Journalist Sam Quinones lived in Mexico for ten years writing freelance for a variety of US publications. In 1998, he was a recipient of the Alicia Patterson Fellowship. In 2001 he published a highly acclaimed collection of stories about contemporary Mexico, True Tales from Another Mexico: the Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx (University of New Mexico Press). Since its release, True Tales has been used in more than 150 university classes at 75 universities in 26 states.
His second book of non-fiction stories, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, was published in 2007 also by the University of New Mexico Press, and has been greeted with rave reviews from NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications including a review in yesterday's El Paso Times by Christine Granados. Quinones now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Kate, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Sam Quinones kindly agreed to answer a few questions from La Bloga:
DANIEL OLIVAS: Through non-fiction, fiction and satire, such writers as Luis Alberto Urrea, Reyna Grande and Gustavo Arellano have addressed Mexican migration. How does your book add to this dialogue?
SAM QUINONES: I suppose my books try to tell the stories of unnoticed people. My favorite stories to do are those where the people I’m interviewing have never met a reporter.
I don’t spend much time on the political/policy side of the immigration issue. I’m more interested in finding poignant stories of real people. So I shy away from this debate where the people with the megaphones yell at each other.
But I also don’t believe I’m an activist. Activists want only one side of the story. I want it all.
OLIVAS: Because undocumented immigration is such a hot button topic, have you encountered vitriol or even threats for your reporting?
QUINONES: At the University of Arizona one time people got upset because I said, in response to a question, that I felt that Mexican immigrants needed to assimilate faster, that holding onto Mexico and attitudes born in Mexico, while comfortable, hindered their full participation in the country, and threatened to recreate here in the states what they were escaping in Mexico.
Other than that, and my run-in with the Mennonites, which I recount in the book, nothing.
OLIVAS: How do you gain the trust of your subjects?
QUINONES: I do stories through immersion and repeated interviews and returning often.
I find it helps to spend time in a place or with a person, then go away for a while. During this time, I write about the story – maybe record vignettes or write chunks of prose that seem certain to be included in the piece. Then I return, now with a fresh perspective and new questions, which are usually more detailed and focused. I do this over and over.
This helps people understand that what I’m after is a fuller sense of who they are, and thus lets them trust me more.
OLIVAS: Delfino Juárez’s story, in particular, is heartbreaking I think because of his relative youth and his almost unflagging desire to improve his life. What did you, personally, take from his story?
QUINONES: I saw first hand what dedication was, what manhood was, how an ordinary human behaved in extraordinary circumstances. And in all of that, too, I saw just a simple kid trying to make his way, with the foibles and weaknesses we all possess.
I also realized what a disaster immigration is for Mexico because it forces people like Delfino to leave. As I say in the book, his absence would be unnoticed in Mexico, as he is uneducated and unpolished. But this is Mexico’s grand delusion – that it really doesn’t matter that much that these folks leave. After all, they sent back $23 billion last year, according to the government. What could be wrong with that?
But Mexico is bleeding to death at its border. No one – not the political elite, nor the private sector, the media, churches, the country’s right or its left – has been able to put pettiness behind it to confront the massive and wrenching changes the country will need to make to become a country that poor people don’t feel they have to leave.
Mexico spends a lot of time fretting over territory it lost to the United States 160 years ago. I don’t see anyone taking the loss of these people with the same gravity – though they are the greater loss.
OLIVAS: I’ve had a chance to interview Gustavo Arellano and I asked him about the flak he’s received for his ¡Ask a Mexican! column and subsequent book of the same title. He rejected such criticism and responded, in part: “There's an unfortunate virus in the minds of many educated Chicanos that tells them to call any Latino who doesn't adhere to a blindly leftist, loyalist ideology a vendido – and few Latinos get more grief than journalists.” How do you view his form of satire and the criticism he’s received from other Chicanos?
QUINONES: His column is terrific. Those who criticize it don’t understand the subtleties he’s getting at. I like his irreverence as well. Latinos, in LA at least, are the majority population. As such, they need to be scrutinized and have their sacred cows gored. That’s healthy and necessary.
I was once criticized for publishing a story in the L.A. Times about an immigrant woman who had three daughters, then triplets and finally quadruplets. So she had 10 kids – the same number her parents had in her village in Jalisco that she had to leave. She’s recreated Mexico in Los Angeles, and of course is now mired in virtually inescapable poverty, the same kind her parents faced. Her older daughters, born here, spoke English horribly.
That kind of story needs to be told. The media shouldn’t shy away from it.
People get sensitive at Gustavo’s column because it’s the kind of thing that hasn’t been written before.
OLIVAS: What grade would you give the “mainstream” press on its coverage of Mexican migration?
QUINONES: If you’re referring to U.S. TV and radio, then I’d say a D or something. They almost never cover it, and when they do it’s very thin.
If you’re talking about U.S. newspapers, some of them do much better. Still there’s a gap, due to lack of Spanish speakers at many papers, that keeps the coverage at some papers pretty superficial. Also, newspapers need to be more bi-national – that is, they need to send their reporters back and forth between the two countries a lot more, the way immigrants go back and forth. Instead, there are turf battles that keep that from happening. That hinders coverage also. Nevertheless, newspapers are where you’re going to see good coverage when it happens.
If you’re talking about the Mexican media, they do worst of all. Considering the enormity of the issue for the country, you’d expect better. But they don’t understand the United States, since most reporters have never been. They don’t understand immigrant Mexico, since they’re not from those parts of the country, and often don’t have relatives in the states. Nor do they understand how to tell stories, as the Mexican media is just emerging from the shadow of 71 years of one-party rule, where reporters were trained to focus on snippets of the political melodrama, avoid going deep, and forget all context or history. With regard to immigration, many just turn to parroting what they’ve heard about the lives of immigrants in the United States. There’s no nuance, subtlety or complexity in what they do.
OLIVAS: Your frightening encounter with the drug-running Mennonites really came out of left field. As a journalist, what did you learn from that experience?
QUINONES: To understand where I am. I’d had a lot of success penetrating worlds that weren’t my own in Mexico up to then. But sometimes you can’t.
I never really penetrated that world, as much as I tried. In this case, I was so foolish. I took dumb chances. So I learned to think twice.
Also, I learned that I’ll avoid that area from now on.
OLIVAS: Who do you enjoy reading?
QUINONES: A lot of different stuff. Calvin Trillin is the best journalist storyteller I’ve read. B. Traven’s stories are great as well. I just read the biography of this amateur scientist who both helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and was avidly into metaphysics and witchcraft. He accidentally blew himself up. But he was from that generation that was out there winging it, pardon the pun, untrained, unaware of what couldn’t be done.
I just read Merchant of Venice – though I didn’t like it as much as some of his other plays. John Le Carre is great. Alma Guillermoprieto is too.
I think writers need to read a lot of varied material. If you ever feel that you shouldn’t read something or someone because you wouldn’t agree with it, then you should probably read it. Doing that helps jostle your world a bit and that’s good. When you have lots coming in from all over, your brain is able to make the connections that lead to better insights. That’s my experience, anyway. Also, I read short story writers: Anton Chekhov, John Cheever. Eduardo Parras is hip.
OLIVAS: What are you working on now?
QUINONES: Two things, mainly.
One, I want to set up my website as a place people can tell their own true tales, or that of a relative, friend, or someone they’ve encountered. I want stories like Chalino Sanchez sang about: stories of valientes, of immigrants, of narcos. One man’s story, for example, is of his days as a cook on a marijuana plantation in the late 1980s.
But also I want stories of minor yet poignant things. I have a story of how I saved the life of a pelican that came out of the sea toward me as I walked along the beach in Mazatlan. That kind of thing. I imagine there are a million of them out there. I want to make the stories tight and readable narratives, with a beginning, middle and end. So I’ll edit and rewrite the stuff people send me. But the idea is to make the website a place where people can tell their stories.
So many students I’ve spoken to tell me about a relative with a wild life story. I’m going to be writing to English and creative writing instructors at universities and junior colleges to let their students know about it. People should send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. They should keep in mind that I’m looking for stories of a specific event or moment – a shootout in the hills or how they crossed the border – and told like stories, with a beginning, middle and end, and not just recollections. 750 words is about the maximum. Also, I can’t pay anything. But who knows, maybe there’ll be a book we can publish with all those stories, if we get enough good ones. People can find out more at my website and clicking on the TELL YOUR TRUE TALE link.
The second project is a book of stories about immigrants in Los Angeles – immigrants from Korea, India, Cambodia, as well as from Mexico and Latin America. Los Angeles is what the country is becoming, so I’m hoping the stories will have wider appeal than just here in Southern California.
These are stories I’ve done for the L.A. Times, but I’ll be rewriting them. I’m aiming to get it done by December.
OLIVAS: Thank you, Sam, for spending time with us at La Bloga.
◙ Well, Al Martinez is back in the saddle at the Los Angeles Times with a column beginning today that will run each Monday in the California section. Many thanks to the Times for listening to the hundreds of readers who wrote in to complain about Martinez’s recent ouster.
◙ Over at LatinoLA, Rosa Martha Villarreal offers her views on why Latinos hate stories about gangs. Villarreal is the author of the novel, The Stillness of Love and Exile (Tertulia Press 2007), and is a member of PEN USA.
◙ Luis Alberto Urrea is blogging like a loco including this very helpful post on writing prompts.
◙ Myriam Gurba, author of the story collection, Dahlia Season (Manic D Press), is interviewed over at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. If you missed La Bloga’s interview with Gurba, click here.
◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro!