DECEMBER 28, 2013
THE TIME FOR THE YEAR’S best-of lists has come and gone, leaving me feeling guilty and underread as always. I usually read one or two of the hyped heavies and conclude they deserved the attention, except that this time, one of the books I loved most from 2013 was flagrantly absent from every year-end rundown I’ve encountered. Óscar Martínez’s tightly compressed The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is a tour de force.
The beast in question is the nickname for the dangerous train thousands upon thousands of Central Americans ride through Mexico each year in an attempt to cross into the United States. The word evokes the brutal peril the travelers endure as they make their way north — a journey whose horrors would be hard to imagine for anyone who hasn’t undertaken it themselves.
Martínez is a Salvadoran reporter for ElFaro.net, a San Salvador–based digital newspaper Francisco Goldman, in his foreword, describes as “so very excellent in every way that it has become a beacon of the possible, of the ambitious […] to young journalists up and down the continent.” The same might be said of Martínez and his book. In a convulsive time for traditional media, he has published a story that embodies the highest aims of literary journalism, calling to mind the work of Joan Didion and Mark Danner, among others. In order to tell the stories of his subjects, Martínez made the trip himself on several occasions, getting to know migrants while clinging to the top of the train “like ticks,” walking through bandit-filled hills and scoping the narco-controlled crossing points on the border with the United States. He gets closer to his story than a less extreme reporter would dare. “The effect of riding the rails is always the same,” he writes in the first chapter. “On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants, there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters.” The result of such an all-in effort is a painfully reported, lapidarily written, and viscerally affecting narrative. The Beast, like so many great books, lands on you with a revelatory frisson, the arrival of a story we didn’t know we were waiting to hear.
Martínez’s unrelenting drive as a reporter anchors the stories he tells with gritty detail and an immersive knowledge of his subject matter, but it is this combined with his poet’s eye which makes reading The Beast such a vivid, devastating experience. From the “insolent thug walk, that hard, body-teetering limp” of a migrant named Pitbull, to the “trebley beat” of music on a tense bus ride,” to “the calm emptiness of the narco desert,” every person and place in The Beast throbs with texture and realness. Three migrant brothers unable to blend into a carefree scene of tourists and indigenous Mexicans in Oaxaca City look like “a black-and-white picture spliced into a colored film.” And then there are Martinez’s searing reflections, which get at the truth of migrants’ situations better than any political briefing ever could. For example, “Death isn’t simple in El Salvador. It’s like a sea: you’re subject to its depths, its creatures, its darkness.” Or: “Killing, dying, raping, or getting raped — the dimensions of these horrors are diminished to points of geography. Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill.” Credit should also be given to Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington for producing a finely pitched translation.
The structure of The Beast is as elegant as its prose. The chapters travel gradually north, just like the migrants, providing an arc which intensifies the readers’ identification with the people we meet on the back roads and in the shelters of Mexico. The journey starts in Oaxaca — where migrants leave Central America behind and enter the state of extreme vulnerability which will define their passage — rises through Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz, then roams westward along the US border from Tijuana to Sonora and Chihuahua, and finally to Tamaulipas, below Texas. Martínez’s uses each leg of the narrative to explore a specific aspect of the migrant experience. The chapter on Chiapas focuses on rape and banditry; we meet a 20-year-old Honduran who was raped by three men while pregnant, aborting immediately afterward. Another chapter introduces us to indentured Central American prostitutes in Mexican “zones of tolerance” (read: red-light districts.) In another we learn about how Los Zetas, like a hungry corporation, has diversified their portfolio by getting into the migrant game, kidnapping and torturing for extortion while also charging exorbitant tolls every chance they get. And we even spend a night with the US Border Patrol, seeing what their job is like on the other side of the wall, “a mere four letters that signify much more: the constant presence of agents, cars, helicopters, motion sensors, surveillance cameras, all-terrain vehicles, reflectors, and then, of course, the actual physical wall itself.”
If all this sounds like an agonizing reading experience, that’s because it is. The Beast is an anatomy of the migrant journey, and as such, it reads like a catalogue of suffering. But beyond just being a harrowing dispatch, it is an impassioned cri de coeur, though Martínez wisely never hops up on a soapbox; he simply lets the people he meets speak and tell their stories. Due to the rise of cartels and the tightening of the border since 2001, crossing into the United States is more a dangerous and costly (in all senses) endeavor than ever before. And yet Central Americans and so many others still keep trying — and thus keep dying. The brutality of traveling as an undocumented immigrant through Mexico is nearly unimaginable, as is the impunity that is its sine qua non. This, in the end, is why The Beast is such a rewarding experience. It allows you to become a part of the process of empowerment of voiceless humans having their stories heard and repeated, recognizing the existence and plight of a group that is mostly invisible.