CRISTINA RIVERA GARZA is one of Mexico’s most renowned and prolific writers, having authored more than six novels, three collections of short stories, five collections of poetry, and three books of nonfiction and criticism—work for which she received a 2020 MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Although Rivera Garza writes primarily in Spanish, it is perhaps incorrect to conceive of her as solely a “Mexican author”— born just across the Rio Grande in Tamaulipas, she is the descendant of migrant farmworkers with deep history in the U.S. and has herself lived north of the border since 1989, teaching at major U.S. institutions such as UC San Diego and the University of Houston. With each new book, Rivera Garza has helped challenge and dismantle the dualistic thinking that has long dominated American notions of Mexico and the borderlands. As more of her work has been made available in English, she has become a writer and thinker of binational importance, a Pan-American voice attuned to fluidity and migration, the immutability of history, and the radical, ever shifting potential of language.
Among more recently established borderland authors, Francisco Cantú counts himself as someone who has been deeply influenced and inspired by Rivera Garza, especially her seminal essay collection Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, released earlier this year in English. Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River, winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. The book chronicles his years working for the United States Border Patrol and reveals the dehumanizing machinations of the American immigration enforcement system and the power of border policy to normalize cruelty and reshape our understanding of place. A lifelong resident of the Southwest, Cantú now lives in Tucson, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Arizona and is at work on a collection of essays interrogating the intersections of landscape, violence, and myth.
In addition to their shared preoccupation with the borderlands, Cantú and Rivera Garza both traveled in recent years to investigate the cross-border movements of their ancestors. They met virtually to discuss their family histories and to mark the release of two of Rivera Garza’s newly translated books.
Francisco Cantú: I thought we might begin our conversation by talking about your new book that’s just been translated into English, The Restless Dead. Early on in the book, you write movingly about place, about moving and migrating across borders, about the idea of belonging to and being marked by specific terrain. You write that, “Above all, a place is a relationship. It isn’t a geography, but rather an approach to that geography.” I wonder if you could talk about what the word landscape means to you.
Cristina Rivera Garza: I think we both share a common concern about what it means to belong to someplace, to some land, to some area on Earth. It’s something that is inevitable—once you decide to cross geopolitical borders, thinking about that relationship is something that you would have to make an effort actually to avoid. I have tried several answers to that very complicated and vast question, and it has led me to greater consideration about notions of territory, notions of materiality, about bodies being positioned in specific sites on the crust of the earth. I guess that’s why the word relationship is important to me. Like all relationships, it involves power, it involves a give-and-take, and it involves not only a conscious decision but something that goes beyond that. I’ve spent a lot of time researching my migrant grandparents who came to make a life on the U.S.-Mexico border between Texas and Tamaulipas. I know that I belong to that place; I know that that place has marked me in many ways. In that respect, I think the word territory covers more space, both in terms of the meaning of the word and in terms of what I see when I look at what we call “landscape.” A landscape changes dramatically for me when I see the history, the traces of former generations of communities that I respond to, that I belong to, that I’m in communication with.
FC: It’s interesting to hear you say “I know that I belong to that place.” I think that that’s such a beautiful and important feeling, and I know it’s a feeling that some people might not have access to. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that place that you mentioned—the Rio Grande Valley, the borderlands of South Texas and northeastern Mexico. We’ve both explored different parts of that terrain, and both of our families have migration stories anchored there. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about what this place has meant for you and your family.
CRG: There is an old place called Estación Camarón about fifteen kilometers from the U.S.-Mexico border. In the 1930s it was a booming place, thanks to cotton. Mexico went through a massive revolution in 1910, and right there, specifically on the border, the new revolutionary regime was very interested in something that might sound quite ambitious, which was to change the confines of the earth, so to speak. They wanted to create an environment for agriculture in a place that was very arid, and so they did that by building huge dams and creating irrigation systems for state-led cotton production. Once they had the infrastructure in place, they needed labor, so it attracted a lot of people—landless peasants from central Mexico like my paternal grandparents and deportees like my maternal grandparents, who were pushed out of the United States. That’s how my family came to meet on the border.
My grandparents thought that they could make a new life, a better life, in Estación Camarón. It’s an area that was booming in the thirties, but it faced many structural challenges—the dam was not as well built as they planned, there was a massive drought, all followed by a social insurrection. We know about this because José Revueltas, who would go on to become a famous Mexican writer, came there as a nineteen-year-old activist to join a farmworkers strike, and he wrote about it. If he hadn’t done that, if he hadn’t been sent to jail, perhaps we wouldn’t have any knowledge at all about all these mobilizations along the border.
What had been once a lively place, a place able to attract an enormous amount of people, very soon became desolate, and people started to leave. And that’s how my family fled—they joined other families, organized a caravan, and slowly moved along the border, going from Nuevo Léon to Tamaulipas. That’s why my relationship to the place is very deep. I only lived on the Tamaulipas-Texas border two years of my life, when I was a baby, but the roots go back in time. As I explain in a book that I’m about to publish in Spanish, Autobiography of Cotton, that’s the reason why I believe I belong to this area and to both these countries, because my grandparents worked there, because there is a very powerful connection that comes out of labor and out of working the land and growing roots.
FC: Often embedded in the notion of having roots in a place is this idea that we will be able to feel something when we return there. I think this is a notion that a lot of us take for granted. Honestly, I’m a bit envious of how deeply rooted you seem in your family history, because I was quite disconnected from my own. My mother didn’t grow up with her Mexican father, so the stories from that side of the family have largely been lost to my mother and me. But we do have all these amazing artifacts and photographs and documents, and those are what we’ve used to guide us on trips back to Nuevo León, not far from where your own family history played out.
I remember visiting this church in the town of Salinas Victoria, which is maybe an hour north of Monterrey. We knew through birth records, through birth certificates, that generations and generations and generations of our ancestors had been born and baptized there. Unlike Estación Camarón, the town is still a bustling place; the church is still there. But to be honest, standing inside that place, I don’t know what it was that my mother and I felt there . . .
CRG: I do believe that something happens when you take your own body to these places. For me, in Estación Camarón, I was trying to catch that sensation of sharing a place with someone who wasn’t there anymore. How would they have looked at this place? To me, when I go to these towns and cemeteries and old houses, or places where houses used to be, there’s something about just being able to look at the world from that specific angle and trying to figure out if whomever I’m trying to revisit, or invoke in a way, could have seen and experienced the world from that specific point. As you say, I don’t know what you are supposed to feel, but it is such a remarkable and powerful experience.
I should also mention something, about this comparison of how immersed I am in the history of my family, and the missing pieces that you found yourself grappling with in your own experience, because I don’t want to leave you with the idea that what I know now is something I grew up with, because that’s not true. What I’m talking about comes as a result of many years of research. This is something that I know not because I was privy to adults’ conversations about their own lives and histories. It’s not because my grandparents wrote diaries that I happened to read, or letters, or things like that—they didn’t even know how to read and write, so they didn’t leave much information behind, at least in written form. Sometimes we have this stereotypical view of grandparents doting, lavishing children with bedtime stories. I actually didn’t have much of that; I had just, as you mentioned, bits and pieces. I knew where my family was from, and we were very proud of that—I didn’t know exactly why, but that was something that we shared. But it has taken a lot of time and dedication and work and research and imagination, of course, just to be able to make those assumptions I’ve mentioned, to say what I’m saying about our family history.
FC: In the U.S. what often happens is that a generation ends up alienated from their immigrant story. We are asked to erase it as a way of fitting in. Assimilation in America—despite the myth that we are a “nation of immigrants”— often erases what the migrant brings with them and tries to replace it with the notion of being “American.” For my mother, who never learned Spanish, I think our trip to Nuevo León represented a continuation of this alienation, because she had to stand by as I was in conversation with people we met. I learned Spanish as a young adult almost as a way of reclaiming some of our lost identity, and although I’m sure that made her proud, having to depend on me to translate is something that once again placed her in a passive role vis-à-vis her own story.
These trips of rediscovery can also be burdensome, because you come to the place with the idea that you should feel something, that you should really feel a connection, that something is going to be explained to you about yourself. But being in these places can also introduce an extra layer of loss, or reveal the extent to which continuity in your own story or history is missing. For my mother and me, we were at least able to ask questions of each other and think about things and places together, which brought us closer. And even if the family narrative wasn’t clear, we at least had these documents and artifacts; there was this sort of hunting that we were able to do; we had just enough to start populating a story.
CRG: There is so much that gets lost or perhaps willfully erased, perhaps imposed as an erasure from the state or other forces. In my case we knew that my paternal grandparents had left a mining area in central Mexico, in San Luis Potosí, but we didn’t know much about them. One of the things that my research uncovered was that my grandparents on my father’s side were actually Indigenous people from the area. That’s something that I didn’t know and something that my father didn’t know either, something that has created a very rich conversation now as we’ve tried to figure out what happened.
As you mentioned, in America you have the assimilation model. In Mexico we have the idea of mestizaje, the fusion of the two races that happened during colonial times. When my grandfather left San Luis Potosí, it was already the 1900s, and his birth certificate clearly says that he was an Indigenous laborer in the area. His wife was an Indigenous woman, and all the witnesses to their wedding were Indigenous too, so we’re talking about an entire community there, but we didn’t know anything about this. But, of course, we had always perceived ourselves as mestizos; we had perceived ourselves that way for entire generations, but it turns out that that’s not necessarily the case. So much of the urgency of the present has to do with questioning these assumed truths.
You also mentioned the idea of artifacts, which is interesting to me, because I’ve been collecting what I call a “domestic archaeology” of objects I’ve remembered from my childhood, things that we used at home: plates, skillets, buttons . . . things that just became natural to me. As my family moved away from the border, I realized that these objects belong to a place too. When I came to the United States, my family continued moving and we didn’t keep many of these belongings, and so what I’ve been doing is trying to look for those objects in secondhand stores or thrift stores, places like that. Now these objects are not only linking me to the history of my family but to a wider net of experiences. So here they are, these objects that have been handed down, perhaps not from family to family but from families to people who have come into that same place, that city, that town. To hold them in my hands and know that they belonged to someone else who might have shared a similar story— it’s like I’m attending a date with a ghost. The plate is right there, the fork is right there, the pots and pans are right there— it’s all evidence that we are real and that we have things to do in this world.
FC: There’s an energy that’s been deposited into these objects, and I think the same is also true of objects we collect from a landscape. On the windowsill above the desk where I work are these two stones I collected—one is this chunk of lava, and the other is this tiny piece of rock I believe was transformed by heat into glass or quartz. Just south of Arizona’s border with Sonora is this volcanic area called the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. There’s a little corner of this lava flow that reaches across the border; it literally crawls under the barrier. You can stand in the U.S. on the northern edge of this lava. That site was always so evocative to me, and I didn’t know why until much later when I started writing about the border and the idea of volcanic upheaval kept popping up as a metaphor. It makes sense, I think, if you’ve somehow confronted or participated in the kind of violence that plays out along the border, that you would look for reminders and resonances of that violence across time. Human beings are usually the ones bringing violence into a place, but the earth, too, has its own forms of upheaval, its own rhythms.
In your work you grapple a lot with the idea of violence and how it gets written and deposited into landscapes in a similar way. During the period of time that you’ve been talking about, just after the Mexican Revolution, there was this push to remake the landscape with irrigation and cotton, but now this same landscape is being remade in a very different image, at least on the American side—with the wall, with militarization, and surveillance. There have been many times when I’ve been out hiking or exploring the desert somewhere close to the border, and on one hand I’ll experience these moments of feeling very connected to the nature and beauty of the place, but it also feels very important to hold, at the same time, a notion of the violence that plays out there, the lives of migrants that have been lost there, which are quite literally unmarked all around us. So how do we hold that in our mind at the same time as we tap into something like beauty, or nostalgia, or appreciation?
CRG: This is also part of my suspicion about the word nostalgia. Because what moves me is very much the present. It’s not just the willingness to recognize what has been before us; what is urgent always is what is happening in our world right now, right? I wouldn’t even consider what used to be there if what is happening now were not as urgent as it is.
There is something José Revueltas wrote that has become almost ingrained in me. Belonging was a word that was very relevant for him and his work. At that time he was writing this beautiful novel, Human Mourning, as a result of his participation in the Estación Camarón strike. And one of the issues that he talked about in some essays he was writing at the same time was that every being belonged to specific places on Earth. That there is this relationship marked by belonging, and there is always something that has preceded us. So a really revolutionary question, a radical question, about whatever we set our foot on, is to ask: what was here before? Because the world is not a blank slate. There’s always something that has been there before— our presence in a place is always the result of possession, expulsion, or some kind of mobilization that is related to both human and nonhuman forces.
This is a question that I ask wherever I go now. If I’m here, how come I’m here? Who is not here so that I can be here? And if we are here because some form of violence is taking place, how can we address the experiences that are relevant not only to the world in which we live but to the world that we want to create? The plights of migrants are deeply related to this volatile, ferocious sense of belonging. So the Revueltas question is something that I always keep in mind, and that’s how I fight this quaint sense of nostalgia and remind myself that I am always on a journey to the present, that there are lives at stake right here.
FC: Both of us have thought a lot about the work of Juan Rulfo, who is remembered as one of Mexico’s greatest writers, and I think it’s interesting because his work really ended up mythologizing a desolate vision of the Mexican countryside. But now, half a century later, he himself has become a figure that is being mythologized back into the landscape and into the national consciousness in all sorts of interesting ways. So how should we think about the spectrum of narrative, of story and myth, as it relates to landscape?
CRG: One of the issues that I’m always concerned with, especially when looking at artifacts that played a role or were important in certain events of the past, is how to avoid glamorizing them. Because if the concern, if the urgency comes from the present, how do we avoid just this reification of what we are going through, or looking at, or touching? I was reminded of the difference between ruins and rubble in this wonderful book by Argentine anthropologist Gastón R. Gordillo titled, precisely, Rubble. And one of the things that I learned in his analysis of Indigenous landscapes in Argentina was the relevance of that difference—not looking at ruins as this memorialization of the past but also being very aware of the rubble that is formless and that indicates usage and a present time. That’s where we might find the most important, and perhaps the most violent, traces as well.
I experienced this personally when I published my book about the relationship of Rulfo to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico and his different forms of employment there—I saw how the myth of Rulfo has become ingrained; it has turned him into this untouchable character in Mexican literature. When I published my book about him, Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué, I based it on archival research and field research and on trying to retrace his journeys, as I know you have done too. The foundation that his family established in his name was so angry at what I was discussing, even though I was always saying that I admire his work profoundly. Although I think he is as important as people say, at the same time he’s a problematic character—he was a writer but also a government employee. He worked for very complicated state agencies, among them the Papaloapan Commission, which opened up an area in southern Mexico very rich in natural resources by inundating entire villages to create irrigation systems and water infrastructure. Even though he was not a mastermind behind all these things, he worked there—and I assume, being an intelligent, sensitive person, he must have had a lot of dilemmas.
I think the dilemma is what keeps his work alive now. I think we have to keep the present in mind and try to avoid the glamour of the ruin, looking at the past as though the past is right there in some place secluded, fixed. Milorad Pavić, who is another writer that I adored, used to say that the past is something that is always about to happen. I love writers who look at the past in such a way—not as something that you look back and gaze at in this sublime way but as something that is about to happen right now, that is urgently calling you.
FC: I really agree about the importance of interrogating something that might be perceived as problematic or a stain on someone’s legacy. That interrogation is also something that keeps a person and their work alive. If we consider work as this monolithic thing that can’t be challenged, it’s no longer a living document, right? It’s this dead object.
CRG: A monument.
FC: So many of us have participated in different kinds of violence, big and small. In my case, this is true in the extreme— as someone who worked for the Border Patrol, I was part of one of the most violent federal law enforcement agencies in the country, so I think of it as part of my job to always be continually grappling with that. I don’t think it’s ever over.
I was just thinking, as a way of closing, about the idea of loss—the physical loss of an entire town like Estación Camarón, or the kind of environmental loss that’s playing out along the border wall and all the other erasures that are happening across Earth. So much of what you’ve said connects to this idea of loss and reconstruction, of finding our way toward story and family history. How can loss draw us into a landscape, or draw us into a deeper sense of place?
CRG: It must have something to do with curiosity. Just in a general sense. But I could also go back to that idea of the present, of the presentness of inquiry. If we were not in such an incredibly difficult situation, if we weren’t facing kids in cages on the border, if thousands of people were not walking right now to reach the United States, facing tremendous danger all throughout the Mexican territory—if all these things were not here, perhaps our searching could pass for a certain form of nostalgia. But the fact that we’re still fighting for all this, that there is struggle attached to it, that there are lives at risk right now as we speak, that changes everything. We have lost certain things, and there is loss in what we do. But at the same time, there is a future too; there are lives at stake right now.
Am I being too optimistic? There is a remaking in process, right? And it’s very important to create alliances, and to know who you stand with and whose side you are on. And that moves me, that leads me to many of the things that I end up researching and writing about. So it is loss, but at the same time, dignity— the fierceness and determination of people around us, doing what they’ve done for generations and doing it still, facing great odds. This is not just something that I might opt out of. This is not just some simple option in life. It is something that comes from a root, from way back in the past, which is also our present, which is about to happen right now. O.