In what is widely considered his last interview, Roberto Bolaño was asked how he envisioned hell. He responded by connecting the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez to the rest of the world. Bolaño stated that hell is “like Ciudad Juárez, which is both our curse and mirror, the uneasy mirror of our frustrations and our odious understanding of freedom and ambition”. It could be argued that this idea that Ciudad Juárez is a reflection or product of the rest of the world was the backbone of Bolaño’s novel 2666. This 900-page book is many things to many people, but it is difficult to miss the author’s effort to link the city’s violence, corruption, and particularly the murder of countless women to the twentieth-century’s historical evolution through World War II, capitalism, and relations between the US and Latin America. In other words, what was at the time one of the world’s most troubled urban centers was represented by Bolaño as the natural result of history and therefore was a problem for which all of us possess a portion of the responsibility.
Last spring I presented my Spanish Composition Through Film course with a combination of cinema and readings that addressed the issues of machismo, dictatorships in the Southern Cone, corruption, and the too often brutal realities of immigration. At more than one point the students reacted by arguing that the version of Latin America that I offered was depressing and some complained that they did not see a connection with their own lives. The argument was that Latin America had lots of problems, but that the films and texts in our class supported the idea of building a wall to keep those problems from crossing the border. My response was, of course, quite to the contrary and more in line with Bolaño’s thinking. The US plays a role in every one of the issues that we covered. Or, as one of the class readings by William Finnegan put it by citing statistics: 90% of the cocaine consumed in the US comes through Mexico and is exchanged for tens of billions of dollars while 80% of traceable guns used in Mexican crime come from the US. Indeed, Finnegan summarizes the importance of the US’s role in Mexico’s problems with a quotable sentence: “Our appetites, our wealth, our laws seem to be conspiring to destroy their country”. It is no coincidence that Ciudad Juárez and its troubles are located on the US’s southern border; the US plays an important role in every aspect of the city. Bolaño knew that and it was important to me that the students saw the connection as well.
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to comprehend the separation that people in the US feel from these issues. Mexico is another country. One that does not widely speak English. It is a place with a very different culture and, for many Americans, Mexico expresses itself with traditions that feel exotic and foreign. Engaging with these traditions and the Spanish language is, of course, an important component of our department’s work and it forms the crux of several of our classes. However, we go beyond mere contact by helping students draw the lines that link their lives with those of people in other parts of the world. Indeed, our advanced students reach a point where they become participants in the dialog of the Spanish-speaking world. Or, in the words of our university’s mission statement, our department plays an important role in helping our graduates “to contribute responsibly and creatively to a global society”. Like it or not, our world is globalized and while we do not have to choose to interact with people who are different, eschewing the opportunity does little more than isolate and limit our options in the future. Personally, I am both encouraged and proud of the enthusiasm Salem State students display daily as they reach outside their comfort zones to interact with a larger world.
It is with the above in mind that I write to recommend a book. While it is a text that follows the depressing examples of last spring’s class, part of growth is taking risks and engaging with subjects that make us uncomfortable. Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys relates the story of Rafael Cardena and Bart Reta, two US-born teenagers who became assassins for the Zeta drug cartel and Robert Garcia, the Mexican-born detective who eventually arrested them. The photos of the young men shocked the US as their icy gazes met an American population frightened by the notion that teenagers born in the US could become murderers that answered to the orders of cross-border crime. However, killers they were and the impact they had on their hometown in Texas can be measured in the before and after nature of their detention. One New York Daily News article about the story noted that “the murder rate in Laredo had dropped by half since [Cardena’s] arrest three years before”. However, as shocking as their story was for many, Slater’s book places it at the crossroads of the decades-long drug war and the centuries-old history of border politics. It is not a foreign place, but a part of the United States. Or, as Slater describes it: “An America of fatherless families and unintegrated families and sprawling immigrant families all trying to survive, in this case, on the sinking edge of an empire that’s built and maintained off their backs yet wants to keep them out” (324). Indeed, despite the blood and money spent to eliminate this reality, Slater’s book helps to see not only that it continues to exist, but that it appears to be a necessary part of our culture. Garcia, the police officer who stopped the boys’ killing observed: “We must like the Cartels [...] We must in some way want them, or need them” (329). As Bolaño seemed to want to communicate, the border is a sort of hell, but in many ways it is our hell. It is a hell capable of producing teenage assassins, but that we cannot live without if we want the US to continue to be the same. If we want to alter this reality, Slater’s book appears to suggest, the first step is to change ourselves.
"About Salem State." Salem State University: Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Bolaño, Roberto, and Ignacio Echevarría. Entre Paréntesis: Ensayos, Artículos Y Discursos (1998-2003). Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2004. Print.
Connelly, Sherryl. "Teens Trained as Brutal Assassins by Mexican Drug Cartel: Book." NY Daily News. 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
Finnegan, William. "Silver or Lead." The New Yorker. 24 May 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Slater, Dan. Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. Print.