“Stand on the hyphen,” Octavio Solis says to me in our interview. “Complicate the border.” The son of immigrant parents, Solis grew up in El Paso, TX. He watched migrants cross over the Río Grande in the light of day and under the cover of night. His mother arrived with papers, while his father did not. Solis spoke a broken English as a child, neither a native speaker in the States nor in Mexico, when he visited communities like Juárez. It’s these liminal spaces—physical, emotional, memorious—between the neither and nor, that he invites readers to enter in Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border. And it’s in these in-between places where Solis introduces you to the people who populate them, complicating the border many have tried to simplify.
A renowned playwright and director, Solis records his memories in these written retablos, devotional paintings on small, repurposed metal that depict a dire event. His brief retellings—two to three-page vignettes—are raw, vivid, and sometimes violent. They function like timeless doors that, once opened, deliver both you and Octavio to a scene that has never stopped replaying in his mind: “This is me in my old room, unpacking my bags on the bed I slept in more than thirty years ago, hearing my mother titter at something on the TV while my dad is stirring the caldo de pollo on the stove.” We arrive at the same time as him, the episode immediate, written in present tense, still happening. Solis builds a personal mythology throughout Retablos, which begins with his childhood and ends with his adulthood, where he listens to his mother tell him stories about his growing up in the border community. If he touches on the political, he challenges you to look at it first through his eyes and then through the community’s. You’re left with a complex of people in difficult situations making difficult decisions.
Landing somewhere between Neil Gaiman and Juan Rulfo, Solis secularizes the mythological by turning men and women into saintly figures—like their criada, Consuelo, and a white priest who shows his family empathy—and monsters: border agents who take his friends away and school bullies. The schoolyard is a battleground where classmates pressure Octavio to fight his black friend, based on rumors of racist remarks made against him. A crowd of students, flanked by mob mentality into two groups, begin to yell at each other: “Don’t let him get away … Show that monkey … Get that spic.” The two sides turn into a Greek chorus that could translate into protesters screaming over police barriers in the ’60s, people coming to blows at political rallies in 2016, or hate exchanged on social media today. Solis exposes our human need from an early age to organize people into opposing sociopolitical groups, even when those at center stage don’t fully understand the what and the why of clawing at each other. By making the political personal, he suggests Americans should embrace racial and ethnic differences rather than divide through physical and metaphorical walls.
Solis loves to talk, he says, and warns me he might just ramble on. We laugh and tell each other stories. It’s not until we reach about an hour into our conversation that he falls silent, when we get to the heart of what contemplating episodes of his life and writing them down felt like. After a few moments, he responds: “The act of remembering is a painful one, but it gave me the permission and responsibility to tell the truth through a fictionalized version of myself.” And the truth is, it’s complicated, he says. Like when he noticed Chicanos becoming border agents in the ’70s, but they didn’t speak native Spanish and joined for the benefits. One of them stops Octavio on the street because he’s wearing a red T-shirt like a reported suspect border crosser. Octavio stands firm that he’s American and he’s left alone, but he later realizes: “I am hating these [border agents] and thanking them at the same time … I am the guy in the red tee. I am him and he is me.” This identity crisis reaches its climax when Octavio travels over into Mexico with his friends to meet women and drink. But no matter how cool they act or how smooth they think their Spanish is, locals wall them out. When he and friends try flirting with a group of women, one of them responds: “No te metas donde no te llaman, pinche gringo.” Don’t stick your nose where you’re not wanted, you damn gringo.
This is what Solis means when he says we must learn to stand on the hyphen. He’s Mexican-American, which, in other words, means neither-nor. Locals in the States didn’t feel comfortable with him looking different, while locals in Mexico didn’t with him sounding different. But that hyphen should act as a bridge, not a wall, literal or figurative. At the end of this compact collection, we realize the genius of Solis when he visits his hometown and encounters a large mural depicting Pancho Villa sitting at a table, a beloved priest riding a bicycle, and La Virgen de Guadalupe lighting the way for border crossers at night. This isn’t only the story of Octavio, but of El Paso, and to a greater extent, of the United States, exploded onto this mural—a community of retablos that tell the myth of the American dream that continues today and never stopped.