Tell Me How It Ends: A Discussion on Mexican Complicity

by Víctor Interiano

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay if Forty Question by Valeria Luiselli chronicles the author’s experiences serving as a translator for unaccompanied Central American minors during the so-called surge of 2014-2015. Following the structure of the actual questionnaire utilized by interviewers, the book is both a testimonial of the harrowing journey Central American minors undergo from their homeland to the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a detailed account of the horrendous, labyrinthian, and retraumatizing legal process that migrant children must endure to remain in the U.S. Thankfully, rather than coldly and technically describing the bewildering legal process, Luiselli humanizes the narrative by speaking to the reader from the perspective of the children being interviewed, as well as interrupting said narrative with interstitials offering her observations and ruminations on the contradictions of the migration political landscape.

If you’re looking for more traditionally journalistic reviews of the book, please read the following articles by NPR, the Intercept, and Remezcla. As for my interpretation of the book, after spending the last couple of days churning through the book’s short 119 pages, I have some candid thoughts.

If you will allow me the space to be real and honest, the first thing that struck my mind as I began this book is that the author, Valeria Luiselli, is a privileged white Mexican; privileged enough to enter the United States with her family the “legal” way; privileged enough to be able to live a rather comfortable life in New York; privileged enough to have the freedom of mobility in parts of the U.S. border where both Central Americans and Mexican migrants fear death; privileged enough to have a book published about her experiences. In many ways, Luiselli seemed analogous to many a well-intentioned white liberal American who suddenly “discovers” the plight of the less fortunate, and by vicariously experiencing the horrors of the downtrodden, decides to dedicate her life to white saviorhood.

At least, this is how I interpreted the author in the early parts of the book. I must admit that as a Central American (Salvadoran) myself, and as a person who spends a considerable amount of time using this platform as an affirming space for Central American identity and agency, I felt somewhat hostile and resentful toward Luiselli’s privileged naivete, especially since it came off as paternalistic toward the migrant children she interviews. It also didn’t help that early in the book Luiselli utilizes othering language to describe the Central American minors, such as “coffee-colored boys and girls with obsidian hair and slant eyes,” or “bronzed barbarians,” or worse, as “frozen meat” in an icebox (the colloquial term for ICE detention centers). Granted, she was speaking sardonically in an attempt to poke fun at American racist jingoism, but as a white-passing Mexican herself, that sort of language is not only insensitive and off-putting, but bordering on insulting. Had she continued on this course, I would have dropped the book in disgust.

But about some twenty-five pages into the short tome, something rather interesting happens: a tonal shift in the narrative. Luiselli, as a Mexican national, speaks openly and extensively on the enormity of human rights abuses experienced by Central American migrants in Mexico. It is a moment where she challenges herself to confront what has otherwise been invisibilized. She writes:

Question seven on the questionnaire is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” The children seldom give details of their experiences along the journey through Mexico upon a first screening, and it’s not necessarily useful to push them for more information. What happens to them between their home countries and their arrival in the United States can’t always help their defense before an immigration judge, so the question doesn’t make up a substantial part of the interview. But, as a Mexican, this is the question I feel most ashamed of, because what happens to children during their journey through Mexico is always worse than what happens anywhere else.

The numbers tell horror stories.

Rapes: eighty percent of women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way. The situation is so common that most of them take contraceptive precautions as they begin the journey north.

Abductions: in 2011, the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico published a special report on immigrant abductions and kidnappings, revealing that the number of abduction victims between April and September 2010—a period of just six months—was 11,333.

Deaths and disappearances: though it’s impossible to establish an actual number. some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.

Beyond the terrifying but abstract statistics, many horror stories have recently tattooed themselves in the collective social conscience in Mexico. One specific story, though, became a turning point. On August 24, 2010, the bodies of seventy-two Central and South Americans migrants were found, piled up in a mass grave, at a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Some had been tortured, and all had been shot in the back of the head. Three migrants in the group had faked their deaths and, though wounded, survived. They lived to tell the complete story: members of the drug cartel Los Zetas had perpetrated the mass murder after the migrants had refused to work for them and did not have the means to pay a ransom…

…So when I have to ask children the seventh question—”Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?”—all I want to do is cover my face and my eyes and disappear. But I know better, or try to. I remind myself to swallow the rage, grief, and shame; remind myself to just sit still and listen closely, in case a child does happen to reveal a particular detail that can end up being key to his or her defense against deportation. (pgs. 25-28)

I opted to include this whole portion from the book because it depicts something I’ve never actually seen manifested in print media: a Mexican person acknowledging the insurmountable evidence of human rights abuses against Central Americans, recognizing how her homeland is an active perpetrator in these abuses, and how she as a Mexican national is passively complicit. It becomes immediately apparent that the early parts of the book, which had triggered my resentment toward Luiselli, was actually her process of working and navigating through her own privileges, both national and socioeconomic, to come to a place where she can validate her sense of rage and shame, but not centralize her own feelings, and be able to focus on listening to what the Central American youth have to say.

That last passage alone is super important. As Central Americans, particularly those from the Northern Triangle, we have been testifying for decades about how our people are mistreated, raped, and murdered on the journey through Mexico. All we have been asking is for Mexicans to LISTEN to us. To deal with their discomfort and not dismiss us, or pretend willful ignorance in order to preserve whatever image they have of themselves.

Because what we have now is a decades-long situation where the disappearances and deaths of Central American migrants are normalized to the point of it being the default. Forty-three disappeared students from Ayotzinapa is an exceptional, rage-inducing travesty that merits condemnation throughout Latin America. But the disappearances and deaths of tens-of-thousands of Central Americans is simply, the status quo.

Further into the book, Luiselli returns to the topic of Mexican complicity and writes, “Most Mexicans when asked about immigration issues, talk like they have a PhD in Mexico-U.S. relations or direct experience with migrating illegally across the border. Mexicans are eager and tireless critics of U.S. immigration policies. And though most critiques of their northern neighbor are probably more than justified, Mexicans are far too lax and self-indulgent when it comes to evaluating our own country’s immigration policies, especially where Central Americans are concerned.” (pg. 79)

Another aspect of the book which I deeply appreciated was that it did not compartmentalize the migration experiences of the Central American youth. As is the unfortunate tendency here in the United States, in particular among migrant rights advocates, for various reasons, some practical, some political, the only segments of the Central American migration experience that have value are those that take place in their homelands, or those that take place at the U.S.-Mexico border. The stories about what happens to Central American migrants within the Mexican nation state are thrown into what I consider a collective black hole of memory. Because Luiselli was willing to acknowledge and hold Mexican complicity accountable, she is able listen to the totality of the Central American migration experience and relate it to us as readers.

While Luiselli’s feelings of outrage and shame over Mexican complicity, at least those expressed in the book, are firmly embedded in an educated liberal’s distress over the cognitive dissonance between her ideal of how a democratic society should operate versus how vicious the actual nation-state apparatus really is, I nevertheless feel compelled to commend the author for taking a necessary first step and writing this book. True to her word, Ms. Luiselli has been using her platform not only to advocate for Central American migrants, but in particular, shed some much needed light on the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Mexico for years.

I would like to end this essay with what I feel is probably the most poignant quote from the book:

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t date even look. (pg. 30)

Here, here.

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