Our Dreams Are Bigger Than Your Walls

In books on the borderlands, the white gaze abounds: Latinx authors are told there’s just no budget for our stories, while seven-figure advances are granted to establishment writers who consider the border from a distance. Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a book about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico for the United States, was quickly anointed by Oprah Winfrey as a must-read. The fact that it was written by a white, nonmigrant novelist at first failed to register. (Soon after, nearly one hundred authors asked Winfrey to reconsider.) The controversy was the latest illustration of how literature suffers when writers of color are underrepresented. In response, here are some essential reads on the US-Mexico border, in the words of those impacted by it firsthand.

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
Urrea follows twenty-six Mexican men who paid to be smuggled into the United States, only to be abandoned by their neglectful “coyotes.” Left to fend for themselves, the migrants learn that in the Sonoran Desert, even death doesn’t come easy. The men contend with scorching days, freezing nights, hostile wildlife, desperate hunger, and life-threatening thirst––all while evading the well-equipped Border Patrol officers who find sport in the process. It’s a searing indictment of “prevention through deterrence,” the bipartisan border policy that argued if we just make the journey miserable enough, people will stop coming. Over 7,000 migrant deaths later, people keep coming, and the policy remains unchanged.

No Wall They Can Build by CrimethInc. ex-Workers’ Collective
A scathing critique of US violence, the book frames colonization as a central driver of migration. “This monstrous crime has never been atoned for in any meaningful way,” the book argues, “it is still being perpetrated to this day.” US power depends on oppression and murder at home and abroad––it was, after all, founded on stolen land. The hypocrisy is breathtaking: though European settlers showed up uninvited and slaughtered native communities wholesale, their descendants now admonish Central Americans for not coming to North America “the right way.” Unless the reader believes that might makes right, then the US government and its repressive institutions––ICE, Border Patrol, and the rest––are illegitimate. A nation built on violence, dispossession, rape, and plunder cannot—and will never—be the arbiter of morality.

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
How did Latin America—a region of such rich resources—come to be stripped of its wealth? Banned by the governments of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay for fear of fomenting insurrection, Open Veins of Latin America traces the extensive history of colonization in the Americas in simple, devastating prose, arguing that you can’t contend with the question of Latin American migration without first recognizing what drives it. In detailing murderous regimes put in place by US forces and the exploitative trade deals that have left a continent to starve, Galeano’s book clearly delineates how American wealth rests on a history of violence.

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
“You may think that I am a good immigrant, that this is what could happen when the quote-unquote American Dream is satisfied. I don’t feel like I’m in no fucking dream,” Zamora said in an interview about this debut poetry collection that chronicles his experiences as a migrant. A quiet longing gnaws at every page of Unaccompanied, one that eventually erupts in a crescendo of anger and alienation. Zamora evokes the dazzling beauty of the desert, while also acknowledging the dangers belied by the landscape. We’re soon confronted by La Migra, who, like the border agents of The Devil’s Highway, find a game in the chase. Upon Zamora’s arrival in the US, his vision of the American Dream is quickly shattered––he finds “not the promised land but barbwire and barbwire,” full of the pain of separation, awkward reconnections, well-meaning but oblivious gringos, and monsters real and figurative. Unaccompanied is a book you will carry with you long after reading, and its most haunting lines delivered flatly: “I’ve always known this country wanted me dead.”

Natascha Elena Uhlmann is the author of Abolish ICE (OR Books, 2019).