“I’m exhausted,” says Sergio Troncoso. Considering that in the past two years he’s published two books, faced a life-threatening health crisis, and served as president of the Texas Institute of Letters, it’s understandable. But he was never one to be absent. His first book, the 1999 collection The last tortilla and other stories, won the Premio Aztlán literary prize, and since then has published seven more books, taught fiction and non-fiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop, judged for the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and transformed TIL.
So it’s no surprise that Troncoso, just minutes after saying he needed a break, came back to life. “I’m hungrier than ever,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t done anything. Honestly, this isn’t staged. I’m hungry.” Troncoso enters a liberating phase of his career; he’s accomplished enough to feel like he has nothing left to prove, but he still has the ambition to burn.
Although Troncoso primarily resides in New York with his family, his books focus on the Texas-Mexico border, and he often writes about his hometown of Ysleta, a farming community founded in the 1680s and annexed by El Paso in 1955. explore different issues often related to the border, but even deeper, I want to explore the issues of this country,” he says. “How do we come together, how do we fall apart, which I think is one of the central issues that we face right now. And, of course, the Chicanos face that all the time because we belong. somehow and we don’t belong.
Troncoso’s latest novel, nobody’s pilgrims (Lee & Low Books / Cinco Puntos Press), follows three outcasts engaged in a dangerous journey from Ysleta to the East Coast. Seventeen-year-old Arturo “Turi” Martinez has lived with an abusive aunt and uncle since his mother died in a car accident. He is forced to work in a chicken processing plant run by the corrupt John Dunbar, an intermediary for a dangerous drug trafficker. When Turi learns that Dunbar is sending Arnulfo Muñoz, an undocumented teenager, on a delivery to Kansas City, Turi decides this is his chance to escape Ysleta and get a little closer to Connecticut, a place he hasn’t read. and seen only on television. but fascinated for years.
After discovering that the truck contains something dangerous, presumably drugs or firearms, Turi and Arnulfo steal the vehicle. They don’t really have a plan except to get to Connecticut before the narcos find them. Along the way, they are joined by Molly Crump, a Missouri teenager desperate to leave her small hometown. But the narcos are hot on their trail, and it turns out the truck contains something far more deadly than the endangered trio imagines. No one is a pilgrim, Part road trip novel, part coming-of-age tale, is the story of three strangers on the fringes of society who need each other’s help to survive.
“The ‘Person’ in the title is there because they’re strangers,” Troncoso says. “They don’t belong anywhere, even within their own families. They are orphans – or are for all intents and purposes. During their journey across the country, Turi and Arnulfo are treated with suspicion and even outright hostility from complete strangers. The novel reflects Troncoso’s perspective that “Mexicans and undocumented immigrants are much more like the original Pilgrims”.
nobody’s pilgrims celebrates foreigners in general and immigrants in particular, a philosophy that was central to Troncoso’s recent two-year term as president of the Texas Institute of Letters. “I threw my heart and soul into TIL,” he says. “That meant representing all of Texas. We inducted more African Americans than ever before. During my tenure, we presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Benjamin Alire Sáenz, who probably should have won it ten years ago. And this year, we presented it to Celeste Bedford Walker, the first African American to win the award. It’s been a long time, in my opinion; she is a great playwright. The organization is truly transforming into something beyond the white men of Dallas and Austin.
Troncoso is no stranger to stepping into unknown spaces and then fighting to establish himself. After high school, he left Ysleta to attend Harvard and later earned a graduate degree at Yale. “I didn’t know s—,” he said. “I was a kid of seventeen or eighteen who had never heard of the Ivy League. I knew John F. Kennedy had gone to Harvard, but that’s all I knew. I arrived there with no fear, bell bottom jeans and Led Zeppelin t-shirts, because that’s all I had.
Troncoso says it was his maternal grandmother who gave him the confidence to hold on. “She was tough,” he said. “She had two uncles who died riding with Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa. Family lore says she shot and killed two men who tried to rape her during the Mexican Revolution. My parents were afraid of her, but I was one of her favorites. When he called her from Harvard in her freshman year, homesick and feeling like a failure, she said, “Don’t come back with your tail between your legs.” Show them who you are. Like everyone else, he wasn’t going to disobey her.
The steel his abuelita helped put into his spine came in handy during his recent medical crisis. At the annual TIL awards banquet in April, Troncoso told a shocked crowd that he had spent much of his term undergoing chemotherapy for follicular lymphoma. Friends had encouraged him to step down from the presidency and focus on himself, but he stuck to it, inspired by the example of another woman in his life, his wife. “She’s the reason I fell for it – she’s a two-time breast cancer survivor who never stopped working through her chemo. So I didn’t give up either.
Now cancer-free, Troncoso says the experience has changed him. “In a weird way, cancer is very liberating. It wakes you up and reveals your mortality and what you take for granted. A hug from your children, the love from your wife, the wonderful feeling you get when you write a story: all of this is temporary. Who knows how long they will last?
Austin writer Richard Z. Santos authored the novel Trust me and former Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas monthly with the title “Sergio Troncoso Makes Sure Texas Literature Represents All of Texas”. Subscribe today.