Continuing the Latinx Heritage Month celebration, a second guest post by Elliott Turner!
About seven years ago, I was broke. I was drowning in student loan and credit card debt. I had a wife and young family in Latin America, and needed a steady job in the US ASAP to be able to bring them to the US. I’d crashed at my mom’s place a few months, but couldn’t stay there forever. Thus, I scanned job openings online every day and applied for a gig in an area of the United States often overlooked: the Rio Grande Valley, that patch of arid Texas land just North of Mexico.
It was a decision that would change my life forever. And I will forever link that period of my life to a groundbreaking novella about the narco-estado by Juan Pablo Villalobos.
In case you missed it, violence has gripped many parts of Mexico. From the dead women of Ciudad Juarez to the missing students in Iguala to the plight of Central American migrantes, 55 homicides-a-day occur down South. Many publications now refer to Mexico as a Narco-State: a land where either complicity or negligence by state actors allows for organized crime to flourish and chingar the daily lives of citizens.
When I told my friends and immediate family about my move to the RGV so many years ago, they were scared for me. To them, I was heading towards a land of gore and violence. Fear gripped them, and, to be honest, I harbored my own doubts. Still, the online reviews of McAllen reassured me. Most of the complaints were from WASPS who felt like aliens in a part of the country that was over 90% Hispanic and unabashedly Catholic. As a Catholic Mexican-American, I kinda looked forward to maybe fitting in for once in my life.
My dad’s side of the family has long roots in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, so they were a bit surprised and kinda happy that I would be moving to the border. My father, who served in the US military, was very matter of fact about the possible risks. “It’s very overblown by the media, so long as you keep your nose clean. Still, if somebody murders you, somebody murders you.“
With that vote of confidence, I took the job, packed two suitcases of clothes and my laptop into a small black Toyota, and zoomed 20 hours South down I-35. I stayed in a shady motel in San Juan, Texas, the first two nights, and the electricity didn’t work at my new apartment the third night. That evening coincided with the first freezing temperatures in the RGV in decades.
I wrapped myself in a comforter on an air mattress and grumbled to myself about the weather. In retrospect, it was the perfect start to my stay: all my assumptions about what would or could happen never materialized.
While I lived in the RGV for several years, the dark side of the narco-estado just South never directly touched my life thanks be to the grace of God. Still, one always felt the presence of evil. At one of my Mexican amaetur league soccer games, we had a moment of silence before a game for a player on another team that was shot to death outside his trailer. I can only count on one hand the people in my life shot and killed outside a combat zone, so I was alarmed.
My teammates from the area, though, barely batted an eyelash. Apparently, the guy had gotten a bad habit and owed money to the maña. Two Sundays later, our star striker never showed up. He got busted in a colonia-wide raid and law enforcement found several bricks of mota in his truck. He had a short jail sentence and then would be on that midnight bus to Matamoros. A few teammates were optimistic he would be able to bum money from family, hire a decent pollero, and be back in the US in time for the playoffs.
It was not your typical beer league men’s team, to say the least.
Aside from my personal life, for reasons of privacy and security, I can’t disclose too many details about my day job. I’m proud to have served the migrante population, but ran into shady characters from time-to-time. At one protest outside a Sushi Restaurant that refused to pay workers, suspicious men in a parked truck used their cell phones to take pictures of everyone. I didn’t really feel threatened, but, emboldened by the other 50 protesters present, I walked over to the truck, took pictures of the truck’s plates with my cell, and the men promptly drove off.
South of the border, in Reynosa and Matamoros, there are no-go zones clearly delineated by colonia and even streets. Especially at night. And, in broad daylight near the city center, you can often see certain trucks and vans that probably are driven by bad people. One of my soccer teammates drove in from Reynosa for games, but some days he couldn’t safely leave his house. He’d also always rush back to Reynosa after our games on Sunday morning; he was a teacher, had a border crossing card, and wanted to be home before noon. After noon, he explained, bad people woke up and they noticed who was crossing, when, and why.
On the US side, everybody gets a feel for the “drug families.” After a fifteen-minute conversation, you can tell if a person has a legitimate job or, more likely, has some side hustle that’s really paying for that new car and surprisingly nice house. Drug money distorts the local economy and people who dropped out before getting their diploma sometimes live in nicer (gated) neighborhoods than college graduates. The perpetual lines around their eyes betray sleepless nights of worry, and, over time, their nervous tics come to resemble full blown Tourette’s.
While I lived in the RGV, the English-speaking world fell in love with BlogdelNarco. I wasn’t ever a super fan. The site always had questionable “journalistic” practices; it never really explained a conveniently timed and never confirmed “kidnapping” that happened the same time as their book was published (free press!). Also, BDN was a gruesome image repository, a de facto PR echo-chamber for bad people to send one another audiovisual threats.
I wanted to maybe like BDN, but couldn’t. In reality, I needed fiction, But I also wanted something smart and poignant to reflect my world. Still, could any author be brave enough to write about the narco-estado without the tired angle of romanticizing drug dealers or gruesomely cataloguing atrocities?
A friend of mine answered in the affirmative, and introduced me to Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Fiesta en la Madriguera. I was so excited back in 2010 that I couldn’t even wait for it to go on sale in the US or a Kindle edition to appear – my little bro shipped me a first edition, paperback copy from Vilasar, España.
Fear in reality and fear in fiction are identical. A pulsating heart beats the same blood. For almost a decade, many Mexican writers ignored or skirted around the narco-state. You can hardly blame them. Their nonfiction brethren, journalists, are often murdered with impunity. Even the administrators behind social media groups on Facebook that report on the narco-state have been targeted and killed. Robert Powell’s This Love is Not For Cowards, a memoir about his time living in Ciudad Juarez and rooting for the local soccer team, catalogued in detail the way unchecked violence can slowly suffocate the life and optimism of a populace.
Plenty of worthwhile nonfiction books about the narco-estado exist, but they often merely serve as grisly mirrors of terror. The reporting is excellent, but the stakes and the take are the same: corruption allows organized crime to flourish. Only the names and macabre details change. The growing mass of fiction in Mexico that acknowledges the narco-estado is often genre pieces, novelas policiacas, hard-boiled detective stories. They are high on adrenaline, but short on reflection and growth. Flawed anti-heroes hobble through mazes and sift through clues and double crosses, but little else.
To tackle the narco-estado, Villalobos borrowed a trick from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1961. The lynchpin of that novel – and why it worked so well – was Lee’s use of a child narrator, six-year-old Scout, to look very closely but somewhat objectively at various serious issues: murder, rape, and race relations in the Deep South.
In Fiesta en la Madriguera, Juan Pablo Villalobos also uses a child’s point-of-view to explore the narco-state and the intertwined wealthy elite of Mexico. Tochtil, the narrator, is adelantado – precocious – but still young. He is the only child of Yolcault and lives the sheltered life of privilege. He has a private zoo. He lives in a mansion on the outskirts of a major metro area. He has a private tutor instead of going to a private school. The only problem with Tochtil’s life is that his place in the world rests on shifting sands: his dad is a drug kingpin.
Early in the story, we see the daily life of a drug kingpin but through the eyes of a child. Tochtil is happy to live in a big house which he calls a “palace.” In the palace, Tochtil knows his family is rich because his dad has lots of safes which are full of cash – from dollars to Mexican pesos to Euros. Tochtil only vaguely knows he can’t to go to a regular school, not exactly why, and has a personal tutor. Still, he realizes that he and his dad can’t know many people and have to live in an isolated palace so nobody will steal their money.
At the same time as we see Tochtil’s naive yet accurate description of his life – equating his existence with that of a fairytale king or prince – Tochtil also reveals prejudice and a staggering and premature loss of innocence. He and his dad play a macabre game of question and answer. One of them says a body part, and the other answers what would happen if a person was shot there. There are only three possible replies: alive, cadaver, or unsure.
He has even seen a bloody man in the palace, recently tortured, and most likely murdered. He’s also seen his father bribe a politician nicknamed “El Gober.” But Tochtil won’t cry, even if his stomach always hurts, because crying is “for fags.” His dad’s favorite saying is “Piensa mal y acertarás”, roughly translated as “Assume the worst and you’ll be right.”
Yolcault spoils his son by giving him a never ending array of hats and samurai films, but Tochtil adores the palace’s private zoo and has a big wish: a Liberian dwarf hippo. The hippo is a classic McGuffin – the family travels to Liberia to avoid the drug war and danger at home, and also to try to capture one. They end up catching two hippos, which are endangered, but the animals get sick and have to be killed in front of Tochtil. He wets his pants and cries at the end of Act Two. And Act Three has an even better twist: Tochtil gets the heads of the hippos as gifts, and plans to throw them a coronation party.
The best fiction does not remake reality, but forces us to view it from a different angle. For me, Fiesta en la madriguera reminded me that evil may sometimes seem larger than life, but is always carried out by human hands and the product of agency. By humanizing the facets of the narco-estado and the complicit elite, Villalobos pulled back the curtain on the faces of evil who instill so much terror and fear in the daily lives of Mexican citizens. Tochtil calls his home a “palace” and wondrous things happen, but it is far from wonderful.
My time in RGV came to an end when my wife and children finally arrived; my vieja was too used to city living and we headed North. Still, I’ll always feel like I left a part of me in McAllen. I learned that even in places of evil and in times of uncertainty, you can find hope and a few good men and women. Humanity will always remain the same if you stare closely and with eyes wide open. And that’s the power of the fictitious world of Villalobos, where even a drug-lord can worry about being a good enough father and a rich child can dream of fantastical things.
They are still human, after all, and so are we.
The Night of the Virgin – by Elliott Turner
Expected publication: June 1st 2017
When Emmanuel Hernandez turned eighteen, he left behind the desperately poor Rio Grande Valley with one goal in mind: become a professional soccer player. He stumbled a few times, but found plenty of adventure along the way as he and his best friend Hector traveled across Texas and the West Coast.
Still, what happened on the field isn’t even half the story. Beyond goals and kicks, Manny’s life suddenly spun circles and fell apart. At rock bottom, a person emerged and then a voice took aim all around: leaving no stone uncovered and no person unscathed, even itself.
A pulsating and raw look at the Mexican-American community’s struggles with poverty, alcoholism, infidelity, spirituality, and prejudice. A thoughtful reflection on a brash young man who grew into a loving father. An indisputably American tale where a dream lead to a journey that twisted when you wanted it to turn. The Night of the Virgin ultimately is a story about those slippery topics of identity and acceptance, hatred and love.
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About the author:
Elliott’s debut novel, The Night of the Virgin, is due Summer 2017.
To learn more about it, subscribe to Elliott’s tiny letter.
He also tweets about soccer often.
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