The Border Story Our Leaders Don’t Want You to Hear
Life, replete with its ups and downs, goes on in U.S. and Mexican border communities, despite the political calamity unfolding all around them. “Calamity” is the word author Octavio Solis chooses to describe the refugee crisis that those in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, are all too aware of at a time when child detention centers are being erected by the current administration within view of a once “sleepy town.” Solis’ recent book, “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border,” does not solely center on this tragedy, but rather is filled with stories and poetry that highlight the resilience of people living on both sides of the Río Grande, as well as the common themes of human life that knows no borders, be they natural or man-made.
In the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the author and playwright tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer how the community he comes from “never had to deal with a border until it was declared that in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, around 1848, designating the Rio Grande as the border between the U.S. and Mexico.”
“We’ve always been here,” Solis says. “Humans, like the buffalo, like birds, like butterflies, are a migratory animal. We move all the time. And for centuries, we moved freely without borders, up and down this continent and into the next continent, and over rivers and streams and territories.”
Mexicans, Americans and Mexican-Americans are still living today with the consequences of the 19th-century political decision that resulted in devastation and separation of families, friends and even ecosystems. Under the Trump administration, the same issues have taken on a new urgency, as policies such as family separation and an extreme crackdown on undocumented migrants living in the U.S. take a traumatic toll on communities across the nation.
“The people that are here, and the people who are still arriving,” Solis tells Scheer, “are being driven underground until they become an underclass, because they’re living in fear. They’re living in fear of deportation. So they’re not going to hospitals, they’re not getting inoculated, they’re not sending their kids to school. Because they’re just afraid of deportation. And that may cause—we don’t know if it will cause—disease, if it will cause more crime.”
In addition to a rethinking of the nation-state and other concepts that fuel crises such as these, Solis’ response to the vitriolic xenophobia engulfing the U.S. is a simple, humane decree: “We have to open our arms to [immigrants], we have to take care of them. … We have to find a way to really recognize that they’re part of the fabric of this great quilt that is the American experience.”
Listen to Solis and Scheer’s powerful discussion about the perennial tales we all share, as well as the unique pains of the people who, as the great labor leader Dolores Huerta often says, were crossed by the border. You can also read a transcript of the interview below.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And we’re taking a topic that is of great political, national security concern. And I’m talking to someone who’s written a book that is basically a book of poetry and memory: Octavio Solis. And the book is “Retablos.” I was at a dinner with some people who are Mexican-American and have lived in Mexico, were born there and so forth. None of them knew this word, “retablos,” which is the title of your book. And I know it refers to tales that have great significance, that have been written down. But why don’t you tell us about the title of the book, and why the book?
Octavio Solis: Well, a retablo to me is a kind of holy item, a holy icon. It’s an image of a personal crisis, or a time of need, that is painted on a sheet of beaten tin or an old license plate. They date all the way back, as far as I know, to the early 1900s. There was painted an image, very crudely and in a naive way, by people who were not trained artists, they would depict a moment of crisis, of need. And then that person making some kind of plea to the divine, whoever that may be–usually the Virgen de Guadalupe, or a particular saint–that hovered over the whole event, there would be an image of that. And then there’d be writing on it. The writing would depict the event, and depict who they prayed for, and how they were saved or spared or rescued from their calamity. And then they were offered up, as a kind of ex-voto after a vow, they were offered up to the Church, for the Catholic Church. They would pin it on the walls of the local church, or in their home, as a kind of thanks, as a kind of something to commemorate the event. And also offering thanks to the divine for this. So I think of them as postcards to God, and also one of the earliest incidents of flash fiction. For me, it seemed like the perfect device, the perfect sort of thematic construct, to frame my particular stories that happened to me over my youth, in living along the border.
RS: Yeah, you lived in, near El Paso. Born, what, six decades ago, ah—
OS: Oh, yes, yes sir. [Laughter] I was born in 1958.
RS: But you were born on the U.S. side of the border, right?
OS: Yes, my parents came over. My grandmother tried to keep my dad away when he was a teenager trying to court my mom; she thought she was too young. And finally she said, all right, if you’re going to marry my daughter, I want you to move to the U.S. because I want my grandchildren to be American. And they grudgingly did so, and then found they raised an entire family there, four of us. Until they had the opportunity, after they finally got us grown, and had us grown and raised and going to college, they finally were able to apply for full citizenship, and gained complete status as American citizens in this country.
RS: You know, Dolores Huerta, the great leader along with Cesar Chavez of the farm workers organizing and so forth, has said frequently, “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” And speaking about her family, and her family goes back, I believe, four generations or so. And she was born in what is recognized as the U.S. But this border story, and this word you use, “calamity”—and yet thanks at the end for many people, tragedy for others—is as long as the story of building a nation. And the exclusion, acceptance, denial, of other people’s claim to live here or be here is, you know, applied to almost any group that was not white Northern European, where the immigration laws always favored them. But you have a whole, you know, the Japanese internment camps, Japanese-Americans that were interned in this country. Many of these people had been here for three, four, five generations and didn’t even speak Japanese, some of them, and had very little contact. The Chinese Exclusion Act of people who couldn’t even get married in this country until 1943, in the middle of World War II, yet had been here for many generations. The situation with people from Mexico certainly is radically different. You didn’t have to cross any ocean.
OS: It’s because we’ve always been here, Bob.
RS: That was Dolores’ point.
OS: We’ve always been here. Humans, like the buffalo, like birds, like butterflies, are a migratory animal. We move all the time. And for centuries, we moved freely without borders, up and down this continent and into the next continent, and over rivers and streams and territories. And never had to deal with a border until it was declared that in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, around 1848, designating the Rio Grande as the border between the U.S. and Mexico. And still, people found a way to get across. Still people found a way to move to both sides of that river, because communities were there, families were there, opportunity was there. And they were there to make new lives, to escape war and strife and poverty and need, droughts and famine. That’s sort of the story of peoples around the world. It’s going on now. I took a more personal approach with these stories; like, I’m not a politician, I don’t pretend to have any solutions to the border. All I could do was offer my personal reflections, and to offer my stories of what my experience was like, growing [up] less than a mile away, maybe even half a mile, from the Rio Grande. And how I’ve seen that zone, on both sides of the river, 10 miles north, 10 miles south, become more and more politicized as time has gone on.
RS: Yeah. You used the word calamity, and of course the calamity of the moment, in the issue of immigration and refugees, has been brought about by our current president, Donald Trump. But it’s always had this element of calamity, of oppression, of death. It’s never—well, rarely been an easy passage. It’s always involved a denial of a common history. And as a young kid born on the U.S. side of it, you in your tales—and I do want to first of all say something about your tales. There’s something very honest about this rendition, as well as beautiful poetry, where you talk about memory. And in your book, you offer these not as detailed history, but you’re quite frank about it; memories are deceptive. And I just want to quote from your introduction. You say, “One thing I have learned from writing these retablos: the shit on the border never changes. There will always be those who want to come across, and those who want to keep them where they are. The push and pull, the friction between the tectonic plates that are Mexico and the U.S. will always create mountains of stress, dislocation and upheaval among the people who live there. Maybe this is political, after all, but I think it’s really a condition of our culture: it’s how we live now, it is our particular mythology, replete with gods and monsters, heroes and fallen angels, troubadours and exiles.” And I found that an incredibly profound insight. I covered that border for the L.A. Times, for decades I would be going down there, on the Democrats, on the Republicans. And what you said—“the shit on the border never changes”—because with a wall or without a wall, people are going to try to get across. We don’t have a reasonable quota with Mexico; it used to be restricted to 25,000, the same number as from Iceland. Democrats and Republicans aren’t in any agreement on what you would need, which is a relatively open border, determined by the market. Are there jobs here or not, people basically come for economic reason, visiting family, reunification or something. But I think you captured the calamity of the moment. And Donald Trump, in his crude way, has forced us to address this question.
OS: Oh, yes. And actually, I have to amend it. Because it’s actually gotten worse because of this, because we are now as Mexican-Americans, and especially as Dreamers, we’ve become chips in this bargaining game to build this wall. And it’s become a symbol for a redefinition of what it means to be an American. And we are offended by that, we are confused by that, because we thought that we had the same rights and privileges as everyone. But living where I’ve been living, those things were always complicated. They were never simple. I was raised by American teachers in my elementary school to recite word-for-word the Pledge of Allegiance, every morning, hand over heart, and to know what that meant, so that we would understand what it meant to be American. But on the street, that was always questioned. We were always asked by the Border Patrol cruisers that went around, by the people in them, the officers in them, we were always asked to offer up our American citizenship, questioned about where we lived, asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to them, in order to prove that we were Americans. And that always kind of set it in question. We were in this quicksand; we didn’t know where we stood. I felt like I was always living on that hyphen between Mexican and American. I felt like my legs were straddling both sides of the shores of the Rio Grande. Because there was something, some part of me that was tugging me toward Mexico, that was part of who I was, that was in my blood, that was cultural. And then there was another part of me that was social, that said no, you’re American, you belong here, and this is who you are, and this is where your allegiance should lie. And it was always kind of confusing to try to navigate through those kinds of conflicting allegiances.
RS: But what your book does is it reminds us that life goes on, no matter the politics.
RS: And that people still have to confront a father, as in your case, that you don’t get along with. You have to deal with childbirth, and illness, and lust, and everything else. And the remarkable thing about this book, “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border”—which are really, what, short vignettes that capture the complexity of life no matter who you are. Whether you’re a refugee, whether you’ve been here for nine generations, or whatever. You know, the fact of the matter is you’re going to still wake up sometimes hung over, or your children are going to rebel against you, or you’re not going to have work. And what your book reminds us of—because it’s really a quite brilliant literary work, I think. I want to make that clear, even though my propensity is now to discuss the politics of it. But the politics have to be informed by a human consideration. And as I said, I covered that border, and I don’t care whether it was Jimmy Carter as president, when Leonel Castillo was the head of immigration, a thoroughly decent guy who had been the mayor of Houston and wanted to help the immigrants—he still had to deal with what’s the law, and are they being arrested, and do they get sent back. And no party in this country, in my lifetime, has really wanted to deal with this situation in a humane way. It was always convenience.
OS: Even President Eisenhower developed a program that was, on its face, so racist, by creating something called Operation Wetback. And it enforced mass deportations of Mexicans who were here working, you know, at the invitation of the U.S. It deported them and their families by the thousands, by the millions, in the 1950s. It was part of a vile program that was tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
RS: But also, under Barack Obama—
OS: Oh, yes.
RS: I remember when he was president, I would routinely in the Latino community hear him referred to as the deporter in chief.
OS: I think he deported more people under his administration than under George Bush the second, and Bill Clinton. I think there’s been an evolution now, in thinking around that. There have been many statesmen and women, congressmen who have stood on both sides of the issue, who are evolving in their thinking on that. Because they have to, because it’s now become the issue of our times. I lived in El Paso for 18 years and grew up there, and it was always a kind of a sleepy town, and now the lens is focused right on that city, because of this immigration crisis. Because there are child camps set up right outside of the city, where thousands of children are being processed and kept in confinement there. And because we have this brilliant statesman, Beto O’Rourke, who tried to run for the Senate in Texas and lost, but now has garnered national attention because of that. Who has tried to show a more humane face to the threat of—quote unquote—of this Mexican, quote unquote, invasion. So it’s interesting, going back, I was just there in El Paso, and seeing how El Paso is responding—it’s responding by actually opening up its arms, the people there are opening up their arms even more to people who want to come to this country. Because they understand that that’s how they are here. That’s how they are here, in the same way that I am here because my parents persevered to come over, and suffered trying to learn a new language, trying to learn a new way of life, in order to create opportunity for me and my brothers and sisters.
RS: You know, you hit on one of the ironic points here. And it, this always has to do with hate. Hate has to involve an objectification of the unknown, and this, you know—
OS: And the other.
RS: The other. You know, we’ve seen it in the decriminalization of homosexuality. Once you say—oh, that’s my neighbor; oh, that’s somebody’s son; oh, that’s—then, you realize the hatred was evil in being so fundamentally misplaced from any reality. And it’s ironic that in the polling and everything else, in a place like the border states, there is much more understanding of the great contribution of people who have crossed the border from the south to our economy, whether even a California or a Texas could function without this immigrant labor. You mentioned Eisenhower, where he was crushing a program, that I think was the Bracero program, that was designed to bring workers to American farms and so forth. And there’s a recognition that, you know, there was a funny movie, “A Day Without Mexicans”; could you really even function in an area like California. And a lot of the hostility seems to come from states that have very few immigrants from south of the border. And yet there are politicians who are manufacturing this hate, and Trump clearly seized on this. But the problem he seized on—and yes, he is worse—the problem he seized on has always been there as a matter of convenience. We wanted the workers, but we wanted to pay them less. And we didn’t really want them to have full, legal rights, to organize and to get decent wages. And the border itself begs a basic question. You’re not doing people any favor when you force them to sneak into a country where they don’t have legal standing, where they’re economically exploited. So what is an intelligent immigration policy? What would a reasonably open border look like? And you know, we haven’t faced that reality. The irony of the moment now, when Trump raised this, there actually has been a lessening of immigration across the border. And because of the recession, started a process where a number of years, more people went back the other way than came.
OS: And that’s also because Mexico is rising. The Mexican economy, the Mexican culture, it’s exploding again, and it’s starting to assume its own strength. And so people are investing more in their own country, and it’s really gratifying to see that. But the people that are here, and the people who are still arriving, are being driven underground until they become an underclass, because they’re living in fear. They’re living in fear of deportation. So they’re not going to hospitals, they’re not getting inoculated, they’re not sending their kids to school. Because they’re just afraid of deportation. And that may cause—we don’t know if it will cause—disease, if it will cause more crime. But we’re perpetuating that by having them live in fear. We have to open our arms to them, we have to take care of them; they’re here, they’re contributing to the culture, we can’t have them living on the fringes. We have to find a way to really recognize that they’re part of the fabric of this great quilt that is the American experience.
RS: Or should be. And as you point out, fear is not only generally evil, inducing fear, but it is also counterproductive to a civil society and a healthy one. [omission for station break] We’re back from our break. I’m talking to Octavio Solis, the author of “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.” You know, this is a fellow who’s an actor now in the Shakespeare Festival up there in Oregon, and he’s had a long, distinguished career as an actor, as a teacher, as a director. But the strength of this book is that it captures the humanity that is basic to any discussion of immigration, refugees. And in your book we are introduced to a brute fact of life: we are all faced with the same issues of our mortality, of child-raising, of love, of hate, of parents we may or may not like who may or may not understand us. And that cuts across all of these categories of ethnicity and religion and so forth. And there is a familiarity to these vignettes, these retablos, that I think could be written about any people.
OS: That’s what I find very gratifying about how this book is being received, is its accessibility. That people across the spectrum are finding themselves in it, that they’re finding their own retablos within the stories that I have written. And that’s what I had hoped: that they would recognize themselves, that the book is a kind of mirror to their own, our own shared experiences growing up in this country. I’m not unique from other Latinx people in America, but I’m not unique from other people of every other background. There is something unique about living along the border, though, that tinges everything with a little bit of tension, and a little bit of fear, and some apprehension. But generally, I didn’t want to just write about the border, because I knew that that, once I addressed that, it was going to be part of the subtext of our personal stories—whether they were stories about my brother, or my sister, or problems with my teachers, or the discovery of what I wanted to do with my life once I was cast in a play in high school, in a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I thought that if I focused on those stories, everything else would somehow intersect with it in some way, and give it a kind of context. There is the greater context that I’m dealing with. And in the end, you know, I’m a playwright; I’m a storyteller. And so my ultimate goal was to tell a good story, not to involve myself so much in autobiography. Because I don’t think I’m that interesting. But there are these events that I find fascinating, that were personal rites of passage, that I recognize as the same rites of passage that everyone, at some point, has to go through as they move their way toward adulthood. So I felt, in the end, that I had a kind of license, a kind of permission by this tricky muse called memory, to invent some things in order to craft my memories into real stories that had a kind of beginning, middle, and end.
RS: There’s something incredibly honest about the way you wrote this book. “Memory is its own muse.” I’m quoting from your book. “Every time we recall a specific moment in our past, we remember it differently. We embellish upon it, we turn it into a story or a fable, something that will draw a straighter line between the person we were then and who we are now. Consciously or unconsciously, we trim away the details that seem inconsequential in order to endow the things we remember with greater clarity, with even more weight and significance. You know, I think of my own life, for instance; I can reduce it in that way. You know, my mother was undocumented, because she came in from Russia, and she came in under circumstances where at one point she’s documented, then not, and so forth. My father came from Germany, that’s a country—and he was a Protestant, and she’s Jewish, and his family killed my mother’s family. But that wasn’t the whole story. There were fights about eating your vegetables, and there were fights about how we’re going to pay the rent. And what your book does is it reminds me, and it should anyone reading it, of the texture of life. You cannot label people—and that’s how you can now say, in a cavalier way, oh! Send them back, or build the wall, or rip up families—no! You’re ripping up families like the ones that you have lived in. And you can’t just tear people apart. In a sense, that’s the most powerful political message of this non-political book. You remind us of the sacredness of life, in its darkest and its brightest moments.
OS: That’s really well said. Thank you.
RS: And you have, in this book, really dark and very bright moments. But to my mind, the one poignant scene, you get on your bicycle and you ride out to the desert. And you recognize the—what is this all about? Who are we? What are we doing here? Who are these people? Can you evoke that somehow, as a young person, your mystification of the border?
OS: Well, it’s part of the mythology of being an El Pasoan. You’re always confronted with that no-man’s land that exists on either side of the river. El Paso has always been somehow separated from the rest of the country, not only geographically, but in other ways as well. And Juarez somehow feels that way to people from Juarez; they feel like they’re so isolated from the rest of Mexico. So Juarez and El Paso, as the two twin cities, separated by this thin, rather thin river at this point, have leaned on each other for their own mythmaking, for their own mythology. And it’s really a unique condition of our lives there. That mythology kind of defines a lot of the things that we’re going to do in our lives, and how we’re going to live, in the same way that those mythologies helped define the world for people of ancient civilizations. I’ve always been a great reader of the epic, whether it’s the “Iliad” or the “Aeneid” for the Romans, as the ‘Iliad” was for the Greeks. They were telling stories that helped to sort of identify what it is about their mythology that makes them who, the people they are. And I feel like there’s, like I’m part of this large cadre of writers and artists who are creating the mythology that defines us as people who are children of the border.
RS: There’s nothing parochial about the lives or the worlds that immigrants have come from. I mean, whatever part of the world—those Chinese that we wanted to exclude with the Exclusion Act had come from one of the most complex and the oldest, one of the oldest civilizations in the human experience. Certainly that’s true of Mexico. I mean, it’s true of any part of the world, certainly true of Africa, which is the origin of life. And what is great about this book, it’s a book that reminds us people have history. You call them immigrants, you call them refugees—they have complex histories. And so the whole idea, the crudeness of Trump—you’re right, it’s the worst moment, because he reduced these people to, what, drug runners or rapists or murderers. And it’s basically a denial of humanity.
OS: I will say this about Trump. He did make a point that made me stop and think, because he–and he has continued to make this point several times. He said if we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country; we don’t have a nation. Well, maybe he’s right. Maybe we need to think about what, or redefine what it means to have a country. To redefine what a border means. The whole idea of nation states and borders—nations like Germany, the U.S., Mexico, Canada—is a kind of idea from the 1700s. It’s fairly new; it’s fairly recent. And maybe in the evolution of our world, and recognizing how small it is and how fluid cultures are, and how fluid people are in moving from one place to another, maybe we really need to redefine what it means to have a nation. Because maybe it starts with each person. Maybe we carry the nation inside of us, and we need to examine that first before we start, like, drawing lines and saying you can’t cross this territory, you can’t cross that territory. Because some of the most awful, most destructive wars have been fought in the name of borders. Maybe it’s time we reexamine what that means.
RS: Well, it’s unfortunate that it has not been reexamined over the last couple of centuries, where patriotism was the main destroyer of human life. After all, Hitler was a patriot; Stalin was a patriot. George Washington in his farewell address said, “Beware the impostures of pretended patriotism.” And what pretended patriotism is, which is really what we’re talking about, it’s relying on some notion of national identity and borders to give your own life meaning, whether it was worthy of meaning or not; whether you’re really great or not. The whole notion, “make America great”—were we great when we had slavery? Were we great when we seized part of Mexico? Were we great when we excluded the Chinese, when we imprisoned the Japanese? And so forth. And really, what patriotism does is it provides an excuse for jingoism and for oppression of people.
OS: And we perpetuate our own enemies. We create our own enemies in that.
RS: Yes. Yeah, and in this case, as your book—and I’m going to end on this—“Retablos,” by Octavio Solis, who by the way is now in Oregon, living in Oregon, and he’s in the Shakespeare Festival, and he’s—
OS: Yes, I have a new play I’m rehearsing here that I’ve written, that is in the midst of rehearsals right now. It’s called “Mother Road,” and it’s a kind of sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
RS: Give us the details. That’s a good point on which to end. And it’s running until October?
OS: It opens on March 10, and will run ‘til the end of October here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s being directed by Bill Rauch, the artistic director. It’s going to be his swan song, because he’s moving on after this, and we’ll have a new artistic director soon. But it’s been a really, really rewarding experience. It was commissioned by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. I feel like I’m stepping into big shoes, of this giant of literature, John Steinbeck, in telling a new story of migrants, a new story of what it means to be an American in this country.
RS: This will begin, I guess, next month or so in Ashland, Oregon. I’ve been talking to Octavio Solis. The book is “Retablos,” published by City Lights. “Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.” And I want to tell people that even if the politics of immigration have turned you off, or you’re not interested, this is a great work of literature. Because the people that you don’t know come alive, and that is the great skill here. So thank you, Octavio Solis.
OS: No, thank you, thank you for having me on your program, sir.
RS: And I want to thank Mario Diaz, our engineer, and Kat Yore. Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon produced the show. And we had an admirable assist today from Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.