Turning A Border Into A Hyphen: Octavio Solis Talks About His New Memoir
Octavio Solis defines prolific. With two dozen plays and countless short stories, he just released a memoir, Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border, a book that is both timely and timeless. His observations, about growing up a hair over the American side of the border provide Solis one of the most clear-eyed perspectives about border culture, tensions and fractured personalities.
Solis now lives just outside Medford, and between rehearsals and book readings found time to answer a few questions for the Rogue Valley Messenger.
Rogue Valley Messenger: In your preface you write, “The shit on the border never changes.” That sounds like an expression of resolution. Do you find any optimism that there might be positive changes, and can you define what would be more “positive” relations or interactions at the Mexican-American border?
Octavio Solis: I don’t pretend to have any solutions or resolutions to the border situation. I’m only reacting to the realities I have always known growing up along the Rio Grande border. As long as there is no economic parity the US and Latin America, there will always be an influx of immigrants coming to this country. As there will be people who don’t want them here. But the issue runs deeper. When this border was created more than 150 years ago, it separated indigenous and Mexican people from each other. They understood this fact but ignored it. If they wanted to see their families or their communities, they came at will however they could. So it continues. That’s the reality. I said the border situation never changes, but actually, it’s grown worse. It’s been politicized and weaponized and the people on both sides of the issue have been demonized. I’ll be more optimistic about any changes when the governments of North America redefine what this border means and it how it should operate, and when the questions of who is allowed here are not tainted by overt and institutional racism.
RVM: You have an interesting perspective in that you grew up on the American side of the border, but clearly are strongly influenced by and engaged with Mexican culture. Because of this geography, do you feel any sense of removal from Mexican culture—and, if so, do you think that provides a certain amount of journalist perspective for your writing?
OS: As a writer, I don’t take a journalistic point of view. My view is entirely personal. My life is on the hyphen. I am an American, and my loyalties are irrefutably there; but my cultural roots are in Mexico, and the ties to that nation and its people are as strong as my fealty to the US. The condition of being from there but living here is the defining principle of the immigrant experience. I’m treated differently in this country because of who I am, but when I go to Mexico, I am regarded as American, and therefore I can never truly be a native of that country. So where do I belong, except on the hyphen? In the grey zone between two cultures, which is now its own distinct culture. I can’t take an objective journalistic view of this country, nor of Mexico. From where I stand, it’s the first-generation state-of-mind that gives me this point of view. It keeps me yearning for the past as much as for the future. But it’s a mistake to perceive Mexico as the past. That country is evolving right along with the US and it redefining what it means to be a “third world nation” in a “new world order.” This 20th Century terminology is becoming obsolete.
RVM: You’ve written almost two dozen plays. What is the challenge and the opportunity for a memoir as opposed to a stage production?
OS: I am working utterly by myself when I am writing. The difference is that when I write a play, the second half of the process is social and collaborative. I have directors, actors, designers, etc. helping the bring the vision to the stage. But when I wrote Retablos, I remained alone, speaking to the ghosts of the past, including myself, for the entire process. I can blame no one for its failure but me, but also, its success is wholly mine. Upon submission, however, the solitary work was turned over to my editor, Elaine Katzenberger and she helped to clean up and hone my writing, which is an essential procedure which must come before publication. Her imprint on this book is immeasurable.
RVM: How did you end up in southern Oregon?
OS: After working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than 20 years, it felt like the right move for us. My wife and I have been craving the rural life for some time. By coming to the Rogue Valley, we get the best of all possible worlds: we can have a farm and raise animals and nurture a garden and an orchard while also working with the largest resident theatre in the country. It’s all about dualities for me. I can work in the quiet of my valley and still keep a foothold in the vital buzzing world of the American theatre.