When 22 people died and 22 more were wounded in the city of El Paso, Texas, as a result of the mass shooting of a crazed racist on August 3 this year, something profoundly shifted in me. I was born and grew up in El Paso, my parents and two of my siblings and their children still live there, much of my work as a playwright draws inspiration from that city, and I have just had Retablos
, a book of stories about my life along the border, published within the last year. I am largely defined by the frontera
on which this American city stands. Yet, this tragedy is forcing me to question whether I am American enough for these times.
My parents taught me what it means to be American. They came as naïve young immigrants from Mexico. They lived hard, grease-slogged lives drudging in diners and soda fountains to get us through high school, and when better jobs and higher pay came, they didn’t bail on their little bungalow in the ever-impoverished Lower Valley and relocate to a more prosperous neighborhood. They invested in our college educations and family livelihoods, a sacrifice that paid off, as we all did well and moved on to vital, productive careers. The culmination of their efforts to make it in this country took place on the day that, with muted pride, my mom and dad took their oaths as American citizens in the 1980s, hands trembling on their chests.
It was from them — my mother, in particular — that I acquired a deep love for our country, which at that time meant El Paso. I embraced my nationality and everything that came with it: its history, its high-flown patriotism, its culture, already overwhelming much of the world, and its language. English became our new native tongue and soon everyone in our house spoke it with such ease and command that we hardly even knew how quickly it had overtaken my parents’ idiom. It’s what marked us first and finally as true-blue Americans.
I’ll admit that I’ve had my moments over this period when my citizenship was questioned. I’ve been stopped several times by the Border Patrol. (There’s an episode I recount in Retablos
where two agents have their fun by grilling me on where I live.) I’ve heard the slung cries of “Go back to Mexico!” from drunks in passing pick-ups and I’ve earned my share of chance racial innuendo. But these only made me dig my boot heels deeper in. I knew what I was. Of that there was never any question.
History isn’t repeating itself, it’s trying to finish what it started.
That changed somewhat when I became a writer. As I moved farther away from the border, I sought to investigate what it meant to be a hyphenated American, a man with cultural affinities for Mexico and hallowed loyalties to the U.S. In my plays, my characters find their identities constantly challenged from the outside as well as from the inside. They try to come to grips with a land that often doesn’t really want them, a homeland, which through some magical colonial thinking, they’ve been induced to believe they no longer belong to. These characters feel just as alienated in Mexico as they do in the U.S., and so they find solace and inclusion in a language that moves from English to Spanish to a patois that exists only on the borderlands. Too often, they end up betraying their deeper impulses, their native impulses, in order to call this nation their own. It’s very much a condition of our lives as Latinos in this country, where the conflicted heart’s fealty splits us in two, between wanting to belong and wanting to get as far away as possible from the shit of American exceptionalism.
I thought I knew what that schism was really about. As the son of immigrants, I presumed that I had an inside track on that curious dualism of the border. But writing about it and experiencing it anew are two different things. The massacre in El Paso has amplified it all for me in ways that I didn’t think was possible. Or rather, I thought I was already immune to it. More than half a century in this country should have surely legitimized me by now. But no, the assailant with his weapon reminded me that I’m still hardly a first-generation Mexican American with the waters of the Rio Grande lapping at my shoes.
In a sense, by firing his weapon at 44 innocent dark-skinned people whom he identified as Mexican, he fired at me. It’s my blood smeared across the floor of that Walmart, it’s my breath gasping for life, my fear sending me running toward the back of the store, and my hopes for acceptance and legitimacy dying in the clamor of the semiautomatic gunfire bouncing off the walls. I suspect almost every person of Mexican descent living here felt the same stunned realization, if only for a moment, that we are no more than outsiders in our own country, and that for many xenophobes, we can’t change this nation if we’re dead.
We thought we were beyond this point. Our history was rife with this kind of racial animus, from the early days of the Texas Rangers hunting parties of the 1920s to the Zoot Suit riots of 1940s LA to the “Project Wetback” denaturalization and expulsion policy of the Eisenhower Administration. This is a new century, we cajoled ourselves, we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing anymore. And yet, here it is. Families seeking refuge are being separated at the border and children are being caged without care or representation. People are deported in droves across the country and incidents of outright discrimination and racial violence against Latinos are spiking like never before. And now people are being shot. History isn’t repeating itself, it’s trying to finish what it started.
In the wake of this incomprehensible bloodbath, I have made an effort to step across the political divides that estrange us from each other. But hard looks are all I get from some. It’s like they feel accused by my presence, by my kindness, like I’m an inconvenient consequence of this maniac’s hostility, and all I do is cause them misdirected shame. But I don’t intend to make anyone feel guilt or shame for things they haven’t done; in fact, I’m offering my goodwill in order to reset the timer back to zero, to give us all a chance to step back a few paces from the precipice. Their cold demeanor makes me wonder if we’re not already looking back at the precipice and waiting for gravity to take hold. I hope not.
I’m an empath. I’ll always try to relate to the contrary view, to deal the benefit of the doubt to my opposite so we can gain a truer understanding of each other. But these times sure make it hard. I was in a cigar bar just last week enjoying a smoke with other casual strangers eager for conversation. One man expressed his libertarian disdain for any governmental regulations on firearms, and I let him speak without much heat from my end. But when he suggested that the El Paso shooting was a “false flag” event, I’d had enough. I knew the names of people who were lost in that shooting, and some victims were known by relatives of mine. It was no false flag. I told him not to go there; I said that to assign it to some corked-up conspiracy theory diverted attention from the true racist, xenophobic source of this disgraceful carnage, and no way was I going to allow him to coolly absolve this nation of its core racism, which people of color have endured for centuries. I took my stand and he retracted his comment and changed the subject. But it was an enlightening moment for me, not only because I learned how pervasive this informal racism is in this nation, but because I was struck by my own newfound vehemence not to be discounted.
This new century is striving to move humanity forward, even as the forces of inertia and ignorance work to strip us of our legitimacy. I expect that the vast majority of people repudiate these forces and stand with the good people of El Paso, but honestly I can’t be sure about that anymore. I don’t know if my identity is a false flag itself, if I can ever be American enough for this country. These doubts will surely sow the seeds of new work for me. In the meantime, in my art and my daily interactions, I have no choice but to assert my empathy with militancy on behalf of all the people who look like those 22 slain innocents until no one questions our right to be here again.
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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, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama.
His fiction and short plays have appeared in the Louisville Review
, Eleven Eleven
, Chicago Quarterly Review
, Arroyo Literary Review
. Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border
is his first book.