Tuesday, December 1, 2015

La Frontera

by Scott Adlerberg

Last week in this slot Gabino Iglesias wrote a piece about his new book Zero Saints. He discussed writing in Spanglish, novelistic violence, and positionality in today's indie crime fiction. I hadn't read the whole book when I read his piece last week, but now I have finished it, and looking back at what Gabino wrote, I find one sentence in particular has been ringing in my head:

"I wanted the novel to explore life after crossing the la frontera."

La frontera - that long border between the United States and Mexico that never stops being a source of discussion, contention, interest, outrage...

Okay, how many books have you read, movies have you seen, where somebody has crossed la frontera, or intends to, heading in a southerly direction?  It's a familiar trope in the popular imagination, and the reasons people head across the border from the United States to Mexico are many.  I'll list a small number that occur to me:

  • To escape the law: After criminal activity in the U.S, one or more people flee to Mexico.  (See innumerable books and movies not to mention criminals from real life.)
  • To escape the law and/or kick back with booze and whores for very cheap. (See, for example, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch).
  • To chase and hunt down Native Americans who struck ranchers and the US Cavalry, then fled south. (See Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee - but enough with Peckinpah whose obsession with Mexico is well-known).
  • To become a bullfighter and impress a woman. (See Budd Boetticher's 1951 film The Bullfighter and The Lady, with Robert Stack). 
  • To observe a revolution in action. (See the life of Ambrose Bierce, whose mysterious last days, probably in Mexico, perhaps at Pancho Villa's side, are explored in Carlos Fuentes' The Old Gringo.)
  • To prospect for gold. (See The Treasure of Sierra Madre, either the great book by B. Traven or the great movie directed by John Huston.)  
  •  To ease personal pain and guilt by bringing a dead friend to his hometown for burial. (See the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.)
  • To have adventures of all sorts as you go from boyhood to adulthood. (See Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy).
  • Etc.
It strikes me, looking at this list, that it's very male-oriented, but Mexico exists as a testing ground or place of escape in women-centered narratives also.  Just to name a few works:
  • Set It Off, in which three of the four African-American women who rob a bank get killed trying to escape, but one, Stoney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, escapes on a bus to Mexico.
  • Donald Cammell's Wild Side, in which Anne Heche and Joan Chen, after many tribulations, finally get clear of the men in their lives to escape together, as lovers, to Mexico.
  • The recent Sicario, with Emily Blunt joining a federal task force that does dirty work against drug cartels on Mexican soil.
  • Thelma and Louise, a clear example of if only, as in if only Louise had been willing to drive through Texas, the outlaw pair might very well have escaped getting caught and made it to Mexico.

There are so many more examples and I'm sure I could go on for hours. As could you if you start making your own list. But the point is that for North Americans, Mexico for a long time has served as "that other place". It's the place where so much is possible that's not possible "above" the border.  It's a bit like a country that exists symbolically as a gringo's subconscious.  Go to Mexico and anything can happen.  It can serve any number of needs for the North American going there.  You can find yourself in a nightmare or you can find sanctuary.  Even if it's just a place to retire to, it still represents a haven, a place where a North American of moderate means can live quite well.  The weather will be hot, the colors provided by Nature intense, and you can get yourself a house on the Gulf or the ocean.  To the North American imagination, Mexico is  a country and a psychological space.  But what Gabino Iglesias does in Zero Saints is reverse that trope, and if the reader has any doubts about what he's doing, he breaks into his crime tale to tell the meaning of "la frontera" for someone crossing it going north.

A little more than a third of the way through his novel, Gabino has a chapter that begins, "What happens when you cross la frontera is that you leave a place to enter a void......You do everything in your power to become a gringo, to fit in, to become as unnoticeable as the cracks in the sidewalks.  Then you start walking with less confidence because everything is mysterious and new and scary and you never feel bienvenido.
What happens when you cross la frontera is that la frontera keeps a piece of you inside, hasta  el hueso, where you can't heal yourself.  It slashes you in places no blade can reach and cripples you in ways you don't understand...
What happens when you cross la frontera is that your body becomes a magnet for the bad stuff that has piled up all along that awful dividing line."

Awful dividing line?  That's not how North Americans generally describe it, unless they say the line is awful because it's porous and we need to build a gigantic wall....but that's another story.

There's a good bit more to the Zero Saints chapter on la frontera, and I won't give it all away.  It's incisive and painfully honest .  In crime fiction at least, I've rarely seen the reversal of "the crossing" trope presented so explicitly.  If for the North American, going across the US-Mexican border is a descent into the subconscious, frequently the id portion of the subconscious, where the shackles one has on up north can come off, then for the Mexican crossing the other way, it's like a trip to the land of a harsh super ego - lots of threats and punishments and constraints.  

Better behave 'cause if you don't...

Fiction from the other angle, that's Zero Saints. It serves as a bracing corrective.

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