I have established the Troncoso Reading Prizes for children and young
adults at the Sergio Troncoso Branch Library in Ysleta (El Paso, Texas). These six
prizes for grade school, middle school, and high school students in the
Ysleta area will be given out every year for those who read the most
books from September 15-November 15. The librarians at the Sergio
Troncoso Branch Library will administer the prizes. To read more about
the Troncoso Reading Prizes and to download the rules for eligibility,
Yesterday Ramon Renteria officially retired from an illustrious career as a newspaper reporter for the El Paso Times. In my mind, he was that one border voice for El Paso, Texas and the border region that was indispensable. Over the years, I came to know Mr. Renteria as a straight-shooter who understood everything from the politics to the peccadilloes of my hometown, and I valued the many friendly exchanges we had over coffee or through emails. In 1999, Mr. Renteria gave me one of the first interviews after my first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, was published, and I wanted to return the favor today.
ST: As you reflect on your great career as a journalist
from El Paso, what changes have you seen that most startle you, what trends,
positive and negative, are most important for readers to understand the
changing newspaper business?
RR: I've worked 44 years as a newspaper reporter, starting
as a general assignments reporter in eastern New Mexico. Thirty-nine of those
years were spent in El Paso where I made the rounds of the beats, covering everything
from cops to the courts system, the Hispanic community, border issues, Juárez,
and education. I also spent four years running a two-person bureau in Las
Cruces for the El Paso Times and keeping
track of news throughout southern New Mexico. I received a well-rounded
education in the field, hands-on reporting– something more valuable than
anything you could possibly learn from books or simply listening to someone
lecture in a college classroom.
I've gone from fairly primitive technology, a manual typewriter
to the electric typewriter, the first somewhat limited newsroom computers to
what we now have, the ability to write and transmit news or whatever you write
from almost anywhere on a laptop computer, a computer table or a smart phone.
As an old school journalist, I've always stuck to the
basics: solid research and reporting and writing with passion.
I've been fortunate to have worked in the heyday of
newspaper journalism back when editors and corporations didn’t mind spending
money to get the story. The best editors encouraged and cultivated good
writing. I always tried to look for the story beyond the basic who, what, where
and why principles taught in college journalism.
While the newspaper industry has lost advertising revenue and readers in its
print product over the years, I still say that it takes boots on the
ground—good reporters and photographers—to gather the content that newspapers
now increasingly rely on to beef up their online products. People still enjoy a
good read in the newspaper. The good writers, the ones who try to tell a good
yarn, are fading from the news industry.
A reporter these days is no longer just a guy with a pen and
notepad. You have to constantly reinvent yourself or at least embrace the new
technology. When you go on assignment, you’re now expected to not only gather
the words and facts but also to bring back or send from the field images,
either still photos or short videos. I cast aside the traditional notepad long
ago and replaced it with a tape recorder, first a standard cassette recorder
and now two digital recorders capable of recording a 17-hour interview nonstop.
I’m convinced more and more print papers will start
publishing on fewer days of the week within the next five years but never will
disappear. Sadly, the younger generation sometimes prefers to receive its news
in daily spurts of social media.
Too many young people no longer read for pleasure, no longer
read books, magazines or newspapers. I worry how long we can maintain a
literate nation if the trend continues.
ST:Why did you become a journalist, and why did you stay
a journalist even after your initial reasons may have changed? What advice
would you give young journalists today, in newspapers and in other areas of
RR: I became a journalist simply because I loved reading and
writing as a teenager. Or as I said in my farewell column because “shoveling
words is much easier than shoveling cow manure.” Frankly, I was an incredibly
shy person, so shy that I refused to take the final in a college speech class.
Writing seemed like the perfect escape, the perfect way to express myself.
Journalism forced me out of the shell, forced me to learn to listen to what
others have to say.
I tell prospective young journalists that they have to be
multi-media experts, multi-talented and proficient at not just collecting and
writing information but also at shooting and editing photographs and video.
That future is here now. If they don’t embrace the new journalism, then maybe
shoveling cow manure is a better option.
I could have gone into management, perhaps gone to a bigger
market. I chose to continue writing because that’s more fun. Half the fun of
being a reporter is being out there experiencing stuff and talking to people.
You can’t get the color and good quotes for a story if you’re tethered to a
telephone in an office.
The way news is delivered is changing radically but good
writing skills still matter.
ST:Your book page has been so important for the
community of El Paso, but also for the devotion it has had to Latino writers.
Why did you start the book page? Why was it important for you to provide a
forum for Latino literature?
RR: I did not start the book page. I was asked to take over
the book page more than 10 years ago. For years, the page mostly focused on
wire copy or the authors and books that the wire services chose to profile. The
page rarely reflected the literature produced by writers in the El Paso and
border region or even writers from across the Southwest.
I wanted to showcase Latino authors and other writers from
the borderlands and the Southwest but usually found their voices missing on the
Gradually, I transformed the page, gave it more of a
border/Southwest flavor. Lucky for me, New York writer Rigoberto González
started submitting reviews showcasing writers and poets from New York to
California. After a while, the book page lured other Latino guest contributors
and other reviewers who preferred to write about books dealing with the border,
the West and Southwest. Not that I’m looking forward to colgar los tenis
anytime soon but if anyone were to write my obituary I hope that they at least
mention that I tried to give some ink to writers too often still neglected in
the mainstream press.
ST:What do you think you would most want to communicate
about the importance of writing and reading for you? What ideas might you have
to encourage those who may not be avid readers or who may be reluctant about
RR: I stopped reporting and writing for a few years and became a
line editor, editing copy that other writers produce. I could point out the
people in the newsroom that read on a regular basis simply by the way they
wrote. The equation is simple: you can’t be a writer or a good writer if you
don’t read. Reading nourishes the imagination whether you write fiction,
nonfiction or fact-based journalism.
If I knew how to compel people to become readers, I would be
making big bucks in some corporate office in New York City, Chicago or Atlanta.
I don’t know. That's a difficult question. If you haven’t acquired a passion
for books or the printed word by the time you’re in grade school, it is going
to be extremely difficult for you as an adult to sort out what is real or
meaningful and what is bullshit.
As for writing, you learn best by writing on a regular basis
and rewriting, sometimes rearranging stuff until it hurts. Too many young
writers, especially in this business, think that they’re great writers because
they have a degree or two or because they can regurgitate facts. Good writing
is a lonely endeavor, just you and the blank page or the blank screen and that
damn blinking cursor.
ST:What changes have you seen in the El Paso/Juárez area
that you think are important, and what would you most want to preserve about the
character or ambiance of this city?
RR: When I arrived here, El Paso/Juárez was a rapidly
growing metropolis trying to find itself, trying to carve its identity.
Middle-aged and older white guys ran the newsrooms and the editorial policies
of the two daily newspapers. The Chamber of Commerce pretty well dictated who
would get elected to political office. El Paso was trying to change but at the
same time clinging hard to the old ways, the old attitudes or systems that
sometimes kept Mexican Americans from progressing. I’m not too familiar with
how things work in Juárez but in El Paso, the Mexican American population
eventually found itself in positions of authority. Sadly, the majority of
political leaders snared in the FBI’s ongoing corruption scandal were Mexican
El Paso is starting to look more like a big city or a city
with big city issues, more traffic congestion, too many schools and not enough
children, aging public infrastructure and an eroded downtown core trying hard
to bounce back.
I recently interviewed a Virginia writer who has lived in El
Paso for a few years. She described El Paso as a big city with a small town
I hope El Paso matures, behaves more like a city, but never
loses that small town corazón.
ST:Your homespun humor and your love of detail about
all-things-El Paso have often distinguished your columns. How did you come
about this ‘writing style,’ or voice? Tell us a bit about the craft of writing
from your point of view.
RR: I don't recall how I found my so-called voice. One day
as a payasada I decided to inject a bit of Spanglish into the column. Mixing
English and Spanish has always been the border’s third language, sometimes even
in Juárez. So I started writing in the voice of la gente. I’m convinced that’s
why the column has earned so many fans over the years. A lot of people can
relate to the pendejadas that I write. Even though I dislike writing in the
first person, I have often told readers about my own medical issues, my own
brushes with death. Maybe that convinced some readers that I’m not a celebrity
but just another vato who hurts and cries and worries and farts just like them.
The homespun style sort of just evolved.
My bilingual writing style also pissed off a lot of people.
I’m constantly chastised by the language purists. Los güeros insisted that I
should stick to English or at least include a glossary because they don’t get
what I'm saying. Well-educated Mexicanos and Mexican Americans often accused me
of cheapening the language, that I am neither proficient in English or Spanish
and that I should shut up and not remind them of their ghetto roots.
I write mostly to amuse myself, sort of like a monkey
playing in a zoo. I love the rhythm of words. Once in a while, something
somewhat profound rolls off the fingertips. Most everything I write goes
through multiple layers of rewriting.
ST:What are your plans, and in particular do you have
any writing-related projects as you step away from the newsroom?
RR: I don't have any immediate plans other than to take a
break from the daily work routine for a while and spend some time re-connecting
with friends and family. Like most writers, I'd like to leave a memoir of sorts
for my children and grandchildren. So I’ll be devoting some writing and editing
time to that endeavor. Like I said in my farewell column, I love writing and
the rhythm of words. Hopefully, I can latch on to some free-lance writing
projects such as travel pieces or profiles. The El Paso Times offered to continue my weekly column on a free-lance
basis but I've declined that offer for the time being. The newspaper left the
door open for me to reconsider. So quien sabe? Maybe the never-ending
columnist, as one fan once described me, will resurrect someday. Writing is not
a faucet that you can turn off and forget, especially after you’ve spent almost
all of your adult life writing– converting snippets of facts and quotes into an
interesting yarn that may inform, amuse or inspire someone.
Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos
Press) is a hilarious and powerful young adult novel with an unforgettable
character in Gabi, la gordita, seeking to be true to her independence and
integrity while she navigates the disasters and dramas of her senior year in
high school. Quintero has created a voice that will resonate for many years to
come. I hope this book will find the legions of readers it deserves, students,
parents, teachers, and beyond.
Hernandez starts a journal right before senior year, and it is this
taboo-breaking, gut-spilling text where Gabi is true to herself, where she
chronicles her confusions and declarations about being “a bastard child,”
teenage sex and pregnancy, being too Mexican or not Mexican enough, her love of
food, especially Hot-Cheetos, and society’s hypocritical expectations and
pressures on young women, especially Chicanas. Gabi’s journal writing is
profane, funny, revealing, and wise, but her experiences and decisions during
her last year in high school will keep the reader riveted to the story.
struggles with her weight and self-image, yet she finds an outlet in writing
when a teacher, Ms. Abernard, nurtures her poetry, recommends “secret reading
lists” to Gabi and her classmates, and encourages them to read their poetry at
a coffeehouse, The Grind Effect. Gabi has early crushes on Joshua Moore and
Eric Ramirez, and has never been kissed. But she will change that soon enough,
with the aroma of Hot-Cheetos on her “soft luscious lips.”
Gabi’s two best friends have dramas of their own. Sebastian reveals to Gabi
that he’s gay, which goes well, but when Sebastian reveals this to his father
the son is kicked out of the house. Sebastian ends up staying with Gabi.
Another best friend, Cindy gets pregnant by German, “one of those guys who
knows he’s super hot and assumes girls HAVE to like him.” Gabi witnesses the
birth of Cindy’s baby and wonders “how something so utterly disgusting can be
so utterly beautiful at the same time.” Later, Cindy will confide a secret to
Gabi that will cause la gordita to turn (justifiably) violent.
family is also a mess around her, and she must endure, explain, and overcome
them. Her father is a methamphetamine addict, who is missing from home for days
at a time. Gabi loves and hates her mother, who harangues her about her weight
and constantly admonishes her to keep her ‘ojos abiertos y las piernas
cerradas.’ Gabi listens and doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice, yet it is
the mother who ends up pregnant after having unprotected sex. Beto, Gabi’s
younger brother, skips school to paint graffiti art, and seems lost without his
father. At the end of senior year, as Gabi is applying to the University of
California at Berkeley, she must take whatever steps are necessary to go beyond
this family and her life at Santa Maria de Los Rosales High School.
is in pieces in more ways than one: with emotions that contradict each other,
with expectations and pressures that pull her every which way, with “jiggly
goodies” in awkward dresses, and with crushes on boys she thinks she likes and
those she learns to love. She is trying to put her self together, like a jigsaw
puzzle, making mistakes and discovering solutions on the fly, her heart on her
sleeve, with a verve that often astonishes the reader. If this is not one of
best contemporary books about the teenage soul, I don’t know what is.
the best achievement of Isabel Quintero’s “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces” is what it
says about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ about teenage sexuality, and how
many adults are captive to a moral system that often denies them their best
sense of self. You can be responsible, you can be honest about who you are and what
you want, and you can empower yourself, if you can only survive the treacherous
shoals of those teenage years. Like Gabi, you will need a razor-sharp wit and
family and friends, as long as they don’t screw you up too much. You will need
a ferocious independence, even when you see yourself with so many faults and
limitations. Finally, you will need an integrity that demands you be true to
your emerging self, always.
(This book review originally appeared in the El Paso Times on April 19, 2015.)