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October 16, 2018

Octavio Solis's Playlist for His Memoir "Retablos"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Octavio Solis's Retablos is a poignant and lyrical memoir-in-essays about growing up on the U.S./Mexico border.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"In this coming-of-age memoir, a playwright illuminates the culture of the El Paso border as he perceived it when he was young. . . . An intriguing work that transcends category, drawing from facts but reading like fiction."

In his own words, here is Octavio Solis's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Retablos:

A retablo is an altarpiece, a thin plate of metal onto which a holy moment is painted depicting a dire event in a person’s life, a prayer to the Divine and the humble thanks for the intervention. It’s this kind of flash fiction form that I employed to recount and reimagine 50 separate moments that shaped my identity as an American born and raised along the border. Each occasion carries its special music, most of it conjured by the era that I wrote about, and I include twelve tracks here. Some of them are specifically cited within the retablo stories, some of them are simply evoked by them. All of them are central to understanding some part of who I was and have become.

“Dose” by The Latin Playboys

I once tried on my little brother’s glasses and looked at the world through the red lens that he wore to strengthen his “lazy eye.” Everything was painted in the color of blood, and its ominous unreality called to mind the end of the world, fiery and inevitable. I listened to the quirky Chicano eclectronica of the Latin Playboys as I wrote this piece, but “Dose” particularly suited the feeling of this crimson recollection. This title track from their second album is an apt introduction to the dreamy landscapes that haunt my memories.

2. “Nothing Happens”
“Viva Tirado” by El Chicano

1970 was a momentous year for me. Tumult everywhere, in Vietnam, in Paris, in Washington, on campuses, and on the streets of LA, where a young journalist from El Paso, my hometown, was killed by police in the cause of the Chicano movement, which was new to my consciousness at the time. But on the radio and in peoples’ cars, you could hear the music changing with the times, music that seemed to reflect who we were then. Santana, Malo, El Chicano. Music with a real vibe that felt brown like us, but came with the socio-political conscience of the civil rights movement. Their music offered solace and unity, but also thrilled and scared us a little, because listening to it felt like an act of defiance.

3. “The Mexican I Needed”
“The Green Leaves of Summer” by Herb Alpert

In this retablo, I recall my silly infatuation with Herb Alpert, the first in a long line of musical icons that gave me the soundtrack of my youth. My mom had all his records and I played them over and over again. In my ignorance, I misidentified the Tijuana Brass sound as genuinely Mexican music, and I played air-trumpet to so many of his songs. “The Green Leaves of Summer,” though, is a stand-out, not just because it’s a popular American theme song from the film “The Alamo,” but because even today, it evokes a more idyllic time. A fantasy of Mexico that never was. As a boy, I luxuriated in it.

4. “Saturday”
“Un Mojado sin Licencia” by Flaco Jiménez

For us growing up, Saturdays were for going to Ciudad Juárez for our shopping sprees and haircuts. And always upon driving over the puente, we heard the tinny radios blasting the rancheras and cumbias of Mexico all around us. Chief among the instruments was the perennial accordion. I offer here the master himself, Flaco Jiménez singing and playing “Un Mojado Sin Licencia,”a classic ballad recounting how this one young man eager to see his “Chencha” in San Antonio is arrested by the Border Patrol and thrown into jail, only to see his beloved riding off with the “gabacho” who was going to fix him up with a driver’s license.

5. “El Mero Mero”
“Mi Consentida” by Pedro Infante

My father is in his eighties now, but when I was growing up, he was manhood itself. He carried himself with the grace and nobility that daily work and family endowed upon him. In this retablo, I recount how I sought to imitate him, as if being more like him would make me more myself. More Mexican. No one captures that ineffable quality more than Pedro Infante. He was Mexico’s crown prince, the embodiment of everything my Dad strived for and believed in his entire life. Romantic, sturdy and wistful.

6. “First Day”
“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” by Paul McCartney and Wings

About the time I started my first real job working with my dad at this popular taco/burger joint in El Paso, Paul McCartney’s Wings released their now classic album “Band on the Run.” The title single got a lot of play on our jukebox there, but the B side got even more. I don’t know how everyone happened to glom on to that song, but we heard “1985” at least 9 or 10 times during my shift. It’s become such an indelible part of that experience, probably more so because we could never figure out what the lyrics were. Now I see the words amount to absolute gibberish, but back then when I was starting to be more than the skinny brown kid at home and school, this track reeled with the hustle and spark of my teen years. See also John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.”

7. “The Quince”
“Adoro” by Vikky Carr

There isn’t a moment in my teenage wasteland that doesn’t include one of those slow numbers where we hold each other tightly with the lights all low and the grinding sway of our bodies training us for the horizontal dance we’ll take up later. It happened at every wedding and quinceañera, after dancing like nuts to polkas and cumbias and even some soul hits straight off the AM dial. The lights would dim and right after first notes, we’d go racing for the girl we wanted to hold. The signature song in those days was “Adoro” and it’s a key element in this retablo, a supremely sentimental tear-jerker penned by Armando Manzanero. It’s the bolero to which I learned a different kind of dance, one that showed me how to shed my prejudices in order to truly “adore.”

8. “La Mariscal”
“Hope You’re Feelin’ Better” by Santana

This song summons all our darkest nights, and one of them was on my high-school graduation. Some buddies and I had decided to celebrate by going to Juárez’s own red-light district called La Mariscal, legendary among all El Pasoans as the strip on which to suck up la vida loca. But it turned out to be mas loca than we were prepared for. Santana’s screaming guitar recalls the horror show that we encountered on that cruel rite of passage we all think we’re ready for. See also “Young Americans” for the crass naiveté we displayed that night.

9. “Ben”
“I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows” by Merle Haggard

I didn’t realize when I wrote this retablo that I was really recounting a love story, until I listened to this old 60’s era chestnut. I was just a boy intrigued by Ben, a kind of old-world gentleman cowboy in his 70s who’d taken a shine to me himself. He was a man out of time and I was just finding mine. Longing, loss, and lamentation converge in this story, like in this song, but it’s the easy loping tempo that recalls the slow tortoise walk of Ben as he passes my house on the way to his luncheonette.

10. “El Kitty”
“The First Time Ever I saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack

This song is so firmly attached to a recollection of my sister. Its timbre and sonorous bass-line keep time to the pulse of her heart visible in the vein of her neck. The song is about the first sparks of love, but there’s a decided dolorous quality, as if to suggest that the discovery of love means the loss of everything before. And in this retablo, the moment marks the end of our childhood in one swift mysterious blow, all while Roberta Flack mournfully croons on about some unnamed face. I wonder if my sister still has that 45 single she bought in 1971; I credit it with my growing up.

11. “The Sister”
“Mean Mistreater” by Grand Funk Railroad

The streets of El Paso were mean streets, too. They looked placid and suburban but that was just so you’d lower your guard. You had to be tough if you were going to walk through our neighborhood. This retablo recounts a time I saw a kid bloodied up by a drive-by blade, but it’s my encounter with his sister that raised the level of danger. The car radio was blaring Grand Funk, the Detroit rockers popular on AOR radio at the time, the kind of woozy bluesy number that starts slow, builds to a screeching mad dog crescendo, then drops down again to its deep state of sedation. Many head-phones were blown by the bass-line of this band alone.

12. “El Segundo”
“Suavecito” by Malo

This retablo refers to el Segundo Barrio, or the Second Ward, the oldest remaining neighborhood in El Paso where my mother and father moved to when they came across from Mexico. My mom and I are cruising in her car taking in the sights of these ancient buildings and houses, stopping to visit the old church and buying paletas de coco from the paletero, and I can’t help but hear Malo’s smooth early-70’s classic with its chiming guitars and sweet la-la-las guiding us through our own dilapidated memories. “Suavecito” was our soundtrack, our attitude, it was our pride and apparel, our swaying summertime brown lover. It was how we smoothed over the hardship and bleakness that found us every time in this American city. We beat them at last, but that meant leaving El Segundo behind. Now it needs us back. The old ward may soon disappear if new development plans have their way, but not without a fight, not without a little “Suevecito” to bolster the gente of my town.

Octavio Solis and Retablos links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia page
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Foreword Reviews review
Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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