I HAVE LIVED IN and traveled through some desolate places. Looked upon 100-mile vistas in West Texas with hardly a sign of human habitation. Lived in Northern New Mexico at the edge of a million acres of public lands without a single lamppost or match strike to reveal the landscape on a moonless night. But the loneliest moments I’ve ever experienced were in the heart of Mexico City, in the midst of the over 20 million souls that comprise the barely comprehensible human density of “el DF” (Federal District, akin to District of Columbia) and its greater metropolitan area.
True, my existential state was given to such barrenness when I experienced it in my early 30s. I had a book contract and all the time and support to write, yet I wound up broke and past deadline. But it wasn’t just me; I swear it was also in the DNA of the place. El DF is tailor-made for its “reventón” (literally, explosion; slang for party) lifestyle: ecstatic, frenetic, and ultimately melancholic bouts fueled by food and drink and substances and dancing and flirtation consummated or not that last ’til the dawn, leaving one in an utterly helpless state of physical and existential “cruda,” as the Mexicans say: hungover.
There were moments at night when my street would suddenly, strangely empty out and even the 24/7 howl of nearby Avenida Insurgentes, the city’s main north-south artery, would seem to fade to the faint hiss of a distant river. I’d look out my fourth-floor grime-streaked windows onto the nocturne and, to underscore the forlornness of it all — so many people huddled together and still no way to stave off the feeling that we’d been abandoned by the gods — the steam whistle of the camotero cart that proffered steamed yams would pierce the gray air. One of those long, lonesome whistles, announcing nothing if not loss. In those moments I had no future, only the burning of an unrequited desire stuck in the past. And it felt as if the entire city were mourning along with me its losses great and small.
Perhaps el DF is the consummate party city because it is so haunted by inconsolable spirits. It embodies the deep history of ground zero of the Spanish Conquest (the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Mexican capital, 1521) and the slog through the colonial centuries that followed. In the 19th century there were the bloody struggles for independence from Spain and with the French and with the gringos, and decades of brutal dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz. The 20th century brought the upheaval of the Revolution, and ultimately the long “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) masked behind a jingoistic invocation of indigenous grandeur and an air of mestizo cosmopolitanism. Very little of this history has been erased. You stroll through colonial buildings built by indigenous labor, drive down thoroughfares underneath whose asphalt lies the grid of the pre-Columbian city, sit in the pews of churches teetering over the ruins of Nahuatl pyramids. You confront the textual vestiges of conquest and colonialism at every turn — particularly in the city’s endless layers of bureaucracy, the symbolic weight of paperwork that controlled and still controls the population, what the late Uruguayan social theorist Angel Rama called “the lettered city.” Most of all, you see the historical power dynamic in people’s bodies as they collide like atoms in the super accelerator of chilango (as the city’s natives call themselves) space. You get the sense that the New World caste system — unsustainable in the official sense by the 17th century because the permutations of race had become so complex — has somehow survived intact. The hierarchy is there for all to see in fashion billboards, telenovelas, or, as the extraordinary cronista (chronicler) Francisco Goldman points out, in the latest viral video of some light-skinned member of the upper castes meting out drunken vituperation and worse at hapless, dark-skinned, indigenous-featured service workers.
And yet the contact with difference — the carnal, spiritual, aesthetic dance between indigenous and European and African ancestry — also produces a city that affirms life. Official Mexico has long invoked a diluted version of this raza cósmica trope in an attempt to create a “center” that reels in and controls the periphery, the radically different native and mixed cultures of the north and south, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. That center, both literally and symbolically, is el DF itself. The safe, branded version of this identity is akin to a tepid mariachi performance. The real thing on the streets is something else again — an indigenous punk band, religious rites for outlaw saints, street vendors out-vying each in radical appropriation for the most original treats or trinkets. It’s the effusive mestizo spectacle amid the daredevil urban experiment that lures us. Even if, at 4:30 in the morning at that dive of a cantina you wound up in, you might end up twirling with “la más fea” as chilangos say, the ugliest one of all, Death.
I lived on Avenida Veracruz in Colonia Condesa, a neighborhood distinctive for its Art Deco style and for Parque México, one of the city’s finest parks. La Condesa is also legendary for its longstanding status, along with adjacent Colonia Roma, as the capital’s bohemian mecca. I was drawn to it because I was a young writer in search of my version of Paris. And because some family ghosts haunted La Roma; my father lived there as an adolescent at the same time as the Beats were carousing about, before their exotic party ended with William Burroughs shooting his wife Jane Vollmer in 1951 in an inscrutable and macabre drunken rite. The couple lived in an apartment on Calle Orizaba, just a few blocks away from my family’s place on Calle Zacatecas. The Mexico City my father conjured for me with his memories was in keeping with the bohemian legend — he got kicked out of school for playing too much hooky and hitting the streets. Giftwrap the boho imaginary with the wanderings of generations of global artists (the Beats were in storied company: Lawrence, Eisenstein, Bréton, Welles, Jodorowsky, and, in the 1970s, a young, unknown Chilean named Roberto Bolaño), and you get a vibe that is sexy, volatile, decadent, inspiring, terrifying … irresistible. The qualifiers for the city are endless because that is precisely how the city imagines itself, as extreme corporeal and affective experience, urban hallucination, organic and orgasmic surrealism.
Expats receive the added zest of colonial and even indigenous difference, of course, but the allure can be just as intoxicating for Mexicans themselves through a class dialectic: the bohemian districts (which also include parts of Coyoacán, erstwhile home to Frida and Diego, and some newly hipsterized space in the Centro Histórico) are surrounded on all sides by a vast working-class sea, which edges up against — turns gently and insistently and with great ferocity — the shores of the upper caste island. The border between these realms is at once an abyss and negligible, and the gap in material wealth, as it does everywhere in the world today, grows ever greater. The source of el DF’s extreme energy surges from the vast majority of its denizens, who are frantically working to survive, from the fire-eaters performing at eight-lane intersections to sex workers to santeros to the street market tianguis, vendors hawking everything pirated under the sun or moon. It is a city whose past is ever present, whose future is improvised on the spot, whose desire is scantily clad, whose violence is … ah there it is. We were going to hit it sooner or later. Whose violence is as public a spectacle as its desire.
Frank. (Forgive me, Francisco, I’m really not close enough to call you that, but I know many people who are closer, and I’ve never heard them call you anything but; and I’ve read your last two books in quick succession, meaning that I’m swimming-drowning in a literary representation of your subjectivity at the moment.) I have to tell you that I approach writing about the city and your book with a knot in my throat. I have been traveling to el DF most of my adult life, fell hard for it at the first brush with its elegant and searing melodrama, my relationship to the city a tortured affair. And of course I had a tortured love affair there, too, whose memory I was mercifully able to make peace with after many haunted years. And here I am in dialogue with your text about a loss that cuts so much deeper than mine, even as it picks at the scabs of my wounds. There is no way to read your book without wishing to accompany you somehow in your volatile combination of melancholy and passionate (and sometimes precarious) embrace of life in spite of death. My accompaniment will have to suffice with these words.
In this penetrating volume — an indispensable contribution to the growing body of artistic representations of Mexico’s most recent years of darkness — the city is both a place of coruscating creative energy and hell-bent on spectacular self-destruction. It is by all accounts a great world capital producing all that cosmopolitans want in a 21st-century city: pedestrian bustle and park space, arts and culture high and low, and food, food, food, from the Zagat-rated to the wee-hours taco stand lit by a naked light bulb. It closes one of its most important boulevards every Sunday for cycling and walking. It was among one of the first global cities to legalize gay marriage. And it is an environmental disaster of apocalyptic proportions. On “días de contingencia,” what we in Los Angeles call “smog alert” days, a zinc-colored pall bears down on the streets, your head pounds, you blow black snot into your hanky. Water scarcity means that your tap can stop flowing at any time, especially if you live on the margins. It can be an exhausting, exasperating place to live in, and for all its progressive veneer, it can be dangerous and deadly if you are a woman, if you are queer, if you are young and poor and brown-skinned.
Frank’s DF accentuates the melancholic aspect of the reventón because he remains in mourning over the death of his wife, the young writer Aura Estrada. Interior Circuit is overtly an extension of his previous book, Say Her Name,a novel (fictionalized memoir, autobiographical fiction, etc.) that tells of the jagged, interminable road of grief that began with Aura’s death at 30 in a bodysurfing accident on a Oaxacan beach. Yet Interior Circuit is also, crucially, Frank’s journey beyond the borders of intimate lamentation into bearing witness to the wider circle of trauma and sorrow that Mexico finds itself in today as a result of the drug war — that is, when it allows itself to face it.
Interior Circuit is named for the Circuito Interior, the inner loop highway that encircles the three colonias at the heart of the narrative: La Condesa, La Roma, and La Zona Rosa, the latter once also boho, gay-friendly, and upscale but since fallen several rungs. The book opens with verses from DF poet Efraín Huerta: “Amor se llama / el circuito, el corto, el cortísimo / circuito interior en que ardemos.” In which “corto” means “short,” but also connotes “short circuit” — the brief, broken interior circuit in which our bodies burn, the human experience of time as space: the passage of our bodies through it. Frank begins the book marking the fifth anniversary of Aura’s death, particularly significant because now he has known her longer in memory than in their physical time together. He knows there are no shortcuts around grief, but settles on a ritual that will ultimately affirm his experience of both life and death in chilangolandia: he will learn how to drive in el DF Which is, arguably, unlike driving anywhere else on earth:
The seemingly anarchic chaos and confusion of the city’s traffic had always intimidated me: octopus intersections and roundabouts like wide Demolition Derby arenas, cars densely crisscrossing simultaneously from all directions and all somehow missing each other, streaming through each other like ghosts; busy cross streets without traffic lights or stop signs; one-way streets that change direction from one block to another; jammed multi-lane expressways and looping overpasses, where a missed exit invariably means a miscalculated turn onto another expressway or avenue heading off in some unknown direction, or a descent into a bewildering snarl of streets in some neighborhood you’ve never been to or even heard of before.
As in Say Her Name, there is an urgent, raw beauty in Frank’s prose, as if we are plugged into an only slightly edited version of his journals, and it is full of “cortos”: journal gives way to reportage, reportage to lament, lament to polemic, polemic to erudite rumination. There is some progression to the narrative — we figuratively inch along the clogged circuito as Frank plumbs the sweeping inhabited Valle de México, as he finds new love, as Mexico reckons with its murderous shadows — but this is not a pop manual for how to “move on” after loss. There are no neat resolutions, no clearly defined beginnings or ends. We plunge into the narrative in the midst of grief and leave it grieving still. The book is, above all, as Frank highlights with his subtitle, a “chronicle,” which sounds old fashioned in the American understanding of genre. The MFA world prefers the peculiar and annoying “creative non-fiction” label (fuzzy, clinical, too many syllables). In Latin America it’s a “crónica,” period. Three syllables and an implied ellipsis: merging the time of memory with the time of language to create a new present between writer and reader. In the context of el DF, the ellipses connote a darkness with no end in sight, a chronic city whose party is simultaneously a denial of and a close dance with death. It is also important to note that Frank is not easily categorized in either the American or Latin American contexts. His version of the crónica indulges more of the first person than Latin Americans generally allow (the influence of early gringo New Journalism, perhaps). And he’s certainly no ahistorical, depoliticized gringo memoirist. Adding nuance and depth is his peculiar positioning as son of a Jewish father and Guatemalan Catholic mother, raised in Massachusetts. He was inexorably drawn to the South as a young writer during the time of the Central American civil wars and he’s been shuttling between Brooklyn and el DF for decades. Call him a double-mestizo cronista.
Invoking Jorge Luis Borges’s 1:1 scale map of empire from “The Exactitude of Science,” Frank sets out to have his body encompass the endlessness of el D.F via car. He pores over the old-school hard-copy equivalent of the Thomas Guide, the Guía Roji, itself Borgesian: “My spiral-bound edition large-format 2012 edition presents Mexico City’s streets and neighborhoods in 220 pages of zone-by-zone maps; at its front 178 additional pages of indexes list some 99,100 streets, and 6,400 colonias, or neighborhoods.” He relates his friend the writer Álvaro Enrigue receiving the Guía as a gift from a relative with the fabulous inscription: “This book contains all roads.” But first Frank must learn how to drive in the city, a process which he describes with comic anxiety, taking lessons from Metropolitan Driving School instructor Ricardo Torres, a classic chilango character (“leathery face ravaged […] sagging, bleary eyes, sad-looking”). The “driving project” has what amounts to a mystical goal. “To use the Guía Roji almost like the I Ching, open to any page, put my finger down, and try to drive wherever it landed. A game of chance and destination, if not destiny.” It will take the better part of the book to get there.
Public personal note to Frank: cabrón, why did you, on the very first page of your crónica, have to invoke, of all the roundabouts in this roundabout-crazy city, the glorieta Citlaltepetl in La Condesa? It happens to be the site of one of my greatest personal telenovelas. My ex lived just a few doors down from it, on Culiacán. There is a photograph of us standing in that glorieta (both of us with deep circles under our eyes, recovering from the reventón). You triggered the sense memory of both the all-nighter and the breakup so powerfully, now two decades later. Thanks for the memories, Frank. (El DF never forgets, and it will always remind you.)
So Frank is mapping his city, perhaps truly meeting it for the first time, a relationship that grief, paradoxically, has allowed the potential for. There is no avoiding memory — one of the underlying themes of the book is that repressed memories invite existential and even social disaster. But there is some agency in whether one will continue to walk and drive and take the subway through the city of the present or completely succumb to the city of the past. So in fits and starts — during lessons where he engages the clutch badly, grinds gears — he ventures out, with a new perspective, onto the streets he was never really a stranger to. A self-described man-child, Frank is himself a veteran of the reventón: hard-living reporter in war zones, a man who’s cheated death several more times than his allotted nine lives, a widower crushed by loss seeking succor and, at times, his own death from a bottle.
He becomes increasingly aware of his personal narrative as lodged within a momentous context, a crossroads in the history of the city and the country. A hotly contested presidential election in July 2012 brings the PRI, infamous for its decades of corrupt and autocratic rule, back to the presidency. The anarchist inspiration of the Arab Spring and Spain’s indignados and Occupy and the Chilean student movement arrives in el DF through #YoSoy132, the unlikely uprising of students from the Universidad Iberoamericana, heretofore known as a conservative Catholic school for niños bien (spoiled brats), which sets off a series of effervescent political actions that ultimately unites students from dozens of schools and from radically divergent social stations, a brief but ultimately broken (corto) Mexican Spring.
But death remains at the heart of the story: Aura’s death, and Mexico’s. Frank keeps on encountering Aura’s ghost. Chance encounters with people who knew her before he did offer up memories. Messages arrive via Facebook from some of her long lost relatives; her story keeps unfolding, even as its telling underscores her absence, a chronic crónica. Frank fuses his mourning with the barely emergent outlines of Mexico’s contemporary ordeal, which has only begun to come into view in recent years because of official repression of even the representation of victimhood. During the violence unleashed by the administration of Felipe Calderón’s strategy of confronting the drug cartels militarily (with a military not immune to collusion with the cartels), the government’s position was that there were no innocent victims; the mantra was “en algo andaban,” they were up to something. The truth is that many victims were indeed just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there was also the question of whether those who were “up to something” — small time drug couriers, perhaps — deserved to be tortured, dismembered, and dissolved in acid or cremated in a barrel doused in diesel fuel, literally and irrevocably disappeared forever, no bodies for the family to mourn, a haunting without end.
The crucial narrative of the country’s nascent reckoning with its loss is only lightly sketched here, perhaps because its energy surged from the provinces and not from el DF itself, which Frank is so tightly focused on. In March 2011, Juan Francisco Sicilia, the 24-year-old son of the well-regarded poet Javier Sicilia, was murdered, along with six of his friends, in a drug-related crime in Cuernavaca, only an hour and a half south of Mexico City by car but in terms of social geography a world away, insistently and in many ways still beautifully provincial. Sicilia and his friends paid with their lives for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The poet immediately made his grief public with an open letter to the cartels and the corrupt government alike, with the refrain of “estamos hasta la madre,” (literally, we are up to our mother: we’ve had it). This public act of intimate mourning sparked a nationwide civil society movement that included thousands of mourners, bringing the faces of their missing into the public eye via placards with enlarged photographs, like las madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina a generation ago. Sicilia led a walking procession from Cuernavaca to Mexico City a few weeks after his son’s death, which culminated with a huge rally in the Zócalo, el DF’s grand public plaza. It was the first time the faces of the provincial dead had come “home” to the center of political — and some would even claim narco — power. This haunting destabilized a longheld chilango sense of exceptionalism, that the capital was immune to the narco-barbarism of the provinces. Frank writes: “‘We live inside a bubble,’ I’m always hearing people in the DF say. People sense the entire country collapsing, even vanishing, around them, becoming, as one friend put it, an ‘anti-country.’”But in el DF the reventón went on.
Early in the book, Frank spends considerable time defending chilango pride, pointing to former Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s progressive achievements. The fact that Ebrard is literally Frank’s neighbor — they live in the same apartment building on the picturesque Plaza de Río de Janeiro in La Roma — unavoidably makes the props feel like the result of too much closeness to power. Largely unremarked upon is any 21st-century metropolitan progressive pol’s central dilemma — their complicity in the promotion of gentrification-oriented development, which limits precisely the thing that made Mexico City (and Frank’s other longtime home, New York) great: class rigidity had always been mitigated by a combination of populist transportation and parks projects and a tenacious working-class willingness to trespass beyond social borders.
But Frank understands the problem with power, his own position in the social matrix. He may not be rich by the standards of el DF’s one percent (the gated communities of Las Lomas that float over the working city, the old money of Polanco, home to one of the most extravagant shopping malls on the planet), but his byline grants him access to the inner circles of the cultural and political elites. He knows he must venture beyond the bubble. In the summer of 2013, that means just a couple of miles from his apartment in La Roma.
Here Frank’s DF is less than one degree separated from mine, and the two of ours are less than one degree separated — in the sense of physical proximity, at least — from the working class. During my time in el DF, I lived a few blocks away from Frank in La Condesa and we had several friends in common. He stayed on after I ran back to California with a broken heart and a nosebleed from the cocaine that fuels La Condesa’s and La Roma’s party scene. After almost a decade away from Mexico City I returned, this time with my wife and our young twin daughters. Our first trip was in 2010, when narco-violence was still mostly focused in the northern and border states, although the US State Department’s travel advisory map was starting to show red patches in Michoacán, Jalisco, and other places that had until then largely been spared. Having healed enough to face the streets where I’d once fallen, I wanted to share something of the South with my family. We visited four summers in a row, and each year the State Department’s map was redder. Suddenly, el Estado de México, Mexico State, which surrounds el DF on three sides and accounts for most of the “metropolitan area” population, was a hot spot, contested as a result of cartel territories altered by Calderón’s — and, by extension, the United States’s — war on drugs. A war, it must be said, and endlessly repeated, that is much like the US “war on terror,” in that there is no pretense of an endgame, but rather what looks like a carefully crafted transnational scheme fusing legal and illegal markets, drugs and guns and addiction. The resulting toll in blood increases profit margins for the powerful on all sides. Truly, as far as capital is concerned, a war without end.
Just two days before our departure for our third DF sojourn in the summer of 2012, there was a shootout in Terminal 2 of the Mexico City Airport, glass shattering near kids eating McNuggets, bodies bleeding out on the immaculately polished floors of the hyper-modern building. The revelation that it was a narco turf battle in which both shooters and victims were federal agents underscored the reality of a “narco-state” in which government and organized crime were essentially one. My wife and I hesitated. We’d even heard rumors that families with kids in La Condesa were pooling money to rent bodyguards for their kids while they played on the monkey bars in Parque España. In the end, we decided to double down against the paranoia; we told ourselves that lightning wouldn’t strike twice — now the airport would surely be the most secure place in the country. (The troubling thought being that that was what everyone thought before the gun battle.)
Then, last summer the violence arrived in our ‘hood. Approaching noon on Sunday, May 26, a dozen people, between the ages of 16 and 34, went missing in a mass levantón (literally a “pickup,” slang for kidnapping, sometimes cartel-related, even if the victims are often just in the wrong place at the wrong time). The crew had been partying at a Zona Rosa dive called Heavens (in English); they’d been there since the wee hours. (Sounded like a reventón.) Relatives reported the disappearances to authorities within hours; almost all the victims were residents of Barrio Tepito, a working-class district famous for its “fayuca” tianguis, where you can get a “Rolex” at a Timex price and the like. That 12 people could disappear in broad daylight in the Zona Rosa, which is just across Avenida Chapultepec from La Roma and La Condesa and only a couple of blocks from the headquarters of the Secretaría de Seguridad Pública (SSP, the city police chief’s office), had an almost immediate and sensational impact on el DF (Almost immediate, that is, because the case wasn’t made public until several days after the kidnapping, when families of the victims, convinced that the SSP was bungling or perhaps even implicated in the case, contacted the media themselves.)
It certainly had a devastating psychological effect on my family: Heavens was also only a couple of streets away from Fonda El Refugio, an old-fashioned, somewhat touristy restaurant that was a ritual destination for our kids. The paranoia struck deep, even if, once again, we convinced ourselves that we weren’t in danger … it was “them,” tepiteñospartying at a dicey after-hours. Most chilangos intuited early on that the case was somehow cartel-related, even if the administration of new mayor Miguel Mancera (like his predecessor Marcelo Ebrard, of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) kept issuing denials that the drug war had breached the gates of the city, that there was no evidence of the big cartels operating in el DF.
Frank throws himself into the Heavens case with tremendous journalistic energy, badgering officials, cultivating confidential sources, scouring what looks like just about every press account, and, most importantly and at some risk, by crossing the social border and stepping into the old barrio to interview the relatives of the disappeared. It is clear that this is both a political and existential — perhaps even spiritual — mission. Wracked with grief for years, in the midst of his “driving project” to map his body onto the city of life and death, Aura’s ghost accompanies him every step of the way, even if she is largely absent from this impassioned chapter, a book unto itself, really, and which accounts for nearly half the overall volume.
Frank tracks the Heavens case for months. I actually ran into him outside his Plaza de Río de Janeiro apartment last summer and it was hard to overlook two things: that he didn’t seem to have slept much, and that he was obsessed with the case. He begged off an invitation to coffee because, he said, he was going to meet with family members of the disappeared. Through his research he assembles something of a journalistic crusade, siding with the victims’ families, who from the start convincingly complain that the SSP and the Mancera administration play Calderón’s card, not so subtly implying that the victims were something less than innocent. In the early days of the case the city government leaked information “to exploit the stigma attached to Tepito, for the Barrio Bravo, or the Fierce Barrio, in the minds of many residents of the capital [i.e., the middle and upper and gentrifying castes, such as in La Roma and La Condesa], evokes practically congenital criminality.”
Tepito reveals chilangos to themselves, pointing at the profound connections that unite them across all lines of caste. The blood stains everyone’s hands. Drug gangs — local and national — are discovered to be at the heart of the levantón, after all. The book holds a mirror up to the upper castes, and asks them to take responsibility, even while revealing his own symbolic complicity, Roma-Condesa party animal that he’s been over the years. End the madness of the war on drugs, he pleads, which, like most wars, is one whose victims are mostly poor in places like Tepito, while the party on the other side of Avenida Chapultepec never ends.
What stands in the way of that reckoning is class itself. Frank does a good job of revealing the depths of class prejudice among his own cohort. His close friend Juanca, who works in market research, tells of job-related expeditions to Mexico State, where there is nary a gentrification project underway, just an endless urban limbo where infrastructure is failing or non-existent. Juanca comments: “You won’t believe that shit. The poverty, the filth […] How can these people vote for the PRI? Because, after 20 years, they finally have apincheMcDonald’s?” Which goes to show why so many non-chilangos — the “provincials” — hate el DF
Connections. A killing in La Condesa a few days before the kidnapping is identified as a precipitating event — a smalltime drug dealer apparently doing business outside of his territory is shot dead outside of Bar Black (also in English, pointing not just at rampant Anglicization in Mexico, but also symbolizing transnational drug routes; yet another incident related to the Heavens case, a deadly shooting, took place at a Tepito gym called Body Extreme). Bar Black just happened to be two blocks up from one of the finest bookstores in the city, el Centro Cultural Bella Época, where our daughters spent many afternoons rolling around the floor with the best of Latin American children’s books. The economics of the drug trade ties chilangos from Tepito and La Condesa together, a simple matter of supply and demand and el reventón. And this is, of course, what ties chilangos and Americans together, the bloody transnational market enabled by prohibition, kept in place behind a moralizing fig, whose real purpose is to increase the commercial value of illegal drugs.
Here Frank joins a growing crew of writers (among them Marcela Turati, Oscar Martínez, Cristina Rivera Garza, John Gibler, Magali Tercero, Sergio González Rodríguez, Diego Osorno, Daniel Hernández, Lydia Cacho, Anabel Hernández*) who undertake dogged investigative journalism — the kind there is precious little support for in the digital age, and which in the Latin American context can get you killed — and dedicate themselves to revealing the victims, itself an eminently political (and also spiritual) task that is the heart of Javier Sicilia’s movement.
By crossing lines of caste into Tepito, Frank faces the privileged writer’s eternal ethical problem: how to represent the margins, the poor, the already criminalized? That is, without re-victimizing them through a patronizing account or redoubling the distance between reader and subject? His answer is the literary equivalent of what the families themselves do, what victims of the disappeared do in Latin America. Sometimes, he literally presents us what the families present to the public:
Jerzy Ortíz Ponce
Sex: Male. Age: 16. Build: Robust. Height: 1.85. Skin: Light brown. Face: Round. Mouth: Small. Nose: Flat. Eyebrows: Full. Lips: Thin. Chin: Pointed. Type and color of eyes: Large, dark brown. Type and color of hair: Straight, black. Identifying characteristics: Tattoo in the form of a diamond on the outer part of right wrist. His name tattooed in Hebrew letters. On inside of right wrist a tattoo of the letter J, a heart, and the letter L. Both ears pierced with earrings, piercing on the top of one of his ears.
Bringing the body back — an informal, blurry photograph with textual dossier — first in the hope that someone who knows something might speak up, so that justice might be done and, ultimately, mourning can begin. In the intimate sense that is, for the Tepito families being able to bury their dead. (A mass grave is eventually discovered, and the families receive more or less intact bodies to bury, unlike tens of thousands of others who will never have even a scrap of clothing.) But also in the collective sense, since this tragedy is fundamentally different than the singular “freakishness and meaninglessness” of Aura’s fatal accident. (The absurdity of which is what Frank writes against with such intensity by telling the story of his and Aura’s love in Say Her Name.) This is death by state (or narco-state) policy and corruption and collusion within a transnational context. In the end, the biggest invisible figure in the book is us, on this side of the border, but then, the book is directly addressed to us: Frank is an American. The book will be read in Spanish as well, as it should be. It is, in the end, a story that underscores borderlessness, just not the kind imagined by cosmopolitans searching for the next vogue destination.
It is his personal grief that drives Frank to encounter and bear witness with others, and thus the personal is made political. A poignant epiphany occurs as he ponders his grief alongside that of the families in Tepito, which begins with Frank remembering Aura’s last hours,
[…] when the hospital staff wouldn’t let me into the emergency ward to see her. When I could be of no help, when I would never be able to be of any help to her ever again, when my love could not have been more futile.
What is it like, what has it been like for the Tepito families, as they ponder the fates of their missing? What are they going through, when they wake at three in the morning?
Interior Circuit confronts the corto, the short-circuit, as in too-brief-is-our-time, by recognizing the absurdity of both “freakish” and politicized death, and of the necessity of mourning both intimately and in community — of reconnecting the broken circuit with the language of pain itself.
As novelist and critic Cristina Rivera Garza writes:
[There is] a political necessity of saying you pain me and of taking stock of my history with you, you who are my country, from the singular — though generalized — perspective of we who are in pain. Hence the aesthetic urgency of saying, in the most basic and also the most disjointed language possible, this pains me. Because Edmond Jabès was right when he critiqued Adorno’s dictum; it’s not that after horror we should not or cannot write poetry. It’s that, while we are integral witnesses to horror, we must write poetry in another way.
You pain me, Frank, and in your story I sense Mexico’s pain in another way.
*For an online exhibit of such work, please visit KCET’s Artbound project “The War on Both Sies/La guerra de los dos lados.”
**Translation by Los Angeles-based writer, translator, and activist Jen Hofer.
Rubén Martínez is Fletcher Jones Chair of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author, most recently, of Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape (Picador).