BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Border is Burning’ by Ito Romo

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"The Border is Burning" by Ito Romo. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; First edition (June 16, 2013).

"The Border is Burning" by Ito Romo. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; First edition (June 16, 2013).

Ito Romo is a San Antonio-based writer who teaches literature at St. Mary’s University. His newest work, “The Border is Burning,” offers 13 short stories inspired by characters experiencing life on the Texas-Mexico border. Nine generations of Romos have lived in the region—longer than Texas has been a part of the United States – so while none of the characters are based on real people, Romo does draw upon his own personal experience, as well as that of his family.

Author Ito Romo

Author Ito Romo

The collection begins with a six-page vignette, titled “Baby Money,” written from two different sides of the border. A 13-year-old on the American side goes to see a dead two-headed baby floating in a jar of formaldehyde at a carnival. Unable to control his stomach, the young teen throws up and continues to do so in subsequent encounters with the baby. Meanwhile, a woman living on the Mexican side with two small children experiences the flooding of the Rio Grande and the near-destruction of her home. After the storm has passed, she returns to find the jar with the two-headed baby lodged in the silt left behind by floodwaters. A reward is offered on the American side and she grapples with whether she should return it and claim the prize or create some other outcome.

The final story in the series, for which the book is named, “The Border is Burning,” follows an over-indulgent drug dealer who fails to differentiate between business and pleasure, feeding his own addiction. As a result, he must suffer the consequences. Forced into becoming a drug mule for his suppliers, Gonzalo Gonzalez loses more than just his dignity.

Stories of racism and nearly every kind of abuse—drug abuse, animal abuse, domestic abuse—fill the pages between “Baby Money,” and “The Border is Burning.” Swearing, vomiting, sex and complex relationships are common themes. Mirroring the lives of the people in the stories, there is never a reprieve from the seriousness that weighs down on characters and, consequently, the reader.

"The Border is Burning" by Ito Romo. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; First edition (June 16, 2013).

“The Border is Burning” by Ito Romo. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; First edition (June 16, 2013).

In response to many of the stories’ abrupt endings, Romo said in a newspaper interview last summer  that he intended them to be open-ended so readers can draw their own conclusions.

“The Border is Burning” raises questions about life on the border and the people trying to survive that reality. It brings a fresh perspective to Chicano literature, appreciated by both readers and other authors, including Sandra Cisneros.

“’The Border is Burning’ is a ferocious portrait of San Antonio and Laredo and the landscape in-between. Filled with desperation and despair, told in sparse, gritty language and dialogue that is remarkable for its authenticity, Ito Romo’s stories are like scenes suddenly flashed in a lighting storm, sharp and brilliant, like shards of glass on the highway,” Cisneros writes in her book blurb. “Without any sentimentality, yet with a lot of heart, Ito Romo takes us to the belly of the beast.”

Ito Romo will be at the San Antonio Book Festival with fellow authors Tim Z. Hernandez and Mario Alberto Zambrano for a discussion entitled “De Dónde Eres: Wrestling with Ethnicity” from 1-2 p.m. at the Swartz Room on the second floor of the Central Library. The talk will be moderated by fellow author Michael Soto Download the full festival schedule as a PDF hereFor a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and you can customize your own schedule for the day by choosing favorites.

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