Posted February 20 ’11

For the last year, I’ve been doing research for my new novel, tentatively called “La Rumorosa”.  Part of the book is set in Mexico and I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the border interviewing people and listening to their stories. I’ve scouted the mountainous route that my character is going to take on her illegal journey to California.  I’ve read everything I can find about migrant issues, contemporary life in Mexico (especially women’s issues), drug trade and human trafficking. I start each morning with an assortment of Mexican blogs that focus on cartel activity throughout Mexico.  Every single day I see pictures of decapitated and mutilated bodies, bloody video-threats sent from one drug cartel to another, and I try and understand how a character like mine would cope with such insanity.

Recently I went with my friend John Carlos Frey to visit the shelters in Tijuana and Ensenada.  We talked with migrants who were traveling north.  Many of the people we met had already been deported at least once.  Most had suffered and were in some sort of trouble.

Anna was born in Mexico City.  She was one of 12 children, eight of them girls.  Like her sisters, Anna was forced by her mother to start working as a prostitute when she was four years old.   I’m not sure if the boys were prostitutes, Anna didn’t say.  She worked steadily all through her childhood.  At 13 she found herself pregnant.  Her mother insisted she have an abortion as the pregnancy interfered with business and anyway, they didn’t need another baby.  Little Anna, who was uneducated and had spent her life isolated in sex slavery, looked her mother in the eye and told her that she would not abort her baby under any circumstance.  The mother insisted but Anna was adamant that she would protect her child.  And so at thirteen she found herself out on the streets with absolutely no idea of how to support herself.  One of her regular customers, a young man, heard about the situation and asked her to marry him.  He said he would act as the baby’s father—perhaps he even was the father.  Together they would make a life.

Anna had a baby boy.  She and her husband lived outside of Mexico City.  After a couple of years they had another child but with four mouths to fed and they found it extremely difficult to make ends meet.  So the husband went north looking for a better life and found work in Santa Maria, California.  Once he settled, he sent for his little family.

Anna crossed the border illegally with two small children; the baby was still nursing.  She acknowledged that she was molested during her journey but she didn’t dwell on that detail.  She and the children joined her husband in Santa Maria and together they built their lives.  They enrolled the kids in school and had two more children.  They both found jobs and Anna was able to put herself through beauty school.  She and her husband saved their money and she planned to open her own salon.

That baby that her mother insisted she abort is 22 years old today.  He has gone through school, has a job and is leading a productive life.  There are two younger children who are American citizens and still in school.

One afternoon on her way home, Anna got pulled over for a broken taillight.  When it was discovered she was in the States illegally, she was taken to jail and then deported the next morning.  She was not allowed to call her family nor contact a lawyer.  She was taken to Tijuana and dropped.  Because she was deported, she will not be able to apply for a legal visa for twenty years.  If she wants to rejoin her husband and family, her only option is to cross into the States illegally.

By the time we spoke to her in Tijuana, Anna had done the research and found that it would cost her $5000 to get back to Santa Maria.  We asked if she was aware of the dangers.  80% of the women who cross illegally are raped.  Some say that it is simply part of the price of admission.  People die of exposure every single day; many are robbed, some are murdered.  Anna knew.  Nothing was going to stop her from being with her family.  I have never seen such determination and strength.

The thing that struck me most about Anna, about all of the migrants with whom I spoke, was the strength of spirit and the absolute lack of self-pity.  All the people I talked to had been victimized in one way or another.  Anna had been grossly victimized almost from birth.  But Anna was not a victim.  Anna was one of the strongest women I have ever had the privilege to meet.  There is no doubt in my mind that she will make it back to Santa Maria.  Nothing is going to stop her.  It is possible that she’s already home.  I hope so.

And so I come back from my trip and sit at my desk and wonder, how the hell am I going to do justice to people like Anna?   How do I capture her integrity and grace?  Do I even deserve to write a story such as hers?  Can my character Violeta Sanchez be worthy?  These questions make me very sleepy.  I’ve been napping a lot.  Is there anybody out there who would like to step up and finish this novel for me?