In this collection of sixteen essays, Sergio Troncoso writes about family, fatherhood, education, illness, love, politics, religion, social issues, societal responsibility, and writing. He observes that his clear, direct writing about difficult questions “has sometimes condemned [him] in academic circles” and that his writing is also “overlooked by those who never desire to think beyond the obvious and the popular.” Troncoso chronicles his transformation from “a besieged outsider needing a voice” to “an outsider by choice deploying [his] voice,” creating an intellectual borderland from where he tried to push his mind with the philosophical ideas that form the framework of his writing.
In the first and title essay, Troncoso examines the many types of borders—geographical, linguistic, cultural, and religious—he has crossed since leaving his childhood home in El Paso. Having grown up in poverty mere steps from the Mexican border, he made his way to Harvard and Yale; he now lives with his wife and sons in a modern high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side. Troncoso credits his education for providing the tools to “traverse the chasm from literacy to literature.” A lapsed Catholic, he now celebrates the High Holy Days with his Jewish wife and their sons. He reveals that these frequent border crossings have often left him asking: “where do I belong, who am I really and who am I becoming.” These questions serve as the book’s main focus, as the writer works out the answers for himself on the page, encouraging his readers to ask and answer them as well. His job as a writer, he explains, is not merely to entertain a reader but to “unmoor him.” Troncoso artfully selects case studies and examples that prick the reader’s conscience and linger long after the book is closed.
Three of the essays in this collection are letters to his two young sons, documenting their mother’s battle with breast cancer. He celebrates their life together while simultaneously contemplating a possible future without his wife. The letters offer an intimate portrait of a family in crisis and reveal the wife’s ordeal and the writer’s anguish. They also depict the complexities of a large hospital and provide a personal look into our nation’s health care system.
In many of the essays, Troncoso focuses on Latinos living in the United States, shining a bright light into the dark corners of social ills and injustices that plague our country today. A champion for the rights of immigrants who have come to this country for a better, more prosperous life, he condemns politicians and politicos who reach back to “ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution,” claiming their intent is to stop critical thinking, which he deems the measure of good citizenship.
In one passage, Troncoso regrets being unable to introduce his children to Juarez—where his parents were born and where, when Troncoso was a child, the family went each Sunday to visit relatives—due to the drug and gun violence that render the city unsafe. He directly blames the “voracious drug habits of the United States and the millions of dollars of American guns illegally exported to Mexico” as well as Mexico’s ineffective government and corrupt local police. His claim begs the reader to question and analyze the impact of current drug and gun laws and the proposed wall to separate the two countries.
Troncoso discusses the multidimensional plight of illegal immigrants in “Chico Lingo Days.” He denounces the phrase “illegal is illegal” as a stupid tautology that “glosses over the complex context of undocumented workers in the United States and how many of us benefit from their work.” Troncoso emphasizes that their work—repairing our roads, building our houses, working in the punishing sun to pick the perfect fruit we buy so cheaply in our markets—benefits all of our lives.
Recently, President Obama announced some major changes in U. S. policy on immigration. Although these new guidelines fall short of the sweeping changes proposed by the Dream Act, this country may soon embrace the children of illegal immigrants, many of whom fled impoverished, hopeless lives in Mexico, crossing the border into possible prosperity in the United States. I imagine Sergio Troncoso hearing President Obama’s announcement, pausing for a moment to smile, and then turning back to the page to remind us all that we’ve so much further to go.