El Paso author Sergio Troncoso loves to write about growing up in El Paso. But with every one of his novels, he aims to get readers past the stereotypes associated with the border and into the passion that comes with being an immigrant or a Mexican American who wants to succeed.

His latest novel, “Nobody’s Pilgrims” does just that. The book features three teenagers, two from the Borderland and one from Missouri, who travel across the country in search of a “home.” Along the way, they find themselves by relying on their background and their willingness to fight as they find the family they never had.

“I think if a reader who is not from El Paso reads my work, they will find that I ask the tough questions about the borderlands and its characters,” Troncoso said, “while at the same time being proud to show why the border merits their careful attention.”

Troncoso graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College and received two graduate degrees in international relations and philosophy from Yale University. A Fulbright scholar, Troncoso was also inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. He currently teaches fiction and nonfiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut.  

El Paso Matters recently talked with the Ysleta High School graduate about his book, his career and growing up in the Lower Valley. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

El Paso Matters: For those who aren’t as familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Troncoso: I am the author of eight books, and I just finished my ninth! I have mostly written about growing up in Ysleta when it was in the rural outskirts of El Paso. I love the borderlands and consider it my home. As a poor kid from the border, I went to Harvard and studied Latin American history and politics to understand who I was. I also graduated from Yale University with two graduate degrees, in international relations and philosophy. I wrote novels, short stories, and essays about El Paso, because I wanted to see this place and its characters in literature, on bookshelves, in bookstores. I am a recent past president of the Texas Institute of Letters, and I teach at the Yale Writers’ Workshop.

El Paso Matters: What are some key themes you would like readers, particularly El Pasoans, to take away from your book?

Troncoso: One important theme in “Nobody’s Pilgrims” is “the border beyond the border.” How does the border and its issues travel beyond the geography of El Paso and Ysleta, and how does the border and its sensibilities reside within the characters who travel beyond the border? Another theme is about community and outsiders. The three protagonists, Turi, Molly and Arnulfo, don’t belong anywhere, not even with their families. Yet they create a community of outsiders by believing in each other, listening to each other, and sacrificing themselves for each other. A final theme is about how character is revealed when you are in difficult, even violent or dangerous situations. Character is revealed by action.

El Paso Matters: What’s your favorite line in the book and why?

Troncoso: My favorite line could be (page 274): “What matters is both of them together fighting for their new home.” Turi and Molly – friends who have connected with each other because of the terrible gauntlet they have survived – have become a community, have found their place and home. ‘Home’ is not the place you are born in, but it’s the place where you love, where you fight to live together with those you care about, where you make your stand. “Nobody’s Pilgrims” is fundamentally about that: Turi takes what he has learned on the border beyond the border, to connect with someone who shares his values, even though Molly is from a very different community. We must fight for the community we want.

El Paso Matters: Some of your books and writings deal with El Paso, immigrants, Hispanic culture and growing up in a binational region. What is the key to keeping readers who are not from the area interested in these topics?

Troncoso: I think what’s key is to create characters that are authentically from the border, but who also are asking the fundamental questions we all ask. Where do we belong? And with whom? How can we find meaning in our lives and community?… This is in a way a dual responsibility for any writer who wants to write about their community: you must authentically represent its characters and issues, yet you should ask the deeper questions that go beyond that community.

El Paso Matters: What is something unique about El Paso/Juárez/the border/Southwest region that inspired or is portrayed in your book?

Troncoso: I love portraying Ysleta when it was rural and Mexican Americans who are poor and disenfranchised, but who have so much to contribute to fundamental questions about American society and culture. I’ve also always enjoyed the wordplay of Spanglish on the border, and you see this in “Nobody’s Pilgrims.” Turi connects with Molly through their love of word games, books, and stories, and she wants to know more about Spanglish. Their relationship is about being “open hearts,” people who are not judging you because of what they see on TV, but people who give you a chance to prove yourself. I find many “open hearts” in El Paso, because we live on the border (not in an abstraction).

El Paso Matters: As an author, what do you make of the current national debate regarding the censorship of books at school libraries?

Troncoso: I think we should be fighting the censorship of books in Texas, at school libraries and beyond. Book banning often targets the LGBTQIA+ communities, and every community should have books in libraries that represent them. The availability of a wide variety of books is fundamental to helping different readers find solace, triumph, and resilience when you are made to feel you don’t belong. I know reading at the El Paso Public Library saved my life. As president of the Texas Institute of Letters, I led the fight against book-banning in Texas by marshaling the TIL to speak and act against censorship. We must keep fighting against censorship in community meetings, social media, and school boards.

El Paso Matters: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects or aspirations? 

Troncoso: I have just finished a book of essays. This summer I’ll be working on another novel. I’ll be teaching a fiction workshop at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. After my presidency ended, I was appointed the investment officer of the Texas Institute of Letters. I want to keep encouraging the TIL to represent ALL of Texas, every community, every race, every ethnicity, every gender, because great stories come from all of these places, particularly the out-of-the-way places like the borderlands. Too often El Paso was overlooked by the TIL, and I wanted to change that permanently. And if anyone knows me for half-a-second, they know that I will always keep fighting for my community and for El Paso.

El Paso Matters: What other local authors do you recommend for our readers?

Troncoso: Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Rosa Alcala, Sasha Pimentel, Daniel Chacón, Tim Z. Hernandez.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...