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El Paso memories: Playwright’s book tells stories of childhood along the border

Author Octavio Solis will sign and read from his book “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.” (Courtesy of Anne Hamersky)

Octavio Solis remembers what it was like growing up a “skinny brown kid” in El Paso.

Today, he lives in rural Oregon, and he has established himself as one of the leading Latin playwrights in the country.

But it’s the stories, growing up in the borderland, that inspired his book “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.”

“I grew up a half-mile from the border with Mexico,” he says. “Each retablo is quite personal. As a playwright, I try not to be autobiographical. With this book, I went for it.”

Solis will make a stop in Albuquerque at Bookworks on Monday, Oct. 28. He will read from the book and sign it.

The book has been out for nearly a year. He’s been featured in many major newspapers and chronicled for a piece on “PBS NewsHour” – all of which he can’t comprehend sometimes.

“It was very hard for me,” he says of writing the stories in the book. “I started writing them almost 10 years ago. I would write them one at a time. They started slowly coming to me. It was a surreal experience.”

Solis wrote the entire book in present tense, though each is a story from his past.

“It was a first-person perspective,” he says. “It was me living in my childhood. With that step, everything became more immediate. I removed it layer by layer.”

Solis remembers the cable cars and streetcars that he used to take into Juárez with his grandmother.

He would often take the bus from his house to see movies – especially horror films – at the Plaza Theatre, the Capri Theater and the Palace Theater.

“The city is slowly reviving a lot of these old places from my childhood,” he says. “The streetcars are back, and people are riding them, not just tourists. Actual El Pasoans are using them. It’s great to see that.”

Solis’ talk at Bookworks will also consist of a conversation with Erik Ehn, a playwright who teaches at the University of New Mexico.

“We co-wrote a play together called ‘Shiner,’ and it was produced by the Undermain Theatre in Dallas,” Solis says. “I seldom co-write with others. Working with Erik was something magical. I’m pleased he is in Albuquerque now. He should have always been in the Southwest.”

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