In the early 1980s, Mexico was bailed out of a foreign debt crisis by the IMF and the World Bank so that it could continue paying back interest on loans from US banks. The condition for this financial relief was a set of sweeping structural adjustments which, under the banner of neoliberalism, created the perfect storm of conditions that, in the decades to come, would facilitate the rise of the modern Mexican cartels, and consequently, the border crisis with the US.
In Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (tr. Sarah Booker), author and 2020 MacArthur Fellowship winner Cristina Rivera Garza, known primarily for works of fiction like No One Will See Me Cry (tr. Andrew Hurley) and The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), traces the connections between these defining events in a series of essays written over the last sixteen years. Ranging from investigative journalism to art criticism, this collection takes steady aim at both the Mexican state and the narco cartels, but its ultimate target is neoliberalism, which Rivera Garza sees as the philosophy uniting the two entities. In the essay “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life,” the author describes both the Mexican cartels and the new, structurally reconfigured Mexico as a “neoliberal regime that used [Mexico’s youth] as cannon fodder in exchange for maximum profit.” She settles upon the phrase, “estado sin entrañas,” which Sarah Booker renders into English as the “visceraless state,” to describe the predicament. While the eponymous essay appears early on in the collection, her most lucid description of this expression comes in her essay about the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the last (and best) in the collection: “[The visceraless state is] a state for which bodies are not a matter of care but merely extraction.”
As macabre as this assessment might sound, these essays are not devoid of hope—they are replete with the stories of individuals, often women, who have tried to either fill or make sense of the state’s absence. “Elvira Arellano and That Which Blood, Tradition, and Community Unite” traces the efforts of Arellano who, after being deported from the US, founds an organization in Tijuana that provides shelter and assistance to recently deported women while they establish a life in Mexico. “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago” is an essay about an art project which could be described as a kind of border-inspired reinterpretation of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. Originally featured in the streets of Oaxaca City, Santiago’s hometown, 2501 Migrants features as many human-sized sculptures, meant to represent the migrants who have left the city. I am often wary of creative reviews of single books or art installations in thematic essay collections—so often they read as thinly disguised filler content—but Rivera Garza manages to leap the nebulous chasm between review and essay, and it ends up being one of the strongest pieces in the collection. In the failed war on drugs, the border crisis, and all the violence that has accompanied them, there is still beauty somehow. There is no lack of data in these essays for inquiring minds, but these moments of beauty and determination inevitably outlast the figures and make for some of the collection’s most poignant moments.
A significant portion of the collection is about how immigration and the failed war on drugs have impacted women—about femicide and the mothers it leaves daughterless—but some of the collection’s smaller, anecdotal essays about women have the most staying power. “The Neo-Camelias” is a fascinating look at the complicated role of women in cartels and how that position has evolved over time. In “Nonfiction,” Rivera Garza retells the story of a taxi driver she knows who, after taking a sex worker to a hotel, learns that she has been killed that very evening. Incredibly, not long after learning of the murder, he realizes that his current passenger, also a sex worker, is the woman’s younger sister.
Given the period of time in which these essays were written, readers might note how Rivera Garza’s style changes throughout the collection. Her 2004 essay “Mourning,” for example, which explores mourning and the Other through the work of Judith Butler, adopts a more academic style. It’s a logical thematic fit, but I enjoyed the essay more for what it revealed about the evolution of Rivera Garza’s voice throughout the collection than the content proper. In some of the collection’s other more recent essays, Garza seems to move away from an academic register, opting instead for the taut, economical prose characteristic of her novella The Taiga Syndrome. Among the essays added to the original 2011 collection (and subsequent second edition, published in 2015), I would have loved to read Rivera Garza’s take on how Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, fits into this larger pattern of visceralessness. AMLO initially refused to take COVID-19 seriously, and though his politics differ, he is often at odds with democratic institutions in a way that is similar to Trump and Bolsonaro.
It’s also worth noting that two of the added essays, “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” and “On Our Toes” were originally written by Rivera Garza in English. The rest of the collection was originally written in Spanish and translated by Sarah Booker, who also worked on the author’s novel The Iliac Crest. She does a marvelous job capturing the subtleties of Rivera Garza’s voice: In “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago,” for example, Booker capably translates one of Rivera Garza’s thornier sentences—“Fantasmagóricos y aterradores a la vez, frágiles como el material que los compone, pero ciertos en el aire que los envuelve y sólidos en el espacio que ocupan, los migrantes de Santiago cruzan sobre todo una frontera: la muy delgada y quebradiza línea de lo que con frecuencia se denomina como realidad”—as “Simultaneously fantastic and terrifying, as fragile as the material they’re made of, yet solid in the space they occupy and the air that surrounds them, Santiago’s migrants cross one border above all: the thin, brittle line we often call reality.” Seamlessly done.
Precious few are essay collections in translation, and of those precious few, many consist of fiction writers compiling their stray odds and ends for a dependable base of readers. Thoughtfully curated and aptly translated, Grieving is not just for completists of Rivera Garza’s obra; in less than 200 pages, it is both evocative and informative. With this collection, Rivera Garza obliges readers to take her work as an essayist just as seriously as the short novels and novellas that have made her name.