From Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.
¿Quo vadis?: “Where are you going?” or, more accurately, “To what purpose are you going?” in classical Latin.
Carmen Boullosa (born in Mexico City in 1954) is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published fifteen novels, the most recent of which are El complot de los románticos, Las paredes hablan, and La virgen y el violin, all with Editorial Siruela in Madrid. Her works in English translation include They´re Cows, We’re Pigs; Leaving Tabasco; and Cleopatra Dismounts, all published by Grove Press, and Jump of the Manta Ray, with illustrations by Philip Hughes, published by The Old Press. Her novels have also been translated into Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and Russian.
She received the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize in Mexico, in Germany the Anna Seghers and the Liberaturpreis, and from Spain the Café Gijón Prize. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Cullman Center Fellow, and has held the Chair Andrés Bello at NYU and the Alfonso Reyes Chair at La Sorbonne. A Distinguished Lecturer at City College of New York, she is a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores, in Mexico. She hosts the CUNY-T.V. show Nueva York, for which she´s been awarded four New York Emmys.
To learn more about Carmen and hear her thoughts on becoming a writer, Mexican culture, and the drug wars, watch the video below:
Samantha Schnee is a founding editor of Words without Borders. She is the former senior editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, a literary journal founded by Francis Ford Coppola that won the 2001 National Magazine Award for fiction. She translates from the Spanish.
Find out what it was like to translate “Sleepless Homeland” in this blog post from Samantha Schnee (who is also the Chair of Words Without Borders’ Board of Directors.)
First, read Juan Villoro’s essay “Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico,” also on WWB Campus.
Then, read about a bold announcement from Mexico’s president: Mexico’s President Declares an End to the Drug War, published in Time magazine in 2019. And a more recent article, about the Mexican city where 96% of residents continue to live in fear: “‘We’re Living in Hell’: Inside Mexico’s Most Terrified City,” from the NY Times.
For current events in the drug wars, look through a photo gallery, Mexico’s Drug Wars, from Time magazine (Warning: includes an image of a murder victim), or browse the subject pages on Reuters and the New York Times online.
Watch a trailer for the crime drama Heli, in which a Mexican family gets involved with a drug cartel after a twelve-year-old girl agrees to hide her much older boyfriend’s cocaine. The film was Mexico’s submission to the 2014 Oscars.
(Watch this video on YouTube.)
Watch Carmen Boullosa talk to the philosopher Carlos Pereda about “the train of false desires” and other ideas. (The interview begins 9 minutes in; it’s in Spanish, with English subtitles.)
(Watch the video on YouTube.)
Then, listen to what Carmen Boullosa has to say about the difference between being Mexican living in the United States and being Mexican-American in a conversation about “A Celebration of Mexico” at the Library of Congress. You can also read the transcript.
Your flesh is denser,
can be compressed into a thimble,
or the embroidery on that blouse.
Look through the pictures in “Through Children’s Eyes,” a BBC Mundo series that shared children’s art depicting the drug wars.
Then, read about young adults targeted by the drug wars in Francisco Goldman’s unit introduction and the A.P. article “Thousands Protest Brutal Killings of 3 Mexican Film Students.” Organizers of the April 26, 2018 march said: “Our dreams and our voices will not be dissolved in acid.”
Finally, read Mexico 20, a 2015 anthology of work from young Mexican writers. Find the book from Pushkin Press.
Read the Room for Debate discussion about what can be done to restore justice and security in Mexico.
Then, read this New York Times op-ed about the disproportionate effect of violent drug raids on Black and Indigenous people in Latin America.
Watch former President Bill Clinton speak about about the role of the US in the Mexican drug wars. He tells Mexican students and business leaders, “I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s really not your fault.”
Then, read an article about the speech.
Look through the slide show “A Vale of Terror, Transcended: Artists Explore Immigration, Border Issues and the Drug War.”
Then, look through the gallery “Documenting Murder in Mexico” from Mother Jones magazine. (Includes graphic images.)
Find out how much it costs to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and hear answers to other questions, on NPR’s The Call-In, which answers questions about crossing the border. (You can also read the transcript.)
“People who are are against immigration generate a sense of crisis…They create a sense that ‘This is a huge problem; we need a wall.’” Read more about immigration myths and facts in the New York Times.
For a child’s perspective of a different armed conflict, take a look at “A Subjective History of Lebanon,” a graphic memoir about growing up in the middle of a civil war.
Read another piece of literature about being lost, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?,” which is available in full text on Oates’ official website.
*For Teaching Idea 1
Carmen Boullosa has said that she listened to narco-corridos (ballads about Mexico’s drug culture) as she wrote this poem, even though she “hates” them. In an essay published on this site, journalist Fabrizio Madrid describes the ways in which the songs seek to justify the life choices of drug cartel members:
Through their verses the motive [for crime] becomes clear: I was very poor and now I have everything and endless amounts of it and, even if they kill me, it was worth living by illegal means. . . They use the discourse of the prevailing power: the free market and the legitimacy of making money.
You can listen to a song below.
Mis Tres Animales (My Three Animals) by Los Tucanes De Tijuana.
The lyrics (also from The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat) are:
This is nothing new, gentlemen,
And nor is it going to end;
This is a lifelong business,
The Mafia of global origin.
Then, read the rest of Madrid’s essay, which also discusses film, code language, and the possessions seized from drug dealers: The Mystery of the Parakeet, the Rooster, and the Nanny Goat.
*For Teaching Idea 2
¿Te perdemos en un juego de dados? ¿En una esnifada te nos escapas? ¿En qué jeringa de que yonki te has quedado atrapada, Patria mía?,
¿tal vez atada a un adicto nórdico? ¿Cuándo te pusieron encima el sello de la píldora que da un placer efímero? De ti yo soy adicta, sin tus suertes.
¡Patria mía, algún día diamantina, tartamudeas! ¡Tartamuda cada día, más viva a la manera de la llaga, altiva y voraz!
En tus rincones te comportas como una suripanta, vendes cada porción de ti para el gusto de otros, usas lentes oscuros, cantas con acordeón y tambores,
te desgañitas, en tu lecho finges placer y sientes dolor.
(Y a veces tus cuerdas suenan sin estar envenenando a costa propia). (Y a veces, Patria mía, te ríes sin desgañites.)
¿Dónde caíste, Patria insomne, como el astro del cuento, como la ebria que se estrella contra un poste de luz?
Tu masa más densa, más austera, más sólida, más real,
puede comprimirse y caber en un dedal,
o en el bordado de aquella blusa.
De que estés, no hay duda. ¿Pero a dónde vas? Entre lo humos de una guerra entre todos,
en la que nadie sino mercenarios participa
-las balas que vuelan no tienen convicciones, son de paga federal, estatal, o de este capo o el otro etcétera… Ráfagas a sueldo-, te nos escapas, Patria en fuga.
(Tu aliento de miel de ráfagas a sueldo.)
(Tu aliento de ajo y chocolate y chiles diversos.)
(Tu aliento a piedra de moler, molcajete y ajo y miel y chiles y pimienta y canela.
(Tu aliento a piedra del sacrificio, a sangre, al corazón que aún palpita.)
La quiero igual
Tierra mía, agua mía, raíz mía, arboladura y flor, islote pedregoso en femenino, mía, mía, como sólo tú puedes serlo, Madre mayor,
a ti te llamo desde otra isla sin piedras, ni serpientes, donde el águila y el erizo andan en lo mismo, piensan cómo devorarte.
(¡Nopalitos! ¡Sopa de nopalitos hemos guisado con mi Patria! Deliciosa sopa de placeres para los extranjeros. Nopalitos: éxtasis, alfametilfentanilo, y demás.) !
From Sleepless Homeland (Madrid: Hiperion, 2011). © 2011 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author.