Solis’ personal stories of life on the border are featured in Word for Word’s ‘Retablos’ in San Francisco

(L to R) Carla Gallardo, Edie Flores and Gabriel Montoya perform in the vignette “Remembering His Parents” in the Word for Word production of “Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border” in San Francisco through March 15th. (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec photo)

Playwright Octavio Solis is obviously used to writing pieces that are shared with theatre audiences. But his latest piece, running at Z Below in San Francisco, is quite different.

Word for Word, a company who presents literature in theatre form while not changing a word, is presenting Solis’ autobiographical novel “Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border,” currently running through March 15th.

While Solis has been a career playwright, writing critically acclaimed plays such as “Lydia,” “Quixote Nuevo” and “Mother Road,” “Retablos” is different. These stories were only intended for an audience of one, stories he shared of his experiences growing up in El Paso, Texas along the Rio Grande River.

“I’m always writing for the theatre, but these stories I wrote for myself, and wrote them almost as if they were a personal confession,” said Solis. “I call them retablos, because I think of these as thank you notes to God. They seem like a sacred story that gives me balm in my older years.

“I’ve come to this point where I do this self-examination – I wrote them for myself.”

The stories were first brought out in public at the legendary City Lights bookstore in San Francisco when Solis resided in the city before moving to Oregon. After a reading, publishers for City Lights approached Solis, asking for more vignettes, which Solis happily obliged. Ultimately, Solis reached 50 stories for that publishing, which he felt was the right number.

This production is staging 12 of those vignettes, and the show will also tour in Paris, France later this year.

Actor Gabriel Montoya has had difficulty choosing which vignette resonated with him the most, namely because he connects deeply with each story. But one in particular, entitled “The Way Over” is especially resonant because of the way it humanizes the immigrant’s journey into a foreign land and the difficulties of being unable to speak the language.

“These are simply human beings looking for a better life for themselves and their families and they are willing to sacrifice the choices available at home for a chance at a better future for their kids” said Montoya. “My mother made this journey in the late ‘40s as a young girl. and it gives me chills to do this piece.

Retablos - Octavio Rehersal (02-05-2020)-3
“All these stories are rights of passage moments that marked me and changed me into the man I am now, and I couldn’t have written this sooner because I needed the perspective of time.” – Octavio Solis 

“I feel I am telling her story in a way. But it’s also my father’s story, a man who sacrificed so much to raise me and my four siblings.”

Solis’ own mother provided a lot of inspiration for his novel.

“My mother worked so hard to give us privileges we didn’t even know we had,” said Solis. “We have privilege in the way people in Mexico do not, and the book is about learning how we are not that different from them despite having the privilege of Americanness. The stories we selected touch on that.”

In a story such as “La Migra,” the everyday struggles of being construed as “foreign” by immigration officials at the border hits particularly hard. When Montoya’s sister traveled to Las Cruces, New Mexico to see where the Montoya family settled in the 1700s, it was a dynamic she experienced firsthand.

“When you are brown, be it living near the border or just moving about the country, you are automatically looked at as not from here,” said Montoya. “That feeling intensifies in places like Las Cruces or El Paso, where there is a heavy border patrol presence. So even if you have been here since this country was still Mexico, like my family, you are subject to a scrutiny others are not. And you just have to learn to live with it and not be hobbled by it.”

For Solis, writing these stories could not have taken place in prior years. For him and his legacy as a writer and a Mexican-American, he is now able to firmly share his identity with others.

“All these stories are rights of passage moments that marked me and changed me into the man I am now, and I couldn’t have written this sooner because I needed the perspective of time,” said Solis. “I do not think of the stories as political, but politics are definitely part of the stories.”

That body of water, a body which has been political for years, has defined Solis.

“I was raised a half a mile from the (Rio Grande), and that river is everything to me and what identifies me – as a Tejano and as a man.”


Word for Word presents Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border”
Built from the stories of Octavio Solis
Through March 15th
Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $20 – $50
For tickets, call (415) 626-0453 or visit

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