The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’. Graham Green, The Lawless Roads
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – Chapter 80 –
(translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)
Notwithstanding Lao Tzu’s counsel against travel, those who won’t, don’t or can’t travel miss out on a slew of adventures, some good, some bad. In my novel Behind The Locked Door, the central character discovers this truth. That is, in fact, what the book is about.
She lived in a world that Eric faintly remembered, a world of grandparents and grandchildren, old homes with verandas and rocking chairs, vegetables and fruits from the garden, neighbors you actually spoke to. She was in Mexico on an adventure. Adventures can’t happen to people who stay at home. You have to travel abroad. Eric was on his own quest, exciting as the dream of landing on the moon and just as frightening. Behind The Locked Door
Stay-at-homes are easy fodder for the purveyors of unfounded prejudices. Not that travel alone is sufficient to disabuse us of those prejudices. Even famous and beloved authors like D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene for all their brilliance can’t shake their Eurocentric views of the world.
The Indians are queer little savages, and awful agitators [ … ] pump bits of socialism over them and make everything just a mess. It’s really a sort of chaos. And I suppose American intervention will become inevitable – you know, socialism is a dud. It makes everything just a muck of people: and especially of savages. And 70% of these people are real savages, quite as much as they were 300 years ago. The Spanish-Mexican population just rots on top of the black savage mess. And socialism here is a farce of farces: except very dangerous. D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence
Six Queens of Beauty, six Miss Etlas, 1933. I gazed at them, incredulously. The six were all dressed alike in bright pink artificial silk, the colour of those cheap sweets that one’s nurse and parents never allowed one, as a child, to eat. Their faces were very dark, but powdered a bright mauve. As for their shape … There is a certain mingling of Indian and European blood which results, for some obscure Mendelian reason, in the production of an entirely new human type. The six Miss Etlas were all of this type. Their beauty would have won all the prizes at any cattle show. Such thickness of beef! And have you ever looked into the eyes of the winning ox? Like an awful warning, the mother of one of these oxen was sitting beside her daughter. The beauties were monsters but young; and the youth even of a monster is to some extent charming. The stigmata of insentience, of stupidity, of buffalo-like obstinacy were not yet very deeply marked on these still adolescent faces. Age permits of no disguises. Eripitur persona, manet res. What remained in the mother’s case was frankly terrifying. One look at her would have been enough to cure any prospective wooer of a taste for beef. Aldous Huxley, Beyond The Mexique Bay
Lunch was awful, like the food you eat in a dream, tasteless in a positive way, so that the very absence of taste is repellent. All Mexican food is like that: if it isn’t hot with sauces, it’s nothing at all, just a multitude of plates plonked down on the table simultaneously, so that five are getting cold while you eat the sixth; pieces of anonymous meat, a plate of beans, fish from which the taste of the sea has long been squeezed away, rice mixed with what look like grubs – perhaps they are grubs – salad (dangerous, you are always warned, and for a long while you heed the warning), a little heap of bones and skin they call a chicken – the parade of cooling dishes goes endlessly on to the table edge. After a while your palate loses all discrimination, hunger conquers; you begin in a dim way even to look forward to your meal. I suppose if you live long enough in Mexico you begin to write like Miss Frances Toor – ‘Mexican cooking appeals to the eye as well as to the palate.’ (It is all a hideous red and yellow, green and brown, like art needlework and the sort of cushions popular among gentlewomen in Cotswold teashops.) ‘The artistic instinct is alive even in the humblest cook.’ Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads
For those who don’t travel there are travel writers, travelogues, and books (both fiction and nonfiction) that aspire to take you somewhere you haven’t been. Two such recent books are: On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux and All The Agents and Saints: Dispatches From The U.S. Borderlands by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. [An interesting aside: Griest, whose book came out in 2017, reviews Theroux’s book that came out late last year. While she finds his lack of awareness of his own position of privilege off-putting and his narcissistic style difficult to fathom, she admits that his descriptions of Mexico and its people are mostly accurate and useful and she is optimistic that “Theroux may have the star power to persuade someone who might not otherwise read a book about Mexico to do so and (the big hope) to care about its people.”]
“I am interested in borders, borders of all kinds, geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death. I spend most of my time thinking of ways to cross such borders. How come we are allowed, even invited at times, to walk over some of them but are prevented from even approaching others?” Cristina Rivera Garza as quoted by Theroux
Griest and Theroux have different styles and intensions. Theroux writes (after an inexplicable rant against “magical realism”): “I have spent my reading and writing life, and my traveling, trying to see things as they are— not magical at all, but desperate and woeful, illuminated by flashes of hope.” On The Plain Of Snakes
Well yes, but can anyone really “see things as they are?”
Certainly one of the difficulties is that we all have our own views and prejudices. We must guard against relying too heavily on these personal opinions from which it is impossible to completely disengage. While Theroux doesn’t directly address this potential bias (he like myself is a Mexicophile and it shows), Griest handles it by developing a whole new genre.
Journalists take pride in writing the first rough drafts of history, but creative nonfiction writers aspire for timelessness—or at least timeliness. Yet the United States had just elected a president whose rallying cry was “Build that wall.” Who said of Mexican migrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The 2016 election felt like a game-changer for U.S. border policy. It seemed I should at least update the introduction, but what would I say? My shock was so great, my thoughts tended toward the magical. (“Maybe he won’t be inaugurated?”) Ultimately, I left the manuscript intact, as a record of life in the U.S. borderlands prior to the presidency of Donald J. Trump … This half of me, the part steeped in culture and memory, believes in miracles. Shivers at their mention. An inner skeptic, however, was born in journalism school and nurtured in a succession of newsrooms. Editors trained me to hunt for veracity rooted in certifiable fact. The only way they’d believe in a talking tree is if I chopped one down, dragged it into their office, and interrogated it in front of them. While I appreciated the reasons for this rigidity, it eventually grew limiting, so I gravitated toward the more freewheeling form of creative nonfiction, where verifiable facts are spun into truths (and, if you’re really lucky, Truth). In this genre, the question is not whether a tree can talk but why someone would wish it so. All The Angels and Saints
I recommend both books particularly to those Americans who want a deeper understanding of Mexico and its people and the complicated world of border politics.
Periodically in his book Theroux recounts an experience that serves, for me at least, to crystalize what it means to travel and why those who do travel do so.
Incurable nosiness is the true traveler’s essential but least likable trait.
Up close, the scene resolved itself into something more industrious and coherent, which I often found to be the case in Mexico: what looked like disorder from afar was something harmonious when I peered at it without prejudice … What had looked like a mess was a rational pattern, the Mexican world making sense to me.
San Baltazar Guelavila was not especially known for its weaving, its adobe, or its mezcal, but it was celebrated for Las Salinas, its hot spring, which bubbled in a deep ravine to the southwest, the valley of the Cerro Oscura—the Hidden Hill. I ought to see it, the weavers said.
“Is it far?”
“A little far.”
That implied very far, and it proved to be the case—it was miles below the town, on a rocky track, circling both sides of a ravine, and would take an hour and a half to get to the valley bottom.
“Where is this village of yours?” I asked. “Is it far?”
“A little bit.”
I told them I was trying to get to Oaxaca. “We’ll show you the way.” … Now we were in those rough-hewn hills of bluish shattered rock I’d seen, passing a poor hut and a flock of goats, in the deep countryside of Oaxaca’s Mixteca Alta, the poorest part of Mexico. None of the land looked arable, and even the goats seemed to be having a tough time nibbling at the ragged tussocks of grass growing sparsely in the hard ribs of clay soil.
Those honest answers – a little far … a little bit – describe the commitment one must make and the serendipity one can expect to occur when they set out on a true “adventure.” All the best in Theroux’s book happens on these “little” excursions.
A more aggrieved man repeated a frequent Mexican complaint: “If you didn’t want drugs in your country, we wouldn’t have cartels in ours.” [But, as Theroux comments: human trafficking is now becoming the big cartel business]
I should mention that Griest’s book (subtitle Dispatches From The U.S. Borderlands) consists of individual articles and comes in two parts, one focusing on Mexico and the other on Canada (in particular the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne). We have focused here only on the Mexico part.
A quick summary of a few of the things I learned (or in some cases prior beliefs that were reinforced) follows below. (Note: quotes from the books are in italics).
- Drug demand from America pulls immigrants north – Gun demand in Mexico pushes guns south – there is a 2-way trade destroying both countries. After traveling to southern Colombia with him and witnessing the destruction that U.S. drug use had wreaked on a more global scale, I became one of those vitriolic Chicanas who, if offered a joint, will snap, “Sorry, I don’t smoke the ashes of my people.” But, the money is enormous as Theroux tells us: El Chapo (Shorty) for his small stature, ran the largest airborne operation in Mexico; he owned more aircraft than Aeromexico, the national airline… El Chapo’s flights (and he claimed to own submarines, too) mostly serviced the drug habits of Americans, who are the world’s largest consumers of illicit drugs, spending more than $ 100 billion a year on cocaine (including crack), heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines smuggled across the border, according to a 2014 RAND Corporation report. (See Sam Quinones’ excellent book Dreamland for a similar view)
- NAFTA destroyed important parts of the local Mexican economy forcing people north – think, for example, of GMO corn – So who are these narcos? Even the most famous capos started out as barely literate campesinos whose farms could hardly feed their families. Either that, or urbanites whose major employment option was slaving on a production line at a sweaty maquiladora for twelve hours a day. Narcos are typically offered a cell phone, a pair of sunglasses, and an Uzi on their first day on the job. Not only that, they are exalted in virtually every aspect of Mexican culture, from TV, magazines, and movies to a musical genre known as the narco-corrido, which lyricizes their triumphs in catchy ballads. Narcos even have their own pantheon, including a terrifying female spirit known as Santa Muerte (Holy Death) who resembles a fanged grim reaper wielding a scythe. With nearly half of all Mexicans dwelling in poverty, it’s not hard to see narcos’ allure—especially for the youth population known as “ni-nis,” short for ni estudian, ni trabajan, those who neither study nor work.
- Cheap Mexican labor essential to cheap prices in America requires “the workers’ confinement behind the border fence” to staff the maquiladoras.
- Violence is mostly between military, police, and cartels although many innocent Mexicans (and some foreigners) get caught up in the war between those three factions. (see Roberto Bolano’s 2666)
- Murdered journalists who published stories about cartel crime and police corruption, are in some cases dismissed by the more vindictive Mexicans who claim the journalists got what they deserved, quoting President Donald Trump’s assertion, “The press is the enemy of the people.”
- The separation of native peoples with artificial borders means that family members are often stranded apart from each other on different sides of the border. We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.
- Environmental degradation, native language loss, obesity, diabetes etc. are concentrated in the poorest areas on each side of the border, among those least able to fight back.
- Most Mexicans who have friends or family in the U.S. or have been there themselves prefer their own culture and homes but economic necessity is often what drives them to cross the border.
- Guilt does not free anyone from a detention center or equip a home with a septic tank … The only proper response to privilege is to grip it like a baseball bat and shatter injustice with all of your might.
- Many immigrants have been dehumanized in the public eye for centuries with the idea they are bringing diseases. Fortunately, media like the Texas Observer will quickly point out that—thanks to high immunization rates in their home countries and, in the case of Guatemala, universal health care—these children are probably more likely to have been vaccinated against infectious diseases than Texas kids (16 percent of whom are uninsured).
- Many Border Agents Griest spoke with feel unjustly vilified. One told her he sees it as a job, and he wants to do it right and be fair. And it is good to have good people do that work. Another admitted some errors but pointed to: other missions [that] have been more successful, like the little Salvadoran girl they once tracked in the brush, “the cutest little thing but completely dehydrated.” For three weeks, they took turns keeping watch on her at a hospital in Corpus while doctors revived her kidneys. She survived and got reunited with her family. Stories like these are why many agents consider themselves lifeguards, out protecting their fellow citizens from criminals and saving the “aliens” from horrible deaths.
- Theroux points out that a superficial journey across the border is not sufficient: I was to discover that the neighborhoods that lie just across the fence are not representative of the town at large, which is a lesson in how to know another country—stay longer, travel deeper.
There is much much more to be gleaned from both books. Give them the time they deserve.
Griest does her best to sum up her book in a paragraph:
In a word, a borderline is an injustice. It is a time-held method of partitioning the planet for the benefit of the elite. Fortunately, we have legions of activists, artists, and faith keepers out there, petitioning on humanity’s behalf, but they need serious reinforcement. For the greatest lesson in nepantla is that many borderlines needn’t exist at all. We operate daily within the confines of myriad lines—class, creed, sexuality, gender—that mainly serve to suppress our quality of life. Spend enough time straddling one, and you can’t help but wonder what bliss might follow if we all just embraced the spaces in between.
Theroux ends with this observation borne out thoroughly in his book.
…it is in the nature of travel to collect and value telling anecdotes. Yet this experience was something else, a clarification of much that I had seen in my traveling life, an elaboration of the challenges of poverty and development, the curse of bad government and predatory corporations, the struggle of people living on the plain of snakes who wish to choose their own destiny.
I’ll end with Graham Greene. His description reminds me of so many similar experiences I’ve had waking up in Mexico. And I did wake up in Mexico, let me assure you, from the nightmare of misinformation Americans unfortunately receive on this side of the border. Cross the border whenever you can, as much as you can, and you will be greatly rewarded.
I woke next morning to the sound of cheering – I had had a silly dream full of triumph and happiness. There had been a mass religious revolt under the eyes of Stalin. ‘You’ve let the churches be opened. You can’t stop us now.’ ‘From this moment,’ he said, ‘they are doomed.’ I remember taking part in a procession round a small room – the dictator in the middle very stubborn and powerless and en brosse – and we sang ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’, but I couldn’t remember the second verse. As we turned to go, I saw a little first-class honours scientist – product of night school and a gnawing sense of exclusion – grinning in a corner and we mocked him happily, marching round the room. And then I woke to what must have set all the singing going in my dream – it was five-thirty and the crowd cheered and cheered. They might have been applauding a hero or a politician at the railway station as he passed through; perhaps the President was here. I got out of bed and looked through the window and saw darkness in the sky and the stars still out, lights burning in the flat-roofed town, and dawn like smoke in a level bank above the roofs. The cheers were everywhere, stretching out to the dim mountains: they weren’t cheers at all, but the cocks crowing for miles around, an odd Biblical rhapsody at dawn. Graham Green, The Lawless Road