LAWRENCE — Mexican-American author Sergio Troncoso describes himself as “a fat kid who loved to read.”
When he was a boy growing up on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, his love of books allowed him to journey in his mind to faraway places like Russia and China.
He also read grammar books to improve his English — his first language was Spanish.
“I was always pushing, reading and learning about things that were different from my neighborhood,” he said.
Born in 1961 in humble surroundings, Troncoso went on to attend Harvard University. Today he is the accomplished author of essays, short stories and novels and a resident faculty member at Yale University.
This week, Troncoso met with Lawrence students who are preparing to start classes at Northern Essex Community College by participating in the school’s two-week Bridge Program.
As part of the enrichment program, they read Troncoso’s novel “From This Wicked Patch of Dust.”
The book tells the story of the Martinez family, who begin life in a border shantytown and struggle to stay together despite cultural clashes and religious and political differences. Troncoso said he started writing because he didn’t see many Latinos or Mexicanos in the books he was reading.
“I wanted to write about my experience. I wanted to write the immigrant story,” Troncoso said.
Troncoso is the son of Mexican immigrants who moved to Ysleta, on the outskirts of El Paso. His parents built their own adobe home, dug their own outhouse and relied on kerosene lamps for light. They taught their children to stay focused, work hard and build better lives for themselves.
Troncoso told the students he spent his time reading while other kids were joining gangs, doing drugs and wasting time.
“It developed this muscle between my eyes,” he said.
NECC’s Bridge Program is designed to give students a leg-up as the academic year approaches.
“We want to provide incoming Latino students with a student success toolbox,” said Gisela Nash, a NECC director overseeing the Bridge Program. Study skills and stress and time management are topics covered in the program.
One-third of students who attend NECC, at campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, are Latino. The Bridge Program, among others, represents the college’s ongoing effort “to recruit and retain Latino students,” said Ernie Greenslade, NECC spokeswoman.
Wednesday morning, Troncoso showed up in their classroom, sharing his personal experience of coming to the East Coast from the Southwest.
“When I applied to Harvard and got in, I thought it was near Chicago,” he said.
Troncoso also gave students some advice: Pursue a career you’re good at and enjoy.
And don’t give up.
“The problem is people quit too early. I would encourage you, don’t ever quit too early,” he said.
Troncoso said he was terrified of failing during his first year at Harvard and disappointing his family. When he wasn’t in class, he spent his free time in the library studying until the building closed.
“I overworked ... I didn’t want to go back to El Paso as a failure,” he said.
But by sophomore year, Troncoso said, college was “getting better.” He felt more secure and was gaining academic confidence. In his junior year, he met Laura, his girlfriend, who would later become his wife.
“You have to stick to it,” Troncoso told the students.
He told the class “there is no magic from going from having nothing to going to Harvard. You have to sacrifice,” he said.
Troncoso gave the students the same advice he gives his own boys, ages 16 and 18.
“You have to put skin in the game. You have to put in the time and effort,” he said.
As they progress in college, Troncoso warned the students they might lose some friends along the way.
“When you work hard and move up, you leave people behind,” he said. “Sometimes you have to leave people behind.”
Johnny Rosa, 19, said he was glad he participated in the Bridge Program. A boxer, Rosa wants to pursue a career in nutrition.
“I know I’m not going to get lost now,” Rosa said.
Yadhira Tiburcio, 19, agreed.
“It gave us a good heads up of what to expect,” she said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.
Excerpt About halfway down the dirt street, the pale green Chevy Impala stopped in front of a chain-link fence and an unplastered adobe house with sheets of plywood for doors. One side of the front yard was a giant mound of gravel and sand for mixing cement; the other side was a gigantic four-foot cube of adobe, with stalks of thick yellow straw intermittently protruding from the rough brown bricklike crooked antennae. Behind the chain-link fence lay a small runoff canal cut into the sand and subsoil. "This is our house, niños," Pilar announced before she pushed open the heavy car door. "Here?" "Yes, here." "But, but, but there are no windows," eight-year-old Julia, the oldest, stammered. "When we get more money, we'll get windows." "What about the rain?" "It doesn't rain in Ysleta." "Never?" "Almost never." "What do you mean by 'almost'?" "Rarely in the summer. Don't worry, Julia, we'll have windows in a few months. Before it gets cold in October." -- "From Wicked Patch of Dust," Sergio Troncoso