An Incandescent Memoir about the Legacy of Immigration, Available Free of Charge

Rafael Torch author photo“The Garcia boy is gunned down on a dark street.” “He is me and I am him.” Rafael Torch was a young high school teacher and dean in Chicago when one of his sharpest students fell to deadly gang violence in 2003. As Torch mourns for his student and rages over the insidious influence and terror of gangbangers in his fervent memoir, he also reflects on how alike he and his student are, for he, too, is a Garcia boy, the son of another Garcia boy who came into the U.S. from Mexico without documents.

After Torch’s father made his way to Chicago, he fell in love with an Italian-American woman from Ohio, which is where Torch grew up after his parents’ divorce, due, in part, to his father’s drinking problem. Although for years his father was just a voice on the phone, Torch inherited his demons and alcoholism, and struggled with his dual heritage and the sense that he didn’t fully belong anywhere. After college and a brief stint in jail, Torch returned to Chicago and the Mexican-American neighborhood of his early years as an educator hoping to guide other Garcia boys and girls to the inspiration he found in books, and to encourage them to seek a future beyond their gang-ruled world.

With searching intensity and electrifying lyricism, Torch wrote about his family, his struggles with identity and addiction, and the battles he fought for his students, widening the lens beyond his own experiences to encompass the universal and perpetual tragedies of racism. His dramatic and lacerating inquiry includes a description of the border between the U.S. and Mexico that his 19-year-old future father crossed in 1972 that also perfectly captures life on the border now; the deadly desperation of struggling Chicago neighborhoods which Torch chronicled in 2003 is the same as that in 2013 which Alex Kotlowitz documents so powerfully in An American Summer (2019).

“The Garcia boy is an urban myth now, one of those sad stories to add to the repertoire of sad American communities at the edge of the twenty-first century. I see long cold cinematic shots of the dangerous remnants of buildings and broken glass and hungry murderers and hunted prey that resemble people. The Garcia boy and the music give me images of empty, half-torn-down buildings like the ones that line Roosevelt Road near Blue Island Avenue and those on North Halsted near Division, near busted, rotted-out, rusted steel bridges creaking in the ferocious summer wind sweeping up all the dust and skimming it across the top of the Chicago River. Reality sets in, and the wrecking ball waits for no one.” 

Rafael Torch, The Garcia Boy

And there’s even more to Torch’s darkly radiant and incisive book and heartbreaking backstory. Not only did Torch nearly wreck his life in his drunken and high rampages, once he burned clean and fully committed himself to teaching and writing, he was struck with a rare form of cancer. He fought hard, and seemed to be in the clear when he married Emily Olson-Torch and had Rocco, his first child, but he died at age 36 in 2011.

The Garcia Boy by Rafael TorchEnter writer and professor Miles Harvey, a cofounder, with Chris Green and Michele Morano, of Big Shoulder Books, a not-for-profit publishing initiative at DePaul University in Chicago. Students acquire hands-on experience in editing, designing, and publishing, and the well-made, relevant, and deeply moving books they produce are given away for free singly and in quantity. Previous Big Shoulders Books include I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War, Write Your Heart Out, and How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, an oral history collection with more than 40,000 copies in circulation.

Working with several archived drafts of Torch’s manuscript, thanks to the generous support and participation of Emily Olson-Torch, the DePaul students succeeded in creating a vibrant and resonant work, insightfully introduced by writer and translator Achy Obejas (The Tower of Antilles, 2017), who got to know Torch when he was a student of hers at the University of Chicago.

Rafael Torch’s The Garcia Boy is an incandescent work of literature illuminating family divides, all the obstacles facing immigrants, and the quest for a sense of self and purpose. Torch is valiantly forthright, profoundly caring, razor-sharp, and poetic. The Garcia Boy belongs in every school and public library collection, and this live-wire memoir is a terrific choice for young adult and adult book clubs, and it is especially well-suited to book clubs which bring together teens and adults.

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About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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