Don Waters: On Sunland and the US/Mexico Border
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a regular feature where Akashic spotlights the remarkable people and places in today’s publishing industry. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features a guest post from Don Waters.
Several years ago I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty miles from Ciudad Juárez, which at the time was the most dangerous city on the planet. I was in the middle of writing my novel, Sunland, and took long drives whenever I needed to think. I enjoyed hopping in my truck with my dog, heading down the street, taking a hard left, and driving those forty lonely miles. It was a pleasant drive. We passed under canopies of pecan trees, through fragrant plumes of roasting chiles, and over the Rio Grande. Irrigation canals veined the valley floor and ran heavy in the summer months, but beyond this lush green strip that hugged the river, the surrounding Chihuahua desert was brown, bright, rocky, and harsh.
My drive always ended at a tall chain-link fence. On the other side was Anapra, Juárez’s poorest colonia, where slipshod houses made of dark cinderblock baked under the unrelenting sun. Whenever I stepped outside, which I often did to look around, I stood at the axis of two American states and two countries. Often, children played on the other side of the fence. As I watched them, the Border Patrol watched me. The omnipresent green and white trucks were usually parked on elevated sentry points along a dirt road. I learned that if I lingered too long, one of the vehicles would inevitably approach. Nearby was a street named Hope. It was a dead end.
The US/Mexico border is 1,954 miles long, stretches across four US states, and contains some of the hottest, harshest terrain in North America. The border is a hybrid of languages, cultures, and traditions. Its communities are often poor and touched by flashes of violence. In many places, our southern border resembles a police state with all its fences, secondary checkpoints, radar spy blimps, cameras, and Border Patrol officers in trucks, on mountain bikes, and on ATVs. But journey outside the cities, and the border, in its natural state, is beautiful open desert.
My research for Sunland took me near and around and over this pressurized international line. I traveled onto Tohono O’odham tribal land, a Native American reservation so large it spills over the border into Mexico. I walked the streets of Nogales, Sasabe, and Agua Prieta. I interviewed journalists and followed Border Patrol agents with a pen and notebook. My novel, set in Tucson, is about a man who pays for his grandmother’s costly assisted living bills by becoming a prescription drug mule, among other things. Part of the novel takes place along the border. To research, I didn’t want to just read about the border—I wanted to experience it. So, I lived near it. I went to it. I crossed it.
One of my more meaningful trips happened with Humane Borders. This humanitarian group places water barrels in the southern Arizona desert for any illegal border crossers who find themselves lost, desperate, and thirsty. On the day of my field trip, I waited outside their headquarters by a water-filling truck in 104-degree heat and studied a posted map of the region. Red dots signified each person who died while crossing—and the map was covered in dots. It was hard to fathom the kind of overwhelming fear you would feel by getting lost in the middle of nowhere, in this heat, your throat dry as dust, and with the knowledge you were being hunted. The thought sent a cool shiver up my spine.
We drove south and into the desert hinterlands. My companions for the day, the volunteer driver and an independent filmmaker, sat up front in bucket seats and discussed what we would do if we encountered border crossers. Our job was to fill tanks. That was it. Down rutted dirt roads, through washouts, and surrounded by towering Sonoran saguaros, we checked chorine levels and refilled the tanks with clean water. Above the tanks flapped blue flags, making them easier to spot. It wasn’t unusual, I was told, to find tanks sabotaged by vigilantes. Throughout the day, we heard rattlers and shotgun blasts. We passed a gathering of minutemen lounging in a Mercedes SUV parked on the road’s shoulder. One man waved, and I waved back, even though I despised his politics.
The next day, following my outing with Humane Borders, I jumped in my car and drove south again, where the world’s ugliest fence wormed up and over the hillsides and separated Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Sonora. Parked every hundred yards along this monstrosity were Border Patrol trucks. The area looked, yet again, like a police state. I walked over to one of the trucks and the agent’s window slid down. He was Latino, and I asked him where the fence ended. I could tell the question surprised him. Though he initially didn’t answer me, he eventually gave me directions after I spent fifteen friendly minutes bullshitting and asking about his family. I wanted to dislike him, since he worked for an arm of the government I wasn’t particularly fond of, but after looking him in the eyes and seeing him as a person, it was tough to dislike him at all. Not to mention he gave me directions.
I got in my car and drove east until I found Duquesne Road, which eventually turned into a rutted dirt lane that fed into deeper isolation. Soon I found myself in the middle of it, which is to say, lost. Off in the distance I saw the fence. It rose and fell with the topography. I drove further, passing a brown sign that warned, “Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered in this Area.”
I drove alone.
For months, I had been keeping a notebook of the terrifying news filtering over the border. I subscribed to a “border news” listserv, and the woman who administered the list often translated the Mexican news reports. Much of it never ended up in American newspapers. Over the course of three days I’d noted: eleven murdered yesterday; thirty people killed during the weekend and three more yesterday morning; rancher killed near border in Arizona. And then, every once in a while, a gem: UCLA study says legalizing undocumented immigrants would help the economy.
I was by myself, driving dirt roads, hoping to reach one of the most hotly contested international borders on the planet. Miles later, I saw where the fence ended. I slowed. I couldn’t distinguish between Mexico and the United States. Out here, everything was equal. Stretched across hundreds of miles was a beautiful land pocked with cholla, barrel cactus, and mesquite, a land cut through with politics, a land on lockdown, but one that could be pried open with a little imagination. At last, I found a place of beauty, where no fences stood.
DON WATERS is the author Sunland, a novel, and the story collection Desert Gothic, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction has been widely published and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and anthologized in Best of the West and New Stories from the Southwest. A frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, he’s also written for the New York Times Book Review, Outside, The Believer, and Slate, among other magazines. Waters is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Originally from Reno, Nevada, he lives in Portland (Oregon) and Iowa City. He currently teaches at the University of Iowa. Visit his website: www.donwaters.com.
Posted: Sep 18, 2013
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