Books against borders

Books against borders

Short review of three books on migration, the drug trade, the drug war, and violence in Mexico and Central America.

My three year old and I played trains in the living room today. The radio played in the background, a human interest segment with different people sharing light, festive holiday stories. The station took a break for news, a story about more migrants dying in the Mediterranean. Five thousand this year. My three year old didn’t seem to notice. I turned the radio off. Tonight I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site to look up the latest numbers on fatal workplace accidents. The front of the site had a news story on this, saying that 4,836 people died at work in 2015, the highest total since the 2008 total of 5,214. These numbers lie. First of all, the numbers are too abstract. Forty eight hundred fatalities, no names, no stories, no suffering. Second of all, the numbers are too low. Migrants do a lot of work in the U.S. and many people die trying to cross the U.S. border on a regular basis. That’s not death at work in the sense of being on the clock but it’s death in the shadow of the clock, in the service of work.

All of this reminded me I’ve been meaning to write a post about three books that I... well, I was going to say I enjoyed them, but that’s not accurate. Three books I read over the last year that were quite well done, that I recommend, and that were accurate depictions of appalling realities. The books: Narcoland by Anabel Hernández, The Beast by Óscar Martínez, and A History of Violence, also by Martinez.

Narcoland’s about Mexico. The Beast is about Central American migrants crossing Mexico. A History of Violence is about Central America. They all deal with migration, the drug trade, the drug war, and violence. They're compelling reading.

The injuries and deaths in these books don't show up in the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, either because they're in illegal work, or because they occur in the process of people trying to get to the US and (among other things) gain entry to the US labor market. They're injuries and deaths inextricable from the US labor market, but not officially present or counted - the official stats, bad as they are, undercount and sanitize.

Reading these books made me hear news stories about migrants differently. Narcoland and A History of Violence depict some of the conditions that make people leave. Assaults, rape, murder, torture. The Beast depicts what people endure when they try to cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border and then cross, including hanging from trains, watching other people fall from trains, being preyed upon by disgusting parasites and brutal monsters -- some of them private actors, some of them in government (including, I would add, the U.S. government). All of these are well-written books, and hard to read because so ugly. Just as the deaths don’t show up in the official numbers, these stories don’t show up in typical accounts of migration.

Perhaps the Trump administration will carry out Trump’s election campaign promise/threat to deport many millions of people, and perhaps Trump will whip up anti-immigrant popular sentiment. (The Obama administration deported millions, but seemed a bit embarrassed about it; Clinton would have deported millions, but didn’t campaign on it. Small favors.) These books made me see in a way I hadn’t how dire that will be for those victimized, and it made me see those people in a more full way, not just numbers. All borders should be torn down. These books helped me see more of the urgency of doing so. The news is harder to listen to now.

Posted By

Dec 24 2016 05:34


Attached files


Dec 26 2016 19:07

Thanks for the recommendations. fyi, all three books are on sale at Verso right now (90% off for ebooks.)