AThough a busy audience has gathered to see author and immigration activist Valeria Luiselli speak at the Santa Fe Literary Festival, silence descends in anticipation of a preview of her latest project. The silence is broken by the mechanical clank of a copper mine, and Luiselli’s recorded impressions mix with the voices of miners and other local people she met and interviewed in the frontier town of Bisbee, Arizona. The beautiful, insightful soundscape is just a 12-minute excerpt from a planned 24-hour sound essay. Echoes from the Borderlands, which Luiselli is currently developing in collaboration with audio specialists Leo Heiblum and Ricardo Giraldo. She tells the assembled crowd that she believes the format can help us slow down and appreciate stories in deeper ways than the web’s relentless onslaught of visual media. “You can’t scroll through the sound,” she says with a smile.
Afterwards, backstage in the festival’s Green Room, Luiselli tells me that the idea of creating an archive and document of life on the frontier first came to her in the town of Shakespeare, New Mexico. Originally a mining camp, Shakespeare became a ghost town and later a location for Wild West re-enactments, a place where men dressed as Billy the Kid would hold gunfights with unnamed caricatures of Native Americans and Mexican bandits.
“In my mind, at least, this project started when I was interviewing a bunch of reenactor cowboys about reenactment and what’s being told, what’s reenacted, and what’s left out,” says Luiselli, who was determined to document otherwise forgotten stories. “At first I thought it was a four-year project, but now I really think it’s a 10-year project. We need more money for that. We have some support from a museum in New York, but it all depends on our ability to travel and then have time to turn what we collect during these very focused trips into material that will be interesting.”
Luiselli has long been fascinated by stories about borders and the characters that inhabit the spaces between. Born in Mexico City in 1983, Luiselli had an itinerant upbringing that included time in South Africa, where her diplomatic father opened the first Mexican embassy after Nelson Mandela’s historic election. She had boarding school education in India. As a teenager, she thought she could become a professional dancer. “Contemporary dance was something I thought I would devote my life to for a while, but then I didn’t,” she says. “I’ve been writing consciously since my late teens, I never thought you could become a writer, less so as a young woman. Things are a bit different now, but you didn’t have any references. Writers didn’t speak or look like you. In the case of Latin America, it was all men in tweed jackets smoking Gauloises. It didn’t seem like a likely reality at all.”
At 18, Luiselli found a friend who confidently proclaimed, “I’m a writer,” and encouraged her to do the same. She was in her early twenties and attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York when she began work on her first novel faces in the crowd. Although she was raised largely in English, she made a conscious decision to write the novel and title the work in Spanish Los Ingravidos. her second novel The history of my teeth, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was developed in dialogue with workers at a Jumex juice plant in Mexico. She sent them chapters and they responded with ideas that helped shape the plot.
In 2014, Luiselli was unable to focus on writing her next novel because she was too distraught and disturbed by reports of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border of the United States. The following year she began volunteering as an interviewer and translator in New York for some of the many refugee children arriving from Central America. “At that point, I couldn’t take part anymore,” she says. “It seemed and seems so difficult to deal with the idea of children arriving alone and being left in limbo. At first I just translated testimonies and then I conducted the interviews myself and translated them into English to help the children find lawyers.”
Luiselli documented her experiences in her short 2017 book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, which was based on the 40 questions she was asked to ask in her interviews with the children. Her work also influenced and inspired her critically acclaimed 2019 novel Archive of the Lost Children. She learned that the children who arrive at the border unaccompanied mostly traveled there on the roofs of the border La Bestia (“The Beast”), a network of freight trains on which half a million Central Americans treacherously travel every year. Often they are on the run from gangs like MS-13 and Calle-18 or other forms of structural violence.
Luiselli says that while Americans often say they feel compassion for children’s plight, what they really should feel is a sense of “accountability and responsibility.” She adds: “Yes, it’s gangs, but it’s gangs, among other things, and it’s a circumstance created by years of US interventionism in local governments, and then that local governments are deeply corrupt and in line with the interests of the United States are creating a kind of permanence that the only real escape from is migration, and even then not entirely.”
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 on a platform of anti-immigration rhetoric has only exacerbated existing problems, and Luiselli points out that while things have improved since Joe Biden was elected in 2020, they have is only incremental. “For example, maybe fewer people get shackles when they’re cleared across the border,” she says. “You can be given cell phones for surveillance instead, so having a cell phone that a government agent uses to check in on you every week is a little less violent, as opposed to an ankle bracelet, which is as brutal and a horrific thing as that, but it is a thing matter of degree.”
There are clear parallels between the ongoing situation on the US-Mexico border and the tragedies unfolding on Europe’s Mediterranean border, about which Irish journalist Sally Hayden wrote so movingly in her latest book My fourth time we drowned. In both cases, border control is enforced through institutionalized violence. “It’s no coincidence,” says Luiselli. “I think whether it’s the Mediterranean Sea or the US-Mexico border, borders are a testing ground for brutality. Many new surveillance technologies and detention logistics are being tested at the border because it’s still kind of a no man’s land. Those in power can get away with all sorts of horrors.”
Luiselli has found her purpose in drawing attention to this abuse of power and the stories of those trapped in circumstances far beyond her control. “I think the role of the writers here is to articulate a problem in detail,” she says. “We take an interest in and invest in the things we know about, whether it’s copper mining or immigration. The more I think that you can educate yourself on this topic, the more we can participate and make a meaningful contribution.”
The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, covered every day of the festival with exclusive interviews with some of the headline writers. You can find more information about the festival on our Section of the Santa Fe Literary Festival or visit the Festival website.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/valeria-luiselli-interview-santa-fe-b2085712.html Valeria Luiselli: “Borders are testing grounds for brutality”