Q+A with Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya about The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos
Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya’s cool voice and poetic prose immediately drew me in to The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos. I found the story of his young protagonist—a child of Colombian immigrants now living in the U.S., finding his way in the world on the eve of the 2016 presidential election—to be both illuminating and remarkably touching.
Entrancing and sentimental, told with wit and sharp insight, The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos examines the joys and traumas of the Latinx American experience through the lens of a young man awakening to the nuances of identity, love, colonization, and home. We are thrilled to be publishing this compassionate, poetic, and thoughtful debut novel on July 11, 2023.
Here is more about what the story is about:
As Gregorio recovers from a soccer injury, he relives a decisive period of his life when he is eighteen and adrift. His parents are divorcing, his sister is estranged, and his poor goalkeeping has just cost his soccer team their most important game of the season. As a graduation present, Gregorio’s defiant uncle Nico takes him to Colombia, where he is introduced to old friends, family memories, and a culture ailing after years of conflict and colonization. When they return, Gregorio follows in his uncle’s footsteps and pursues employment at an art museum in Washington, D.C., where he moves into the basement of a townhouse owned by Magdalena, a Basque exile he befriends. As the year wends on and anti-immigrant rhetoric reaches an apex, Gregorio notes the disparities in his community while struggling to define his own identity and direction. Gregorio joins his friend Raul’s soccer team, resuming his role as goalkeeper, seeking purpose and redemption.
What follows is an interview with Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya about The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos, humor, immigration, art-making during periods of uncertainty, and goalkeeping.
Question: What struck me when I first encountered your manuscript was the voice of the protagonist, Gregorio Pasos. He’s very cool and calm, with a dry sense of humor; he’s incredibly endearing and sensitive, but also most certainly not reactionary. How did you arrive at Gregorio’s voice?
Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya: Early on in the life of the project, a family member of mine described Gregorio’s voice as elemental. This made me very happy and stuck with me throughout the many drafts that came after. In a way, this became the ethic of the novel. Like many writers, I wanted to write something that got at the core of what it means to be human. By extension, I also wanted to get at the core of what it means to be Colombian and American, among other things. What Gregorio seeks is no different than what I sought to execute with the book. I figured that the use of natural and readable language was the best way to go about the project. It was important to me, also, to create a narrator that readers wouldn’t mind spending time with.
It’s funny you mention humor. Of all your descriptions of Gregorio’s voice, humor came out gradually. The earliest versions of the novel were quite sentimental. This was, I supposed, the most fitting way to communicate Gregorio’s growing personal, cultural, and political awareness. Over time, Gregorio became less of a character and more of a person. A friend. With every draft he got funnier. Facundo Cabral, an old Argentinian folk singer, combined these elements extremely well. His songs are unbelievably plain and lucid, and are often equal parts sentimental and humorous. These two elements work together to keep the ideas going. In other words, he’s funny but he’s not joking.
Q: The story follows Gregorio during a formative year in his life, when he’s 18-19 years old, as he’s realizing some crucial things about his own identity. This happens against the backdrop of the U.S. in 2016, when people are chanting to “build the wall” and the country is about to elect a xenophobic president. Gregorio is awakening to his own identity, but also to the true nature of the U.S. during this time. How did this dual awakening shape the arc of the story, and were you always intent on anchoring the story during this time period?
RRM: I began working on The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos in 2014. The political themes of the project were the same then as they are now: colonialism, emigration, immigration, deportation, fascism, exile, etc. Then the election happened and it felt irresponsible not to set the book in 2016, a time period, among so many others, that perfectly embodied America’s synonymity with violence. 2016 marked a shameless celebration of American absolutism. In regards to writing this book, it became important not to ignore this escalation – what was, at the time of writing, the present.
Q: You also have Gregorio visit his parents’ homeland of Colombia with his sick uncle Nico, who reflects on his own coming-of-age in a country engaged in prolonged war. The trip exposes Gregorio to issues of Indigenous rights and colonization. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, especially considering the politics in the U.S. in 2016 and the attempted coup in 2021. Did you always intend for the book to have such an international outlook?
RRM: Yeah, I think so. The United States and Colombia are the two countries and cultures I know best. It’s always felt natural to write about them. My parents were born and raised in Colombia. Almost all of my extended family lives there. I was born and raised in the United States but have spent a lot of time in Colombia as well. A few other countries play a role in the book. Magdalena speaks at length about being a Basque exile, about Franco and fascism. Mexico also plays a role. The fundamental triangle at work, I suppose, is formed by Colombia and its two empires – Spain and the United States.
I wanted The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos to take a somewhat sweeping look at the past and present of colonialism and the ways it permeates every aspect of daily westernized life. While American history is a distubringly accurate representation of colonial history, the world is simply much bigger than the United States. Entire parts of the planet are invisible to most Americans, Latin America and its people included. It’s particularly upsetting when you think about the United States’ exploitation of Latin America’s labor and natural resources. And that’s putting it mildly. John Bolton, Trump’s Former National Security Advisor, bragged on CNN about having planned several coups in foreign countries. The news came and went.
Q: How do you see cultural preservation pertaining to the book?
RRM: The experience of working on this project made me really interrogate the value of a book, especially during a time period when the future has seemed pretty bleak. I thought a lot about what art can and can’t do. Many forms are present in this book – painting, sculpture, photography, film, sport, song. They range from devotional to celebratory to political. As does The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos.
In the end, I felt that one of the book’s fundamental responsibilities was to try to contribute something to our collective memory. I don’t expect that one book, mine included, will make any kind of real difference. But maybe it helps someone, some way. History matters. It’s with us all the time. I wanted to write a book that approaches history on a human scale. People are sacred, therefore art is sacred too.
Q: Despite Gregorio being a young man, two of his most impressionable relationships are with older people: his sick uncle Nico, and Magdalena, from whom he finds inexpensive lodging in D.C. in exchange for the upkeep of her house. How do Nico and Magdalena imprint themselves on Gregorio?
RRM: Both Nico and Magdalena emphasize an attention to history and its relationship to the present. Both are products of their respective histories. Nico is a Colombian emigrant. Magdalena is a Basque exile. Nico is generally focused on colonialism; Magdalena on fascism. But at the end of the day their relationships are very human. Gregorio comes to be something like a son to Nico, who has no children of his own. He and Magdalena, a widow, grow close beyond their living arrangement.
Overall, I think I’ve always been interested in how people see and talk about themselves, the lengths they do or don’t go to make themselves known. The stories people tell about themselves can be quite revealing – they tend to be even more illuminating than the facts of a person’s life. Gregorio listens to Magdalena and Nico. They do the same for him. They take care of each other. The same is true of most characters in the book. The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos is composed of people who rely on one another in tender, necessary ways.
Q: Gary Shteyngart blurbed a book for us, called How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak, and referred to the children of immigrants as a 1.5 generation, in how they are at a crossroads between their parents’ culture, and assimilating within American culture. Do you feel this applies or not to Gregorio’s place in the world of the book?
RRM: I think the 1.5 designation is pretty accurate. Gregorio is certainly between two cultures. There are times where he feels more a part of one or the other. Sometimes he’s a part of both, sometimes he’s neither. It’s an interesting position, but it’s a common one. A lot of people experience some form of displacement. The characters in this book represent a range of these displacements, ranging from addiction to exile to deportation. Gregorio finds himself very much at the in-between. He occupies a vantage point where every situation he encounters is at once familiar and foreign. He is amid two distinct ways of understanding and interacting with the world. His life more or less requires him to exist in a constant state of observation.
Q: Gregorio plays goalie on his high school soccer team, and then in a recreation league in D.C. How do you see that position fits Gregorio’s personality?
RRM: The roles we play, however insignificant they might seem, end up adding up to how we operate in the world. A goalkeeper is someone who is responsible, above all else, for not making any mistakes. They do not impose themselves on the game they play. They abide by the circumstances and do their best to prevent the worst possible outcomes. Generally speaking, it’s a thankless job. Several schoolyard versions of soccer involve playing goalie as a sort of punishment. Professional goalkeepers often get paid less than their teammates, even if they are better at what they do.
Gregorio is a goalkeeper in just about every aspect of his life. This is true of his relationships and of his work. He might be the protagonist of The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos, but he is secondary to the proverbial plot.