Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: Death in Veracruz - New Books

Destroy to Create

Manuel Ramos

Death in Veracruz
Héctor Aguilar Camín
Schaffner Press, Inc - October, 2015

IN THE MEXICAN STATE OF VERACRUZ in Héctor Aguilar Camín’s 1986 novel, Death in Veracruz, Lázaro Pizarro is the union strongman and de facto ruler. He is a man of grandiose ambition and clever stories. He talks about and carries out imaginative projects in the name of his workers; his purview includes everything from overseeing vegetable farms to punishing an abusive drunk. Men line up outside his office to seek his help with or advice about family issues, money problems, job searches. He is respected and feared. He makes life-changing decisions for others without any second thoughts. He knows who he is and what he must do. He is described as having “the look of someone long acquainted with effort and adversity. They had left their mark on a body that seemed both dignified and mutilated by much hard work.”

Pizarro’s motto and, therefore, the motto of the oil workers, is “Destroy to create. Whoever can add can divide.” More than mere bureaucratic doubletalk, the motto underscores the multilayered, contradictory grid of betrayal and lies that serves as the foundation of Camín’s novel, where nothing and nobody are what they seem, and yet massive dishonesty and corruption are blatant.

Mexico in the 1970s was a land of stark contrasts. (The bulk of the novel takes place in 1976–1979.) In the first half of the decade the country experienced rapid economic growth. Oil discoveries promised a golden, secure future. Rhetoric from President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and other old guard politicians trumpeted a modern and progressive Mexico. Oil became the economy's most dynamic growth sector, and the country went from an importer of oil and petroleum products to a significant exporter. Rising income allowed the government to continue its expansionary fiscal policy, partially financed by higher foreign borrowing. Between 1978 and 1981, the economy grew more than eight percent annually, as the government spent heavily on energy, transportation, and basic industries.

But the core was rotten. The dominance of oil came at the expense of other products and industries. Food production especially suffered. Fiscal mismanagement and government scandals combined to scuttle the economy, and by 1981 Mexico had to deal with falling oil prices, higher world interest rates, rising inflation, a chronically overvalued peso, and a deteriorating balance of payments — the country’s worst recession since the 1930s. The impact was severe. Daily life for the common Mexican family became a mean struggle for survival. Rising crime rates, increased criminal and governmental violence, and ubiquitous official corruption followed the wreckage of the dying Mexican financial structure. The Mexican economy remained stagnant for decades, and has yet to fully recover.

Written during that recession, Death in Veracruz is set against a background of violent land takeovers by the oil cartels. In Camín’s version, PEMEX, the state oil monopoly, seizes land, dictates policy to local and federal officials, and operates as a shadow government.

PEMEX and the workers’ union are unlikely bedmates, intent on bullying Mexico into the gilded future through any means necessary. Pizarro, one of the union’s more charismatic leaders, is linked by a respected but jaded journalist to numerous shady deals and illegal land seizures, accompanied by beatings and killings when required. Eventually, the reporter has to investigate the murder of an old friend — a mayor of a Mexican village who stood in the way of both oil developers and union interests. The mayor and his wife had revealed to the reporter their evidence of the union leader’s murderous enterprises. A mob executes the mayor before any of the proof surfaces.

The lynching of the mayor sets into motion a series of events that may or may not implicate the mayor’s widow in an assassination attempt on Pizarro, who may or may not have suffered grievous injuries at the hand of a hired gunman. Meanwhile, the journalist — the novel’s unnamed narrator — never knows the complete truth. Nor does he know who to trust or believe.

In the world created by Camín, no one has clean hands or a calm conscience. The journalist had been carrying on an affair with the mayor’s wife, a woman for whom both men had competed in their youth. Meanwhile, the enigmatic widow Anabela is consumed with such an intense desire for revenge that she hopes to match Pizarro bullet for bullet. And yet, the reporter, suffering from guilty ambivalence, continues their doomed affair.

The journalist moves uneasily from the bed of his best friend’s wife to the sterile and imposing office of the union leader, and to all-night drinking parties in Mexico City with fellow journalists, government clerks, and other such “contacts.” At the end, he has reconciled himself to a version of the facts that, if not completely satisfactory, at least accommodates his reporter’s need for closure. In classic Mexican fashion, the journalist grudgingly accepts the dark fate imposed on him and his friends and lover.

Death in Veracruz is the first novel written by Camín to be translated into English. It has been hailed as a “classic of Latin American fiction” by Ariel Dorfman. Unfortunately, though based on events from more than 40 years ago, the novel still resonates. Bloody Mexico continues to be an appropriate phrase to describe the country. The familiar drug cartel violence that has caused thousands of gruesome deaths has numbed the world into accepting a view of the country as a wild, blood-soaked land where no one is safe from the criminals or the police. Government-sanctioned violence is eerily reminiscent of the violence in Camín’s novel, although today the targets are not necessarily political enemies of the party in charge, but journalists and reporters who dare attempt to expose the brutality of the state.

On July 30th of this year, the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and social activist Nadia Vera were killed in Mexico City along with three other women. Espinosa worked as a photographer in the state of Veracruz. He fled to Mexico City after receiving numerous death threats that he was convinced came directly from the local government. Espinosa had been working in Veracruz for the news magazine Proceso. He reported on the 43 missing students from the state of Guerrero, as well as the government of Veracruz under Governor Javier Duarte. Vera also left Veracruz after receiving death threats for her work on behalf of human rights. She had been vocal in her opposition to the Veracruz government and believed it to be complicit in the violence taking place in the region. A year ago, in a televised interview, she warned that if anything happened to her or her colleagues, Governor Duarte would be responsible.

Since Duarte took power in 2010, 14 journalists have been murdered and three have disappeared. None of these murders or disappearances has resulted in convictions. 37 journalists have fled their homes and jobs after receiving threats. The violence against reporters is not confined to Veracruz. Since 2000, dozens of journalists have been killed in Mexico and 20 more remain missing. Most of these crimes have never been prosecuted.

In Death in Veracruz, the journalist/narrator takes risks to learn the story so that he can report it. He is aware that he could be killed for doing his job, but he also believes that because he is a reporter he will be given some leeway. His press credentials do protect him, to some extent, and they also provide access to people and places that are important to the story. For example, he can walk into Pizarro’s office, under the paranoid eye of Pizarro’s bodyguard, and engage the boss himself in a calculated but revealing conversation. Although the reporter is admonished to “try to understand,” an implicit warning that failing to understand would be a deadly mistake, politicians or party hacks cannot avoid him unless they want to see themselves on the front page.

The journalist is cautioned about interfering with the “professionals.” He is, after all, only an amateur. His government friends accept the need for flexibility in dangerous times, and they change their advice and opinions based on how the political winds blow. To reinforce this point, Pizarro blithely says to the journalist, “You’ve been told that I had people around Chicontepec killed to get their lands. Don’t let that bother you. Civilization has killed more people than you and I could ever mourn.” In other words, that’s the way it’s always been, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

Camín is an award-winning writer, journalist, and historian who has published several novels and reported on numerous major Mexican news stories. Only he knows how much of himself and his own experiences are included in the character of his fictional journalist. While any immunity from violence the narrator of Death in Veracruz might have enjoyed does not exist in 2015 for reporters or activists such as Rubén Espinosa and Nadia Vera, much of Camín’s novel speaks to the truth of today. The violent exercise of power, the brutal methods for retaining that power, and the bloody body counts that measure the power brokers’ security, as portrayed in the novel, remain in place in Mexico, changed only by increases in number and frequency.

This review appeared originally in the Los Angeles Review of Books. 


New Books

Sex as a Political Condition: A Border Novel
Carlos Nicolás Flores

Texas Tech Univeristy Press - July, 2015

[from the publisher]
Sex as a Political Condition: A Border Novel is a raucous, hilarious journey through political dangers that come in all shapes, cup sizes, and sexual identities, a trip into the wild, sometimes outrageous world of the Texas-Mexico border and all geographical and anatomical points south.

Honoré del Castillo runs the family curio shop in the backwater border town of Escandón, Texas, and fears dying in front of his TV like some six-pack José in his barrio. Encouraged by his friend Trotsky, he becomes politically active—smuggling refugees, airlifting guns to Mexican revolutionaries, negotiating with radical Chicana lesbians—but the naked truths he faces are more often naked than true and constantly threaten to unman him. When a convoy loaded with humanitarian aid bound for Nicaragua pulls into Escandón, his journey to becoming a true revolutionary hero begins, first on Escandón’s international bridge and then on the highways of Mexico. But not until both the convoy and Honoré’s mortality and manhood are threatened in Guatemala does he finally confront the complications of his love for his wife and daughter, his political principles, the stench of human fear, and ultimately what it means to be a principled man in a screwed-up world.

About the author: A native of El Paso, Carlos Nicolás Flores is a winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize and author of a young adult novel, Our House on Hueco (TTUP, 2006).As director of the Teatro Chicano de Laredo and a former director of the South Texas Writing Project, he has long been engaged in the promotion of new writers and writing about the Mexican-American experience. He teaches English at Laredo Community College in Laredo, Texas.


Los Lobos: Dream in Blue
Chris Morris

University of Texas Press - September, 2015

[from the publisher]
Los Lobos leaped into the national spotlight in 1987, when their cover of La Bamba became a No. 1 hit. But what looked like an overnight achievement to the band’s new fans was actually a way station in a long musical journey that began in East Los Angeles in 1973 and is still going strong. Across four decades, Los Lobos (Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Steve Berlin) have ranged through virtually the entire breadth of American vernacular music, from rockabilly to primal punk rock, R&B to country and folk, Mexican son jarocho to Tex-Mex conjunto and Latin American cumbia. Their sui generis sound has sold millions of albums and won acclaim from fans and critics alike, including three Grammy Awards.

Los Lobos, the first book on this unique band, traces the entire arc of the band’s career. Music journalist Chris Morris draws on new interviews with Los Lobos members and their principal collaborators, as well as his own reporting since the early 1980s, to recount the evolution of Los Lobos’s music. He describes the creation of every album, lingering over highlights such as How Will the Wolf Survive?, La Pistola y El Corazon, and Kiko, while following the band’s trajectory from playing Mexican folk music at weddings and dances in East L.A. to international stardom and major-label success, as well as their independent work in the new millennium. Giving one of the longest-lived and most-honored American rock bands its due, Los Lobos celebrates the expansive reach and creative experimentalism that few other bands can match.

About the author: Chris Morris is a music journalist and disc jockey. He was music editor of the Hollywood Reporter (2004–2007) and senior writer for Billboard (1986–2004). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Musician, Mojo, LA Weekly, the Chicago Reader, Variety, and other publications.

The Jaguar's Children
John Vaillant
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - February, 2015

[from the publisher]
An unforgettable, page-turning survival story recounted by Hector, a man trapped—perhaps fatally—inside a tanker truck during an illegal border crossing, telling of his hopes for rescue, the joys and trials of his life, and what has brought us all to this moment.

Amanda Eyre Ward, New York Times Book Review
This is what novels can do—illuminate shadowed lives, enable us to contemplate our own depths of kindness, challenge our beliefs about fate ... Vaillant's use of fact to inspire fiction brings to mind a long list of powerful novels from the past decade or so: What is the What by Dave Eggers; The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif; The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult ... What could be more important than carving out an hour or three and opening yourself to the voice of another, to the possibility that a novel will transform you?

About the author:  John Vaillant's work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic, and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous, award-winning books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were international bestsellers.


This new anthology includes my story No Hablo Inglés -- a piece I wrote years ago for an online magazine - -  that featured a special issue entitled Borderland Noir.  The editor of the special issue, Craig McDonald, diligently worked on finding a traditional publisher and finally got the collection into hard print as well as an e-book edition. The story is also in The Skull of Pancho Villa, in a slightly different version.

Borderland Noir: An Anthology of Crime Writing
Edited by Craig McDonald
Betimes Books - October 26, 2015

[from the publisher] 
Stories & Essays of Love & Death Across the Rio Grande

Welcome to La Frontera: You’re headed way out west this time, intrepid reader, far past where you’ve dared go before.

Your troubled guides along these dusty, bloody stretches of The Devil’s Highway, are much-awarded crime novelists, journalists, and border-dwelling troubadours. They serve up stories and essays about lives threatened chasing the elusive, often deadly, dream of more money and better futures beckoning north and south of the border.

Emiliano Zapata declared, “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” In that spirit, these bards of the borderland are swinging for the barbed-wire fences: all swagger and dark visions, hell-bent on sweeping you along with them across the Rio Grande to a broken Promised Land. Like treacherous Coyotes, they may gut-shoot you or break your heart in the crossing, but however it goes down, know these hombres are determined to make you feel it.

Stories and essays by Ken Bruen, Jim Cornelius, Garnett Elliott, Bradley Mason Hamlin, Sam Hawken, Mike MacLean, Craig McDonald, Manuel Ramos, Steve Rogers, Tom Russell, James Sallis, Martín Solares, John Stickney, Dave Zeltserman.
Edited by Craig McDonald


Join us TONIGHT!  Just in time for shopping for the readers on your lists.  Three of the best mystery writers in Colorado - Mario Acevedo, Chris Goff, Mark Stevens - plus yours truly.  Hope you can make it.


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