Called one of the Best Books of Fall 2018 by Buzzfeed, The Millions, and the CBC!
Seminal moments, rites of passage, crystalline vignettes—a memoir about growing up brown at the U.S./Mexico border.
The tradition of retablo painting dates back to the Spanish Conquest in both Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Humble ex-votos, retablos are usually painted on repurposed metal, and in one small tableau they tell the story of a crisis, and offer thanks for its successful resolution.
In this uniquely framed memoir, playwright Octavio Solis channels his youth in El Paso, Texas. Like traditional retablos, the rituals of childhood and rites of passage are remembered as singular, dramatic events, self-contained episodes with life-changing reverberations.
Living in a home just a mile from the Rio Grande, Octavio is a skinny brown kid on the border, growing up among those who live there, and those passing through on their way North. From the first terrible self-awareness of racism to inspired afternoons playing air trumpet with Herb Alpert, from an innocent game of hide-and-seek to the discovery of a Mexican girl hiding in the cotton fields, Solis reflects on the moments of trauma and transformation that shaped him into a man.
Praise for Octavio Solis's Retablos:
"Octavio Solis does with words and imagery, lyricism and details, humor and heartbreak what the master craftsmen and women of the traditional retablos do with wood and paint, achieving the same results: these short luminous retablos are magical and enticing. Unpretentiously and with an unerring accuracy of tone and rhythm, Solis slowly builds what amounts to a storybook cathedral. 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. His is a large, capacious, and inclusive imagination. Just as the traditional retablos are objects of beauty ultimately meant as devotional pieces, Solis's Retablos will make devotees of his readers."—Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
"The murky flow of the Rio Grande River, the border patrol we call la migra, demons, a petty crime of stolen candy, street urchins, family squabbles, eccentric neighbors, and bike rides in which dust envelops a skinny kid named Octavio Solis. When he stops peddling years later, he'll spank the dust from his clothes, but not all of it. Some of it clings to his very soul, and will cling to us, the reader, in this tender and perceptive memoir. 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
"Octavio Solis isn't a painter, but he ought to be. He's not a poet, but he could be. His isn't fiction or memoir but, like dreams, might be either. His vision of El Paso and the border is as though through an undulating haze of desert heat."—Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning: Stories
"Solis has written beautifully about his youth on the border, never flinching from his childish blunders, nor failing to find soul in the frailties of others. These stories soar and shimmer with poetry and a playwright's gift for dramatic compression, comedy and pathos running through them arm in arm. Retablos is deeply moving, and a joy."—Elizabeth McKenzie, author of The Portable Veblen: A Novel
"To enter into this book is like walking into a shrine, walls lined with beautiful paintings, each one colorful and visceral, depicting memories, life on the border, death and sadness and joy. This is one of the most memorable books written about the borderlands in years. Solis writes 'every memory we have has a patina of invention to it.' These stories have layer upon layer of images, meaning, and grace. Each short piece, each of the 'retablos' is a stunning, masterful painting. Some you will want to stand in front of for a long time, and others are brilliantly uncomfortable and can make you weep if you linger too long."—
Daniel Chacón, author of Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms and Loops
"The short-short format is often called flash fiction these days, but Octavio Solis' stories are more like slow fiction: a moment unfolds, revealing a life, a way of life, generations. He explores the borderlands, not just the streets of El Paso where he grew up, just across the Rio Grande from Mexico, but also those liminal zones between fiction and nonfiction, childhood and adulthood, and magic and melancholy. Small but mighty, these stories will stay with you long after the moment has passed."—Frances Lefkowitz, author of To Have Not: A Memoir
"A retablo is a devotional painting, playwright Octavio Solis tells us. In this poignantly written, heart-warming coming-of-age memoir, Solis pays tribute to those cornerstone moments in his life, negotiating borders at once personal and cultural, with such color that the reader is left spellbound. Astonishing, what more can I say?"—Greg Sarris, author of How a Mountain was Made: Stories