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Debut short story collection probes social issues and the enduring impact of heritage

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “To Live and Die in El Valle” is Oscar Mancinas’ debut collection of fiction. It’s a group of vibrant short – and very short – stories set in and near El Valle, a fictional working-class neighborhood in Arizona. Each story has its young, down-to-earth, astutely etched protagonists and their social issues.

In “Entradas 2001,” a 28-page story, Fernanda Eusebia Díaz is the focal point of the tension between fans of rival Major League Baseball teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers, cheered by the people of her birthplace, the Mexican town of Obregón; and the Arizona Diamondbacks, the home-state favorite of the residents of El Valle, where Fernanda now lives. In Obregón an uncle had once told her she was named for the fabled Dodgers Indio pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.

In El Valle, watching a Dodgers-Diamondbacks game on TV with friends, the teenage Fernanda becomes momentarily homesick and confused over team loyalties. Those feelings are clarified by Fernanda’s affection for her boyfriend and the excitement of the Diamondbacks fans in the room.

There was also a tense moment on the story’s first page: The revelation to readers of Fernanda’s fake birth certificate.

In the three-page story “Tourista,” a Mexican American student at a New England college gives a campus tour to a visiting father and son who are middle-class Mexicans. Waves of undefined homesickness are triggered in the student-guide before meeting the visitors.

Mancinas identifies moments of harmony and conflict in stories. There’s harmony in “Tourista” when the student-guide, who is from El Valle, explains he speaks “cholo Spanglish” but also speaks the Spanish that professors care about and that is needed at customs.

Oscar Mancinas

A tension point arises along ethnic lines when the guide relates that his mother is from Monterrey and his father is an Indio Rarámuri from Batopilas, Chihuahua. The very mention of his paternal Indigenous heritage causes the campus-visiting dad’s smile to disappear “into his face like a window slamming shut.” Then he declares he’d never been to any pueblo de Indios; “those places are … not for us.” Polite goodbyes follow the encounter and the student-guide returns to his dorm “thinking about my parents and the weight of their hometowns …”

“Tourista” partially emerged from Mancinas’ own experiences as a student at Boston’s Emerson College, where he received a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing.

Like the student-guide, the author said in a phone interview, he was born in the United States to a mestiza mother and a Rarámuri father, and grew up in the Washington-Escobedo neighborhood of Mesa, Arizona, which is the basis for El Valle.

Currently a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, Mancinas continues to write short fiction published in literary journals. In fact, he said, a story he wrote will appear this fall in a themed issue of Puerto del Sol, the literary journal of New Mexico State University’s creative writing program.

He also writes poetry. His poetry chapbook “Jaula” was published last year.

During summers, Mancinas teaches high school students college-preparatory writing in composition, rhetoric and research.

He wants a general readership – and readers with a background similar to his – to find the stories in “El Valle” compelling. In advice to young writers, Mancinas said there is no substitution for desire and practice in order to grow your stories, especially ones that are important to you.

He is inspired by a number of fiction authors whom he admires. Among them are Rudolfo Anaya, Daniel Alarcón, Stella Pope Duarte, Alberto Ríos and James Baldwin.