I was in Mexico City this week, giving some talks to educators. Inevitably, in private moments between sessions and at dinner, the conversation turned to the forty-three desaparecidos – the ‘disappeared’ students who, it appears, were brutally murdered. Their plight has horrified the nation – indeed, the world.
Mexico contains the most wonderful people, and stupendous food, music and culture. It’s hard to reconcile such a place of joy and kindness with the horror stories that have emerged over the past decade and which provoke books with titles such as the late Charles Bowden’s Murder City.
So I’m grateful that some other gringos who love Mexico have written balanced, unsensationalized books that shed light on the people and the issues they face.
There’s an old tale about an undocumented immigrant who was caught by border patrol. “Hey, messican, how come you took off running?” asks the officer. “Por alas no tener,” the immigrant replies. “Because I don’t have wings.”
Philip Garrison’s Because They Don’t Have Wings: Stories of Mexican Immigrant Life (University of Arizona Press, 2006) gives us snapshots of the lives of Mexican immigrants that the author befriends, and we see a picture emerge like a face from behind a screen of smog. It’s comprised of dichos (sayings), corridos (traditional narrative songs), tall tales, and laughter in the dark.
Among the book’s superbly written episodes, there’s a moving tribute to a friend/colleague, a vignette about a man who makes ‘thirty or forty attempts’ to cross the border and never sets foot on North American soil, and a tale of a beautiful girl who one day gets beaten black and blue by the wives and girlfriends of the men she seduces. Garrison is a true original – a one-off who writes like a novelist and captures Mexico’s soul – a tragedy in a clown’s mask.
The second book I read was We Are Hope: Women Living Beyond the Violence of Ciudad Juarez (Sunstone Press, 2013). It was written by my colleague at Western New Mexico University, Dr. Emma Bailey, a sociologist, with photos by Alicia Edwards.
It’s a different kind of work from Garrison’s. Inspired by Bailey’s regular visits to a women’s center in Juarez, Mexico, the book first contextualizes the situation in that beleaguered city, a cauldron of violence and poverty, and then describes how a group of nuns set up Centro Mujeres Tonantzin. In lucid, elegant prose, Bailey shows how the women at the center work collectively to clean up the surrounding streets, plant trees, recycle water to grow vegetables, and provide education for the young and a refuge for the poor.
Edwards’s photos of the community are a delight. They invite us into this other, lesser-known Juarez, capturing the joy and dignity of taking control of your life, whether it’s growing your own food, caring for your family or nurturing your space. ‘We are hope,’ indeed.
Because They Don’t Have Wings and We Are Hope are slim books (under 150 pages), and both come under what Luis Urrea would call a ‘literature of witness.’ They seem to be saying, “I see you. I affirm you. I value you. Speak in your own voice and I’ll transcribe your words for the world.”