KGOU

Mexican Author, Narrator Nadia Villafuerte Discusses Migration, Gender And Literature

Nov 11, 2016

Born in Chiapas, Mexico, author Nadia Villafuerte has traveled across continents to share her research and vision with a wide range of audiences.

In her three solo-authored books, Barcos en Houston, ¿Te gusta el latex, cielo? and Por el lado salvaje, Villafuerte has used her personal and academic knowledge of Mexico’s lesser-discussed southern border to frame her stories.

“The southern border is interesting because it's a porous border … It’s not as visible as the northern border, which, for some time, has been under the international eye,” Villafuerte told World Views through an interpreter.

“In the exterior, to the rest of the world, Mexico presents itself as a very open and welcoming country. We've received exiles, for example, after the crisis in Argentina. We received many exiles in the country, but we are not doing the same thing for Central Americans, and I think this reveals a racism that we don't really want to talk about,” Villafuerte said.

From a young age, Villafuerte found writing and storytelling as ways to express the complex and troubling things she witnessed in her home country.

“For me, books and writing were really a way to escape. I think that I discovered through books that I could get away from my environment, and I could find places and people that I understood,” Villafuerte said.“I think that migrants, and these types of characters, are my way of thinking through identity, and it's very complex and very interesting."

As part of New York University’s Creative Writing in Spanish program, Villafuerte regularly leads bilingual workshops on creative writing at universities across the U.S. Currently at work on her second novel, she explained her writing process as the culmination of a life spent exploring urgently personal experiences.

“I think that for any writer, the topics that are very important to them are what comes out in the writing,” Villafuerte said.

In her writing, Villafuerte refuses to shy away from the reality--often violent--lived by female migrants.

“The majority of my stories have to do with women who suffer and face this violence. They've left their homes searching for a better life. The majority of them are mothers, single mothers, they have families--and really, their motives are to help their families in making this journey,” Villafuerte said. “I think it's really important to talk about the racism, but also this misogynistic, patriarchal system that permits impunity for the police and others who are abusing these women. I think it's very important to dismiss this violent process through the stories.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On Central American child migrants

I think it was in 2014 that this crisis became palpable--the crisis of children sent by parents, or their families, to the northern borders to cross over, often into the United States. And I think this crisis of the children is symptomatic of our economic moment that we're living in. Economic inequality is palpable not only in Latin America, but you can find it in the refugee crisis in Europe. I think all of this crisis is provoked by an unbalanced economic system, and it's very dramatic. Children, without a choice, are sent. And I would just like the listeners to imagine the idea of allowing a child to cross an entire country, facing difficult circumstances, and very dangerous circumstances. It's a crossing that doesn't end, because often, upon arrival, they are put into the situation of being deported, and they never really arrive.

On violence against migrant women

When I was doing the research to write the book, I realized that violence against women is doubly visible: for their condition of being migrants, and as well as their condition of being women. They suffer assaults through this hierarchy of systemic violence, going from the federal and municipal police, to the state government. And so these women are experiencing violence from the system that supposedly should be protecting them, but also from their own countrymen and other migrants who are in the same situation, and gangs. Additionally, they face violence from the Mexican population that takes advantage of their circumstances, and really doesn't think of all the rights that are being denied to the people who are crossing the country.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Nadia Villafuerte, welcome to World Views. You were born in Mexico, and you're a very well known scholar and writer in Mexico, writing poetry and works of fiction. But your works of fiction are dealing with very real and significant issues in many cases. I thought maybe we could start off today with you talking with us about what really drew you to become an author, and to the arts in general. What got you in that direction?

NADIA VILLAFUERTE: Thank you very much for the invitation, and thank you to everyone who's listening. I think that for any writer, the topics that are very important to them are what comes out in the writing. For me, I've been thinking a lot about my first book, which is dealing a lot with the border, and for me, I was born in a place that I didn't feel very comfortable. For me, books and writing were really a way to escape. I think that I discovered through books that I could get away from my environment, and I could find places and people that I understood.

CRUISE: And so you talked about your first book, and some works later that deal with these issues revolving around the border. I think in this country, we often think about the Mexican border with the United States, but there is also another border, a southern border. And in many instances, that border is also a very big issue, and we had a lot of immigrants that are coming across there. Often, Mexico is actually a transition country, or a country where people are coming from Central America, South America, and coming maybe to the United States. So what is the situation at the southern border? What is going on there?

VILLAFUERTE: The southern border is interesting because it's a porous border. I say porous because it's not as visible as the northern border, which, for some time, has been under the international eye. For this reason, the southern border-- It seems less dangerous, but the violence there is actually much more subjective. This is the first filter that people must pass through to continue their journey north. It's really important for us to think about this, and what this border means for us. I think it reveals, for we as Mexicans, a way of being as a country, and I think we really need to reflect on it. In my initial research, I found that the border reveals a racism that we have in Mexico with other communities. In the exterior, to the rest of the world, Mexico presents itself as a very open and welcoming country. We've received exiles, for example, after the crisis in Argentina. We received many exiles in the country, but we are not doing the same thing for Central Americans, and I think this reveals a racism that we don't really want to talk about. So the first thing about the border is that it's the first filter. It's much more subjective. It's much easier to get through because it's not as securely guarded; you don't have all of the technology to guard the border. And it's also the place of very subjective violence that reveals this racism.

CRUISE: You mentioned racism and violence. How is this racism manifest? What are some examples of the situations that these migrants from further south might face when they come across that border, and what does this violence look like as well?

VILLAFUERTE: I could give you an example. I have an Argentine friend who has arrived in the country under very different circumstances than a person from Central America would, simply because of the color of her skin. So a Central American person might be dark skinned, not very tall, and actually look similar to many Mexicans. But just for that reason, they're treated poorly. So with this very basic example--just for being similar, actually--a person is treated differently than a white, Caucasian, middle class person who enters the country under different circumstances. And I really do think that's something that's a racism that we don't talk about.

CRUISE: So, just to clarify, you're saying that the Argentinian, just because they have whiter skin, that they are actually treated better, whereas those that have darker skin, even in Mexico, are treated worse.

VILLAFUERTE: Exactly, yes.

CRUISE: Many of the people that are coming from Central America, and those that come from Mexico through the United States as well, in many cases, are coming from bad situations, poor economic situations, corrupt governments, and the like. We've heard a lot about Honduras, El Salvador, other countries-- And often times there's children that are being sent. This obviously opens the door for smuggling, trafficking, and abuse--perhaps physical abuse, but also abuse of financial resources, and further corruption. This is also the situation at the southern border, I understand.

VILLAFUERTE: That's right. In fact, I think it was in 2014 that this crisis became palpable--the crisis of children sent by parents, or their families, to the northern borders to cross over, often into the United States. And I think this crisis of the children is symptomatic of our economic moment that we're living in. Economic inequality is palpable not only in Latin America, but you can find it in the refugee crisis in Europe. I think all of this crisis is provoked by an unbalanced economic system, and it's very dramatic. Children, without a choice, are sent. And I would just like the listeners to imagine the idea of allowing a child to cross an entire country, facing difficult circumstances, and very dangerous circumstances. It's a crossing that doesn't end, because often, upon arrival, they are put into the situation of being deported, and they never really arrive. So they don't know what will happen when they arrive. They don't know what will happen when they return. It's very dramatic.

CRUISE: Very dramatic, indeed. I can only imagine the fear that the children and parents must experience. For all people that get to the southern border in Mexico, if they are to get past--you say it's a porous border, so there's some success in getting past that border--what is their experience afterwards? What is their daily life? Are they continuing to migrate northward? Are they staying? It's probably a little bit of both, but what is their everyday life after that point?

VILLAFUERTE: That's an interesting question. So as I was saying before, the southern border is very porous, and there's not this sort of technological coverage, this rigorous vigilance, so the crossing isn't as difficult as it can be for someone who's trying to cross the northern border. But, as it is porous, it's also more subjective. If people do manage to cross, they find more checkpoints in the area--in Chiapas, in the state. And so many people stay to work in the state, and the temporary jobs that they take become a sort of checkpoint, or something that's holding them there. Many of them will have very low salaries. They might be working as waiters, or as cleaners, and they'll stay because they can't save up the money to continue their journey. And also, there's a lot of violence that doesn't allow people to continue--violence on the part of the federal police, the municipal police, the state government, and gangs, too. Gangs are generally formed of migrants who have been in the US, and have been deported for having been there illegally, or undocumented. They return, and they find in Chiapas these groups that they join, of people who might be thinking of going back to the US. And so Chiapas is really-- It's a place for passing through. It's for people who are going, and people who are returning. And it's also a place of resentment: so a place where gangs are the principal aggressors against other Central American migrants. And so really, being in Mexican territory does not mean being safe. They suffer a lot of violence on the part of officials, other deported migrants-- And this can stop them from continuing their journey north.

CRUISE: And I would think that there's also a gendered dimension to this, that women are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking, violence, domestic violence--those sorts of issues. Gender is one of the other issues that you have looked at--gender relations, how gender is experienced. And one area that I find particularly interesting is looking at the GLBTQ, in particular in the transitioning populations. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how women and these other populations are experiencing everyday life, and then specifically the people that are in this transitioning category?

VILLAFUERTE: Yes, when I was doing the research to write the book, I realized that violence against women is doubly visible: for their condition of being migrants, and as well as their condition of being women. They suffer assaults through this hierarchy of systemic violence, going from the federal and municipal police, to the state government. And so these women are experiencing violence from the system that supposedly should be protecting them, but also from their own countrymen and other migrants who are in the same situation, and gangs. Additionally, they face violence from the Mexican population that takes advantage of their circumstances, and really doesn't think of all the rights that are being denied to the people who are crossing the country. They don't have money or means, so that's why they're escaping the conditions of their own country. And I do think it's a gender issue that can't be ignored. The majority of my stories have to do with women who suffer and face this violence. They've left their homes searching for a better life. The majority of them are mothers, single mothers, they have families--and really, their motives are to help their families in making this journey. And I think it's really important to talk about the racism, but also this misogynistic, patriarchal system that permits impunity for the police and others who are abusing these women. I think it's very important to dismiss this violent process through the stories. And then maybe, starting with the first book and maybe my others too, the figure of the transvestite is a way to symbolize the possibility that humans have to be many more selves than just one. And I think that's why I'm interested in that figure. It symbolizes an identity conflict, and my stories really question the concept of identity. Someone who migrates converts into another person, and the transvestite too has this possibility of a multiple identity. And I'm interested in gender issues, but really also the idea that we're never just one person. So, people who migrate, but really everyone, has this possibility. I think that migrants, and these types of characters, are my way of thinking through identity, and it's very complex and very interesting.

CRUISE: These are all such big and important issues, it seems, and the fact that you're taking them and building characters-- in some way, putting a human face on big issues is an important way to bring that to light. You are currently working on another novel. Could you maybe tell us briefly a little bit about that?

VILLAFUERTE: Yeah, in fact, with this novel, I'm finally-- It's a way for me to close a cycle. It's a territorial cycle, and also a cycle of ideas I've been obsessed with over the past years. And so this novel is based on a series of homophobic crimes that took place in the 1980s in the south of Mexico again. And it's my way of closing the cycle of the figure of the transvestite--someone who changes gender and identity. And in some ways, the character wants to escape, but he finds that even in his dreams, he can't escape the fear. So that's the idea of the novel.

CRUISE: Wonderful. Well, we'll definitely look for that. Thank you for joining us.

VILLAFUERTE: Muchas gracias.

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