Friday, October 15, 2010
At this particular moment in time, I am the chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. I have taught at the University for the past nineteen years and it has been a privilege to have been touched by so many students over those nineteen years. We offer a bilingual MFA (English/Spanish) and bring students together from all over the Americas. Today, I am posting an article I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding our writing program. The original article appeared in the September 24th issue and appeared under the title: "Where Spanish and English are Good for Each Other."
The University of Texas at El Paso is quite literally located on the border of the United States and Mexico, where two languages coexist, collide, clash, and often merge into a third language, which some people refer to as Spanglish or Tex-Mex. In fact, the metropolitan area of El Paso and Juárez, two cities separated by the Rio Grande, has always been a living linguistic laboratory.
The idea to build a bilingual creative-writing program at the university began many years ago. One of its originators was the late Ricardo Aguilar Melantzon, a professor of languages and linguistics who understood that the borderlands serves as a bridge between two countries that were consistently mistranslating each other. Ricardo was one of my professors while I was a graduate student in the English department in the mid-80s. He was a true fronterizo, having held dual citizenship and for many years lived in Juárez. He crossed the downtown bridge on his motorcycle five days a week. He was in love with Mexican and Chicano letters and was convinced that a bilingual writing program would connect the literary cultures of the United States to the literary cultures of the Spanish-speaking countries to the south. It has taken those of us who teach language and literature far too long to realize that living on the border is our greatest asset.
When I graduated from UTEP with a master’s in creative writing, I went on to spend a year at the University of Iowa and four years at Stanford University: two years as a Wallace Stegner Fellow and two years as a Ph.D. student. I returned to teach at El Paso, in 1992, because the English department wanted a writer with bilingual skills. The understanding was that there were plans to develop a bilingual creative-writing program. Another professor, the Mexican writer Luis Arturo Ramos, was hired in the department of languages and linguistics at the same time. Little did I realize that our hirings were the beginning of a long and drawn-out process.
Two years later, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved a proposal put together by members of both departments for a bilingual M.F.A., clearing an important hurdle. It should be noted that the board approved the program precisely because of its bilingual component. At the time, the board was strict about not duplicating other graduate programs in the system.
To say that we stumbled along is something of an understatement. One of the problems that we faced was having our faculty members divided: two in the department of languages and linguistics and four in the English department. In addition to the predictable turf battles, the students who were writing in Spanish had little or no contact with those who were writing in English. How could there be any literary cross-pollination if there was no contact?
After much discussion, we devised a bilingual track, a proposal I designed and fought for. On the new track, students took writing workshops in both languages, although truly bilingual classes, in which both languages were spoken, did not exist at the time. Students could also take interdisciplinary courses—in Mexican history, for example. There was some resistance to that proposal from both departments, for reasons that were not always clear to me. I suspect that there was some mistrust of the term “bilingual.” People who write in Spanish are in love with the Spanish language. People who write in English are in love with the English language. Both parties have strong allegiances to their native languages. And then there are people like me, who are considered linguistic traitors by both sides.
The proposal was debated and finally instituted—mostly because I reminded those opposed to it that a bilingual track would provide an opportunity to write in both languages for the few students who wanted to take advantage of such an option. Those who wanted to remain in their monolingual worlds could do so.
A segregated program was not exactly what I had imagined when I took the position in El Paso. It was not until eight years ago, when we hired a director who was committed to creating a program that was truly bilingual, that we finally took a leap toward becoming what we are today. Under the leadership of Johnny Payne and with the full support of Howard Daudistel, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the creative-writing faculty members voted to form our own department. That may sound like a simple and obvious step, but we were seceding from the Union, and no doubt many felt we were traitors to our home departments—departments that had tenured some of us. Still, we needed to set our own goals, follow our own agendas, and stay true to the idea of creating a unique program, in which students from the Spanish-speaking world could join with students from the English-speaking world.
With a great deal of hard work, we have arrived at a creative writing program that can honestly be called bilingual. In the past eight years, students from such areas of the United States as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, and Lawrence, Kansas, have entered the program, as have students from Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, and various parts of Mexico. All courses, be they workshop or literature classes, are conducted in both languages. Professors go back and forth depending on what is being discussed. All students try speaking in their non-native languages at some point. They try to offer criticism in the language in which the piece under discussion was written. It’s amazing how much time the students spend on one another’s work. I am always moved by their capacity to stretch themselves and the generosity of their minds.
Of course, there were growing pains. At first many of the English-speaking students were resistant and impatient with having to deal with so much Spanish in the workshops. And some Latin American students were unaccustomed to the kind of Spanish that is common on the border. One of the great lessons for all of us was that we had to accept that we speak different versions of Spanish, just as we speak different versions of English.
There were other issues as well. Our Latin American students are quite comfortable with thinking of themselves as intellectuals. Our U.S. students tend to think of themselves as writers but are ambivalent about claiming the term “intellectual.” They are caught up in the anti-intellectual discourse of the United States, just as Latin American students are caught up in the privileging of intellectual and writing identities. Yes, the two groups of students were sometimes suspicious of each other, and suspicious of their professors as well. But as we focused on our writing, the suspicions were left by the wayside. We have all learned to trust.
Placing students together who come from different cultural, political, and literary traditions has been more an asset than a hindrance to their learning experience. Even the fact that they come here with various degrees of skills in their non-native languages seems to add depth to the experience. In the classroom, we are always focused on language and the meaning of words. That means a lot of work, of course, but it keeps us from getting lazy. Language is visible, always. And isn’t that what writers must do—make language intensely visible?
The students who come to study here understand that this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a unique program. To our knowledge, we are the only bilingual program in the Americas, and the fact that we are located on the border challenges our students to think creatively in every conceivable way. The border cities of Juárez and El Paso make up a social and cultural ecotone that our students absorb. This is a place of paradoxes. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States, while Juárez is one of the most violent cities in the Americas. Yet they coexist, belong to each other, define each other. And yes, our students talk and write about those issues. I am working with a graduate student who is writing a series of stories based on the chaotic situation in Juárez. She is also a journalist, and her work is stunningly realistic. Another student has become something of a border-culture anthropologist.
This year the graduate bilingual M.F.A. program at the University of Texas at El Paso is at maximum capacity, with 36 full-time students. In addition to our on-campus graduate program, we have an online M.F.A. program and a very healthy undergraduate program, which also offers some bilingual classes. With seven tenured or tenure-track faculty members and two full-time visiting writers, our small department is thriving.
Today, in the Americas, we live in an age of violence and suspicion. Rather than thoughtfully solve the issues that confront us, many choose to speak a language that divides us. There is much talk of building walls. Where is the talk of building bridges? This is the tragedy of our times. But on this border between two countries, in our program, the young people of the Americas come together. They want to write. And when they leave, they leave with dreams of a common language.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Today I am featuring Howard Campbell's Book: Drug War Zone which is an important addition to the growing body of literature about the current crisis in Mexico. The University of Texas Press, who published Campbell's book,provides the following description of Drug War Zone:
Thousands of people die in drug-related violence every year in Mexico. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, adjacent to El Paso, Texas, has become the most violent city in the Mexican drug war. Much of the cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine consumed in the United States is imported across the Mexican border, making El Paso/Juárez one of the major drug-trafficking venues in the world.
In this anthropological study of drug trafficking and anti-drug law enforcement efforts on the U.S.-Mexico border, Howard Campbell uses an ethnographic perspective to chronicle the recent Mexican drug war, focusing especially on people and events in the El Paso/Juárez area. It is the first social science study of the violent drug war that is tearing Mexico apart.
Based on deep access to the drug-smuggling world, this study presents the drug war through the eyes and lives of direct participants. Half of the book consists of oral histories from drug traffickers, and the other half from law enforcement officials. There is much journalistic coverage of the drug war, but very seldom are the lived experiences of traffickers and "narcs" presented in such vivid detail. In addition to providing an up-close, personal view of the drug-trafficking world, Campbell explains and analyzes the functioning of drug cartels, the corruption that facilitates drug trafficking, the strategies of smugglers and anti-narcotics officials, and the perilous culture of drug trafficking that Campbell refers to as the "Drug War Zone."
Campbell offers the following observations on why he wrote the book:
Since I moved to Mexico thirty years ago I have been fascinated by semi-clandestine drug trafficking organizations and their links to government officials and policies. I wrote Drug War Zone to try to understand the ways in which drug trafficking transcends dichotomies between public and private and what is licit or illicit. I also wanted to examine how both the U.S.and Mexico are responsible for the violence and inequalities associated with the “war on drugs.”
Inspired by the work of Studs Terkel I decided to focus on oral histories of common workers in the drug trade and law enforcement in the El Paso/Juárez area. The book provides an analysis of the cultures of narco-traffickers and “narcs.” The main goal of the book is to put a human face on the “drug war” that is ravaging the U.S.-Mexico border.
Alma Guillermoprieto wrote up a fine review of Drug War Zone in the The New York Review of Books (October 28, 2010):
In his excellent introduction to Drug War Zone, a collection of oral histories of participants in the drug world, Howard Campbell describes Juárez for us:
The local landscape provides myriad spaces for imaginative traffickers. Rugged mountains, creased with sharp canyons and arroyos, overlook vast deserts. The lowland, downtown section of El Paso winds along the Rio Grande…. Drug traffickers can easily ford the river and disappear into the maze of rural back roads scattered across El Paso County (one of the largest in the United States), and from there enter Interstate Highway 10, which connects the east and west coasts of the United States.
To the east of downtown Juárez, new commercial and residential sections and hundreds of maquiladoras loom on the horizon, and to the south and west a boundless web of impoverished colonias (poor neighborhoods) has replaced farm and desert lands. Just as El Pasoans can see the factories of their sister city, Juarenses can see the skyscrapers of El Paso from many parts of the city—the two border communities are inextricably linked.
Furthermore, migration to Juárez from Mexican states to the south brings a huge reserve labor army to the colonias and urban barrios, and local government is unable to deal with this influx. There is a virtually limitless supply of unemployed workers ready and willing to make good money by driving or walking loads of drugs across the border or by serving as a stash-house guard or a hit man. Smugglers have little difficulty adapting socially or communicating in Spanish, English, or Spanglish on either side of the bilingual, bicultural border. The enormous maquiladora industry and related El Paso long-haul trucking industry provide the heavy-duty eighteen-wheelers and every possible storage facility, tool, equipment, or supply needed to package, conceal, store, and transport contraband drugs.
Campbell’s central contention, stated in the title of his book, is that the whole idea of a Mexican drug smuggling enterprise, or problem, is untenable: a land so thoroughly bilingual, bicultural, miscegenated, and porous—despite the arbitrary demarcation of a border and the increasingly weird and futile efforts to seal it—can really only be studied and understood as a united territory and a single problem. This is an idea so breathtakingly sensible as to amount to genius,2 and one wonders how many deaths could be avoided if policymakers on both sides of the Rio Grande shared this vision and coordinated not only their law enforcement efforts but their education, development, and immigration policies accordingly.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Today I am posting the third (and final) part of the lecture I presented at Truman State University, "Juarez Doesn't Stop at the Border." I was grateful for the opportunity to put some of my thoughts on paper regarding a city I love. I suppose when you love a city, you want others to love it too. You want others to understand. I suppose that's the way it works. I get offended when I hear people refer to Juarez as "seedy." Like many people on the border, I wait for the day that Juarez resurrects. We wait for Easter. Meanwhile we live in Lent.
Almost twenty years ago, I returned to the border. To live, to teach, to work, to write. I do not regret coming back to live on the border. I am destined to live in the crossfire between two nations that continuously misunderstand each other. I am profoundly sad at the state affairs on this border in which I live. I am profoundly disgusted by the Mexican government’s corruption and incompetence. I am equally disgusted at the demonization of the Mexican people in the country that I call mine.
Let me make a crucial point here—a point that we cannot lose sight of: there is not only apocalypse in Juarez—there is a great deal of normalcy. The people of Juarez continue to work for wages that are not worthy of them, continue to sing songs of love and songs of protest, continue to dance, continue to create art and do all the things that living requires of them. There is not only death, there is life. There is a generosity that exists among the Mexican people that is admirable and moving—though many of us who live in “El Norte” refuse to be moved.
Less than a month ago, some friends of mine from Juarez opened a library in a very humble neighborhood near the Juarez airport. Laura turned the front room of her house into a community library. She and Ivonne gathered books, built shelves, and opened up a space for the children of the neighborhood. They invited me to go as a guest on the day they opened the library. I helped cut the ribbon. They held a celebration. There was tacos al carbon, there was a mime who entertained the people of the neighborhood who gathered for the event. It was my great privilege to read one of my books to the children. Juarez is not only overflowing with the twisted and grotesque hearts of violent drug dealers—it is also filled with the generosity of a people who love their own communities. Juarez is teeming with people who are incapable of losing hope among all the chaos. Yes, chaos exists in Juarez. But there is also order.
Some are busy tearing down a city. Others are busy building it back up.
I am a writer by discipline, by desire and by disposition. A writer who lives on the border. I cannot and will not avert my eyes. It is my job to articulate what I see and attempt to turn it into an art that will perhaps add a civilizing affect on the society to which I belong.
I want so much for you to see what I see. I want so much for you to at feel what I feel. There are times when I am lost in the poverty of my own words. I want you to understand that building walls will solve nothing. I want you to understand that hating Mexicans will not make us a better people. I want you to understand that Juarez does not end at the border. I know you do not believe this but I will tell you anyway. We are all Juarez. Juarez is a microcosm of what the world is becoming. I want to so much to believe that we are better than this.
I know that it is naïve and utopian to believe that borders can be torn down. But we should at least acknowledge that borders are the constructions of peoples who have a need to separate themselves from others. We fix borders for political and economic ends. The earth has no lines written on its back. It is we who draw those lines. I live in a part of the world that used to belong to the native peoples of the Americas. It was later claimed by Spain. And then, it was taken over by Mexico. And now, it is part of the United States. My home state of New Mexico is not called “New Mexico” for nothing. The history of the ground on which I stand tells me that borders are more fluid than we’d like to believe.
I want to make this one final point about borders: they exist to keep poor people out. For the rich, there are no borders. Let us be honest about this rather obvious fact. We all find ourselves living in a confusing and contentious historical moment. Too many of our citizens believe that the border between the United States and Mexico is a fixed and static reality. Millions of poor Mexicans who have come here to work and to survive. They have refused to sit back and die. They have refused to accept the status quo of a world that has stacked the deck against them. They have deconstructed the very notion of a static border. But even if we cling to the notion that the line we have drawn is part of the natural order of things, that line will not keep the United States and Mexico separate.
Mexico and the United States belong to each other.
Juarez and El Paso belong to each other.
I don’t know what it will take for the citizens on both sides of the border to understand this harsh and beautiful fact.
This is the Mexico that haunts my imagination: The Mexico that is yet to be. The Juarez that is yet to be. Someday, I tell myself, Juarez will become the political and cultural center of the Americas. Juarez will become a city worthy of its people. Mexico will become a great nation where justice is not just a pretty word. Mexico will create a judicial system and a government that serves a populace that is starving for justice. Mexico will stop sacrificing its workers at the altar of a cruel economic world order and tell the United States and the rest of the world that it’s citizens are worthy of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor. And all of those Mexicans who died with the word Libertad on their lips will not have died for nothing.
We in the United States keep telling ourselves this lie: Mexicans are a barbaric and violent people. But even as barbarism and violence pervades Mexico, the Mexican people are very much like us. They want to work and love and live in peace. I need not remind you that in our own country, violence and barbarism coexist and compete with our more generous democratic and egalitarian impulses.
Every country is in constant struggle. Every country lives out its contradictions. Someday, the two countries I love will live up to the promises of their Utopian ideals. But not today. Today I live in that unenviable space where the dead and the living of Juarez haunt me and follow me onto the page. For me, there can be no borders.
—Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Today, I am posting Part II of a lecture I gave at Truman State University. The first draft of this lecture was entitled: "The Mexico Than Haunts My Imagination." That lecture I gave when I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. I took that presentation and used it as the basis for "Juarez Doesn't Stop at the Border."
It wasn’t true to say that the presence of an extreme poverty in Juarez didn’t bother me. In fact, I quickly recognized Juarez to be a culture with extreme class differences. That recognition always haunted me. I was a young man in love with the idea of democracy and naively held on to egalitarian notions of equality. The very fact that “classes” existed bothered me. And there was such a wide chasm between classes in Juarez.
The homes on the hills across from I-10 were visible signs of a truly humble existence. None of the roads were paved at the time. The only swimming pool in that neighborhood was the Rio Grande. As a boy and as a young man I imagined what it might be like to live such an existence. Later, as I began to explore the many facets of life in Juarez, I was to discover that as humble as those visible homes on the hill were, they hardly represented the poorest sections of Juarez.
Most of my life, Mexicans have chastised me, reminding me that my familiarity with Juarez did not amount to much. They insisted that Juarez wasn’t Mexico, that it was a border city that it was an anomaly and not representative of the real Mexico. Yes, I would nod, Juarez wasn’t Mexico. Juarez wasn’t Monterrey and it wasn’t Guanajuato and it wasn’t Oaxaca and Juarez was decidedly not Mexico City.
There are perhaps too many things I would like to say about present day Juarez. But that disdainful tone of voice that I have heard so many Mexicans use when speaking of Juarez has always made me more than a little angry. They were jeers hurled at the poor. Hating the poor has always been something of past-time. We all engage in the sport without even being aware of it.
Juarez may not be a beautiful Mexican colonial city and may not be littered with Aztec or Mayn ruins, but Juarez isn’t Mexico? Juarez, I would argue is decidedly Mexican. Mexican border cities are notoriously infamous for being impure because they have fallen under the influence of American language and culture. Well, perhaps. But I very much doubt that any major Mexican city isn’t influenced by American culture, American English and American politics. This, in fact, is the predicament that Mexico in general and Juarez in particular suffers. American influence is something of a poison that permeates Mexican cultural and political life. I use the word poison deliberately. Poison kills. I have believed for a long time now that one of the reasons that Mexico is slowly dying is that it has never broken free of the influences of its rich neighbor to the North. This has produced a conflicted psychology of admiration, envy and resentment. In part, Mexico suffers from a self-hatred that is produced in America. Always looking at yourself through the eyes of the other is a kind of death.
I think the maquilas are a good example of how an industry is helping to poison the blood of a country. The famed Twin plants that have existed in Juarez even before NAFTA. The maquilas created an economic factory and trade zone whereby products were produced by a cheap Mexican labor force and then shipped to the United States and abroad for final assembly and distribution. The maquilas, in theory, were supposed to provide much needed jobs for Mexicans and thus were supposed to be part of the solution to Mexico’s chronic unemployment. In fact the maquilas created roughly 200,000 jobs for Mexican workers.
Due to the maquila industry, thousands of Mexicans from the interior emigrated to Juarez in search of jobs. But neither the federal government nor the municipal government had the resources to build an infrastructure for the influx of people. I suspect there was not even an attempt. No schools were built. No roads, no housing, no parks, no neighborhoods, no hospitals, no libraries, nothing. It’s anybody’s guess how many hundreds of thousands of people live in substandard housing in Juarez and how many people live off illegally rigged electricity that is not only unreliable but dangerous. I am hardly the first to observe that NAFTA has been a disaster for the Mexican worker. Why do we suppose all those Mexicans are still attempting to enter the United States? The maquilas, far from being part of the solution for Mexico’s economy, have been part of the problem. People simply cannot live on the salaries they are paid and have been forced to live in conditions that can be generously described as primitive.
An article in the El Paso Times about the maquila industry makes the point that the economy of El Paso is very much affected by what happens in Juarez. An industry official is quoted as saying, “For every 10 percent increase in maquila production in Juarez, employment in El Paso grows by 3 percent.” It is perhaps important to re-iterate how the economies of El Paso and Juarez—and by extention—how the economies of the United States and Mexico are tied to one another.
But nowhere in the article about the rebounding maquila industry in the El Paso Times is there a single word about salaries, about what people are actually paid to do this kind of work. Perhaps a mention of the typical wage for a Mexican worker in such an article might have given us pause about the nature of the way we do business with Mexico.
When hundreds of thousands of workers are paid a substandard wage, and are forced to live in squalor, then social chaos is sure to follow. We should all be aware of this one thing: Mexico is not as cheap as we imagine. American companies have businesses scattered all over Juarez—everything from McDonalds to Auto Zone to Costco. Certainly, in a city of 1.3 million people, there is inevitably going to be a great deal of wealth. Some kind of middle class will come into being. But the general population simply cannot afford to shop in these places. I know a man who lives and Juarez and comes to El Paso to buy parts to fix his car at the Auto Zone in downtown El Paso. Why? Because the prices are cheaper than the Auto Zone in Juarez. I know a man who hired a woman from Juarez to clean his house. He hired her because she needed a job. He pays her ten dollars an hour. It takes her five hours to clean his house. She makes fifty dollars—which is about the same amount of money a worker makes in one week at a maquila. This is the great irony: the economic arrangement between the man and the woman is illegal. The economic arrangement between the Mexican people who work in the maquilas and the corporations who own them is perfectly legal. That we run a global economy based on such arrangements is a great violence—though we refuse to think of it as violence.
How can nations do business like this and still claim to be great? All of this is an outrage—though apparently no legislator on either side of the border seems to be civilized enough to give a damn. I wrote sardonically in one of my recent poems:
I imagine: Me as a reporter writing an article on the economic situation in Mexico: The cartels are doing their best to address the economic downturn and Mexico’s chronic problem of unemployment. They have hired police. They have hired select members of the federal armed forces. They have hired reporters. They have hired mayors and judges and politicians. They have hired young men off the streets. They have hired gang members. At this rate of new hires, Mexico is heading for full employment.
The governments of Mexico and the United States have aided and abetted the creation of a city that is mired in poverty—and this by design. This is not an accident. Poverty is an economic and political creation. It is not organic. Why should we be surprised by the underground economies that arise when the “legitimate” economies no longer serve the basic needs of the people?
It is hypocritical and duplicitous to stand in moralistic horror in the face of the growth of the Mexican cartels. If Mexico’s economy was functioning, then there would be no vacuum for the Cartels to fill. Drugs are a lucrative business. And it is a business that pays extremely well. In the absence of legitimate businesses, where do we expect the populace to turn? Where do we expect the entrepreneurs to go?
It is simplistic and disingenuous to assert that the current crisis in Mexico is nothing more than a “Drug War.” It is so much more than that. Since 2008, more than 6,400 people have been killed in Juarez alone. This year more than 2,400 have been killed in the border city that sits less than a half a mile from my downtown apartment. The month of October has begun swimmingly: 37 more have been killed. It is not for nothing that we think of Juarez is a murderous and dangerous place. In September alone, over two hundred people have been gunned down and or decapitated and or mutilated in a manner that would have made Jack the Ripper proud. Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists to do their jobs. The cartels are threatening Mexico’s press. Journalists and editors are threatened, kidnapped, or killed. Last week, a first: a journalist from Mexico was granted political asylum in the United States.
Last Wednesday, I attended a press conference where three Mexican journalists sat with their attorney and explained why they were all applying for political asylum. In one instance, the journalist’s sister and nephew had been gunned down as a warning. No functioning democracy can do without a free press. Just as no functioning democracy can do without a functioning judicial system. When 95% of the crimes committed in Mexico are never resolved, then how can there be anything but social chaos? You cannot blame that on the cartels. The people of Juarez are just as afraid of the Federal police that have been sent in as they are of the cartels. Corruption runs deep among law enforcement officials and they often behave like nothing more than thugs. You cannot blame that kind of behavior on the cartels.
Back in February, I attended a march in Juarez. On an almost perfect and sunny day, two thousand people marched through the streets of Juarez—most of them young people. They were angry at their government. They demanded answers and real protection. I read an article that attacked the youth of Juarez, arguing that they should be angry at the cartels and not at their government. But the people of Juarez have no expectation that the cartels will protect them. They do have the expectation that their government should protect them. And rightly so.
But it seems that the government of Mexico is incapable of protecting its own citizens. What does it say about a country when thugs are allowed to decapitate people and leave their bodies displayed on the streets and nothing is done? What does it say about a government that fixes a minimum wage for it’s own people—a minimum wage that starves its own people?
This is the Mexico that haunts my imagination: Millions of people are caught in an economic war between two countries that claim to be friends and allies.
Monday, October 11, 2010
I was invited to give a lecture and a reading at Truman State University. It wasn’t easy to get there from El Paso. I took a plane from El Paso to Dallas, then another plane from Dallas to St. Louis. Then I took a small plane on Cape Air from St. Louis to Kirksville, Missouri. From the small plane I could see the Missouri landscape—miles and miles of farmland, the earth sweet and green and tamed.
On my return to El Paso, I looked out the window as we were beginning our descent. I saw miles and miles of valleys and desert mountains glowing in the evening light. For a blessed second, the earth was haloed in light.
There is a purity to the desert landscape—even today—perhaps because is still lays beyond our insatiable, destroying grasp.
I’m grateful to live in a land that cannot be tamed.
Today, I am posting the lecture I delivered at Truman State University on Thursday, October 7. The title of my lecture was, “Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border.” Because the lecture is a little long to post all at once, I am dividing it into three parts. I will post Part II tomorrow and Part III the day after that.
Juárez Doesn’t Stop at the Border
When I was a boy, my father used to take me and my three brothers to Juárez to get our haircuts. I loved those trips from our farm to Juarez on Saturday afternoons. The memories of those days continue to run through my brain like wild children running through the rain. I loved the smells and the sounds, the crooked Spanish and the crooked English, the refusal to sanitize the environment. I loved the taxi drivers leaning on their cars, the markets, the smell of tacos being prepared in front of you in small stands. I loved watching the men and the women who worked those stands, loved their busy, expert hands. I loved the smell of fresh corn tortillas and freshly chopped cilantro.
I loved the crowded streets and the traffic and it seemed to me that there was music blaring from every direction—not only from radios, but from street musicians. I loved the vendors selling Mexican candy and cigarettes and trinkets. I loved staring at the images of Jesus and our Lady of Guadalupe in the art that was being hocked for a good price. I loved the smell of Mexican leather and wondered what it would be like to own a pair of Mexican boots. I loved the men who shined shoes and who seemed to be versions of my father. I was lost in a sea of moustaches. From the vantage point of my boyhood eyes, everything seemed beautifully loud and fantastically alive and miraculously uncensored. I suppose I felt myself to live in a censored world. I lived on a farm where everything was quiet. The fields of cotton were well ordered—even if our family life was not.
But Juarez was something else entirely. The rules were different there—that was obvious enough to me, though my boys’ mind couldn’t quite grasp the specifics. In my eyes, Juarez was a city that was supremely alive. It was a city that lay beyond my imagination. Only the plaza in El Paso with its famed alligators rivaled its carnivalesque environment.
Of course there was the problem of poverty. There were always beggars on the streets. But poverty didn’t frighten me. Why would it? Poverty was a familiar enough reality. We had an outhouse on our farm and a pipe that brought cold water into our three room adobe house. That lone pipe was what passed for plumbing. But even as a boy, I already understood that despite our poverty, I lived in a wealthy country. Our black and white television showed us glimpses of that wealth. Beautiful Maybelline women and handsome Aqua Velva Men. I instinctively understood all of the undercurrents without having the language to explain those undercurrents. No one had to tell me I lived in a wealthy nation. No one had to tell me that that the poor of Juarez were far poorer than I was. That knowledge was always there, has always stayed with me, has remained the foundation of my intellectual and emotional formation.
This is where I first learned about borders: in this boyhood crossing over a bridge. One second I was in the United States and one second later, I was in Mexico. I read the sign that told me I was entering into another country. I stared at the two flags that waved above me, the flags never touching. I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican eagle. Maybe all eagles were the same. I didn’t know. And I was afraid to ask. Boys understand that their questions are impertinent.
But I knew what I felt. It was both exhilarating and confusing to cross the border. Here I was, in another country. The line was imaginary. It was not something visible to the human eye. But it was essential that I believe that the line was real. I understood this. I was expected to accept this. Mexico was Mexico. The United States was the United States. There was a border that irrevocably differentiated and separated us. This was an article of faith. It was God who had drawn the line. God did not make mistakes with his pen. I was a good Catholic boy. It was my job to believe. And so I believed.
When my brothers and my father and I crossed the bridge into Mexico, there were boys below who made cones made of newspaper, cones to catch the coins that the pedestrian crossers tossed down to them. I loved watching those boys and I have always kept their images as if they were a painting that that I’d hung in a museum in my head. I wondered about them, wondered what it would be like to be them. Perhaps they represented a kind of poverty I would never know. But I also think they represented a kind of freedom I longed for.
We always begged my father to give us pennies so we could toss them down to the poor boys. My father would reach into his pocket and give us each a penny. Poor boys tossing pennies down to even poorer boys. I always wished I had more than a penny. Maybe a nickel. Maybe a dime. But nickels and dimes were hard to come by when I was a boy.
As I grew up, Juarez held a special place in my imagination. I would think about what it would be like to be a Mexican. A real Mexican. I knew that the gringos around us thought of us as being “Mexican.” But I knew I wasn’t Mexican at all. I was ashamed because I knew the truth of it. I also felt ashamed because I wasn’t an American. Not a real one. And so I lived on that road between my father’s farm and Juarez, Mexico. At times this was all too confusing. If the world was fixed and delineated, why did I feel myself to belong to both sides of the border? I was a traitor. I was a heretic. I had to choose. But why? This was my problematic: I knew early on that I didn’t really believe in the imaginary line that someone had capriciously drawn for reasons that were beyond me. I did not wish to be separated from the people who lived across the river from me. I did not believe that because I was born in this country that I was somehow more virtuous. And yet that is what I was being taught to believe.
It always interested me how the adults around me spoke about Mexico in general and Juarez in particular. Juarez was not famous so much as it was infamous. Juarez was widely gossiped about—and most of the gossip was decidedly unflattering. Juarez was too poor, Juarez was too dirty, Juarez was lawless. You could bribe the police and sometimes had too bribe the police and they had a word for it: mordida. Yes, yes, I heard all the talk around me. Juarez was dangerous, you could lose whatever was left or your virtue there, you could lose all your money there, you could fall in love with the wrong woman there, could even lose your soul there. The devil lived in Juarez. The devil was calling your name. Juarez was enticing for all the wrong reasons and stood outside the civilizing effects of American culture, American civility, and the American legal system.
If the United States represented order, then Juarez, Mexico represented chaos. But for many residents of the border, the idea of order had its limits and a little chaos provided a necessary dose of sanity. Too much order—was that living? Perhaps the fact that Juarez flourished during American prohibition and profited from the strict alcohol laws that existed in most of Texas through the early seventies served to underscore that Juarez was a place where the worst of America’s puritanical instincts had no sway. Juarez was a cultural safety valve, it was a space of escape, a place you could visit, drink, and engage in a little sinning. The sinning may or may not have involved prostitution—an idea that both scared and interested me as a young man.
Juarez was a poor man’s Las Vegas. Who could afford to go to Las Vegas to get a quickie divorce? Who could afford to go to Acapulco? Who could afford to go to Mexico City? But everyone could afford to go to Juarez. For many of us, Juarez was the only Mexico we knew. Juarez was the only Mexico we loved.
Juarez provided a culture of nightclubs for the citizens of North America well into the nineties. As a young man, I often went to Juarez with my friends. A forty-five mile drive from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Juarez was the only thing that stood in our way from a night of freedom. We would pile in someone’s car and park in a lot on the El Paso side of the border. We would walk across to Juarez on the Santa Fe Bridge that was crowded with denizens from both sides of the border. It was exhilarating to be among the crowds. I still smile at the boy that I once was, walking across the bridge with his happy heart, ready to do a little transgressing.
I may have been too young to legally drink in New Mexico but I was not too young to sit at a bar in Juarez with my friends and order a Cuba Libre, the drink de jour of my generation. We could pretend to be adults and smoke and dance and argue about the Viet Nam war and complain about our parents and our clueless teachers and dream about the men we wanted to be. There were often fights, mostly between warring factions of American boys or American soldiers who couldn’t hold their tongues and couldn’t hold their liquor. At the sign of a fight, I always dragged my friends away. I was not about to land in a Juarez jail. A few of my friends had managed to do just that. The only solution was parental involvement. I avoided that kind of trouble for fear that my father would refuse to bail me out and teach me a lesson.
In any case, I wasn’t good with fists. Words were always my weapon of choice.
There were certain hotspots I remember, places like the Cave, The Club Hawaii, and the venerable Kentucky Club. The streets were teeming with American soldiers and American teenagers, but also teeming with the locals and with an older crowd of El Pasoans who frequented eating establishments such as Martino’s, another venerable institution where I had my first Chateau Brillion. That restaurant has recently closed due to the precarious situation Juarez currently finds itself in.
In a word, when I was young, Juarez was a big party. However “dangerous” it may have been, it was also a safe enough place for boys like me to play. More importantly, Juarez provided many of us with an alternative view of the universe. More than El Paso ever did, Juarez introduced me to the idea of “the city.” Whatever else a city was, it was supposed to be something that was breathing with energy and life. A City was supposed to make you feel alive.
(to be continued)
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I was recently in Marfa for the Marfa Dialogues sponsored by Marfa Ballroom. I had many wonderful conversations with David Taylor, who, apart from being the salt of the earth, is a fierce and gifted photographer. I am posting some information about his new photos, some of which appear in a new book of photography entitled, Working the Line. I own a signed copy. If you read my blog, then this book belongs in your library. To see the images, log on to David's website: www.dtaylorphoto.com
Artist's Statement: Working the Line
For the last three years I have been photographing along the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso/Juarez and Tijuana/San Diego. My project is organized around an effort to document all of the monuments that mark the international boundary west of the Rio Grande. The rigorous effort to reach all of the 276 obelisks, most of which were installed between the years 1891 and 1895, has inevitably led to encounters with migrants, smugglers, the Border Patrol, minutemen and residents of the borderlands.
During the period of my work the United States Border Patrol has doubled in size and the federal government has constructed over 600 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barrier. With apparatus that range from simple tire drags (that erase foot prints allowing fresh evidence of crossing to be more readily identified) to seismic sensors (that detect the passage of people on foot or in a vehicle) the border is under constant surveillance. To date the Border Patrol has attained “operational control” in many areas, however people and drugs continue to cross. Much of that traffic occurs in the most remote, rugged areas of the southwest deserts.
My travels along the border have been done both alone and in the company of Border Patrol agents. I have been granted broad access to photograph field operations and the routine activities that occur within Border Patrol stations.
In total, the resulting pictures are intended to offer a view into locations and situations that we generally do not access and portray a highly complex physical, social and political topography.
announces the publication and launch of
DAVID TAYLOR: WORKING THE LINE
Essays by Hannah Frieser and Luis Alberto Urrea
Clothbound, 11 x 101⁄2 inches
148 pages with a 44-page accordion-fold booklet, 120 four-color illus.
$50.00 Pre-order online
Signed copy of the book, and a signed and numbered
original print in a folio. Edition of 40.
$800.00 Print selection online
“I've been watching David Taylor's border project for years, with deep admiration. There are a lot of borders out there, including a few unnecessary ones that over the decades have divided photography up into documentary, landscape, portrait, still life and so forth. Part of the brilliance of his survey of the U.S.–Mexico border is that it reveals the strange cruel reach of this idea—for the border is most of all an idea—through all these: landscape, portrait, serial imagery, interiors of detention cells and kilo vehicles, close-ups—all the angles and pieces it takes to understand this tragic tangle of need, geography and ideology.”
In 2008, David Taylor received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his ongoing examination of the U.S.–Mexico border. His investigation is organized around the documentation of a series of 276 obelisks that mark the international boundary as it extends from El Paso/Juarez to San Diego/Tijuana. These monuments—striking objects situated in impossibly gorgeous and difficult terrain—were installed between the years 1892 and 1895.
In the process of his work, Taylor earned remarkable access to U.S. Border Patrol facilities, agents and routine operations. Patrol agents often refer to their job in the field as "line work" which is an apt description of Taylor's own time as he documented the obelisks. Being on the "line" has given Taylor a unique view into overlapping issues of border security, human and drug smuggling, the continuing construction of the border fence and its impact on the land.
This book captures the complexity of the terrain, the politics, and the human dynamics involved. While the images are documentary in nature, they are so formally and visually compelling that the work ultimately transcends genre.
Monday, October 4, 2010
Alfredo Corchado has been awarded this year's Lovejoy Journalism Award by Colby College in Maine. Alfredo is a son of the border and is the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. Alfredo has a great passion for his profession, a great passion for Mexico, and a great passion for the border. He is a tireless and committed reporter and I'm proud to call him a friend. I am posting his acceptance speech which he delivered on September 26, 2010 in Lorimer Chapel on the campus of Colby College. We all need reminding that there are journalists around the world who are still doing their jobs and writing the stories the world needs to hear.
Here is Alfredo's acceptance speech:
IT’S INDEED AN HONOR AND A PRIVILEGE TO BE WITH YOU ON THIS WONDERFUL, CERTAINLY VERY MEMORABLE EVENING TO ACCEPT THE ELIJAH LOVEJOY AWARD. IT’S GREAT TO BE IN MAINE IN MY FAVORITE SEASON OF THE YEAR, FALL, AND PARTICULARLY HERE IN THIS GORGEOUES CAMPUS OF COLBY COLLEGE.
I’M HAPPY TO BE AMONG SO MANY FRIENDS, NEW AND OLD. THANK YOU STEPHEN, BARBARA, MIKE, MONIQUE PRIDE, REBECCA CORBETT, ROSENTAL ALVES, NICK AND JESUS – WHO CLAIMES TO BE THE ONLY MEXICAN AT COLBY COLLEGE - AND JUNE, AN ESTEEM COLLEAGUE FROM THE DAVID ROCKFELLER CENTER AT HARVARD AND LONGTIME FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT WHO COVERED EVERYTHING FROM COLOMBIA TO CENTRAL AMERICA. THANK YOU JUNE FOR MAKING THE DRIVE.
AND IT’S QUITE AN HONOR TO RECEIVE THE AWARD A YEAR AFTER PAUL SALOPEK, A JOURNALIST I’VE ADMIRED SINCE WE BOTH STARTED OUR CAREERS IN EL PASO, TEXAS ALL THOSE YEARS AGO.
YOU DON’T WIN AN AWARD LIKE THIS WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF INSTITUTIONS LIKE THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS. TWO YEARS AGO, I WAS A NIEMAN FELLOW AT HARVARD - SHORTLY AFTER RETURNING TO MEXICO, I RECEIVED AN OFFER TO WRITE A BOOK, WITH THE WORKING TITLE, MIDNIGHT IN MEXICO. THAT WOULD MEAN MORE TIME AWAY FROM WORK. SOMEWHAT CONCERNED I SAT WITH MY EDITORS, BOB MONG, GEORGE RODRIGUE AND TIM CONNOLLY AND I SAID, ‘LOOK IF YOU WANT TO LET ME GO, I UNDERSTAND.’
ABSOLUTELY NOT, THEY SAID, IT’S AN IMPORTANT BOOK AND AN IMPORTANT STORY. WRITE IT AND WE’LL BE THERE TO BACK YOU UP – SOOTHING WORDS THAT IN THESE TOUGH TIMES IN OUR INDUSTRY YOU DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR ANYMORE, SO AGAIN, THANK YOU THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS FOR YOUR SUPPORT AND GENEROSITY.
THANK YOU COLBY COLLEGE, I ACCEPT THE AWARD ON BEHALF OF THE LOVE I FEEL FOR MY PROFESSION AND THE ENORMOUS RESPECT AND ADMIRATION I HAVE FOR THOSE REPORTING IN THE LINE OF FIRE, ESPECIALLY MY COLLEAGUES IN MY TROUBLED HOMELAND, MEXICO - COLLEAGUES WHO HAVE CHOSEN TO DEFEND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION OVER SUBMITTING TO THE POWER OF SILENCE.
THANK YOU JUDGES. IN RECOGNIZING ME YOU’RE ALSO ACKNOWLEDGING A STORY THAT’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND MISUNDERSTOOD OF OUR TIMES.
I ACCEPT THE AWAD IN THE MEMORY OF THE MORE THAN 60 MEXICAN JOURNALISTS WHO HAVE BEEN MURDERED AND DOZENS MORE WHO HAVE DISAPPEARED SINCE 2000, MORE THAN 30 IN THE PAST FOUR YEARS. THE DEAD INCLUDE 9 THIS YEAR ALONE – INCLUDING ONE IN CIUDAD JUAREZ – THE MURDER CAPITAL OF MEXICO - JUST OVER A WEEK AGO.
THE KILLING OF LUIS CARLOS SANTIAGO, A 21-YEAR-OLD PHOTOGRAPHER FOR EL DIARIO DE JUAREZ, HAS GALVANIZED INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT. JUST THIS WEEK PRESIDENT FELIPE CALDERON AGREED TO PUSH LEGAL REFORMS THAT WILL MAKE THE KILLING OF A JOURNALIST A FEDERAL CRIME. WE ALL APPLAUD THE MOVE BUT WE ALSO HAVE TO REMIND OURSELVES THAT MEXICO HAS SOME OF THE MOST PROGRESSIVE, FIRST RATE LAWS ON THE BOOK, LAWS THAT ARE RARELY ENFORCED. SO, ON BEHALF OF JOURNALISTS ALL OVER THE WORLD, MR. PRESIDENT, LET’S PUT ACTION INTO THOSE WORDS.
THE ELIJAH LOVEJOY AWARD RECOGNIZES A PERSON’S COMMITMENT TO JOURNALISM, MEASURED BY HOW BRAVE AND COURAGEOUS WE ARE IN ANSWERING THE CALL OF DUTY AMID THE DANGEROUS SITUATION AROUND US.
THIS EVENING, I STAND BEFORE YOU AND CONFESS THAT I AM NO BRAVER, OR COURAGEOUS THAN SOME OF MY COLLEAGUES IN MEXICO – THOSE WHO WAKE-UP IN THE MORNING AND ASK THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
HOW FAR SHOULD I GO TODAY, WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I ASK, OR NOT ASK, WHERE SHOULD I REPORT, OR WHAT PLACE SHOULD I AVOID? AND WHAT PHOTOS SHOULD I TAKE, OR IGNORE. SHOULD I WEAR A WIG, PRETEND TO BE A TACO, OR AN ICE CREAM VENDOR AT THE CRIME SCENE SO THAT I CAN DISGUISE MYSELF AS I TRY TO DO MY JOB, WHICH LIKELY MEANS REPORTING ON THE LATEST DECAPITATED BODY ON THE STREETS, OR A HANGING FROM A BRIDGE IN DOWNTOWN JUAREZ, CUERNAVACA, NUEVO LAREDO OR MONTERREY.
SHOULD I EVEN ANSWER MY CELL PHONE. BECAUSE I KNOW THAT IF I DO THE PERSON CALLING ME IS SURELY A MAN WHO CALLS HIMSELF BOOTS, ROOSTER, CHICKEN OR RABIIT, A SPOKESMAN FOR THE DRUG TRAFFICKERS. AND ONCE I ANSWER THAT PHONE I HAVE NO LEVERAGE TO NEGOTIATE. IT’S EITHER FOLLOW AN ORDER OR FACE DEATH, OR THE KILLING OF A RELATIVE, A SON, OR DAUGHTER BECAUSE THAT’S THE REALITY IN MEXICO FOR A JOURNALIST TODAY. THE INTENSE QUESTIONING, THE DOUBTS, THE ANXIETY AND STRESS HAS MANY OF MY MEXICAN COLLEAGUES AND US ON EDGE.
I COME TO YOU THIS EVENING AS A WITNESS TO THE BLOODIEST PERIOD IN MEXICO SINCE THE 1910 MEXICAN REVOLUTION AND THE BIGGEST THREAT TO MEXICO’S NATIONAL SECURITY, ITS YOUNG, FRAGILE DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM OF THE PRESS.
MEXICO TODAY IS AMONG THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACES TO DO JOURNALISM IN THE WORLD, RIGHT UP THERE WITH IRAQ, RUSSIA AND SOMALIA. THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE FOR THOSE WHO COVER THE US-MEXICO BORDER, ONCE A FRONTIER FOR MEXICANS SEEKING NEW OPPORTUNITIES AND NEW BEGINNINGS.
THESE DAYS, MORE THAN 200,000 PEOPLE HAVE FLED THE CHAOS, MANY TO THE USA. TODAY, IT’S A REGION THAT’S INCREASINGLY SILENT.
I DEDICATE THIS AWARD TO ADMIRED MEXICAN JOURNALISTS LIKE JORGE CARRASCO, ALFREDO QUIJANO, FRANCISCO GOMEZ, SANDRA RODRIGUEZ, JAVIER GARZA AND IN PARTICULAR TO FRIENDS LIKE RAMON CANTU DEANDAR, THE EDITOR OF EL MANANA NEWSPAPER IN NUEVO LAREDO. HIS NEWS EDITOR WAS KILLED, STABBED MULTIPLE TIMES… HIS NEWSROOM ATTACKED WITH A GRENADE. LEAVING A REPORTER PARALYZED FOR LIFE….RAMON’S YOUNGER BROTHER WAS KIDNAPPED AND ONLY RELEASED AFTER RAMON AGREED NOT TO COVER THE BUSINESS, OR THE CRIMES COMMITTED BY DRUG TRAFFICKERS ANYMORE, IN OTHER WORDS, HE AGREED TO SELF-CENSOR HIS PUBLICATION. …….IT’S THE PRICE ONE PAYS THESE DAYS IN MEXICO IF YOU WANT TO WRITE A STORY AND LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT, THOUGH THE COVERAGE IS LIMITED. HE CHOOSE SELF-CENSORSHIP OVER TOTAL SILENCE.
TO VICTOR HUGO MICHEL, A YOUNG REPORTER, WHO TWO WEEKS AGO SAID NO TO AN ASSIGNMENT IN CIUDAD JUAREZ. HIS REASON: HIS PAY DOESN’T INCLUDE HEALTH BENEFITS, OR LIABILITY INSIRANCE. OTHERS IN HIS NEWROOM NOW ALSO QUESTION THEIR BOSSES ESPECIALLY AFTER THREE OTHER COLEAGUES WERE KIDNAPPED.
I DEDICATE THIS TO MARCELA TURATI, A REPORTER IN MEXICO CITY WHO IN ANGER CREATED AN ORGANIZATION CALLED PERIODISTAS DE A PIE, JOURNALISTS ON FOOT. THE EFFORT IS AIMED AT TEACHING JOURNALISTS IN RURAL MEXICO THE PRINCIPLES OF JOURNALISTIC ETHICS AND SET UP MEETINGS TO DISCUSS AND DEBATE HOW TO DO YOUR JOB WITHOUT GETTING KILLED. ALONG THE WAY, SHE HELPED PROMOTE A HOME THAT SERVES AS A TEMPORARY SHELTER IN MEXICO CITY TO HIDE JOURNALISTS WHOSE LIVES HAVE BEEN THREATENED.
TO ROSENTAL ALVES FROM UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN FOR HIS VISION. EARLY THIS YEAR HE GATHERED 13 JOURNALISTS FROM MEXICO AND 13 FROM THE USA TO BUILT BRIDGES. FOR TWO DAYS WE TALKED ABOUT WAYS TO DO OUR JOBS AND TO STAY SAFE. IT WAS A WAY TO BUILD BRIDGES OF TRUST BETWEEN US. THANK YOU ROSENTAL. WHAT YOU STARTED IS TRULY REVOLUTIONARY THING HERE AND WE’RE GRATEFUL. THANK YOU FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER.
AND I ESPECIALLY DEDICATE THIS TO ANGELA KOCHERGA, MY ESTEEMED COLLEAGUE FROM BELO TELEVISION AND LONGTIME GIRLFRIEND, AND ONE OF THE VERY FEW AMERICAN JOURANLISTS WHO REPORTS IN JUAREZ ON A DAILY BASIS. ANGELA, YOUR COURAGE, YOUR PASSION AND STRENGHT SERVES AS AN INSPIRATION TO ME AND REPRESENTS A GLIMMER OF LIGHT IN A REGION MARKED BY DARKNESS AND SILENCE - OUR BELOVED BORDER NOW PARALYZED BY FEAR AND CHAOS AND STAINED BY BLOODSHED. MORE THAN 6400 PEOPLE HAVE BEEN KILLED SINCE JAN. 2008.
BUT LET ME CLEAR: WHATEVER DANGER ANGELA, I OR ANY OTHER AMERICAN CORRESPONDENTS FACE - PALES IN COMPARISON TO THE DANGERS THAT OUR MEXICAN COLLEAGUES FACE. THERE IS SIMPLY NO COMPARISON. I CAN CALL MY EDITOR, TIM CONNOLLY, THIS VERY SECOND AND SAY, TIM, I DON’T FEEL SAFE ANYMORE AND HE’LL SAY, GET ON THE NEXT FLIGHT OUT. THAT’S NOT THE CASE FOR MEXICAN JOURNALISTS.
LET ME EXPLAIN IT TO YOU THIS WAY: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MY MEXICAN COLLEAGUES AND I COMES DOWN TO THIS: CITIZENSHIP. I’M THANKFUL AND GRATEFUL TO HAVE PARENTS WHO MANY YEARS AGO DREAMED BIG AND WERE DETERMINED TO GIVE MY 5 BROTHERS – JUAN, MARIO, FRANCISCO, DAVID, MUNDO AND 2 SISTERS – MONICA AND LINDA - AND I THE CHANCE TO DREAM AND ACHIEVE. WE MIGRATED FROM A POOR COMMUNTIY IN MEXICO TO FOLLOW THE CROPS IN THIS COUNTRY WHEN I WAS JUST SIX OLD. ALONG THE JOURNEY, FROM DURANGO, TO JUAREZ, CALIFORNIA TO TEXAS AND BACK TO MEXICO, I WAS ABLE TO OBTAIN A LITTLE BLUE PASSPORT THAT SAYS I AM A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
AS IMPERFECT AS OUR JUDICIAL INSTITUTIONS ARE, I HAVE PERHAPS A NAÏVE, BUT UNWAVERING BELIEF THAT IF SOMETHING IS TO HAPPEN TO ME, SOMEONE PUTS A BULLET TO MY HEAD, OR GOD FORBID, TO ANGELA, OR ANY ONE OF MY AMERICAN COLLEAGUES, THERE WOULD BE CONSEQUENCES TO PAY. THAT OUR NEWSPAPERS, OUR MEDIA COMPANIES, OUR COLLEAGUES WOULD STAND UP AND DEMAND ANSWERS AND JUSTICE, THAT OUR DEATHS WOULDN’T BECOME JUST ANOTHER NUMBER. SOMEONE SEEK JUSTICE.
THREE YEARS AGO AS I PREPARED TO CELEBRATE AN AWARD FROM COLOMBIA UNIVERSITY – THE MARIA MOORS CABOT PRICE - I GOT A CALL FROM A TRUSTED US SOURCE WHO SAID ‘I HAVE RAW INTELLIGENCE THAT SAYS THE CARTELS WILL KILL AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST IN 24 HOURS. I THINK IT’S YOU. GET OUT OF MEXICO NOW.”
I CALLED MY AMERICAN AND MEXICAN COLLEAGUES WHO WERE PREPARING A CELEBRATION DINNER FOR ME THAT EVENING AND SAID, THERE’S A DEATH THREAT AND I THINK WE SHOULD CANCEL DINNER. DUDLEY ALTHAUS FROM THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE, WHO WE ALL FONDLY REFER TO AS THE DEAN CAUSE HE’S BEEN IN MEXICO SO LONG, MORE THAN 20 YEARS, SAID NOT JUST NO, BUT HELL NO. IF THEY’RE GOING TO KILL YOU, HE SAID, THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US TOO. SO COME ON OVER AND HAVE SOME TEQUILA.
….THE SOLIDARITY INCLUDED A PROTEST LETTER FROM THE USA AMBASSADOR AND EDITORIALS FROM SOME US NEWSPAPERS.
MY MEXICAN COLLEAGUES CAN’T SAY THE SAME THING. THEY DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF SOLIDARITY AMONG THEMSELVES; THEY DON’T SHARE THAT TRUST WITH THEIR OWN EDITORS, LESS SO FROM THEIR OWN GOVERNMENT.
TODAY, THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE KILLINGS IN MEXICO, WHETHER YOU’RE A WOMAN IN CIUDAD JUAREZ, OR A COP, OR YOUR AVERAGE CITI2ZEN, END UP AS CRIMES UNSOLVED, UNPUNISHED - CRIMENES NO RESUELTOS.
OFTEN TIMES IN MEXICO VICTIMS ARE ASSASSINATED TWICE, ONE BY THE CRIMINAL AND THEN AGAIN – CHARACTER ASSASSINATION - BY AUTHORITIES WHO EVEN BEFORE INVESTIGATING THE CRIME WILL SPECULATE WHY HE OR SHE WAS KILLED. MAYBE HE WAS PART OF A GANG, OR MAYBE THE REPORTER WAS MESSING WITH THE NEIGHBOR’S HUSBAND, OR WIFE.
WERE THEY DOING COURAGEOUS WORK, OR SIMPLY FLACKS ON THE PAYROLL FOR CRIMINAL ORGANIZATIONS? WE SIMPLY DON’T KNOW AND GIVEN MEXICO’S IMPUNITY RATE, WE’LL PROBABLY NEVER KNOW. MORE THAN 95 PERCENT OF ALL CRIMES IN MEXICO GO UNRESOLVED.
I DREAMED OF BEING A FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT NOT BECAUSE I WANTED TO LIVE IN SOME EXOTIC LAND, BUT SIMPLY BECAUSE I WANTED TO RETURN TO MY HOMELAND. I ACHED FOR MY ROOTS, LANGUAGE AND CULTURE. SO ON THIS EVENING I SPEAK TO YOU NOT JUST AS A JOURNALIST, BUT ALSO AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST OF MEXICAN DESCENT, A FACT THAT IN THESE TROUBLE TIMES IN MEXICO I CANNOT IGNORE.
I OFTEN ASK MYSELF QUESTIONS I THOUGHT I HAD FINALLY RESOLVED. AM I WHAT I BELIEVE I AM? DO I BELONG TO THE UNITED STATES, THIS POWERFUL COUNTRY BUILT ON PRINCIPLES OF RULE OF LAW, YET STILL FACED WITH CONTRADICTIONS – THE INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR GUNS, CASH AND DRUGS, OR DO I BELONG TO MEXICO, THE COUNTRY OF MY ROOTS, WHERE MY UMBILICAL CHORD IS BURIED, WHERE WE USE NATIONALISM AND PATRIOTISM TO MORE OFTEN THAN NOT MASKED OUR CORRUPTION, OUR POVERTY AND INEQUALITY?
THE HYPEHNATED COMPLEXITIES OF BEING MEXICAN AMERICAN CREATE A CONFUSING FEELING OF BEING IN-BETWEEN. FOR ME PERSONALLY, THIS ALSO INSTILLS A SENSE OF A HIGHER RESPONSIBILITY TO SHARE THESE STORIES, ESPECIALLY NOW WHEN SO MANY REPORTERS HAVE BEEN FORCED TO DECIDE TO CENSOR THEMSELVES.
AS SUCH I STRIVE TO UNDERSTANDS THAT WHEN YOU COVER MEXICO, PARTICULARLY THE USA-MEXICO BORDER, NOTHING IS BLACK OR WHITE. THERE ARE ONLY SHADES OF GRAY; THAT TO UNDERSTAND THESE STORIES YOU MUST GO DEEPER, AND BE ABLE TO SEE AND DISTINQUISH BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, UNDERSTAND THAT NOT EVERYTHING IS AS BAD, OR GOOD, AS IT SEEMS.
AND THAT THERE ARE ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS MANY SIDES TO THIS STORY;
TAKE FOR INSTANCE, THE STORY OF YOUNG MEN WHO NO LONGER DREAM OF GOING TO THE UNITED STATES TO TOIL IN THE FIELDS, BUT WHO SEE OPPORTUNITY IN BECOMING HITMEN IN MEXICO, EARNING AS LITTLE AS 250 TO 1500, THE EQUIVALENT OF $22 A HIT TO $130 A WEEK. AS THE OLD ICONIC MEXICAN SONG FROM JOSE ALFREDO JIMENEZ, LA VIDA NO VALE NADA - LIFE IN MEXICO IS WORTH NOTHING.
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT A WHOLE NEW GENERATION OF CHILDREN AFFECTED – NUMBED BY THE DAILY VIOLENCE AROUND THEM AND TEENS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER WHO EMBRACE A NEW LIFESTYLE AND A NEW SAYING:
PREFIERO VIVIR 5 ANOS COMO REY, QUE 50 ANOS COMO BUEY.I PREFER TO LIVE 5 YEARS AS A KING THAN 50 AS AN OX.
OR CONSIDER THE YOUNG CHICANO GANG MEMBER WHO NOW USES THE SAME IMMIGRATION ROUTES HIS GRANDPARENTS USED DECADES AGO TO EMBRACE A NEW LIFE, A CHANCE AT AN OPPORTUNITY. ….TODAY, THIS GANG MEMBERS, HAND IN HAND WITH POWERFUL MEXICAN CARTELS, USE THE SAME ROUTE TO DISTRIBUTE DRUGS IN MORE THAN 250 USA COMMUNITIES WHERE MEXICAN CARTELS HAVE AN INFLUENCE. THEIR ROLE MODEL IS A THUG FROM LAREDO, TEXAS WITH THE NAME EDGAR VALDEZ VILLARREAL, BETTER KNOWN AS LA BARBIE, A TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYER WHO ROSE THROUGH THE RANKS AS A HITMAN TO BECOME THE MOST NOTORIOUS AMERICAN IN A MEXICAN CARTEL. THE HEROES OF MY TIME HAD NAMES LIKE CESAR CHAVEZ, O RFK, OR MARTIN LUTHER KING.
HOW DID THINGS GET SO BAD IN MEXICO? THE ANSWERS ARE COMPLEX. DEMAND FOR DRUGS IN THE US, THE LURE OF EASY CASH, THE WIDESPREAD AVAILABILITY FOR GUNS, ESPECIALLY HIGH-POWERED WEAPONS, SMUGGLED FROM THE UNITED STATES.
AND ON THE MEXICAN SIDE IT HAD TO DO WITH IGNORING A REALITY: CORRUPTION, COMPLICITY AND GREED. FOR TOO LONG, THE TWO COUNTRIES BLAMED EACH OTHER AND AS THEY DID MEXICO SLOWLY DESCENTED INTO DARKNESS. CORRUPTION GREW LIKE A CANCER WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT.
TODAY, MEXICO ‘S CONFLICT IS REALLY A WAR WITHIN. IT’S ABOUT A COUNTRY TRYING TO REDEFINE ITSELF, BECOME A NATION OF RULE OF LAW, BUT WITHOUT A CLEAR PATH, OR MANDATE. FEW CAN QUESTION WHETHER PRESIDENT CALDERON HAD ANY OTHER CHOICE BUT TO TAKE ON ORGANIZED CRIME, WHICH HAD REACHED THE UPPER ECHELONS OF POWER. BUT WHETHER OR NOT HE HAD THE RIGHT STRATEGY, AND THE RIGHT PEOPLE IS A QUESTION THAT WILL HAUNT HIM, MEXICO AND US FOR DECADES.
THE SPILLOVER INTO THE USA ISN’T SO MUCH ABOUT VIOLENCE, BUT ABOUT AN EXODUS OF MEXICO’S MOST TALENTED PEOPLE. AND YOU’RE SEEING THAT IN ENROLLMENT IN UNIVERSITIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY. PEOPLE MIGRATING TODAY AREN’T JUST NANNIES, OR PEOPLE PICKING YOUR BLUEBERRIES IN MAINE, OR CARING FOR YOUR CHICKEN FARMS IN TURNER. NO, WE’RE TALKING ABOUT WELL-EDUCATED PROFESSIONAS, PEOPLE WHO USED TO CREATE JOBS - PEOPLE WHO NOW FEAR BEING KIDNAPPEDD, OR EXTORTED BY CRIMINAL GANG.
MY BIGGEST CONCERN IS THAT MEXICO HAS YET TO REACH BOTTOM AND NOBODY YET KNOWS WHERE THAT BOTTOM IS, OR WHAT IT MAY LOOK LIKE.
I STUMBLED ONTO THE STORY SEVEN YEARS AGO WHEN AFTER A BRIEF PERIOD AT OUR WASHINGTON DC. BUREAU, I WAS ASSIGNED A STORY TO INVESTIGATE WHO WAS KILLING SO MANY WOMEN IN JUAREZ. THERE I DISCOVERED THE ROLE OF ORGANIZED CRIME WITH THE HELP OF POLICE IN KIDNAPPING AND KILLING SOME OF THESE WOMEN, WITH NO CONSEQUENCES.
AFTER JUAREZ I DISCOVERED NUEVO LAREDO, WHERE AMERICANS WERE ALSO BEING KIDNAPPED, AND A NEW PARAMILITARY GROUP, THE ZETAS, PARTLY TRAINED BY THE USA GOVERNMENT, WAS TERRORIZING SOCIETY.
SUDDENLY, I WAS IMMERSED IN STORIES ABOUT US AGENCIES MISHANDLING INFORMANTS, OR HOW US TRAINED MEXICAN SOLDIERS HAD GONE ROGUE, OR THE DEEP CORRUPTION INSIDE THE MEXICAN GOVERNMENT.
ONE TIME, A MEXICAN SOURCE, A LAWYER, HAD TO DRIVE ME AS I HID IN A TRUNK AND DROVE ME TO THE INTERNATIONAL BRIDGE SO I COULD RUN ACROSS THE BORDER TO THE USA. THAT SOURCE WAS LATER GUNNED DOWN. HE TOOK SEVERAL BULLETS TO THE HEAD AND TORSO.
ANOTHER TIME, THE THREAT CAME ON US SOIL, IN LAREDO, WHEN A MAN APPROACHED ME AND WARNED TO STOP WRITING STORIES ABOUT THE ZETAS AND IN GRUESOME DETAIL DESCRIBED HOW THEY WOULD CUT ME INTO PIECES AND DISSOLVE MY REMAINS IN ACID INSIDE A BARREL, A COMMON TECHNIQUE IN MEXICO.
AFTER ONE OF THOSE SHOCKING INCIDENTS A LAW ENFORCEMENT SOURCE SAT ME DOWN AND SET ME STRAIGHT. I ASKED, ‘THESE GUYS DON’T REALLY WANT TO HURT AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST, RIGHT? I MEAN THAT COULD DISRUPT THEIR CRININAL ENTERPRISE.’
AND THE SOURCE REPLIED, I HAVE GOOD AND BAD NEWS. ‘
THE GOOD NEWS? THEY WOULDN’T WANT TO MESS WITH AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST BECAUSE THE ATTENTION COULD THREATEN THEIR BILLION DOLLAR EARNINGS.
THE BAD NEWS? YOU JUST DON’T LOOK AMERICAN.
HIS ADVICE: WEAR YOUR CONGRESSONAL PRESS ID, OR ANYTHING THAT IDENTIES YOU AS AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST, AROUND YOUR NECK.
I HAD LEFT MEXICO FOR WASHINGTON IN 2000, CONVINCED BY USA OFFICIALS THAT THE ELECTION OF AN OPPOSITION GOVERNMENT, THE END OF 71 YEARS OF ONE PARTY RULE, SIGNALED THE AUTOMATIC BIRTH OF DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS. FAR FROM IT, ORGANIZED CRIME TOOK ADVANTAGE OF A POWER VACUUM. WITH GREATER EASE THEY BOUGHT OFF ENTIRE POLICE FORCES, POLITICIANS, BEGINNING WITH MAYORS AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS. AND THEN THEY ALSO BOUGHT OFF JOURNALISTS. THE CARTELS BECAME DE-FACTO GOVERNMENTS. IT WAS NO LONGER THE THREAT OF PLATA OR PLOMO, SILVER OR LEAD. IT WAS OUR WAY, OR SIX FEET UNDER.
THESE CARTELS ARE VERY SOPHISTICATED ABOUT MASTERING THE MESSAGE. BECAUSE THE GOAL IN ANY CONFLICT IS TO CONTROL THE MESSAGE. TODAY, MEDIA MEMBERS SERVE AS SPOKESMEN. A CARTEL SPOKESPEOPLE WILL CALL REPORTERS OR EDITORS AND DICTATE WHAT SHOULD OR SHOULDN’T BE COVERED IN THAT EVENING’S NEWSCAST, OR IN TOMORROW’S NEWSPAPER. IMAGINE WORKING IN A NEWSROOM WHERE YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOUR COLLEAGUE IS THE BRAVE JOURNALIST, OR A SPY FOR A CARTEL…
SO YES, IN MANY WAYS, MEXICAN JOURNALISTS ALSO SHOULDER SOME BLAME. INCREASED FREEDOM OF THE PRESS HAS ALSO MEANT MORE CONTROL BY ORGANZED CRIME, MORE CORRUPTION WITHIN MEDIA COMPANIES. LAST WEEK, EL DIARIO DE JUAREZ ASKED: WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US? THE MESSAGE WAS AIMED, THE EDITOR SAID, AT THE DRUG TRAFFICKERS. IT WAS A WAY OF EXPRESSING THEIR FRUSTRATION, AND SENSE OF IMPOTENCE OF LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF ORGANIZED CRIME.
I’D WANT TO BELIEVE THAT THE MESSAGE WAS ALSO MEANT AS A WAKE UP CALL FOR CIVIL SOCIETY, BECAUSE UNTIL CIVIL SOCIETY DEMANDS MORE FROM WEALTHY MEDIA MOGULS, JOURNALISTS WILL BE POORLY TRAINED AND PAID, SOMETHING THAT WILL MAKE THEM VULNERABLE TO THE THREATS OF ORGANIZED CRIME.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, BOB GILES, OR DADDY GILES AS MANY OF US FORMER NIEMANS FONDLY REFER TO THE CURATOR, WROTE A PIECE OF ADVICE THAT RAN IN THE NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL PAGE:
To the Editor:
The brave journalists reporting on the Mexican drug cartels under the most fearful circumstances should remember a cardinal rule of journalism: no story is worth dying for.
ANOTHER FRIEND, AND ONE OF THE BEST FORMER LATIN AMERICAN CORRESPONDENTS, DOUG FARAH, CONSTANTLY REMINDS ME, ”CORCHADO, NO COLOR IS WORTH DYING FOR.”
I COULDN’T AGREE MORE WITH BOB AND DOUG. BUT FAR FROM PREACHING THAT WE ALL BE JOURNALISTIC COWBOYS,
I WOULD ARGUE THAT WE MUST FIND A WAY TO FIND A BALANCE FEAR-VERSUS-SILENCE. WE MUST FIND A WAY TO TELL THE STORY, AND NOT LET FEAR BE THE DECIDING FACTOR, DON’T ALLOW FEAR TO BECOME THE ULTIMATE EDITOR WHO DECIDES WHETHER OR NOT WE PURSUE A STORY. BECAUSE OTHERWISE THE KILLING OF MORE THAN 30,000 PEOPLE IN JUST FOUR YEARS WILL BE JUST THAT, A NUMBER. OR WORSE THAT WE WILL BE ENGUFFED IN SILENCE, AS SOME REGIONS IN MEXICO ALREADY FIND THEMSELVES.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, ANGELA, HER CAMERAMAN HUGO PEREZ, AND I WENT TO THE CITY OF REYNOSA, MEXICO TO CONFIRM RUMORS OF RUNNING GUN BATTLES ON THE STREETS IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. WE HEARD PARENTS WERE KEEPING THEIR KIDS HOME FROM SCHOOLS, STAYING HOME FROM WORK, OTHERS WERE FLEEING IN DROVES TO TEXAS.
BUT BECAUSE OF A MEDIA BLACKOUT, SOME WERE RESORTING TO TWITTER, YOU TUBE AND FACEBOOK TO SHARE NEWS ABOUT WHEN IT WAS SAFE TO GO OUTSIDE, OR WHETHER TO DRIVE DOWN SPECIFIC STREETS.
The big story on the front pages OF NEWSPAPERS IN THE AREA THAT DAY? THE price of onions going up.
I’M NOT SAYING FEAR IS WRONG. I ACTUALLY THINK FEELING FEAR IS A POWERFUL FORCE. FEAR IS A SURVIVAL SKILL. IF YOU’RE NOT SCARED YOU BECOME RECKLESS. FEAR FORCES US TO STAKE STOCK OF OUR LIVES AND REMINDS US HOW MUCH LIFE MEANS TO US.
SO WHAT WE COVER AND HOW WE COVER THIS STORY IS A VERY PERSONAL DECISION.
I BECAME A 2009 NIEMAN FELLOW BECAUSE I WAS SCARED, BECAUSE I QUESTIONED WHETHER WHAT I WAS DOING WAS THE RIGHT THING. WHEN I RETURNED TO MEXICO I FELT NUMB, SEPARATED FROM THE STORY BECAUSE I REALIZED I DIDN’T WANT TO PUT MY LIFE ON THE LINE ANYMORE.
THAT SENTIMENT CHANGED ON FEB. 1 OF THIS YEAR WHEN 13 TEENS WERE GUNNED DOWN. I REMEMBER WHEN ANGELA GAVE ME THE NEWS ON THAT SUNDAY MORNING AND I FELT, LIKE MANY PEOPLE, WELL, THEY’RE PROBABLY GANG MEMBERS. SO WE WENT TO CHECK IT OUT AND SOON DISCOVERED THAT THESE WERE 13 STUDENTS, ATHLETES, SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF PARENTS, WHO LIKE MINE, HAD DREAMS FOR THEM; PARENTS WHO TOLD THEM DON’T STRAY TOO FAR FROM HOME. CELEBRATE YOUR FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY ACROSS THE STREET, SO YOU CAN BE CLOSE TO HOME.
THE HITMEN WERE WRONGLY TIPPED OFF THAT THE PARTY WAS FOR A GROUP OF RIVAL GANG MEMBERS. SO THEY STORMED IN AND LINED UP AND KILLED 13 OF THE 36, WHILE FRIENDS, OR BROTHERS AND SISTERS HID IN CLOSETS, OTHERS HID UNERNEATH THE BODIES OF THEIR FRIENDS AND SIBLINGS.
I WILL NEVER FORGET THE DAY OF THE FUNERAL, THE SIGHT OF A DOZEN HEARSES ON THAT STREET, THE SIGHT OF COFFINS, THE WAILING FROM PARENTS, FRIENDS, BROTHERS AND SISTERS. I’M GRATEFUL THAT IT WAS A RAINY DAY CAUSE I FELT SO ANGRY THAT I WAS ABLE TO MASK MY TEARS WITH RAINDROPS.
AND ON THAT SAD, GRAY, RAINY MORNING I BROKE MY SILENCE AND FOUND MY VOICE AGAIN.