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.
There is struggle here, but there is also redemption.
The 50 episodes in Solis’ memoir are like retablos because they are the true, if imprecise, myths that explain his life and his world. Set in the gritty border town of El Paso, where Solis spent his youth during the 1960s and ’70s, the stories of Retablos are as harsh and dry as the sunbaked land along the Rio Grande that he so vividly evokes. Unlike the figures in traditional retablos, the characters populating Solis’ memoir are far from saintly. Instead, he peoples his retablos with the bullies, immigration police, drug users and prostitutes of his hometown, as well as with the family that was at once a solace and a frustration. Solis is dogged by violence and poverty, and his family suffers greatly from the strain of living a life in which disaster can strike without notice or mercy. There is struggle here, but there is also redemption and reconciliation, joy and love.
These written retablos reconstruct Solis’ youth, with its dangers, juxtapositions and all-too-few victories. 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.