My Two Mexicos
December 10, 2008, 04:00 AM
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A number of readers of my novel Mexico Way, published a couple of months ago by Chronicles Press, apparently expected to find in it a portrait of Mexico at odds with the Mexico the book presents.

I can't blame them. The Mexico of Mexico Way is a hard irreducible place, at once harshly real and hauntingly sympathetic. Those who have read my reports from south of the border in Chronicles will not be surprised by my treatment of the country and its people in the novel. But people familiar only with my writing on the immigration issue may be struck between what might seem a clear discontinuity between the attitudes toward Mexicans and Mexico suggested in Mexico Way and those directly expressed in my political articles and in my book criticizing immigration policy, The Immigration Mystique.

This confusion, though understandable, suggests a failure to appreciate the distinctions between the literary and political, or the imaginative and rhetorical. As a traveler and a novelist, I have quite different responses to Mexico than I do in my capacity as a U.S. citizen and journalist confronted with the critical issue of Mexican immigration.

I personally see no contradiction here. Advocates of immigration restriction are regularly attacked for being "anti-immigrant", "anti-Mexican", and "racist". Of course, there is no connection, except in the minds of cynical ethnic politicians and liberal ideologues. The fact that I do not wish to see my country overrun by an alien people from the south does not mean that I am "against" them, or anybody.

Truth be told, I have a fondness for Mexico and Mexicans, and have had for at least as long as I have been writing on the subject of Mexican immigration. Indeed, there is much in Mexican society and its people that I find superior to modern American society and to modern Americans.

Among them is that existential quality of irreducible reality, of an unflinching recognition of the human condition in respect of its relation to both the natural and the supernatural worlds, that we Americans too once had, but have since lost. It is this quality that I've attempted to realize in my book—preceded of course by such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Graham Greene, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Charles Bowden, and Cormac McCarthy.

Mexico Way recounts the grueling adventures of a naïve and sheltered white-bread American male who arrives at a belated coming-of-age through a terrifying ordeal that exposes him, in his quest for physical survival, not only to the rigors of nature, but also to the existence of the power of evil—and of good. [Read Chapter One here.] On another level, the novel is a billet doux addressed to the people of Mexico.

It is by no means, however, an apology for my views regarding Mexican immigration. The two attitudes are entirely separate, and need to be understood as such.

I began writing Mexico Way in the winter of 1993 when I spent four months in Tucson as writer-in-residence for The Arizona Republic, which had hired me to write a biweekly column on local topics of my choice. This assignment came after I'd explored the Southwest, the border country, and northern Mexico for four years, and published accounts of my travels. (These sequentially related stories comprise parts of my book The Hundredth Meridian, published by Chronicles Press in 2005.)

Sixty-five miles south of Tucson, the two Nogaleses—Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora—are exotic and interesting communities. Also, they are one of the chief regional gateways to northern Mexico. And so I spent a good deal of time that winter of '93 poking around down there—which is how the idea of a story about a U.S. Customs Inspector kidnapped into Mexico by drug smugglers after double-crossing them on a drug deal he'd entered into with them occurred to me.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Mexico is that going there makes me want to write. So Mexico Way came to be written.             

The typed first draft of the novel was 183 pages long. (The printed book comes to 130 pages.) I brought it back, half-completed, with me to Wyoming in May, and finished it over the summer. When I had a strong second draft, I mailed it to Tony Outhwaite, my agent in New York, who showed the manuscript round to a number of publishing house editors.

No takers; not even, as I recall, a response, as is commonplace in publishing nowadays.

Meanwhile, I began writing my "Hundredth Meridian" column, about life in the modern American West, for Chronicles, as a kind of extension of the expired Arizona one.

When Tom Fleming expressed enthusiasm for "Hundredth Meridian", I made a copy of Mexico Way and left it for him to read on one of my trips east to Rockford, Illinois. Following my return to Wyoming, Tom placed the manuscript at the corner of a side-table in his office where it remained for years, quietly gathering dust and gesturing feebly to me with its ruffled topsheet each time I visited the magazine.

I remained pleased with the book, but went on to write others, each of which Tony circulated in turn in New York, occasionally with happy result. Several years ago, I removed the manuscript from my files and gave it to a secretary to keyboard for an electronic copy. This copy also I sent to Tony, who tried gamely once again to make a sale to New York.

No go. One publishing house, which had produced an earlier novel of mine, stonewalled him for over a year, and then tried to convince him they'd never received the book.

Meanwhile, Tom Fleming and I traveled by bus together from Ciudad Juárez to Ciudad Chihuahua on a fact-finding trip related to the preparation of Immigration and the American Future, edited by me and published by the Rockford Institute last year.

We had a fine time in northern Mexico, which made a huge impression on Tom. Although the U.S. Senate was concurrently debating the amnesty bill and getting huge coverage on Mexican television, we were received warmly and shown many interesting things, the best of which perhaps was Casa Villa, the former official home of the Governor of Chihuahua that today houses the Pancho Villa museum.

On the bus back to Juárez, I reminded Tom of the Mexico Way manuscript and suggested that, since he'd become so interested in Mexico, he might find the book of interest. He read it soon after, and made an offer on behalf of Chronicles Press.

Today, a well-known director is interested in making a film from the book. We have our fingers crossed.

I've attempted to put everything I know about Mexico into Mexico Way. Nothing could please me more than to learn that some Mexican reader here and there read and enjoyed the book, while saying to himself, "¡Sí! ¡Ése es México!"

Chilton Williamson Jr. [email him] is an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West. You can buy his books Mexico Way, Immigration and the American Future, The Hundredth Meridian and The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today's Conservative Thinkers on line.