Nepantla and Radical Empathy: Talking with Sergio Troncoso


Sergio Troncoso is an award-winning writer, educator, and editor. The son of immigrant parents from Mexico, he grew up in Ysleta, a community in El Paso, Texas as a fronterizo, or border child, surrounded by strong women. He left to attend Harvard, and has stayed on the east coast.

I had a chance to interview Sergio about his new book Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in Between Worlds, published by Texas A&M Press earlier this week. This collection includes writers like Helena María Viramontes, ire’ne lara silva, Octavio Solis, Alex Espinoza, Deborah Paredez, Rigoberto González, and many more. Building on Gloria Anzaldúa’s and other Chicana feminists’ writings on nepantla, the beautiful stories, essays and poems, in this book, capture the essence of life between borders and within interstices.

Sergio Troncoso is most recently the author of A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son, a collection of linked short stories on immigration which Luis Alberto Urrea called “a world-class collection.” Other books include the novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which won the Southwest Book Award, and the essay collection Crossing Borders, winner of the Bronze Award for Essays from Foreword Reviews. A Fulbright scholar, Troncoso is currently president of the Texas Institute of Letters.

Sergio’s generosity and transparency made our conversation easy—and fun. I learned so much from our plática as we touched upon topics like Gloria Anzaldúa, liminal spaces, the process of editing Nepantla Familias, and so much more I couldn’t include here.


The Rumpus: I really like this quote in David Dorado Romo’s essay “Here, There,” which is the opening piece in the book. Romo writes, “Funny how sometimes everything seems to be tangled up together in the strangest ways across time and space.” That’s something that I kept seeing in the works in the book, and as a unifying theme in your other books, like A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son. This idea of how nepantla, this liminal space, really connects to people across time and distance. I want to talk a little bit about your rationale for editing this book and how the idea of bringing together this amazing collection of writers came to be.

Sergio Troncoso: The idea was mine. I was asked by the Wittliff Collections, and Texas A&M Press, to create an anthology of Mexican American literature. Anyone who knows what I write about knows that I’m as much interested in philosophy as I am in literature, and of course Gloria Anzaldúa is so important to me. I’ve read most, if not all of her work at some point in my life. It’s also the experience I grew up with, which is, you know, living between many worlds. It’s living between linguistic worlds, between rural and urban worlds. It’s hanging out at Yale and teaching my course at Yale, then the next week, being back in Ysleta after I fly back to visit my mother and she’s living in the little bitty house that I grew up in, where we dug our outhouse. I think this sort of experience, going from the past, to who you were, and this whole feeling of being at a university or you’re publishing another book, and you think, I don’t really belong here. Or, People like me should never have gotten this far. What am I doing here?

All of these psychological borders, linguistic borders, geographic borders, and living in between and crossing back and forth, have been my life. It has been in many ways my life, and in part because I like to push myself. I was one of those Chicanos. I love where I grew up, but I wanted to see what was out there. I was an adventurer, and sometimes you would kind of set off and you didn’t know what the hell you were doing, where you were going. And then, suddenly, Oh my god, this is where I am. You set off somewhere and you ended up somewhere very different. I think this speaks to a lot of our lives. I wanted to create an anthology focused on this concept of nepantla. The more I thought of about my own life, the more I thought that most of these issues—of nepantla, of trying to figure out who you are, where you belong, of the crossing of everything from interracial borders, intermarriage, to linguistic borders—happen within a familia. That’s where the tensions are; that’s where the conflicts happen.

Rumpus: You mention Gloria Anzaldúa, and I kept thinking about her legacy as I read your book, and how much her ideas of borderlands and of nepantla have inspired so many of us. As you say, it is that living between many worlds and navigating that reality, and the special knowledge that gives us. What else were you thinking about when curating this book?

Troncoso: The other thing I really cared about is I wanted this anthology to be new. This was me being a terco, which I am. I didn’t want stuff that was already available in other books. The thirty works that ended up in this anthology, twenty-five are unpublished. It is brand-new stuff by great writers I admire and then others that people recommended. I wanted to do something really unique and something very new and focused on great writing. That’s all I care about in my mind: What is great writing? I care about seeing something new on the page. I care about this exploration of this deep philosophical question of nepantla, living in between worlds, and how you’re going to explore it and open my mind as a reader, and David Dorado Romo’s essay, I thought would be a great first piece to read because it is a sort of introduction to this liminal world of nepantla. Even the order of the thirty pieces created a wave that took us on a certain ride.

The dream I talk about in the introduction is true. For decades I had the dream of nepantla literally being on a beam in between worlds. I’ve had this dream since I was a child, like a failed gymnast sitting on the beam rather than dancing or twirling or flipping, I’m falling one way and falling the other and it’s always the falling and it’s through clouds. And then as soon as I fall, I get back on the beam, and then I fall the other way. And that was the dream, a strange dream. It has meant different things at different points in my life.

I was a Chicano growing up a quarter of a mile from the border in a Mexicano neighborhood, not a Mexican American neighborhood. They were Mexicanos, people who had just crossed last month or last week, or last year—and then my adventurism took me to Harvard and I didn’t know what the hell Harvard was or the Ivy League for that matter. I started asking myself, “Who am I? Where do I belong?”

As Romo writes in his essay, “How were you planted?” Am I a Mexicano? Am I an American? Am I some sort of strange hybrid? Do I pick and choose? How do I pick and choose? If I fall in love with someone who’s not Mexicana, am I betraying who I am? It all happens within familias—who you fall in love with, who you reject, who tells you “nos traicionaste” you betrayed us. It’s all this kind of coming back and forth through borders and reestablishing borders and changing identity, and that’s what I was intrigued about in terms of the theme of the book and the writing within it. For me, it was a privilege to choose these writers and to try to set them up in a certain way and create the best work for them.

Rumpus: Despite the works being very different, throughout I see a careful undertaking in the editing of this book. Can you share what were some of the exciting or challenging aspects of the task of putting this anthology together?

Troncoso: I think the exciting part is always providing an opportunity for writers to showcase their work. Editing a book is, I believe, being an advocate for writers. The good thing is, for example, we got a great press that did a fabulous job. We were able to get Antonio Castro, from El Paso, to do the fantastic cover.

The hard part, where you pull your hair out, is trying to organize twenty-five, thirty, writers, all of them different, from Sandra Cisneros to relative newcomers who have never published or have rarely published in an anthology. You have to be very organized as an editor, and sometimes tough. You have to really devote your heart and soul into it. I read and reread all the pieces. I would move them around on my computer, because I wanted a certain rhythm, a certain exploration for the reader. I cannot control if a reader skips around and reads things out of order, but I can control the feeling of cohesion if someone reads the book from start to finish. I tried to give a certain experience to the reader, and that was hard.

Rumpus: I was thinking about ideas of home, and the way the words in the stories, poems, and essays in the collection help us make sense of this liminality, name it, name the spaces and the details and the feelings, the way they get at the affect. The words are so powerful, and we have so much based on our experiences, as you said. Spanish, English, Indigenous languages, sign languages, non-verbal languages—all of which help us move through this liminal space. I was struck by the ways different authors use language in stark and raw ways, or in abstract ways, in experimental ways, or through much description and detail, like Helena María Viramontes’s story. The way their words evoke feelings is so powerful. For example, Reyna Grande’s essay made me cry and I didn’t have the same experiences as her. But there are so many aspects to this validation of our languages, or of losing language, of translating for our parents. Rigoberto González’s piece “The Wonder Woman T-Shirt” left me in trance for days. I could relate to Alex Espinoza’s piece in so many ways. I’m also thinking about ire’ne lara silva’s story, and “The Astronaut” by Matt Mendez. In ire’ne lara silva’s story I was trying to figure out what was going on, and the more I got into it, the more I was like, wow, this is really profound and beautiful. The way she laces together these characters’ particular histories and emotions and then also how innate the queerness feels in the story. It all felt so natural to me, the interiority. It’s gorgeous.

Many of these authors’ contributions resonated with my own experience of nepantla. Are there included authors that you want to talk about in particular, about how you saw their role in the book?

Troncoso: I could talk about every single contributor for a long time. To point out some of the ones that you haven’t yet mentioned, we have Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s “Dia de Muertos.” She’s had this bifurcation in herself through her name, Elizondo and Griest. The last name Griest stems from her father who is from Kansas. Gender is also something that comes up, because her mother was the main breadwinner and her father took care of the kids. In a way, the father had the more traditional mother role. I liked that piece because it’s not only the crossing borders in terms of how she grew up but also international borders. Then there’s someone like Grande, who lost their language, and has to either decide, I leave it behind or I try to adopt it, try to recapture it, try to regain a relationship to Mexico. It also combined so many of the issues of somebody struggling to find out where they belong, who they are, and it all comes to the fore through their families. The people who created her, her mother and her father, and a border created by them. She has to navigate all of that, that sense of self.

I also like Stephanie Li’s “Paco” because of the unusual nature of it, and how she is a Chicana who has a Chinese father and a Mexicana mother. She is a border crosser from a border we haven’t thought of before. I think she really writes beautifully, in a very cutting way, almost like chiseled prose. Of course, ire’ne lara silva’s is one of my favorites because of what she’s doing, with the narrator’s perspective in “Border as Womb Emptied of Night and Swallows.” It’s from the man’s perspective, who is from Nebraska going to the border to follow his beloved. He’s also recollecting when he fell in love with a boy and the relationship that he has also with the woman he follows to the border. It’s even that shift of perspective, not telling it from the Chicano point of view but from someone who is falling in love with someone from the border. I’rene does so many things that readers have not seen before. As an editor, this is what I want. This is somebody who opens my mind to another existence, another way to look at nepantla. ire’ne’s story, I think did that for me perfectly.

Rumpus: Yeah. I was in tears. There was so much there. You said earlier that you want to offer something new to the readers—I think this book is really going to make an impact on readers, and people will remember it. It’ll speak differently to different people.

Troncoso: I hope so, because it is in many ways a universal experience, this sense of nepantla. Writers who focus on gender identity, I want to explore that more. For example, about reversal of roles, I took care of my kids much like Stephanie’s father. My wife and I had a sort of fluid relationship and not enough of that has been written about that, about the male as nurturer. Those are very important issues. It also helps us not be cerrados or close-minded. Thinking about this helps us move out of those ways that dictate how we are supposed to be or act. These attitudes typically encage us rather than free us to be who we want to be. Nepantla is a deep vein of exploration of identity and how people find their home, and how that home is so unique to them. But it starts from their heritage. It starts from their family. It starts from rejecting and adopting. What you know, what you learned when you were a child and what you thought you learned, and even rejecting the stereotypes of who you thought you were.

Rumpus: The last story in the book, “The Astronaut” by Matt Mendez, me llevó a otro mundo, it took me to another world, as is literally happening in the story in some ways. Earlier you talked about the order. I’m interested in why you chose to put that one at the end.

Troncoso: Well, I thought it questions the borders of normalcy and sanity, of imagination. Maybe sanity is not the right word but it’s really the question of how we are trying to reach beyond time to another liminal zone. I think about the first story I ever wrote, which is in The Last Tortilla and Other Stories and is called “The Abuelita,” which was about my grandmother who’s been dead over thirty years. She was this Mexicana who was tough as nails and who had shot and killed two men who attempted to rape her during the Mexican Revolution. So, she was this caraja. In my mind, my grandmother is still alive and very present in my head, and I do things because she tells me to do them and so I’m constantly talking to her. Everyone says, “te pareces mucho a tu abuelita.”

This crossing beyond time is trying to reach a liminal zone, going beyond time, beyond life. That is what I think “The Astronaut” does. It takes the liminal zone and supercharges it to something we haven’t thought of before. I think we do live in our brains beyond time. Maybe you don’t, but maybe you do, talk to some of your ancestors. That’s why I placed Matt Mendez at the end, because it is this child, trying to go beyond time to create a liminal zone, and it matters to this child so deeply that of course he takes the ultimate step, which is action, doing something that somebody from the outside will not understand and will say, Oh you’re out of your mind, what are you going to do, oh my gosh, this is dangerous.

Placing that story there is really to put a spin at the end of the book and to say there are other nepantlas we haven’t thought about. This is a liminal zone that has not really been explored yet. I wanted to end there, to open readers’ minds to another dimension literally. For me, nepantla is about radical empathy. I think if you’re going to believe in radical empathy—and reading is about that, how when you read, you’re entering somebody’s world, fictionalized or not and that person should open up your mind to some new possibility of existence, to some new way of looking at the world. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s pure love. If you love somebody you really have to get into their shoes in a very radical way, in a way that you might lose yourself a little bit. And if you lose yourself, you know that the challenge is, can you gain yourself, even while delving deep into the psyche and self of someone else.


Photograph of Sergio Troncoso courtesy of Sergio Troncoso.

Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr. is an interdisciplinary scholar and writer. He is an Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State, University, Fullerton. He obtained a BA and MA in Spanish from California State University, Northridge, and an MA and PhD in Chicana and Chicano Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include Chicanx and Latinx aesthetics, performance, and popular culture, queer oral histories, Los Angeles queer histories, Jotería Studies and Sound Studies. His academic and creative work has been published in Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Revista Bilingüe/Bilingual Review, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Journal of Lesbian Studies, and Sounding Out! The Sound Studies Blog. He is currently working on a book about queer Latinx Los Angeles and on a collection of essays and poems about growing up queer in a Cuban and Mexican family in the San Fernando Valley in California. More from this author →