The prominent Latino playwright catalogues growing up conflicted in his debut memoir.
During the 1960s and ’70s in El Paso, Texas, playwright Octavio Solis grew up alongside a rift—between two countries and two self-identities. Then, as it is now, the United States/Mexico border was a constant, jagged presence; its near-mythological force not so much the backdrop of life as it was a shifting tectonic plate underneath the area’s Latino and American communities. Along the border’s promontories, Solis’ identity developed and childhood memories assumed first form.
The young Solis, enamored with American pop culture while deeply connected to Mexico, his parents’ ancestral homeland, was particularly attuned to emotional currents and power struggles within his family and neighborhood—love, passion, humor, anger, shame, fatigue, pride, racism, class, gender, age, educational levels, and more. His parents encouraged fantasy, laying seed to his life in writing and theater.
And so it is that his new memoir, Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border, published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, offers 50 short stories remembered from his childhood that chronicle times of crisis echoed in contemporary times. The current social and political climate is, arguably, made more divisive due to President Donald Trump’s calls for construction of a U.S./Mexico border wall. Families and communities find themselves ideologically and literally split apart, mainstream and social media ping-pong truth, and nations choose isolationist positions or questionable alliances. Rifts form, borders militarize, and tensions escalate worldwide.
In Solis’ stories, the conflicts present themselves small scale as one man’s memories of intense struggles during boyhood. The dramas are universal: to know oneself, to recognize flaws in one’s parents, to love and be rejected by love, to suffer prejudice or experience deep shame after inflicting it upon another person, and more.
Solis, 60, is the author of over 20 plays. His works have been produced by South Coast Repertory, Magic Theatre, California Shakespeare Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Dallas Theater Center. Solis has received an NEA Playwriting Fellowship, the National Latino Playwriting Award, the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, and other grants and awards. A longtime resident of the Bay Area, he recently moved to Medford, Oregon. Retablos is his first memoir.
In an interview, Solis said he instinctively connected the 50 childhood memories to retablos, the traditional Mexican/South American paintings that were most often painted on repurposed metal. Retablos depicted life-altering, dramatic events—rifts—and expressions of gratitude for resolution of the conflict attributed to divine or other metaphysical intervention.
“Retablos are those thresholds I crossed where I learned something,” said Solis. “They’re my holy moments that defined who I am.”
Discovering the differences between playwriting and the memoir—narrowing the scope to fewer characters and eliminating subplots—took effort. “You must have everything distilled. I just cut and cut. It’s half as long as when I first wrote it,” he said. The language had to be precise. A character without education must not speak in six-syllable words or use sophisticated, metaphoric vocabulary.
But what was freeing for a writer with a diesel-fueled vocabulary and years of higher education and playwriting experience was allowing his gift for description and an acute ear for the flow or staccato of a voice to prevail. Writing all but one of the stories in the first person, Solis said he let the characters speak directly to him while writing, almost like transcribing monologues.
“El Mar” tells the story of Solis pronouncing “ocean” as “ohkeean” in a classroom and suffering the pride-to-shame plunge of an English-learner in America. “The Quince” has him learning the hard way about unconscious bias. “I thought I was better than the girl I had to dance with, who had a physical disability, but she actually trained me in that glide. I didn’t teach her a damn thing. It was a lesson in physical empathy. How to move like her, to dance with her—and then she rejected me. She had seen through me,” he said.
Other stories tell of his parent’s incipient anti-Semitism, misunderstandings between siblings, peer power struggles involving gender, love, race, and social status that ultimately pool around Solis discovering his identity as a male and person of color.
Solis doesn’t remember a time when he was unaware—in both positive and negative ways—of his race and ethnicity. “We were always aware of our skin color. On television, the news, our schools, in movies and government, everyone looked like the people in power, white people. But the people where we lived were brown. We were in the majority. I think there were four white kids and maybe one black student in our high school of 2,000 kids.”
It was when Solis entered college that he realized what his skin color might mean in larger society. “I was the minority, I realized they treated me differently; made me wish I was white. It wasn’t until I left El Paso that I wished I was whiter. But, later, becoming a playwright, that changed when I realized I could write about my experience and characters who looked like me. When actors started asking me to write roles for them—eventually white actors, too—I was in a power position. It’s only then that I realized that, yeah, I could write the kinds of plays and roles I had wanted to act in when I was a kid.”
And so a man who once crooned into a hairbrush and pretended to be Frank Sinatra or leapt off high-flying swings to beam to distant Star Trek planets or performed as a rock star on cardboard cut-out guitars and drummed on empty ice cream canisters is able to transect rifts. “Theater gave me a place to hide behind the mask of a role and then be free to be myself. It let out frustrations and anxieties. I think my real first kiss was a stage kiss,” he recalled.
Taken onto a broader platform, Solis’ plays and stories—and art of all kinds—expand the field of expression. Life will have rifts and even memories are constantly being recoded when revisited. The authentic simplicity or grand gestures of literature, theater, dance, film, visual art, or music help us to connect, empathize, respect differences, and avoid wall-building. “It’s all about the expression of real desire. Its flip side is fear of death, of not being loved,” said Solis. “Those are the biggest things that drive us—and art is right there to help us express them.”
Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis (City Lights Books, October 2018, 168 pp., $15.95)