Opinion: Living between worlds, Mexican American writers reveal a universal experience
The following essay is the Introduction from “Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in Between Worlds” (Texas A&M University Press), a collection of essays, short stories, and poems edited by award-winning author and scholar Sergio Troncoso, who was born in El Paso and raised in Ysleta. “Nepantla Familias” includes the work of acclaimed Mexican American writers and emerging voices, including El Paso’s own Daniel Chacon, Sheryl Luna, David Dorado Romo, and Octavio Solis.
By Sergio Troncoso
As a child in the Ysleta neighborhood about a quarter of a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, I had a strange recurring dream: I would be suspended in the clouds or fog, on a beam, gently falling into oblivion to one side and then falling to the other. I would never feel any pain or terror, and I would never know what happened after I fell to one side of the beam or the other. In the dream, it was the falling that mattered, somehow, the movement, and it was sitting on the beam for a few seconds before inevitably I would sway and fall to one side or the other.
Over the years, after I left childhood and El Paso, after I left the border and returned to it, I would interpret this dream of the “middle ground” in many ways. Living between Spanish and English. Being Mexican yet also American. Choosing values I inherited from my parents while also choosing values I created for myself. Living in many worlds in a single day — the worlds of the past and the present, the worlds of cities and rural areas, and the worlds of different languages and cultures. I believed the dream image even applied to my feeling of being in between the outsider who is ignored or attacked and the native who inherently belongs in the United States. Lately, as I have gotten older, I think about this dream in another way, as living on the border between life and death, with the many questions to be answered about the “undiscovered country” all of us will visit, but also about how those very questions change the life I live today. Strangely, falling to one side helps you to understand your falling to the other side in the next instance.
This middle ground or borderland is called “nepantla” by Mexican and Mexican-American writers. The word comes from Nahuatl, the language used by the Aztecs. Nepantla has been with me, in one way or another, all my life. A new anthology of essays, poems and short stories I edited is called “Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in between Worlds.” Nahuatl. Spanish. And English. The title itself contains the many worlds Mexican Americans have traveled.
The anthology reflects the diversity and variety of experiences that might explain, reveal and mysteriously explore this liminal land that is so essential to the Mexican American experience, particularly within families. Because it is through our families that we live nepantla, that we negotiate it, that we have questions about our identity and choices, that we are convinced to fall one way or another, or even to balance perpetually between many different worlds. Through our families, we understand better “the other side,” even if we perhaps fall more to a side different from our ancestors.
This Mexican American experience of living between two worlds has been — and will forever be — essential and important to the United States for at least three reasons. Of course, the first reason is the proximity of Mexico to the United States and the growing numbers of Mexican Americans who are citizens of the United States. But the ability of at least some Mexican Americans to go easily back and forth, between countries and languages, gives this first reason a continuing vitality that does not exist for other immigrants to the United States. And that many non-Mexican Americans not only regularly travel to visit our southern neighbor but also live and retire in Mexico has created another version of nepantla that in a way dovetails with “Mexican American nepantla.”
The second reason Mexican American nepantla will remain at the forefront of our culture and society is what it reveals: the wounds of our history. The wounds of Mexicans feeling like outsiders in a land that was once theirs. The wounds of leaving Mexico for opportunity in the United States and then often feeling a step behind in language, knowledge and power. The wounds of leaving home for some place better that you also want to make into a home. Some of these wounds heal permanently, and some heal for a moment, only to be ripped open again later. Many of these wounds may haunt us even as we appear polished, accomplished and well integrated into our communities in the United States. These wounds in many ways define us, and should define us, not only for the pain they have caused us, but also for what we have endured and overcome. In moments of peace, these wounds may even be a source of our tragicomedy and laughter.
That brings us to the third reason why I believe nepantla will remain a vital experience in the United States: as much as nepantla helps to understand Mexican Americans, living in a middle ground — with its uncertainty and questioning of the self — is also a deeply universal experience. But to appreciate this, we need to cross our own borders. Toward empathy.
The new anthology I edited is one way readers can discover new possibilities for understanding the Mexican American experience no matter their background.
That is my hope, at least, as the editor. Anyone who has left their home and tried to find a new one in a strange place — at times welcoming and at times hostile — they should find themselves in the work of Mexican American writers exploring nepantla. Anyone who has felt stymied by ancestors and their demands, yet also emboldened by their sacrifices and forgotten values — they should find themselves. Anyone who has forged a self from pieces of many worlds, to fit and not fit in a new home, who has balanced on many beams to understand different sides — yes, they should find themselves. Anyone who has loved another from a different world — they should recognize a version of themselves. And anyone who has crossed any border to create who they are, rather than to take who they are for granted, rather than to assume a place belongs to them — and suffered the consequences for it — they will find their fellow travelers, their kindred spirits.
I hope Mexican Americans writing their experience of nepantla speak not just to Mexican Americans but also become a bridge for those who are not Mexican Americans to understand another community as well as to understand themselves. To understand and write from the perspective of a particular community — to be deeply proud of that community — does not inherently mean that you cannot understand others outside your community. The either/or proposition that forces you to choose between your community and, say, your country has never been true. The very skills we learn to cross borders within ourselves help us to cross borders toward others outside our community. The many worlds Mexican Americans have traveled convey a balancing among these worlds that points to a new self for a new world.
Sergio Troncoso is the current president of the Texas Institute of Letters and for many years has taught at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of eight books as well as the forthcoming “Nobody’s Pilgrims: A Novel,” which will be published in 2022. In 2018, the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to rename the Ysleta public library branch as the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library.
Cover photo: Sergio Troncoso in 1978. (Photo courtesy of Sergio Troncoso)
Disclosure: The introduction to this essay was written by Bill Clark, owner of El Paso’s Literarity Book Shop. Clark and Troncoso are financial supporters of El Paso Matters, and Clark serves on El Paso Matters’ board of directors.