On crossing the border, writing novels and mangos

 

The boy's name was Alejandro, and when I stepped off the bus in Oaxaca, Mexico, he handed me a mango, half of it peeled so I could both hold it and eat it on our walk up the mountain to his village. I was 16 and my Spanish was lousy, which is to say, this mango tasted particularly delicious, the recipient of all my heightened awareness and nerves. It was the best mango I've ever eaten, burned into my memory alongside this skinny barefoot kid leading me past a cluster of corrugated tin-and-plywood homes, barking dogs, meat drying on clotheslines, cornfields, and jungle.

Thus my summer began, a summer supposedly about building latrines in a village with no running water, but which really proved to be about coming into awareness of other people in far different country. Because, of course, while I was mixing cement in the town's one wheelbarrow with a shovel, I was also listening to Alejandro talk about his wish to "go to university," as he put it. As I watched him sketch out math problems in the dirt with a stick, when I saw not a single book anywhere that summer, I knew his struggle was huge.

I came home a writer and I've been writing ever since. I am not a lawyer or politician — though I considered both those paths — I am a writer, and so it is my business to try to give voice to the human drama that plays out on this beautiful spinning planet. My humble task, as I see it, is to try to ask the right questions. As Chekov put it, "Artistic literature is so called because it depicts life as it really is. Its aim is the truth — unconditional and honest. It seems to me that a writer should not try to solve such questions; his business is but to describe."

Alejandro became my example of how and why people wanted to leave their homeland -- the lengths they'd go -- and his face became the image my mind produces when I hear of a death on the border. It's his face that encourages me to tell stories that are not easily spoken of: a coyote's fees, the requirement to carry drugs, the new trails across the desert. Not everyone can go public with such stories, but a writer can try.

Recently, I wrote about a levanton, someone who helps others cross the border of Mexico into America, because this job is at the heart of the desperate immigrant experience. No más cruces en la frontera, no more crosses on the border. This is the hand-painted sign the protagonist of my new novel sees when she finds the bones of an immigrant in the desert.

As she stands above these bones, she may not know that over 4 million unauthorized immigrants now live in the West, their passages successful. But as a levantona, she knows some never made it at all. She knows that a law or a fence may slow the flow, but nothing can stop it because the mind's dreams and the desires of the heart are powerful goads. She knows that the facts and figures of immigration don't explain the underlying reasons of economic inequality and violence that push people north. She knows the truth on the ground, and that truth is that emigration has only become more difficult as there must be more handoffs among traffickers, new routes with less access to help, and, ultimately, more crosses.

As she puts her own life on the line to save a young girl, she knows one obvious truth: "There's something I have always wanted to say ... something about how if we listen harder, stare harder, focus harder, use our imaginations harder, the people at the other end of our sight, well, they morph from blurs on the horizon, something barely discernible at a distance, and become very clear, very detailed. We need someone to see and to listen and to feel, and our shapes take form."

Over the years, I've tried to contact Alejandro, the boy I met when I was a teenager, but there's been no response. Perhaps he made it to university. Perhaps he died on the border. Perhaps he made a good life in Mexico. All I know is that he offered a mango and immediately clarified something for me: We are all simply trying to seek the best and most complete version of ourselves.

Laura Pritchett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. Her newest novel, Red Lightning, is based on a levantona, a woman who crosses immigrants. She lives in Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.