"Laredo, Texas, is a fascinating paradox as both a provincial city and an international one."
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Carlos, you are the director of Teatro Chicano de Laredo (Laredo Little Theatre), an instructor at Laredo Community College, and a writer. How does each of these pursuits inform the other?
CARLOS NICOLÁS FLORES: Teaching at Laredo Community College has allowed me to live and write on the Mexican-American border. Moreover, it has provided a platform from which to launch the popular Teatro Chicano de Laredo. The work of local playwrights has deepened my understanding of the border itself, while the experience as director has provided ample material for a collection of novellas or short stories about the theater.
What inspired you to become a writer, and when did this occur?
I picked up the virus at Austin High School in El Paso, in the midst of a profound depression. My friend John Stevenson, a gifted aspiring writer, one day suggested I read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book was a life-changing experience. I found a way to understand and deal with despair. Meanwhile, John became a successful art dealer in New York.
In your research and studies you have traveled throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, and Israel. How has travel influenced you and your writing?
I don’t understand how I could write about Latin America without having lived or travelled there. For instance, Sex as a Political Condition required trips to Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico. The insights I acquired during a recent trip to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco expanded my understanding of the conflict still brewing at the heart of Mexican-Americans’ identity.
Almost ten years ago you wrote a very powerful young adult novel about the stresses and tensions of a Hispanic family. Will you share with our readers what Our House on Hueco was about? And do you think things would be different for Junior’s family today?
Our House on Hueco is a story about a Hispanic boy’s integration into the Anglo-American reality in El Paso when his father buys a house in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood. Unable to afford to pay on the mortgage, his father rents the house to an Anglo family from the military base and houses the family in the basement until they are able to annex a small apartment in the backyard. Their predicament could be considered an allegory of the relationship between Hispanics and Anglos in the Southwest; the children of many immigrants are living through a similar experience.
What writers did you read growing up, and how did they influence you?
Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Asimov, and other classics provided a solid foundation. However, it wasn’t until I encountered Dostoevsky that my passion for literature blossomed. And, I must admit, that to this day his influence has been all encompassing. His influence led me to the equally powerful William Faulkner.
Your new novel, Sex as a Political Condition, has been described as a raucous, hilarious journey into the wild, sometimes outrageous world of the Texas-Mexico border and geographical points south. What would you like our readers to know about your current book?
A young Hispanic female writer from South Texas said, “If it weren’t for the bathroom humor, Sex as Political Condition would be a truly dark tragedy, and no one would read it.” So, the bathroom humor is a rhetorical device—comic relief, if you wish—to draw and entertain readers while cushioning their encounter with the darker aspects of the reality portrayed. Another reader commented that the novel is “outlandish, offensive, and on-target” and advises that you will enjoy it if you “check your outrage at the door.”
Your website describes you as an author, professor, and Chicano activist. What is the current focus of your activism?
Throughout the years, I have involved in multiple projects, everything from launching a Chicano literary review, the Revista Rio Bravo, to the establishment of the South Texas Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project. During the last five years I directed Teatro Chicano de Laredo. Currently, I am working on the establishment of a center for Mexican-American studies at Laredo Community College.
This past summer, along with Sandra Cisneros and other noted Mexican-American writers, you published a piece in the anthology North of the Rio Grande: The Mexican American Experience in Short Fiction. Do you agree with the notion that many people do not grasp the multiplicity and complexity that exists within Latin American culture?
The late Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz put it best when he stated in the 1960s that while Americans live in “a monologue,” Mexicans are “gagged.” Until these two conditions change, the two cannot engage in a genuine and fruitful dialogue. Have things changed, improved? Perhaps. But we still have a long way to go.
What advice would you have for aspiring authors—and specifically for Hispanic authors?
Less than 1 percent of writers in the United States get published, and 90 percent of published writers are lucky if they sell five hundred copies of a book. At least this is what I have read or been told by publishing-industry insiders. Also, while MFA programs churn out writers by the thousands, the reading of books has declined dramatically. I advise that people think twice before succumbing to the “virus” of wanting to become a writer. As for Hispanic authors—in fact, all writers—I would suggest they serve an apprenticeship under a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners seasoned editor or senior writer before thinking they’re ready to be published. And plan for the long run.
Your hometown, Laredo, was formed in 1755, making it one of the most historic locations in Texas. What would you like readers to know about Laredo?
Laredo, Texas, is a fascinating paradox as both a provincial city and an international one. As a result of its history and its very close ties with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it is probably the most “Mexican” of all the border towns. You can spend an entire lifetime here without speaking English, which enrages some “outsiders.” Like all the other towns on our southern border, it sits on one of the most controversial borders between two civilizations. For me, it has been the next best thing to living in Mexico or Europe, which I so much desired as a young man. Above all, it has been a demanding and implacable source of literary inspiration.
A native of El Paso, Carlos Nicolás Flores is a winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize and author of a young adult novel, Our House on Hueco (Texas Tech University Press, 2006) and Sex As a Political Condition (Texas Tech University Press, 2015). As director of the Teatro Chicano de Laredo and a former director of the South Texas Writing Project, he has long been engaged in the promotion of new writers and writing about the Mexican-American experience. He teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas.
Praise for Sex as a Political Condition by Carlos Nicolás Flores
Ambitious, epic, and high energy, Flores’s novel explores the complexity of our relationship with the Mexican border and Mexico’s relationship with the Guatemalan border. We know very little about our neighbors, and it’s dangerous. Deadly. —Montserrat Fontes, author of First Confession and Dreams of the Centaur
Out of the borderlands strides Honoré del Castillo, a jackass of all trades who just wants to do right by his family. This literary spoof of Mexican–American culture will have you questioning your own values. —Tom Miller, author of On the Border: Portraits of America's Southwestern Frontier
Carlos Nicolás Flores has lived all his life in the borderlands, where the first world meets the third, Spanish collides with English, and Anglos, Mexicans, and Chicanos clash in a riot of colors. There is no better writer to pen a saga about our involvement in Latin America and the colonized existence of border towns like Laredo, Texas.—Carlos Morton, professor of theater, University of California, Santa Barbara
Roll over, PC police! Sex as a Political Condition desacralizes just about everything, from Narcos to Central American lefties, from Chicana feminists to Spanglish. This is a riotous narrative, one in which we are all turned into stereotypes and reality is a store of tourist souvenirs. Bring ’em on, says Carlos Flores. Life ain’t a bed of roses! —Ilan Stavans, author of Quixote: The Novel and the World and general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature