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Reviews of Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence

Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, Arte Publico Press, March 2013, ISBN-10: 1558857524, ISBN-13: 978-1558857520 (paper), $19.95.

·        Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association

·        International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-focused Nonfiction Book (Bilingual)

·        Finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year Awards for Adult Nonfiction Anthologies

This eye-opening collection of essays details struggles of Mexican and American citizens affected by drug cartels along the Mexican-American border. Editors Cortez (Walking Home) and Troncoso (Crossing Borders: Personal Essays) shift between the journalistic and the personal, depicting those paralyzed by a systemic plague of violence. Oscillating between gruesome and hopeful, the collection "was born of a vision to bear witness to how this violence has shattered life on the border," yet is imbued with optimism. The book's first half provides a backdrop for the "unacknowledged civil war", illustrating quotidian terrors. Beginning with Nixon's 1971 declaration of war on drugs, cities along the border become a battleground for warring factions, leaving behind a wash of maimed and murdered bodies, charred vehicles, and facades so damaged by gunfire they crumble to reveal arches from centuries past. Amid rampant violence, citizens begin to grow numb and the notion of death gets sublimated. The book's latter half chronicles the reclamation and recognition of this sense of loss, a reminder that hope is attainable in a hopeless environment. Indeed, these essayists posit that widespread hope for the region begins with the involvement of the individual: "This should be our struggle."

---Publishers Weekly

Lurid television, newspaper stories, and cliché-ridden movies about Mexico abound in English; rare is any writing that plumbs to meaningful depths or attempts to explore its complexities. And so, out of a concatenation of ignorance, presumption and prejudice, those North Americans who read only English have been deprived of the stories that would help them see the Spanish-speaking peoples and cultures right next door, and even within the United States itself, and the tragedies daily unfolding because of or, at the very least kindled by, the voracious North American appetite for drugs. For this reason, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, a treasure trove of one dozen personal essays, deserves to be celebrated, read, and discussed in every community in North America.

Not a book about Mexico or narco-trafficking per se, Our Lost Border is meant,  in the words of its editors, Chicano writers Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso, “to bear witness,” to share what it has been like to live and travel in this region of Mexico’s many regions, and what has been lost.

Snaking from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, the 2,000 mile-long U.S,-Mexico border is more than a fence or river or line on a map of arid wastelands; it is the home of a third culture or, rather, conglomeration of unique and hybrid cultures that are, in the words of the editors, “a living experience, at once both vital and energizing, sometimes full of thorny contradictions, sometimes replete with grace-filled opportunities.” In  “A World Between Two Worlds,” Troncoso asks, “what if in your lifetime you witness a culture and a way of life that has been lost?” And with finesse of the accomplished novelist that he is, Troncoso shows us how it was in his childhood, crossing easily from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez: family suppers at Ciros Taquería near the cathedral; visits to his godmother, Doña Romita, who had a stall in the mercado and who gave him an onyx chess set; getting his hair cut by “Nati” at Los Hermanos Mesa… Then, suddenly, came the carjackings, kidnappings, shootings, extortions. For Troncoso, as for so many others fronterizos, the loss can be measured not only in numbers—  homicides, restaurants closed, houses abandoned—  but also in the painful pinching off of opportunities to segue from one culture and language with such ease, as when he was a child, for that had opened up his sense of possibility, creativity, and clear-sightedness, allowed him develop a practical fluidity, what he calls a “border mentality”—  not to judge people, not to accept the presumptions of the hinterlands, whether of the U.S. or Mexico, but “to find out for yourself what would work and what would not.”

For many years along the border, and in some parts of the interior, drug violence was a long-festering problem. It began to veer out of control in the mid-1990s; by the mid-2000s it had become acute, metastasizing beyond the drug trade itself into kidnapping, extortion and other crimes. Short on money and training— in part a result of a series of fiscal crises beginning in the early 1970s— the police had proven ineffective, easily outgunned or bribed. Shortly after he took office in late 2006, President Felipe Calderón unleashed the armed forces in an all-out war against the cartels and that was when the violence along the border erupted as the narco gangs fought pitched battles not only against the army, marines, and federal and local police, but also and especially, and in grotesquely gory incidents, each other.

Some of the worst fighting concentrated in the border state of Tamaulipas in its major city, Tampico, which is a several hours’ drive south of the border with Texas, but a major port for cocaine trans-shipments. In the opening essay, “The Widest of Borders,” Mexican writer Liliana V. Blum provides a Who’s Who of the narco-gangs, from the Gulf Cartel, which got its start with liquor smuggling during Prohibition, to its off-shoot, the Zetas, which formed around a nucleus of Mexican Army special forces deserters in 1999, then joined the Beltrán Leyva Brothers, blood enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel. Fine a writer as she is, Blum’s experiences, which included having to drive her car through the sticky blood of a mass murder scene on the way home from her daughter’s school, make discouraging reading.

In “Selling Tita’s House,”  Texas writer Mari Cristina Cigarroa recounts her family’s visits and Christmases to her grandparents’ elegant and beloved mansion in Nuevo Laredo. But then, with soldiers in fatigues patrolling the streets, Nuevo Laredo seemed “more like an occupied city during a war.” Chillingly, she writes, “I awoke to the reality that cartels controlled Nuevo Laredo the day I could no longer visit the family’s ranch on the outskirts of the city.”

The strongest and most shocking essay is journalist Diego Osorno’s “The Battle for Ciudad Mier,” about a town shattered in the war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel for Tampaulipas.

I have hope for Mexico for, as an American citizen who has lived in Mexico’s capital and traveled and written about its astonishingly varied history, literature, and varied regions for over two decades, I know its greatness, its achievements, its resilience, and creativity.  But in his foreword, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith rightly chides, “The United States needs to wake up.”

---C. M. Mayo for Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices

According to José Skinner, one of the contributors to Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso's remarkable collection of laments for a lost way of life along the frontera, the Reynosa daily newspaper El Mañana calls the prevailing climate of violence along the border “la situación social de excepción.”

Due to the violence already committed against journalists on the border for years, the use of an Orwellian euphemism such as “the exceptional social situation” is understandable.

That and a whole host of other flowery phrases have become the code under which people attempt to publicly discuss such events as mass killings of undocumented migrants, everyday extortion against business and property owners, kidnappings of the wealthy, and wholesale takeovers of towns by drug cartel militias.

For that reason, there was a great need for this book, and it should be noted that each of its remarkable essays includes represents a significant act of courage on the part of the authors, speaking truth to power.

Our Lost Border creates a welcome opening for frank and insightful reporting, analysis and reflection on a tragic situation still not comprehended well by many people on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The book benefits greatly from the collaborative efforts of two highly qualified editors.

Cortez, a Harris County peace officer, is also a poet and author of the memoir Growing Up Hispanic in Houston (Texas Review Press, 2010).

Troncoso, who hails from El Paso, is a prolific writer with degrees from both Harvard and Yale on his résumé. His The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999) won both the Premio Aztlán and the Southwest Book Award.

Cortez and Troncoso are to be credited for assembling an exceptional array of contributors, encompassing professors, poets, students and journalists.

They each eloquently and powerfully profile the border in both qualitative and quantitative terms — clearly fueled by strong personal and professional experiences.

In the book's first section, “The Tortured Landscape,” Liliana V. Blum, Lolita Bosch, Diego Osorno and María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba describe how the political and social territories they inhabit have been challenged by waves of violence, and how they and their communities have responded.

These essays, presented in both their original Spanish texts and excellent English translations, do an important job of educating readers about the history and influence of the cartels, plus how people are organizing to bravely document the narco-crimes and create a social movement against them.

The book's second section, “Personal Stories,” provides a platform for the authors to recount their losses in the context of their lives as people from families who have long inhabited both sides of the border.

There is some exceptionally beautiful and poignant writing in this section.

In Maria Cristina Cigarroa's “Selling Tita's House,” she poetically describes the importance to her family of her grandmother's home in Nuevo Laredo and its holiday rituals — and the painful process of her grandmother's decision to sell her home and move to Laredo.

José Antonio Rodriguez's “Sucking the Sweet” is an intensely packed, almost surrealistically composed elegy to the contrasts in his life between his home in McAllen and his birthplace in a tiny Mexican village taken over by narcotraficantes, between the world of his waking dreams and the fears he and his family have confronted now for years.

In their respective essays, Cortez and Troncoso paint vivid portraits of the Laredo, Juárez and El Paso they have lost, in the most personal terms — and express their outrage at the manner in which violence has become commonplace, and so unchecked by government authority, in the places where they have roots.

This book is essential reading for anyone who cares deeply about the U.S.-Mexico border and the future relations of our two countries.

It takes courage to open its pages, but that is a necessary first step toward changing “the exceptional situation” for the better.

---Ed Conroy for San Antonio Express-News

Over the past dozen years, our beloved frontera has gone from a delightful pastiche of cultures and languages intermingling in promising, positive ways (with undercurrents of dreams deferred) to a battle zone where innocents die and too many young people aspire to narcohood. In the important new anthology Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, editors Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso help us to understand how we got where we are and just how much we have lost.

Part I of the collection (The Tortured Landscape) consists of essays that trace the origin and spread of recent border violence. In “The Widest of Borders,” Liliana Blum shatters myths (e.g., Mexican drugs are exclusively consumed by Americans) and demonstrates that there is blame enough for multiple parties. Lolita Bosch, in “The War, Us, the Peace,” explores the impact that racism, classicism and lack of opportunity have had on Mexico. Diego Osorno narrates the horror that basically eradicated an entire town in “The Battle for Ciudad Mier.” María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba closes the section with “Mirrors, Ghosts and Violence in Ciudad Juárez,” which examines how narco-violence has obscured the plight of the dozens of women murdered in that border city.

In Part II (The Personal Stories), authors share the devastating impact the Mexican cartel wars have had on a once vibrant way of life. Nearly every one of these pieces contrasts the writers’ experiences growing up, crisscrossing a blurry border whose colors and people shaded into each other, with a present reality that breaks abruptly with those memories. From abandoning beloved trips into the old country to selling off family property in Mexico, from musical genres twisted by a rough and gaudy new cultural trend to empty streets of once teeming towns, from young boys with AK-47s to bridges that loom ominously, the heart-breaking images of these bittersweet memoirs moved me deeply.

Two of the more impactful essays were by the editors themselves. Sarah Cortez, a former law-enforcement officer, powerfully proclaims herself part of a group of individuals “who stand against the wholesale execution of decent human beings by thugs for illegal gain, sanctioned by a government too weak or too dirty to act.” Sergio Troncoso closes the collection with a poignant sentiment: “It was a better life than what we have today, and we understand that fact mostly in retrospect, as we often do, when we lose what we value before we had a chance to appreciate what it meant.”   

Informative and stirring, Our Lost Border is an invaluable tool for engaging in the sorts of conversations and behavior that will allow us to turn the tide of violence along the border. A must-read for those who dream of a return to the border that was.

---David Bowles for The McAllen Monitor

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence (Arte Público Press) is a bold collection of essays dealing with these fundamental questions, an exploration of border violence and the effect it has had on our shared consciousness and culture….

In the brilliant and unflappable "The Battle for Ciudad Mier" ("La Batalla de Ciudad Mier"), Diego Osorno describes not only the violence and brutality of the narco war as it descended upon the small town of Mier but also the cost to those risking their lives to tell the story. "The gunmen drove right by them (a group of fellow journalists). Within a few minutes, they ran into them again a little ways up the road. The gunmen detained them, put their guns to their heads, cocked their guns, beat them and took them to a safe house and interrogated them." Before freeing them, the gunmen order: "Go and warn the press not to trespass here.' "…

Sergio Troncoso's final essay, "A World Between Two Worlds," culminates Our Lost Border with illuminating insight. Here, he recalls his family's exodus from Mexico but also their many returns, Sundays spent shopping and eating, trips to the barbershop where Troncoso learned the subtleties of machismo.

He also tells the story of Chavita, a "cousin" who saw the possibilities of Juárez and worked to create a vibrant music festival -- only to be forced to quit when approached by narcos wanting their cut, them threatening his family if he refused to pay. He has since fled.

Troncoso laments the loss of what he describes as the region's "unity":

"So the Juárez/El Paso area before the recent drug violence was not a bilingual, bi-national, bicultural Zion, but it was one world. One entity. One Place. One city where you live in between worlds, and have the hope of creating something new. A third way to be, not along the border, but on the border."

The essays in Our Lost Border reveal just how much the narco war has cost us, how we've become suspicious and fearful and, worst of all, acclimated to violence. By losing our border, we may have permanently lost everything we once were.

---Matt Mendez for The El Paso Times

What has been lost is not a political boundary line between the United States and Mexico, but a 60-mile-wide cultural area above and below that the line; the issues raised by the voices here reflect how and why that border has become a zone of fear, violence and bloody murder.

Cortez (Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston, 2010, etc.) and Troncoso (Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, 2011, etc.) are writers and academics now living in Houston and New York City respectively, but both are deeply familiar with the border. They have divided their anthology into a journalistic portion titled “The Tortured Landscape,” in which four reports appear once in their original Spanish and then in an English translation, and a subjective section titled “The Personal Stories,” which includes eight essays, two by the editors describing the losses suffered by them, their friends and their families. The judgments of Mexico are harsh, with one writer asserting that “what we see now is a ‘result of a society that has been rotting for many years.’ ” The words “corruption,” “bribery” and “greed” occur over and over again, and both the government and the populace are described as passive and even complicit in the monstrous narcotics trade. Turf wars between drug cartels are unbelievably brutal, with torture, beheading and disemboweling seemingly everyday occurrences, leaving desolate such cities as Juarez and Tijuana. Nightly shootings, kidnappings, robberies and the discovery of mass graves—all these and more have put an end to a once-thriving tourist industry and a rich cultural exchange between those living on either side of the boundary. Where there were once bridges, there are now high walls. Some mention is made of the United States as the consumer of the drugs and the supplier of arms to the warring drug cartels, but this is primarily Mexico’s story, and it is a bitter one.

A tough but eye-opening read.

---Kirkus Reviews

Read Troncoso’s essay about editing Our Lost Border on his blog, Chico Lingo: The Making of an Anthology: Our Lost Border.

Short stories: Angie Luna, The Snake, A Rock Trying to be a Stone, and Espíritu Santo.

Essays: Imagine Ysleta, A Day Without Ideas, Fresh Challah, and Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories?