The Last Tortilla and Other Stories reviewed
THE LAST TORTILLA AND OTHER STORIES.By Sergio Troncoso.
The last tortilla, as Sergio Troncoso tells it, was eaten near Socorro Road in the neighborhood of Ysleta, that oldest part — and what he as well as other writers have identified as the heart — of the el paso del norte settlement. He remembers this event as well as others very well, which means that it took place no more than a few years ago, since Sergio is a young man, and the story comes from the old tortilla-eating places of his birth, described in his first published collection of short stories.
I think his title prepared me for some crude humor, but I found after reading the first pages that Sergio Troncoso is serious and doesn’t joke easily. He has much to say and to think about — from food to God, from the Devil who is alive and well in Segundo Barrio to the ant and tadpole life along the Ysleta irrigation canals. His main theme, predictably, coming from this geography, is separation. His mind dwells at the points of contrasts, the splits of borders. The Rio Grande he names the “River Styx of the Americas.” His various characters learn at young ages how to find their particular pasamojado, who will enable them to regularly make the journey back and forth between worlds.
If the stories are read rapidly, the voices start echoing strongly out of the bowl that is El Paso and Juárez, the face of the place that fills the valley between the Franklin and Chihuahua Mountains. The writer knows that great power comes from making an existence on such a fault line, where history so empowers the present that at any time the “mortality of the barrio could hurl itself heavenward.” So muses the young Arturo in “The Abuelita,” while calling home from Yale to ground himself in “the abuelita’s” voice. She, the grandmother, is a praying woman. He, the grandson, is a student of philosophy. She tells him he should come home; he tells her he is studying Heidegger. His grandfather interrupts the call, tells him to “go out and have a beer, or go to a party.” The dialogue itself serves to quiet all their individual midnight demons.
In his recent commentaries on the state of Texas literature, Tom Pilkington (in State of Mind: Texas Literature and Culture) expressed an inevitable worry: that perhaps there is no longer a culture from which a good Texas writer can draw a voice that would be distinctly regional. The suburbs of Dallas might as well be the suburbs of Atlanta or the suburbs of Los Angeles; and the “corridor culture” of the interstate Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin-San Antonio-Houston circle seems to be the dominant expression of Texas to the rest of the world. Yet El Paso is a place of its own, which may be why the most compelling literature today is being written by its children, who become scholars of boundary crossing at an early age. After all, the compulsion to learn the truth about life on earth — call it curiosity — can be as strong and as raw an appetite as lust and as easily entertained as a young man on his first night crossing alone into Juárez, out to meet the city as if it were a beautiful, intelligent, and passionate woman rather than a ring of thugs. Of course it is the metaphor of a young man: “I don’t care what anyone else says,” he rhapsodizes, “women in their thirties can look great!” But I appreciate Troncoso’s style — above all, his honesty in telling. Life on the border has given his prose a cutting edge. By attempting to reconcile the seemingly hopeless split in the borderland’s daily existence, he has brought forth the most moving story of the collection. In “Day of the Dead” a Juárez maid named Lupe is killed by a car on the Border Highway, and her body becomes a bridge that allows some of El Paso’s most unlikely crossers to find their way into Juárez.
In other stories, the character of this precocious barrio boy is developed from an early emergence of intellectual energy, through a filter of summer jobs with seasoned trabajadores catching chickens all day for market, to be honed against racial barriers met in distant university cities. In the end, this character development points toward some sort of cosmic or cosmopolitan citizen — which in subsequent work may even deracinate this very rooted writer whose last name is Troncoso.
Maybe this is his last tortilla. Maybe he will only eat bagels from now on and fall for performance artists with bouncy blond hair. But for now, he has given us a collection of memorable and historically rooted and philosophically provocative stories from that part of our state where culture continues to evolve both dark and bright — while providing us the newest of stars on our literary horizons.
Pat LittleDog has moved from Austin to El Paso and back to Austin, before putting down her own roots somewhere in Caldwell County.