One of the aims of Letras Latinas Blog, in addition to providing various forms of mission-driven content for our readers, is providing opportunities to practice and hone skills in literary journalism. Until now, where students are concerned, author interviews have been carried out by Notre Dame M.F.A. candidates (Lauro Vazquez, Lynda Letona, for example). What follows is our first interview carried out by a Notre Dame undergraduate (Roberto Cruz). Our thanks to Ito Romo for agreeing to serve as the inaugural subject of this new series.
Letras Latinas Blog: Several of your stories deal with what seem to be dysfunctional relationships amongst family members. Is this done on purpose to demonstrate part of the behaviors that arise from living in this landscape of ongoing struggle, drugs and violence that you present in this book?
Ito Romo: We all have “dysfunctional” families to some degree, right? We’ve been bombarded with American dysfunction by reality TV; we’ve glamourized it, and in doing so, have forgotten what real struggle is. Chingos of suburban whining. When did we start not caring for each other? Yes, that landscape of struggle, drugs, and violence, that’s the real reality TV; that’s where these stories take place.
LLB: I am curious to know: Is there meant to be a connection between these stories, or is each story meant to portray an individual struggle that is amplified through a detailed account in each story?
IR: These stories are not interconnected; there is no storyline that links them like the stories in my first book, El Puente / The Bridge. There is, however, a connection. Really, by chance, fate, whatever you want to call it, and nothing else, the characters in these stories were born into a society, which touts upward mobility, yet does everything it can to stifle this movement through the denial of equal access to good education, decent housing, steady jobs, medical care, etc. That’s the human struggle: to live a good life. In this South Texas landscape, where the characters do what they can just to survive, to keep their dignity despite what society has dealt them, they have become our villains, our lepers, our pariahs. Yes, I hope my stories amplify the struggle.
LLB: Are the stories a reference to some of the events in your personal life, growing up in the San Antonio-Laredo area? Or do they speak to the reality that you perceived around you?
IR: Most of the stories typically start with a direct experience I’ve had in life. For example, the story “Baby Money” is a reaction to a childhood memory of a really intense feeling in the gut. I clearly remember becoming sick to my stomach whenever I’d see the giant freak show banners at the yearly carnival on the banks of the Rio Grande: World’s Fattest Lady, The Elephant Boy, The Bearded Lady, and, of course, The Two-headed Baby. I lived about three blocks from the carnival and just as close to the International Bridge. And like that two-headed baby, this story was once two: one that took place on the Mexican side and another that took place on the American side. I clipped the stories into sections, then wove them back together. My ancestral city reunited? Wishful thinking.
LLB: Some of your stories, in particular “Baby Money,” draw a difference between both sides of the border. Growing up in that area, how different are these two sides which are only divided by a bridge?
IR: My mother’s family has lived on the border since 1804 and my father’s side since 1750. We have been moving freely from one side to the other for centuries now. Even while I was growing up, I have to say that although there were differences between one side and the other, the differences were subtle and not negative. Except for knowing that Nuevo Laredo was part of another country, and despite the fact that the idea of the boiling caldron trickled down all the way to the border, those of us who grew up there knew Laredo and Nuevo Laredo as one city. It really was easy to go from one country to the other in both directions. A great deal of my friends, as a matter of fact, were from the Mexican side, and many still live there. Yes, in the past, years and years ago, the poverty (as expressed in “Baby Money”) was worse on the Mexican side, but today, it’s hard to tell the difference. There are shanty-towns on both sides of the Rio Grande.
When my first book, El Puente / The Bridge, was being translated for publication in Germany, my German editor suggested that I change the title because in Europe, bridges bring countries together; in the US, bridges separate. This is certainly the case now for “los dos Laredos”.
LLB: I get the impression that some of these instances are very familiar to you—the way in which you describe them are so vivid. Could you describe how some of these pieces came to be written? What inspired them?
IR: As I said earlier, most stories usually start with a brief but real-life incident that made an impression on me. In this collection, for instance, there is a story called “Redhead.” Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:
Her hair caught fire years ago, Christmastime, as she bent over to light a cigarette on the gas stove one night—stinking drunk. It never grew back right after that, patchy and frizzy and uncombable, so she shaved her head with disposable Bic razors in the shower every other morning.
Since she could choose hair color now, she wore a red wig of real, human hair she found for thirty-five dollars at the Goodwill Thrift Store. It had been combed semi-professionally by women from the Goodwill’s back-to-work program. When she’d first seen it, she held it up in front of her and scrutinized it carefully, her eyesight already beginning to go from old age, then she had slipped it on and stared at herself in the mirror. One of the girls working close to the counter was cleaning out an old chest of drawers someone had donated; she looked at her and said, “That’s real nice, ma’am. Real nice.”
Two years later, she wore it still, though now it was uncombed and wild, kind of like the fire.
In this particular instance, the story starts with something that happened to my grandmother’s twin sister. It was an image I had in my head for many years although I never really saw it take place. My grandmother, Carlota, and her sister, Dalila, were born at the turn of the century on the border between the US and Mexico in Laredo, Texas. Seventh generation Texans, they, along with their two brothers and another sister, were really “old school.” They had grown up in the same home I grew up in—two-foot thick stonewalls, wooden beamed ceiling, a Spanish colonial home built around 1750. Lila, as we called her, left Laredo as a young woman to study in Austin (quite a feat for anyone from that region, much less a woman—and a Mexican-American at that), then taught elementary school in Robstown, Texas, where she moved after marrying and where she lived for the rest of her life. She had long silver hair, which she wore in a tight bun at the top of her head. When she’d come to Laredo from Robstown to visit my grandmother Carlota, I’d sometimes see her sitting in my grandmother’s living room, both watching a telenovela, while Lila combed and re-combed her hair, which, as long as I can remember, had been down to her waist.
Years later, after I’d left Laredo and gone off to college, one of my sisters told me that Lila accidentally set her hair on fire one morning as she lit the gas burner on her stove top. She was okay, had only minor burns on her scalp, but I imagined how horrible it must have been for her. This small but vivid imagined memory is what inspired the beginning of the story about Matilde in Redhead.
LLB: The last story in this collection, “The border is burning,” which is also the title of the book, seems to put the ultimate closing to the book as there is a house literally burning (“The smoke that billowed from his burning house finally hit him.”) Was this intentional? Is there significance between the title and physical burning of the house as the ultimate representation of the conditions that exist on the border; a place that is ultimately being consumed by violence and oppression?
IR: The border burns in many ways: the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country for decades, terrible access to a decent education made only worse in past few years because of state government cuts to funding, soaring poverty rates, childhood hunger, the almost complete destruction of any form of middle class. If you want to see what a third-world country supposedly looks like, go online and look up “South Texas colonias”. Shocking. Yes, the border is in flames.
LLB: A recurring subject in this collection is drugs. They come up in stories like “Flat Bed,” “Cut Ya” and “The Border is Burning”—making itself present in various situations, from families, to drug dealers to single adults. Is this meant to be a representation of the root of the evil that is taking place on the border?
IR: Narco economics is a real thing, and the unbelievable amount of money it produces is a real and powerful thing. I don’t, however, believe, that it alone is the root of the evil. The real problem is wrought of the struggle between two great powers: “clean” and “dirty” money, and my characters, caught is this struggle by cultural association, become “the wretched refuse of [our] teeming shore.”*
*from “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus (1849-87), engraved plaque, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island.
Ito Romo was born and raised on the border in Laredo, Texas. His recent work, dubbed “Chicano Gothic” and “Chicano Noir,” shows the dark and gritty life along Interstate 35 through South Texas, where his family has lived for nine generations. He lives in San Antonio and is Associate Professor of English and Communication Studies at St. Mary’s University, where he teaches Composition, Creative Writing, Mexican-American Literature, and Multi-cultural Literature. Romo received his PhD from Texas Tech University’s Creative Writing Program. He is the author of The Border is Burning (2013) and El Puente / The Bridge (2001), both published by University of New Mexico Press.
A native of Houston, Roberto Cruz attended YES Prep Public Schools there. While in high school, he participated in various activities related to service in the community, clubs, and sports, including soccer. In the fall of 2013, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Notre Dame, where he is active in M.E.C.H.A. and Mentorship. He also works at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he assists with Letras Latinas. His interview with Ito Romo at Letras Latinas Blog inaugurates a new series with Latino and Latina prose writers.