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Tortilla Eucharist Coming of Age on the Border BY PAT LITTLEDOG THE LAST TORTILLA AND OTHER STORIES. By Sergio Troncoso. University of Arizona Press. 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 pasarnojado, 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 Juarez, 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 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 ‘eserl reeze ned the distant c 6nging of a freight train to welcome a deep, forgetful sleep. This soothing repose was the night’s con tribution, to the vitality of the coming day. The old couple lived in downtown El Paso, slightly north of El Segundo Barrio, the area of the city that passed for the poor district. Yet it was not really poor like Harlem or South Boston; it was only comfortable and familiar. The proper and proprietary sons and daughters of the city could not understand the concept of a neighborhood, and they certainly could not understand this neighborhood. They lived in suburbs that had sprung forth from the desert with the guiding hand of the developer. The matching barbecue pits, rock walls, and cactus landscapes be rants em. arrio lay, as did all of owntown P aso and central Juarez, at the ancient pass that cut through the pyramidal Franklin and Chihuahua Mountains, The heart of El Paso had al ways been at this mountain pass. The history that created the progressive Sunbelt city from the Old West town of mining and railroads was eagerly overstepped by the modernists, and only El Segundo Barrio lived reluctantly with this whole history. Red brick warehouses, cracked streets, and abandoned apparel factories were girdled by clothing-by-thepound stores, foreign exchange houses, and tenements. Old people abounded: grandmothers, grandfathers, viejitos, and solitary oldsters. Some owned modest homes that were built forty or fifty years ec is moment artningly familiar and, yet, s a newly aroused power. At any secon , seemed, the mortality of the barrio could hurl itself heavenward, into laughter, or toward death. Each way could just as easily rip away the looming seriousness. and only then could history seize the present. Intermixed with this place were the glossy outposts of the Sunbelt city, and Lolita’s favorite was La Gallina, the fastfood chicken restaurant on Paisano Street. She would send Jose to the restaurant on the third day of each month when the government checks arrived in the mail. She liked their crispy wings. from “The Abuelita” by Sergio Troncoso 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 24, 1999 NO W