Instead of turning away from suffering, Rivera Garza chooses to confront her own pain and the collective suffering of her home country. Using Medusa as an example, she argues that when facing the possibility of being turned into stone, you must tell yourself: “Here, you and me, you and them, we together, we are in pain. We grieve. Grieving breaks us apart, indeed, and keeps us together.”
She reflects on bodies and the way the Mexican government no longer cares for them, leading her to rename it the Visceraless State. “It is the forgetting of the body, in both political and personal terms, that opens the door to violence,” she writes. “Those who are no longer human will be the ones to walk through it.”
In a particularly moving piece titled “The Longest Sunday,” the author spends time with a mother whose only sons were killed in Ciudad Juárez, victims of former president Felipe Calderón’s failed war on drugs. “You are not welcome, Señor Presidente. I do not extend my hand to you,” the heartbroken mother tells the president to his face, unable to mask her disdain. Within the same essay, the author asks a photographer how he manages to keep going when he takes pictures of 10 to 14 corpses every day. “I become warped, but sometimes, when something about the landscape is able to move me—a cloud, a plant, the rain—I see that I am still human,” he tells her. “Then I am sure that I will survive.”
While some writers choose to exhaustively unearth horror in a flood of words (such as “The Part About the Crimes,” a section on femicide in Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece, “2666”), Rivera Garza’s approach is spare and kaleidoscopic, offering a poet’s touch to the unspeakable. The effect can be distracting, jumping from one subject to the next (many of the 27 pieces are only a few pages long). Yet within the destruction and devastation that thread the book together, there are glimmers of hope, such as when Rivera Garza witnesses two lovers holding hands in a taqueria, an act of beauty in “a country run amok by war since 2006.” Yes, there is absence and corruption, but there is also the ability to create new things. The artist Alejandro Santiago, for instance, enlists 32 workers to create clay statues for “2501 Migrants,” symbolizing the “number of people who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border up until the year that Santiago himself crossed through the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in Baja California. Also the same number of families that, as far as Santiago remembers, lived in his hometown.” The statues are naked to represent crossing the border, and the artist tells the writer that’s how he feels when facing an immigration officer. Rivera Garza, who lives in Texas and teaches at the University of Houston, looks at these inanimate objects and identifies with them. Again and again, she reminds the reader that our humanity depends so much on the ability to acknowledge and care for the corporeal experience.
In one of the strongest essays in the book, “Touching is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions,” she talks about the structural changes that are still unfolding, transformations we don’t necessarily have the ability to translate yet. But in a time of such heightened anxiety, we’re forced to ask important political questions. “Everything we have close by — and right now we know that we are always, that we always have been, close to so many other hands — affects us because it implicates us,” she writes. Hands of migrants, hands that make things we interact with daily. Hands of undocumented immigrants who don’t have the safety net of health insurance; hands of essential workers who risk their lives to provide much-needed services. It’s abundantly clear that America has become a visceraless state, as well.
If there’s one overarching theme that stands out in “Grieving,” it’s a rejection of silence: the silence of women, the silence of governments, the silence caused by narcos. The author strives for a future that is better — and she’s optimistic enough to think that it’s possible. “It is not a more comfortable world, but one in which everything will be reevaluated, under the protection of all eyes, all bodies, because it affects all of us,” she writes in “The End of Women’s Silence.” “That world, this possible future, requires all of our intelligence, knowledge, tenderness, disagreement, and wonder.”
Michele Filgate is a writer and the editor of the essay collection “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.”
Dispatches from a Wounded Country
By Cristina Rivera Garza; translated by Sarah Booker
Feminist Press. 168 pp. $16.95