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Octavio Solis on growing up a ‘skinny brown kid’ on the U.S.-Mexico border

As politicians spar over immigration, playwright Octavio Solis recounts his childhood as a “skinny brown kid” in El Paso in his memoir “Retablos”. Solis says that though he was in the U.S. legally, Border Patrol would ask him to recite the pledge of allegiance. Jeffrey Brown also talks with Solis about his work consulting for the Disney film “Coco” and his modern retelling of Don Quixote.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With immigration at the U.S. southern border very much in the news, we finish tonight with a perspective that takes a longer view.

    Jeffrey Brown recently spoke with playwright Octavio Solis about a new memoir chronicling his childhood along that border.

  • Octavio Solis:

    They're naive art painted by an artist for a specific person.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're called retablos, small, simple paintings of Mexican folk art, often religious in nature.

  • Octavio Solis:

    Like, in this one here, this man has been stung by a bee.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Octavio Solis has collected them for years.

  • Octavio Solis:

    Each one of these is like a flash fiction story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Flash fiction?

  • Octavio Solis:

    Because it's all encapsulated in one image with a little writing in it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Retablos" is also the name of Solis' latest work, a collection of stories about his childhood along the Texas-Mexico border.

  • Octavio Solis:

    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.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Octavio Solis, author of more than 20 plays regularly performed around the country, is one of the leading Latino voices in the theater.

    We're not on the border anymore, are we? You're not.

  • Octavio Solis:

    Oh, no, not at all.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He lives in rural Oregon now, but in "Retablos," he looks back at himself as what he calls a skinny brown kid.

  • Octavio Solis:

    That's what I was growing up there, and with everything that comes with it, all the hangups that come with being a young man who's unsure of who he is and what he is as an American growing up in El Paso, Texas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You describe a family that is in some ways living on the border of legality as well.

  • Octavio Solis:

    Oh, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're born in the U.S., your mother not, but she becomes legal. Your father's not at first.

  • Octavio Solis:

    We saw people crossing all the time around our household. They looked exactly like us, but they weren't us. We always found a way to kind of create distance.

    But we were so much like them. And there was — that distancing didn't work at some point, because Border Patrol would always stop us and ask us for — like, where do you live? Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance to us?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you always felt that?

  • Octavio Solis:

    I always felt that. That never left me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Those tensions have often been a theme in his work, including a new version of "Don Quixote" that was staged this summer at the California Shakespeare Theater.

  • Actor:

    To fight for the unemployed.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Octavio Solis:

    Using the "Quixote" spine, the spine of that story, I was able to tell a new story about the border and about the Border Patrol and about the immigration issues that we're dealing with today.

    I feel it incumbent on me, in these times, to address the issues that I feel are endangering Latinos in this country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So your Quixote is going through that landscape on the border?

  • Octavio Solis:

    And instead of fighting — tilting at windmills, he's tilting at surveillance drones that the Border Patrol puts out around the desert there.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Recently, Solis had a chance to reach and teach an audience of millions, as part of a team of cultural consultants hired by Pixar for the blockbuster hit "Coco," an animated film about a boy and his family in Mexico.

  • Octavio Solis:

    They had us look at every aspect of the film. We became the firewall between something that could be cooked up just for sales and something that was authentic to the culture.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Authentic to the culture, meaning?

  • Octavio Solis:

    To the culture, meaning a story that would accurately depict the Latino, the Mexico culture in Mexico in the film. So…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Which doesn't often happen.

  • Octavio Solis:

    Doesn't often happen at all. And films seldom bring consultants in to say — to check, is the dialogue sounding authentic? Is this correct Spanish? Would a character dress this way?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Solis says he was pleased with the final result, and the popularity it enjoyed.

  • Octavio Solis:

    It was a way also for general American audiences to relate to someone who's colored like me in a way that is so immediate and visceral and humane.

    That's what's so puzzling and so disturbing about the times that we're living in, that a film like "Coco" can attract such a wide audience, and yet at the same time, a lot of that audience is demonizing us. It's really — it's very hard. It's very hard to sort of see that. I don't understand.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These days, with wife Jeanne and their daughter Gracie, there are chickens and goats to tend, and also new plays on the horizon.

    One is called "Mother Road," a kind of sequel to John Steinbeck's classic story of migrant workers, "The Grapes of Wrath." The nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival will stage it as a world premiere next summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Medford, Oregon.

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