Bard of the Border

Oscar Casares is Texas' most intriguing young storyteller, whose tales of his native Brownsville describe a place where Latinos have moved from the margins to the mainstream.

LINCOLN PARK IS GONE. DISAPPEARED. We are rolling along in Oscar Casares’ maroon Toyota Tacoma, searching for the place where a decent portion of his teenage days was spent shooting hoops, flirting with girls, and picking fights now and then. We pass the Lopez Supermarket, the housing project where his first girlfriend lived, the community clinic where sick people spend entire afternoons in waiting rooms. But no park. In 1998 the city cleared the playground and replaced it with a row of concrete pillars that now extend U.S. 83 into Los Tomates, Brownsville’s third and newest international bridge. Word has it the city is building a new Lincoln Park nearby to preserve the neighborhood’s old spirit. But as we abandon pavement and explore patchy dirt tracks, with the beams of free trade floating above us, all we encounter are dead ends.

This aging neighborhood of little wood-frame houses and thinning palm fronds, sandwiched between two international bridges in the southernmost tip of Texas, serves as the backdrop and inspiration for most of Casares’ first book, Brownsville, a short-story collection titled after his hometown, which will be released this month by Little, Brown and Company. The book will appear just after Casares, one of the Texas Institute of Letters’ Dobie Paisano writing fellows, completes his six-month residency at the 265-acre ranch of legendary Texas folklorist and writer J. Frank Dobie, fourteen miles southwest of Austin. The author’s excursion into the publishing spotlight has taken him six years, but in Brownsville his contribution to the literary world is already evident. Casares writes about the lives of characters who are mostly working-class and ethnic in a way that makes them neither victims nor heroes nor martyrs, that acknowledges their social difference only as background material and recreates their world from the inside out—so that the margins become the mainstream. While many local youths commiserate about being stuck in a city that seems to march a step behind the rest of the country, in Brownsville Casares captures the magic—and the normalcy—of having been raised in an American city where nine out of ten residents have Mexican roots.

What emerges in this slim collection of stories is a Brownsville where

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