...A self-described 'anchor baby,' Solis shares his memories as a brown person on the border with a keen eye and an agile way with words, endowing these snapshots from his childhood in El Paso with the visceral gut punch of Mexican retablos, devotional paintings in vivid colors on metal or wood. Solis hones each scene with striking...imagery: his grandmother Mama Concha with her rollers, red lipstick, sagging hose, and purse 'fragrant with Wrigley’s Chewing Gum'; the ghostly figure of a runner who threads his way through the book, aging as Solis ages, advancing under Solis’ curious gaze, then vanishing into a misty distance. In all, a evocative, and timely expression of border culture for every library collection.
As explained by Octavio Solis, a distinguished Latino author who has written over 20 plays, a retablo is a small votive painting commonly associated with Latin American cultures. It’s usually painted on cheap, reused metal, and it tells the story of a near-disaster that was survived only by the grace of God. By commemorating the event, the retablo can transform that story of salvation into a myth. But memory is slippery, and retelling a story, even on a buckled sheet of metal, results in embellishments and refinements. Facts become murky as names are forgotten and events misremembered. Yet despite its imprecision, the retablo expresses a profound truth not only about its maker but also the world he or she lives in. As a result, the retablo itself becomes a part of the myth as well ... It is a distinctly Latino experience in a distinctly Latino world. But this story is universal—we all grow up, and we all need to reconcile who we are with who we were. Like the images he emulates, Solis’ stories transcend the limits of borders and time.
The stories that make up Octavio Solis’s Retablos are as taut, riveting, and immersive as the sunrise in a red rock desert. Be forewarned—they’re addictive.
Retablos are brightly painted scenes on flattened pieces of metal depicting personal crises whose positive outcomes were achieved through divine intervention. The fifty pieces of this collection are prose retablos—memories of growing up Mexican-American in the borderlands of El Paso, Texas. Although each scenario is complete within itself, they are arranged in roughly chronological order ... Writing is original and laser-sharp, alive with adjectives that startle and images that linger ... All this is delivered in a deftly crafted voice that’s distinctive yet utterly natural. As the narrator progresses from a boy to a young adult, the voice subtly matures, moving easily from one retablo to the next, pulling the reader along.