and what values you’ll leave at the border in order to assimilate to American society.
We have wonderful writers from all backgrounds and cultures. But are white audiences reading these works?
Harvard was a culture shock for Troncoso. Growing up surrounded by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, he said he naively assumed most people would be bilingual. He learned quickly that was not the case, and that people would treat him differently because of his accent. Troncoso arrived in the chilly northeast without a jacket and no shortage of band T-shirts. He had to figure out everything on his own. Characters in his book, specifically a character named Galilea, had similar challenges to endure. Troncoso describes Galilea as “sort of independent, almost like a lone wolf sort of person. I felt in many ways Galilea was a female version [of me] if I were younger, lived in New York, and had grown up on the border, but then moved and ended up here as a web designer.” Galilea grew up in a similar town to rural Ysleta—San Elizario, Texas. In the book, there are characters who originated from places similar to Troncoso. There is even one character named David from Ysleta who ended up in Kent, Connecticut where Troncoso currently has a home.
There are reflections of Troncoso’s life in his new stories, but they are not his personal history. “I would say a lot of emotions are true and happened to me at one point in my life. But then I had to create situations and characters in which these emotions would come out,” Troncoso said. Parts of his reality mesh with his imagination, and that’s how he creates these intricate characters. Once Troncoso knows his characters inside and out, he puts them on the page. “I interview them in my head. I try to get their likes and dislikes. I get their secrets, even things perhaps they won’t admit to themselves,” he said.
In his last short story, “Eternal Return,” Troncoso reveals that the character Doña Lola is inspired in part by his grandmother. She was called Doña Lola and influenced Troncoso’s love for storytelling. He describes her as a “badass,” and rightly so. She killed two men who tried to rape her during the Mexican Revolution. When Troncoso was a boy, he’d ride his bike fifteen miles to her tenement in El Paso where she would happily tell him stories for hours. He’d listen to her, wide-eyed, and others from town would join them. “She would be smoking her cigarette and drinking her coffee on the tenement step, and people would come down to listen to these stories,” Troncoso said. She’d talk about her life and adventures until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. It is no surprise that the first short story in his first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, is called “Abuelita.”
Troncoso recently returned from a trip to Texas where border issues are front and center. Within the span of ten days, he logged exactly 822 miles driving to events to promote his book. One of the events was at the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library in El Paso. In 2014, when the library was dedicated to him, he told the city council, “I’m happy about the building and I’m proud that my name will be there, but I also want to have an effect on the community.” From there, he started the Troncoso Reading Prizes for local youth. Since reading and libraries were such a major part of his growth and success, he passionately encourages high school and middle school students to read. He stressed this same intellectual work with his own two sons. They would call him “the toughest father on the upper west side” because he would give them homework on the weekends, and every summer they would have to take an extra language or mathematics class. “I told my kids, ‘I’ll show you how to kick intellectual ass,’ ” he said. “It means you have to do more than what your peers are doing, it means you have to do what your peers won’t do.”
Reading is such an important part of understanding cultures different from your own. Troncoso takes care to diversify his reading in order to better understand communities and cultures that are different from his; examples of this include his attention to Russian and Israeli authors. For the avid reader this makes sense, but many of these texts are not read by mainstream American readers. “We have wonderful writers from all backgrounds and cultures. But are white audiences reading these works?” he asks. “Are they going and picking up the work that’s not necessarily about their groups, simply to learn about somebody else? Too often, I think the answer is no.”
Immigration, a topic Troncoso frequently returns to in his writing, is currently a hot button issue in our country. Our current administration is “really in many ways as cruel as possible to try and dissuade and prevent undocumented workers from coming over” by separating families and keeping kids in cages. Troncoso also touches upon children under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an American immigration policy allowing children who cross the border with their parents protection from deportation, and a work permit, as long as it is renewed every two years. “The interesting thing is what’s missed are the hundreds of thousands of kids who came over with their parents who are as American as you and me, who know English perfectly, and who have no criminal record whatsoever.”
Because of fearmongering in the media, many are made to think immigrants are hurting our country, but this is not the case. “These are the young workers that will become the future taxpayers, and could become great assets to society,” Troncoso said. “I’m looking at it from a very selfish, American point of view.” Immigrants truly know the value of hard work, and benefit our country. “Just like my family, these people remind you what the pilgrims who came over to this country were all about,” Troncoso said. “They were about hard work, sacrifice, pushing themselves without any help, and rising up.”
American values are highly debated because they look different to everyone. “Values are not color. They’re not white values, they’re not brown values. They’re the values of hard work and the values of sacrifice, the values of someone poor coming to this country, following the rules and the laws, and becoming great Americans,” Troncoso said. “The pilgrims were undocumented. Many of the Jewish refugees and Irish refugees that came over were undocumented. They only got documented once they were here, once they were already in this country, and some of them took a generation to get all their papers together. This is the same thing. The only difference now is they’re coming from the south rather than from Europe.”
Troncoso is trying to convey in his work that people need to cross their own borders to understand the people around them. He stressed to me the importance of this. “If you don’t know your Guatemalan neighbor, go talk to them. Go find out what’s going on in their lives and they will also learn a little bit about you,” he said. “We all need to be doing this instead of basing [opinions] on these stereotypes you hear in the media.”
America is a great melting pot of culture—and that is the beauty of our nation. With every culture comes a different perspective, and they are all worth learning about. Expand your horizons by reading authors unlike yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask respectful questions or inquire about a reality that differs from yours. A great way to start? Pick up Sergio Troncoso’s book, A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son, and hear what his characters have to say.
Headline Photo Credit: Noah Hulton
Emma Nelson is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine