FEBRUARY 15, 2017
IN A TIME WHEN the US president got elected in part by the success of his claim that Mexicans are criminals and rapists, the long-running tradition of Mexico-bashing and stereotyping has acquired a new political urgency. Even though Mexico is the United States’s neighbor to the south, the source of its largest immigrant community, one of its top trade partners, the home of nearly two million US citizens, and a place with profound historical, intellectual, economic and political ties to the United States, Americans of all stripes — including its intellectual elite — possess an astonishing level of ignorance regarding the country. A significant contributing factor regarding this ignorance is the near total unavailability of cultural products from Mexico. As someone who teaches about Mexico in an elite institution of higher education, I can tell you stories about the insurmountable difficulties to find Mexican-created history books, literature, and cinema available in English translation. It is true that, in academia, I have the privilege to belong to a wonderful community of specialists in Mexican culture, literature, and history, but even these specialists’ works have a hard time reaching a readership outside our own circle. The xenophobic bashing of Mexico and Mexicans by the current US administration — including threats of mass deportation and military invasion, labels like “bad hombres,” and Mexico demonized as a country that cheats the United States in trade relations — has amounted to a longstanding ignorance that is no longer acceptable, either politically or ethically. The absence of Mexico’s perspective in the United States is not just a matter of run-of-the-mill American provincialism, but truly a political question when racist hate speech toward Mexico is allowed to exist without any significant counterpoint.
Literature is no exception to this trend. In the already dismal world of literary translation in the United States, Mexico has been historically nonexistent. Many classical works of Mexican literature are either out of print since the 1970s (the seminal novels of Rosario Castellanos and Elena Garro), untranslated (pretty much any poet after Octavio Paz), or published in English two or three decades after their original publications (the works of Sergio Pitol and Fernando del Paso). There are various reasons behind this phenomenon. One is mere disinterest: elite cultural consumers are generally interested in reading and watching a high percentage of American cultural products peppered with the world-literary author du jour (some people have even responded to my reproach claiming that they read Roberto Bolaño, who is Chilean). Another reason is a pervasive form of cultural supremacy. Global South writers in general are expected to provide northern readers with experiences of cultural authenticity or difference, and the fact is that most Mexican writers are cosmopolitan and steadfastly refuse to participate in the exoticist role that the world literary system seeks to attribute to them. Yet another reason is cultural conflation: many publishers and readers do not understand that, while related in genealogy and in political solidarity, Mexican literature is not the same as Chicano or Mexican-American literature. Indeed, one thing to reproach my fellow Mexicans for is their equally astonishing and unacceptable ignorance of our brothers and sisters in the Mexican-American community and the dismal circulation of Chicano literature in Mexico. Nevertheless, on the United States’s side, since a lot of Mexican-American literature is written in English, it is quite easy for publishers to simply not attempt translation of works written in Spanish. They feel that the market niche is satisfied with the works of Anglophone writers.
Because of all of these reasons, the publication of Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion in Europa Editions should be praised and celebrated, as it is one of very few books from Mexico that has been able to break the symbolic wall of disinterest and cultural supremacy that keeps Mexican writers out of American mainstream literary publication. In recent years, many key works by contemporary Mexican writers have reached American shores thanks to the heroic efforts of translators like Lisa Dillman, George Henson, and Christina MacSweeney, as well as presses like Deep Vellum, And Other Stories, and Coffee House. American readers can begin to access timely works like Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, one of the best novels out there about crossing the border, as well as classics like Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, a collection of cosmopolitan memoir-essays that many consider the most significant work of Mexican literature from the 1990s. Indeed, there are some grains of salt to this phenomenon. Many books are released in the limited circulation afforded to independent presses. It is also true that many works (like Valeria Luiselli’s celebrated fiction or Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death) are worthwhile literary products, and their translations are important events, but they belong to Mexican literature’s tendency to resist political imperatives in fiction.
The Gringo Champion is a remarkable cultural object not only because it was published by a mainstream literary press (the same one that has become ubiquitous in bookstores thanks to the success of their translations of Elena Ferrante), but also because it happens to be a novel about a lower-class Mexican immigrant published at a time when stories of immigration have acquired new political urgency. Originally titled Campeón gabacho (“gabacho” is a slang word used as a derogatory term for the French during their invasion of Mexico in the 1860s, which then evolved to be used by Northern Mexicans and Chicanos as a derogatory term for white Americans), the novel tells the story of Liborio, an impoverished Mexican migrant with a harrowing childhood, who begins his ventures in the United States working in a bookstore. Eventually, Liborio becomes a successful boxer as he pursues the love of a reluctant woman. Yet the most notable feature of the book is not its plot, which could be regarded as a somewhat predictable story, but its literary form. Aura Xilonen possesses one of the most original and plastic literary voices from Mexican literature I have read. She writes in a mixture of vernacular words from different Mexican regions and Chicano Spanglish, peppered with words and expressions from popular genres of literatures from the 16th and 17th century.
Her Mexican publisher describes Xilonen’s style as “ingleñol,” as a sort of Mexican inversion of Spanglish, but in my view the term does not do justice to Xilonen’s uncanny talent for linguistic hybridity. I think that the best way to describe her language is through the term “neobaroque.” The book more properly belongs to a tradition of writing about marginalized subjects in Spanish-language fiction that appeals to baroque mixtures of learned and vernacular prose in order to account for the subjectivity of subalternized subjects. The origins of this tradition are in Spanish Golden Age picaresque narratives like Lazarillo de Tormes, but it also has a very strong lineage in Mexican literature of the last few decades. Variations of this literary operation can be found in genres such as the urban chronicle (where Carlos Monsiváis created a genre of his own through his baroque linguistic engagement with everyday life, media, and high culture), in landmark books representing sexual marginalization (like Luis Zapata’s novel El vampiro de la Colonia Roma, translated as Adonis García, which is narrated as tape recordings of the testimonial of a gay male prostitute from Mexico City) and the various social subjectivities of Mexico’s northern states (including the aforementioned book by Yuri Herrera or Daniel Sada’s magnificent oeuvre, the most complex works linguistically speaking in contemporary Mexican fiction). In Spanish, Campeón gabacho (I keep the Mexican title to distinguish it from its translation) is a very worthy entry in this tradition, and Liborio’s fictionalized speech escapes the sort of ethnographic artificiality that plagues social fiction precisely by opting for the joyful, self-deprecating, and highly textured style of the Latin-American neobaroque.
The story of the novel’s publication and of Aura Xilonen are remarkable in themselves. The novel was the winner of the first “Premio Mauricio Achar,” organized by Librerías Gandhi, Mexico’s largest chain of bookstores, and Literatura Random House, the literary arm of Mexico’s Penguin Random House subsidiary. The novel was submitted with a pseudonym (“Cleopatra”) and was chosen among 392 submissions. According to an editor at Random House, Maria Fernanda Álvarez, from whom I heard this story, the jury assumed that the writer was in his late 30s and early 40s, due to the quality of the prose, and was likely male, on the basis of the marks of identity in the book. When they opened the envelope with the author’s identification, they found out that the author was a 19-year-old woman, whose main aspiration is to become a filmmaker. In various interviews and public events, Xilonen has said that she wrote the novel, beginning at age 16, inspired by stories from her grandfather — who was a boxer, a photographer, and an immigrant — and by some books and films meaningful to her. The book received significant press coverage, but was snubbed by professional literary criticism, probably due to the stigma of the award’s commercial nature vis-à-vis Mexico’s elitist literary world, as well as Xilonen’s lack of the literary cultural capital necessary to attain reviews in magazines and supplements. This lack of critical attention is a mistake. The novel surely has some marks of Xilonen’s youth — a naïf account of love within a plot that could use more economy and tension — but its linguistic inventiveness, its joyful storytelling, the beauty of its characters, and its empathy to the experience of economic marginalization and migration make it, in my view, one of the most significant and worthwhile novels of 21st-century Mexican literature. The book is not written to satisfy the demands of the literary world, but rather to tell a story of great personal meaning and to do so with the enthusiasm and verbal prowess of a truly talented writer. Xilonen has a more inventive and original literary style than many writers three or four decades her senior, and I think that, if she decides to pursue literary writing further, she could become one of the key writers of Latin-American literature. The fact that this book does not accommodate the prejudices of Mexican literary critics (many of whom use words like “transparent” and “pure” as positive qualifiers) is, in my view, positive. Campeón gabacho is the kind of bold, unapologetic, and emotive work one rarely sees in Mexican fiction. It chooses to engage with its present and its history in a direct and politically relevant way. There are only a handful of authors in Mexican literature about whom this could be said. I would highlight the aforementioned narrative of Yuri Herrera; Antonio Ortuño’s bold La fila india, a timely novel about the killing of Central-American migrants yet to find English translation; María Rivera’s forceful poem “Los muertos”; Cristina Rivera Garza’s essays on necropolitics and writing; and Heriberto Yépez’s forceful and controversial post-poetry and critical essays as some of the other instances of Mexican writers seeking to engage the present. The fact that a lot of these writings are unavailable to American readers speaks volumes about the absence of the Mexican literary voice as a counter to current anti-Mexican rhetoric.
One should always be wary of the machinations of corporate publishers in pushing their authors onto the worldwide stage, and certainly one should also resist the role that these publishers have in creating what we now call “world literature.” Yet, in the case of Campeón gabacho, Random House’s institutional power is allowing for a truly remarkable work of fiction to become available in various languages. At the time of this writing, besides the English translation, the French translation has appeared and I believe editions in Italian and Dutch are forthcoming. One cannot begin to imagine the enormous difficulty of translating a prose like Xilonen’s, full of wordplay, idiomatic expressions, and anachronisms, with an almost musical verbal flow that relies on the Spanish language’s natural syllabic metrics. Andrea Rosenberg’s translation is notably intrepid. Some of the idiomatic plasticity of the original is lost — even in the title they had to opt for “gringo” which does not have the same connotations as “gabacho” — but generally speaking Rosenberg successfully conveys the strength of the original prose. Just to give an example, the novel’s first phrase in Spanish reads as follows: “Y entonces se me ocurre, mientras los camejanes persiguen a la chivata hermosa para bulearla y chiflarle cosas sucias, que yo puedo alcanzar otra vida al putearme a todos esos foquin meridianos.” Rosenberg renders it: “And then it hits me, as the scruffs trail the gorgeous chickadee, hooting at her and talking dirty, that I can get myself another life by beating these pinches australs up.” There are many fortunate choices here that illustrate Rosenberg’s talent as a translator. “Cameján” is a rare anachronistic term referring to lower-class boy that would be difficult to gather as a Spanish speaker, and the expression “scruff” communicates the unkempt nature of the characters. Rosenberg resists translating the Anglicism “bulear” into the common word “bullying,” from which the Spanish slang term is derived, to keep from betraying the informality of the word. She opts for “hooting” instead, which does not have the strong overtones the word “bullying” carries in English. And instead of translating the Anglicism “foquin” into its English direct equivalent, “fucking,” Rosenberg uses “pinche,” the common Spanish expression one would use in this context. The result of Rosenberg’s titanic efforts is that The Gringo Champion carries into English nearly all of the grace, beauty, and force of Campeón gabacho, and Xilonen’s remarkable style is offered a fair rendering in English that should allow Anglophone readers an opportunity to appreciate its brilliance and strength. The centrality of language in the novel is expressed in the book’s epigraph, attributed to Liborio, the protagonist: “Words, like ideas, are barbaric men’s inventions.” One could hardly encapsulate in a better expression the ethos that underlies Xilonen’s powerful novel.
I could speak more about the formal wonders of both Xilonen and her translator, but the final point to be made is that the arrival of The Gringo Champion to the United States in the early days of the Trump presidency is both timely and political. Xilonen dedicates her novel “[t]o all the world’s migrants, which, if we go back to our origins, is all of us.” The novel can be read as a meaningful attempt to imagine the lived experience of the Mexican migrant to the United States. Behind Xilonen’s baroque sense of humor, Liborio’s story is profoundly tragic. The novel captures the enormous violence of the migrant experience (Liborio is consistently beaten and his body is routinely subject to physical violence inflicted by the police, by boxers, and by others); the perils of racialization (American characters frequently point to Liborio’s purported “ugliness” and his love story is in part marked by the characterization of working-class Mexican bodies as undesirable); and the struggle for class mobility with the imagined possibility of the American dream for subjects barred from first-world privilege. This is the story of a Mexican immigrant who could easily be branded as a criminal and a rapist by the voices of white supremacy. In its verbal richness, its humanity, its loving empathy, and its unapologetic depiction of the everyday violence to which migrants are subject, The Gringo Champion is probably one of the most significant novels in translation published in the United States in recent years. Aura Xilonen is an emergent Mexican voice with many things to tell Americans about their neighbors to the south, and with an uncanny talent to narrate the story of her migrant heritage. Few works, I think, are a better response to anti-Mexican sentiments from a Mexican perspective. It is, as such, one of the must-read novels of 2017 and the exciting debut of a young woman who will, I hope, become one of the leading artists of her generation.