Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border

Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border

by Octavio Solis


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Recommended by the New York Times and NBC News, and called one of the Best Books of the Year by Buzzfeed!

The New York Times directs readers to Retablos if you want to know "what's life really like on the Mexican border." "Solis grew up just a mile from the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, and he tells stories about his childhood and coming of age, including his parents migration to the United States from Mexico, his first encounter with racism and finding a Mexican migrant girl hiding in the cotton fields."—Concepción de León, New York Times

Seminal moments, rites of passage, crystalline vignettes—a memoir about growing up brown at the U.S./Mexico border.

More praise for Octavio Solis's Retablos:

"This is American and Mexican literature a stone's throw from the always hustling El Paso border."—Gary Soto, author of The Elements of San Joaquin

"We inhabit a border world rich in characters, lush with details, playful and poignant, a border that refutes the stereotypes and divisions smaller minds create. Solis reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are best told with crafted fictions--and he is a master at it."—Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

" … it's hard not to consider the border itself as a representation of a 'terrible rift,' a split between homes, communities, identities, generations. While reading this generous and eye-opening account, it's easy to see how, for the country at large, the rift has only deepened.”—Arianna Rebolini, Buzzfeed Best Books of Fall 2018

"Landing somewhere between Neil Gaiman and Juan Rulfo, Solis secularizes the mythological by turning men and women into saintly figures—like their criada [maid], Consuelo, and a white priest who shows his family empathy—and monsters: border agents who take his friends away and school bullies."—Michael Adam Carroll, The Millions

"There has never been a border book like Retablos, a collection of smoldering epiphanies suffering the baptizing waters of recall. . . ."—Roberto Ontiveros, San Antonio Current

"The book is rendered in tight, stand-alone recollections rich with poetry and honesty. . . . If retablos are offerings, then Solis' book is a gift of memory, not always pleasant, but always true."—Beatriz Terrazas, Dallas Morning News

"The experience of reading his tightly contained memories in succession is a bit like drawing old coins up from a wishing well. Filtered through veils of distance and time, these scenes and reflections are wonderful and weird flashes of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in the life of this particular Mexican American boy."-- Sophie Haigney, San Francisco Chronicle

"Octavio Solis' Retablos recounts a 'beautiful, messy' youth on the border. Though its title evokes Mexican folk art, Retablos is closer in effect to that of French pointillism. Its small dabs of vivid color produce a brilliant cumulative effect."—Steven G. Kellman, The Texas Observer

"In this debut memoir, playwright Solis delivers top-notch vignettes of his youth with riveting imagery and empathy, recounting--and embellishing, he says--memories of growing up brown in El Paso, Tex. . . . These brilliantly told stories of missteps and redemption are a treat."--Publishers Weekly

". . .what struck me most about each chapter was Solis's ability to plant a specific image in your mind. With every retablo, you can see in ferocious detail exactly what the author wants you to see, like a special kind of telepathy. I found myself wanting to paint them."—Caitlyn Reynolds, The Los Angeles Review of Books

"In all, a beautiful, evocative, and timely expression of border culture for every collection."--Sara Martinez, Booklist

"In this coming-of-age memoir, a playwright illuminates the culture of the El Paso border as he perceived it when he was young. . . . An intriguing work that transcends category, drawing from facts but reading like fiction."--Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780872867864
Publisher: City Lights Books
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 370,874
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Author of more than twenty plays, Octavio Solis is considered one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in America. His works have been produced in theatres across the country, including the Center Group Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, South Coast Repertory, the Magic Theatre and the California Shakespeare Theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yale Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dallas Theater Center, and other venues nationwide. Among his many awards and grants, Solis has received an NEA Playwriting Fellowship, the Kennedy Center's Roger L. Stevens award, the TCG/NEA Theatre Artists in Residence Grant, the National Latino Playwriting Award, the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, and the William Inge Center for the Arts 2019 Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award.

His fiction and short plays have appeared in the Louisville Review, Zyzzyva, Eleven Eleven, Catamaran, Chicago Quarterly Review, Arroyo Literary Review and Huizache. This is his first book.

He is based near Ashland, Oregon.

For more information:

Read an Excerpt


I’m in disbelief. I’m at a loss to explain how I got here.

It’s my first week as a sophomore, and instead of enjoying the afternoons watching TV and doing my homework at my leisure, I’m at the first reading of The Diary of Anne Frank at my school. All these poor idiots are sitting in a circle with me, also wondering how they got here, some of them pleased as punch, others with the same perplexed look that’s plastered on my face. We’re assembled in the auditorium, which also passes for the basketball court gymnasium. Listening to our drama coach laying down the laws of daily rehearsal. Miss G. is a feisty West-Texan battleax of a woman, built like a bulldog with close cropped hair and glasses, and she’s calmly setting forth the hours and days we’ll be working and underscoring her expectations of us as actors in the show. She’s grinning all smug and shit ‘cause she knows some of us will defy these expectations for which she’s got gallons of two-fisted fury saved up in her compact frame. For now, her bearing is enough to keep us in line. All I’m thinking is, shit, my afternoons are shot to hell forever.

What’s worse is that now she has us holding hands and bowing our heads for prayer circle. She’s calling for Jesus to bless our production, assuring him that we’re only here to do his will, even though the play is about Jews in Nazi Europe. I’m confused and dismayed as this cycle of prayer goes on for a full fifteen minutes, with other students chiming in their amens and yes-fathers. If this is going to happen every time we meet for play practice, then I’m done. I’m already suffocating in all this sudden godliness, all these rules, all the hours wasted in a cavernous gym with this tough bespectacled teacher crying halleluyah. I don’t know how she managed to get me to agree to be in this show, but I’m getting out of this obligation quick. I resolve to sit through this one session with as good an attitude as I can rally up but when it’s over, it’s over. I’m not coming back. Not even if I’m playing Peter Van Daam, which is one of the young leads in the play. I don’t care. Let them find someone else.

Finally, with everyone already worked up on Jesus, we take our seats in the circle as Miss G. passes out the scripts for the play. She reminds us who’s playing what role and directs us to read loudly, with feeling and enunciation. That last word is new to me but it sounds pretty religious. We open the scripts and begin reading, and gradually, with the first girl’s voice taking on the words of Anne Frank, the physics in the room begin to change. I feel the voice of this dark long-haired Mexican schoolgirl peel away the walls of the gym to reveal wartime Amsterdam, and then I see Anne herself huddled with her diary in the secret attic of her tragic story. Within the empty space of the circle, other voices around me lay forth the vivid action of the play with passion, energy and conviction until it’s my turn and then some impulse takes over and I’m not me anymore but Peter himself aching for sunlight and a place of no fear and the love of a young girl. The words go in my eyes and come out my mouth with all the heart I can summon and in that magical spell, the school and the impossible classloads and the gangs that chase me on the way home and the Border Patrol and the tensions of home and my personal anxieties about who the fuck I am and all the lived experience that make my town this unspectacular, sporadically dangerous place simply go away. I am somewhere in the mind of a teenage girl who disappeared into the death camps of our cruel past, inhabiting her words like they’re the only world that matters. When we get to the end, our Anne is openly crying as a mournful hush falls over us. I am choked up with bewilderment. I want to know how this happened, how we made the world vanish for these few hours of reading.

After we stand and hold hands one more time for an adjourning prayer, Miss G. comes to me while I gather my homework to go home. She obviously senses my confusion. With my eyes on the script, I want to tell her it’s a miracle, this play is a miracle, how it made all the people and things, all my cares and worries of my world, evaporate into nothing.

But she beats me to it, saying, Well. You’re still here.

I look at her. I want to ask what she means.

She smiles that smug smile that knows I’ll violate, maybe even exceed, her expectations, and turns to go turn off the gymnasium lights, while I walk home in the dark, eager to find my heart again in wartime Amsterdam.


In the clouded window of my early childhood, I perceive my grandmother. Mamá Concha we call her. She’s undoing hair rollers and applying bright red lipstick before the bathroom mirror. I see her short stocky legs in their saggy hose slip into her shoes with the blocky heels. Her purse is redolent with the fragrance of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum and scented tissues that seem to burst from inside every time she unclasps it. She gives me half a stick of spearmint, slipping the other half in her mouth. She dresses me up in my best shirt and pants and combs my hair till it’s waxed down like Alfalfa’s in the Our Gang serials. Then we’re outside.

I perceive her sitting beside me on the city bus noisily taking us downtown. I watch her nervous hands smooth the pinstripes of her blue cotton dress over and over while she smacks the gum in her mouth and stares straight ahead like a lover on her way to an assignation. The bus driver asks her something in Spanish and she answers in the old country manner.


I catch his gaze through the mirror over his head, how his eyes probe and ponder over us during the whole length of the ride. She takes a tissue from her purse and with a little spit on it wipes the scuff off my shoes, which dangle just off the seat, and she reties my laces till my feet throb. I hear the gassy exhalation of the bus heaving to a stop and the door swishing open to la Placita de los Lagartos, which is teeming with more people than I’ve ever seen in my life. The sun is high and bright. I perceive the tightness of her grip on my soft hand as she guides us to the central fountain in the tree-lined plaza, where she lifts me up with her sturdy arms to her bosom and shows me the alligators basking in the radiant heat. One of them is dozing in its pond, and one has its jaws wide open, a soft-serve ice cream cone melting on its back. I count the cigarette butts and candy wrappers floating in the pond all around them. Is this what we came to see? No, not this.

I perceive more people gathering in the plaza and in the windows of the buildings around us. They’re crowded together for a view of something to come. Above them the sky is a brilliant unsullied blue that scares me, it’s so wide and cloudless and perfect. My grandmother takes me by the hand and pushes through the mass of people, all of them murmuring and speaking and some even shouting. She’s smaller than most of them but with her purse she rams a path toward the more crowded edge of the plaza. Some people give her the stink-eye, some of them jab their elbows back and sneer at me, but she’s dogged in her mission.

Then I lose her. Somehow, our knotted fingers fray and set me loose among the dense forest of legs and shoes and handbags and even a little weenie dog on a leash, panting with fear and heat and congestion, and I think I must have the same look as I call out for her. Mamá Concha! Mamá Concha! I feel the crowd surge in one direction and knock me down and some lady’s heel stamps on my hand and I start to cry. The sounds of several cars coming to a stop somewhere near set off a riotous noise that drowns out my cries. Shifting bodies pressed hard against each other buffet me about like a piñata. Frantic, I look straight up for even a fragment of that blue sky but now it’s a swarm of balloons and millions of tiny shreds of colored paper flitting and falling like snowflakes on everyone. This clamor of yelling and screaming, I feel it in my teeth, my bones, all the way down to my feet, till the ground is bellowing against the weight of all these stomping, bounding, jerking feet. The storm of people is so total, so consuming and suffocating, and it moves with such a single anarchic mind, that I think I’ll drown in it, I think I’ll die. I scream with all my strength, MAMÁ CONCHA! But I can’t hear myself. I can’t hear anything but this crazy thunder of voices.

Out of this frenzy, the hands of my grandmother descend and take me by the ribs and lift me up, up, above the throng, and aim me in the direction of the Hotel Cortez across the street. I’m blinded by the glare of the sun’s reflection in the windows, rectangles of glass flashing into my eyes. Then, for just a moment, through the starbursts of white sunlight and a thousand hands raised in some kind of jubilation, I see a man’s epic smile on a head of blazing red hair, all teeth and red-orange hair and his hand running through it before it waves at the crowd, waves distinctly at me, too, this man with fire in his hair and eyes of Olympian blue and a smile that encompasses all of us appears for just a glimpse before I lose him again in the shimmer, but I’m above the tumult now, tears glistening on my flushed cheeks, pale and hot, numb and blind, bounced along to the chants of Viva Kennedy! ¡Viva Kennedy! ¡Viva Kennedy!

Reading Group Guide

Reader’s Group Guide

Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis

Published by City Lights, October 2018

1. Solis describes the stories as disconnected and yet thoroughly interconnected. How do you think this impacts time throughout the book?

2. Retablos inescapably deals with identity, and the many “firsts” of a young boy living near the border. What event did you find most important in the transformation of the “young boy” in the book?

3. Which section of the book did you find the images to be “painted” most vividly? Discuss the images and why they stood out to you.

4. Does there seem to be a specific audience Octavio Solis is trying to reach? If yes, why do you think he might be trying to reach out to this audience?

5. How does the language and imagery of the memories within Retablos combine to create the overall tone within the book? Which details help you to understand this?

6. Solis describes a retablo as “an old beaten tin'” on which a life-changing event is depicted. Can you find specific moments within the text where a trauma followed by a transformation can be seen? Give examples.

7. Retablos is essentially a book of memories, but Solis says “even the most authentic memory became imbued with the same strange unreality.” How did this impact your reading and interpretation of the events?

8. What is the relationship between past and present within Retablos, and how does that affect the structure of the book?

9. What is the impact of Retablos on you? How has this story influenced the way that you approach and think about the themes of the book in your real world experiences?

10. Looking back over the book, what did you learn about trauma and the divine and gratefulness?

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