Interview: Michael Mejia

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I  first encountered Michael Mejia’s short story “Coyote Takes Us Home” last year, while reading Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. As a story based on Mexican folktales that addresses the U.S.-Mexico border, it stands out in an anthology that–while excellent–mostly draws upon European lore. Mejia carved out time in his busy schedule (he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah, is the Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review, the co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and the author of the novel Forgetfulness) to talk to me about “Coyote Takes Us Home,” the fraught landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the trips he took south of the border in an effort to learn about his Mexican heritage.

I live near the U.S.-Mexican border–in Tucson, Arizona–and I encountered your story, “Coyote Takes Us Home,” while writing about borderland fairy tales and folklore for the Fairy Tale Review blog. Why did you decide to write a newfangled fairy tale about crossing the border?

As with any good fairy tale, there are three knocks required to open this question.

The first reveals an answer you may already know. In my note following “Coyote Takes Us Home,” I mention having half-heard, some years ago, a news report about unaccompanied minors stowed in cars crossing the border, in a way we might expect with shipments of drugs. It’s fantastic, of course, and dangerous, and absurd, and real. Parents leave their children with relatives, come to the U.S., work to pay for the kids’ care, eventually putting aside enough to have them sent north, through a network of strangers, and smuggled across the border. Sometimes the parents will be forced to pay thousands of dollars more, a ransom, to have the kids delivered as much as 2000 miles away, to North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Washington or Chicago. Or the kids might get caught along the way and repatriated to a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. A phone call or a fax from their parents, a promise to send them home, to not to try again, can be enough to get them released, and that night they’ll be back in the Arizona desert.

The story got even more desperate in 2014, when more than 40,000 kids from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (far more than from Mexico) were fleeing gang violence and recruitment as well as poverty. They came walking, riding buses, and riding the tops of trains across multiple borders on their way north, with no family at all in the US.  Aside from finding these stories terrifying and sad—though if…when…the kids do make it across, I think we know there’s a real chance at something like a happy ending—I wanted to consider the issues of abandoning your home place, the socio-economic pressures that would make that place unlivable, the unexpected uprooting that occurs on that morning word comes that you’re to get in the car, on the bus, and the loss of cultural knowledge this journey represents. Which brings me to the second knock.

This one reveals that “Coyote” emerged from another project, a book of nonfiction I was researching at the time, about my family’s roots in Mexico. I’d been traveling there—to Jalisco first, to Guadalajara and Tequila—where my grandmother was born, where my great-grandfather was a tequila taster around the turn of the twentieth century—but also to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, and Mexico City, about once a year from 2006 to 2009. I’d developed a desire, maybe a need, to better understand my Mexicanness, to find a way to value it, to embrace it as I hadn’t so much when I was younger. On the first trip, I knew no Spanish. That was deliberate. I needed to work for my reward. (One might also read this as self-punishment. I was raised Catholic, and oh, how I admire the bloodied and broken bodies of indigenous-made Christs.) I started teaching myself after the first trip and was eventually able to sustain some basic conversation.

That spring before I first visited Tequila, I’d planned to spend some time interviewing my father about his childhood in Texas, where he was born, and his own sense of his heritage, and my grandmother about her youth and her emigration in 1924. I’d recorded her telling me that story, and the story of my father’s father—who he never knew—about ten years earlier, but by 2006 I felt greater urgency to fill out those briefly-sketched tales and to explore my reasons for wanting to better identify the Mexican in me.

Then my father and my grandmother both died, within about a month of each other, before I’d had a chance to ask for more. All I had to go on was the tape, with all its questions and gaps. Between my trips to Mexico, I sat down with cousins, aunts, and my uncle for interviews. The project, obviously, was very openly personal, unusual for me, and I kind of stalled out, finally, a little overwhelmed by my research, and uncomfortable with the various starts I’d made to piece it together into a book. I could construct a narrative of our history, but I wasn’t sure yet how I wanted to represent it or talk about it.

Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez-Smith’s invitation to contribute an updated fairy tale to My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me showed up in my inbox at that exact moment, a magic key. I’d written an essay on the tale of Bluebeard some years earlier for Kate’s Brothers & Beasts, an anthology of men writing about fairy tales. I think my first impulse was to turn again to that story, but then, given what I’d been immersed in, I thought this was an opportunity to explore my Mexico through other means, through fiction, whose distance provided a fresh and less sentimental connection. Much of the imagery in “Coyote”—its street markets, its festivals, its bricolage of detritus and souvenirs and smells and flavors—was imported from my research trips to Mexico. The narrative’s concerns with cultural loss, figured in ruins and stories, in abandoned characters out of context, may be my attempt to imagine my grandmother’s experience as much as those of contemporary children.

So, the third knock.

Crossing the border, any border, with the aim of immigration, is a kind of fairy tale, a classic journey of danger and education. It requires guides, more or less honest, or you make the journey at your own peril. You go to the border to be reborn, to come out new on the other side, more free, more yourself, maybe, which means someone else.

This fairy tale—I mean this now not as something ephemeral, but, better, a dream that can become reality—was what my grandmother was after, what her cousin had achieved for himself in Texas and then California, before returning to Mexico to rescue her from a sugar plantation near Ameca, Jalisco, as he’d promised his mother before she died. His white horse was waiting on the edge of town for them, the cousin, my grandmother, her oldest daughter, her unborn child. That’s how my youngest aunt heard it from my grandmother before drifting to sleep in the moonlight. By then, the ugly details of my grandmother’s early marriage at 14, the physical and emotional abuse she suffered from her husband—an alcoholic who was later killed in a knife fight, who left her to beg for food while he ate well-enough with his parents—the burden of her alcoholic father, had been redacted. They left the husband behind, my grandmother told me. They lied about how they were related to avoid uncomfortable questions. My grandmother was her cousin’s sister. Her daughter was their younger sister. Do they live happily ever after? That’s a story for another time.

In the note that follows your story, you mention that the folk tales you wove into “Coyote Takes Us Home” come from Jalisco, Mexico, where your grandmother was born. How did you first encounter these stories? Which of these traditional tales is your favorite?

When I started “Coyote,” I knew nothing about Mexican fairy tales. (Why, oh why, do I always make things as hard as possible?) I knew something about Aztec myth, of course, but I understood that this wasn’t really the point of the anthology, and also that the Aztecs were just one group that had populated what became Mexico, particularly the central region, and that they weren’t really prominent in the west, where Jalisco is located. They weren’t my people.

Also, notice that I don’t use the term abuela when I refer to my grandmother. That’s not who she was to me. I’m trying to think of a time I actually heard anyone refer to her that way. She didn’t share stories of the old country with me or with her other grandchildren, so far as I know, the way we see in many memoirs of loving abuelitas and assimilation. Some say she loved Mexico. Some say she hated it. She did go back several times after a period of separation, but she was also happy to return home to America.

So I got on a university library website and did a search for Mexican fairy tales. Among other things, I turned up a 1943 volume published by The American Folklore Society called Tales from Jalisco, Mexico, edited by Howard True Wheeler. It’s a kind of Lomaxian project (Alan Lomax and his father John were both members of the society), in which Wheeler wandered the Jaliscan countryside, soliciting tales from the locals. The names of the storytellers, the Mexicans, were expunged. Wheeler only includes the name of the town nearest to where he heard the tale. “Few informants,” he writes in his brief introduction, “were able to read and write and, even from those, a very small percentage of purely literary tales was obtained. These literary tales I eliminated.” I’m not sure why it was necessary to suppress the local literary style from the collection, but already this text seemed to speak directly to my interest in distance and cultural erasure. These were not obstacles for me to overcome. They were, they remain, the elements of my condition. Also, the tales are all printed in Spanish, rendered, according to Wheeler, as closely as possible in the “fine type of Castilian” spoken in Jalisco at the time. I couldn’t read them. I relied, instead, on the English précis that headed each tale, and, when necessary, did my best to decipher the Spanish. These tales, like the detritus mentioned before, are scattered throughout “Coyote,” each section mashing up bits and pieces of the central images, characters, and events from several tales. Throw a stone, you’ll hit one.

As I say in my note, I was interested in the way the stories seemed to illustrate the varied strata of Mexican history, from pre-Conquest, to the colonial period, to post-Independence. The first period is represented, in my mind, by the animal stories, featuring coyotes, alligators, rats, ants, serpents, chickens, bulls. These last, though—the chickens, the bulls, and other farm animals—indicate that the Spanish have already arrived. The second group consists of translations or variants of European classics, retaining their kings, princesses, and castles. “Blanca Nieve,” for example. I remember my father teasing me when I was a kid with the Spanish name for Snow White, pretending he’d lost his ability to speak English.

The last are my favorites, in which clever Indians and mestizo campesinos often get the upper hand over an aged, often drunk, and bumbling priestly class. I love their quality of derision and their vulgarity, powerful forms of resistance. These are characters I recognize from my own family as well as from some of my favorite encounters on my research trips. There’s a fated darkness to these stories, and a violent struggle against oppressive institutions. For the moment, the downtrodden gain the upper hand, and it’s hilarious. When the feather tossed in the air lands on the priest, it’s him who’s condemned to hell, not some individual in the congregation of campesinos he’s trying to frighten with the absurd exercise, the congregation that flees, that frees itself from the confines of the church, believing the devil is already on his way. Instantly, all the church’s lessons are turned on their head, revealing the persistence of an indigenous will that cannot be eradicated.

If I have one favorite among these tales, it’s probably “El Porquito,” in which a family has nothing of value but a pig they’re feeding until it shits fat, “cague cebito.” The hungry daughter sticks a candle in the pig’s ass to give the impression that the time has arrived, fooling her mother, and this leads not just to the pig’s premature slaughter, but to a series of events—involving the Virgin Mary, Saint Peter, talking roosters and turkeys, and a donkey’s ass appearing on someone’s forehead—that reveal traitorous streaks in both the mother and an orphan girl living with the family. The father, having missed out on the fresh carnitas while he was away, is served fried portions of the mother’s buttocks as a ruse. I love the commingling of the sacred and the profane here, the tale’s unpredictable turns, its bizarrerie, its low humor, the asses and shit that are worth gold in this context. It’s not a particularly pleasant story, I suppose, but I think it describes a kind of reality for the now-unknown teller about the nature of his poverty, and that of his predecessors, that needs hearing, a reality my characters in “Coyote” are quite familiar with themselves before they hit the road.

“Coyote Takes Us Home” dwells in the tension between the fantastic and the violent. At one point in the story, the moon is making the child travelers posole and tortillas. “‘But where is Yolanda? Where is Areli? What happened to Pancho and Enrique?'” the moon asks, to which the narrator thinks, “The truth is not so pretty.” Throughout the journey, kids riding in the Nova are turned to paper and stolen by birds, among other, more graphic fates. Why did you choose to weave fairy tales together with the violence that too often accompanies crossing the border? Do you think those fairy tales encourage the reader to think about that violence differently? How?

Great question. I think, first, the violence in “Coyote” is representative of the violence we often encounter in fairy tales—though maybe it’s more widespread and constant here—and particularly in the tales of Jalisco on which I’ve drawn. But I’ve also worked to create a somewhat realistic backdrop against which this violence occurs, which I hope highlights the general lack of safety one accepts when traveling the routes Coyote’s Nova does. Disappearance and death are always possible. Hopefully the flatness of the collective narrator’s response to the gradual dissipation of the group communicates a kind of resignation, echoing a fatalism I sensed in the stories in Wheeler’s Tales, and that of ordinary Mexicans I met on my trips to Tequila, who reluctantly accept indefensible inequality and the corruption of their local institutions, but still manage to maintain substantial dignity as they attempt to work within the system. It’s not to say the kids Coyote’s transporting are resigned to die, more that their lives have trained them to manage their expectations and to value their continued existence as less fortunate others fall by the wayside.

Also I think there are at least two kinds of violence at the border. There’s the violence of the crossing, which can mean the self-abuse of a long walk across a killing desert—a funneling into the furnace created by stricter, post-9/11 U.S. border policies and more fences, more surveillance devices, more militarized American manpower—as well as the abusive treatment guides subject their charges to, abandoning them to the sun or cramming them to suffocating overcapacity into a car’s trunk or a box truck. And then there’s the related violence of the drug war, which got significantly worse during the time I was working on this story.

Set between or against these, of course, are the various American agencies authorized for border security—DHS, CBP, ICE, BEST, state and local police forces, et al.—and unauthorized vigilante groups who’ve charged themselves with filling perceived gaps and often have a violent and racist rhetoric of condemnation of immigrants and their home nations. It should also be acknowledged, however, that while there’ve been notable incidents of violence perpetrated by, and claims of abuse against, American law enforcement at the border, Border Patrol agents are most often the people who rescue immigrants from dying in the desert.

In 2009, while on a research trip to El Paso, I was warned repeatedly not to go to Juarez, just one bridge away from downtown, not a sister city so much as a conjoined twin, as is the case with most cities and towns on the border. The morning I landed, several bodies had been discovered in a shallow grave in the desert on the Mexican side. The grave was a kindness. That same year, a well-known hit man nicknamed “el Pozolero,” The Pozole Maker, was captured in Tijuana. He got this name for his trademark practice of dissolving murder victims in barrels of acid. Again, those disappearances were both expedient and generous compared to the humiliating public displays of heads and hanging corpses that seem to have become the norm more recently. In 2011, two days before the city’s renowned International Book Fair, three van-loads of bodies were left in a traffic circle near a central monument in Guadalajara, a message sent by a local gang allied with Sinaloa’s El Chapo to their rivals, the Zetas. Though conflict was on the rise there, Guadalajara had, until then, remained relatively immune to the cartel violence rampaging elsewhere around the country.

This brings me back to vulgarity and its significance in Mexican life. Certainly these examples and others are representative of a horrific extreme, but I think they arise from a shared language of abjection, black humor, and vulgarity—forms of resistance, as I’ve said, terms I’m using with some admiration—and perhaps also the surreal, that one finds in many venues and media in Mexico. Advertisements and packaging, in their way, are violent. Popular culture, television, and popular music are violent, those attacking brass sections accompanied by whirling clarinets, the exploding rockets a boy lights and releases from his bare, gunpowder-blackened hand. Violence is, I think, very much a part of Mexico, though I don’t really mean that to be a criticism. And I also don’t mean to overemphasize the idea because surely I’ve encountered plenty of quiet generosity and kindness during my visits as well, much more than violence, and my Coyote is, after all, a fairly beneficent guide, trying to provide some education to his kids as they prepare to leave home forever (the “home” in the story’s title is intentionally ambiguous), to give them something to remember about an important, maybe the most important, part of themselves. Maybe I’m inclined to think of violence in Mexico as an aspect of boldness and vitality instead, a self-consuming explosion of life, an embrace of the tenuous nature of any seeming stability. Municipal presidents and candidates for governor are assassinated. The wealthy are kidnapped and held for ransom. Maybe I’m not sure yet what I think about violence in Mexico, border-related or otherwise, only that I know it exists, abundantly, that one feels its nearness, the nearness of death, and that this is one way Mexico, my Mexico, reminds us to live. Everything is always at risk, so why not keep playing with the devil, who tends to be more of a jester or a sad sack than a Prince of Darkness, less so than the drug kingpin who you hope to never meet? Any dire situation might be turned back by a derisive laugh and a curse. Maybe it’s the last laugh, maybe not.


Interview conducted by Wren Awry