“Retablos” is the title vignette from “Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border,” a memoir by Octavio Solis, an award-winning playwright who was born in El Paso. In this uniquely framed memoir, Solis recreates 50 scenes from his youth in El Paso. Like traditional retablos, the rituals of childhood and rites of passage are remembered as singular, dramatic events, self-contained episodes with life-changing reverberations.
The author of more than 20 plays, Solis is considered one of the most prominent Latino playwrights in America. His works have been produced in theatres across the country, including the Center Group Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the California Shakespeare Theatre in the San Francisco Bay area, Yale Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dallas Theater Center and other venues nationwide. Among his many awards and grants, Solis has received an NEA Playwriting Fellowship, the Kennedy Center’s Roger L. Stevens Award, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama. He now lives near Ashland, Oregon.
By Octavio Solis
This is me in my old room, unpacking my bags on the bed I slept in more than 30 years ago, hearing my mother titter at something on the TV while my dad is stirring the caldo de pollo on the stove. He blurts out something crude in Spanish and now both of them are roaring big as life, filling the house with horsey laughter. Then it hits me. This is how one of them will cry when the other dies.
I look out the window and I’m thirteen all over again, getting ready for school. A polar front blew all the way down from Canada and locked us in an overnight freeze and didn’t even have the manners to leave us any snow. Just a chill air and ice on the power lines. But as I come down the hall for my breakfast, I see my sister standing outside the maid’s room, snarling something to herself. I ask her what happened and she says, The birds are dead. What? The birds are dead, she says again. I look in the room and I see the maid, this young Mexican girl of twenty we hired to watch the house and cook for us while my parents are at work. I see her sitting on her bed with her face in her hands. Sobs and the words perdón, perdón are slipping through her fingers. While she wipes her snot on her sleeve, I look past her at the cage where my mom’s canaries are supposed to be perched. But they’re not there. I come closer and find them both balled up and lifeless on the newspaper floor of the cage. They were old, their yellow feathers faded white, inherited from my grandmother when she moved to Fresno, only now they are dead. My sister says the maid left the window open and they froze. They couldn’t take the cold. She should’ve known. Now look at them, she says. I’m about to ask where Mom and Dad are, but then I hear them laughing in their room. Why would they be laughing? I cross the hall and open the door, which is weird ’cause they hardly ever close the door in the morning once they’re up, and there they are, sitting on the bed next to each other, hands on their brows, crying so boisterously it sounds like they’re busting at the seams at some practical joke. It’s unnerving. I’ve never seen them wailing like this, bent over and shaking, their mouths contorted, bawling like children. I’ve seen my mom cry a few times, but never like this, and never my dad, who’s not the kind of man inclined to such displays of emotion. For a pair of old birds, no less. There’s something ancient about the way their wails change them, even give the room a different light. I think this is a holy moment and close the door and leave them to their searing sacred laughter.
That’s how they come, these memories. Like a set of retablos, votive images painted on old beaten tin, marked with the mystery of being, with acts of transgression recorded for those who need to remember. That’s what revisiting El Paso is like for me. Like walking into a retablo with a rusty surface for a sky, and misremembered family and friends for saints and supplicants and the lost distilled moments of my border past for miracles. They come to me at the strangest times, as if to remind me that I have lived this much because of them.