Today UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek talks to Stephanie Elizondo Griest, author of All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands, about liminal spaces/borderlands, spirituality, shared struggles, and more.
Gina Mahalek: Your first four books are a celebration of wanderlust, which has fueled your travels to nearly 50 countries. Why did you leave the open road for your hometown in South Texas in 2007, and what did you find there?
Stephanie Elizondo Griest: At some point in my early thirties, nomadism started existentially untethering me. Anything that could have diverted attention from my writing—a house, a partner, a community, a legitimately paying job, children, pets, plants—had been avoided for so long, it had slipped into the realm of the unobtainable. The bulk of my belongings, meanwhile, were scattered in attics around the world. Since nothing tied me down, I kept moving. Yet it was becoming apparent that if I never stood still, nothing ever would. So in 2007, I followed the magnetic pull of home.
To my surprise, the Rio Grande Valley had transformed into a death valley in my absence. Whole swaths of South Texas had been poisoned by petrochemical industries, ravaged by the drug war, and barricaded by a seventy-mile-long steel wall. It had become the nation’s chief crossing ground for undocumented workers as well, unknown hundreds of whom perished in the scrub brush while evading the Border Patrol. My sleepy homeland had become a major news story, and I responded the only way I knew how: by taking reams of notes.
GM: You spent seven years conducting investigative reporting in South Texas, about everything from environmental injustice and illegal immigration to the drug war, poverty, and the obesity epidemic. Yet your narrative is intensely personal as well. What do the borderlands mean for you?
SEG: The Texas/Mexico borderline not only bisects my ancestral land. It cuts through my family as well. My mother is Mexican and my father is Kansan. I have long suspected that growing up in a biracial family in the liminal space between nations created an inner fissure in me as well. All my life, I have waffled between extremes: gringa/Chicana; cosmopolite/cowgirl; agnostic/Catholic; journalist/activist; Type A/free spirit. The Aztecs coined a term for living in the state of in-between-ness: nepantla. That is how they described their struggle to reconcile their indigenous ways with the one Spanish colonizers forced upon them in the sixteenth century. More recently, the writer Gloria Anzaldúa turned nepantla into a metaphor for a “birthing stage where you feel like you’re reconfiguring your identity and don’t know where you are.” That is probably why my journey led me back home. After so many years of feeling split in two, I sought to finally fuse.
GM: And yet, All the Agents and Saints isn’t just a meditation about your own homeland. The second half documents life in the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne. What launched that investigation?
SEG: The writer John McPhee became a mentor of sorts in 2005-2006, when I was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton. At our last lunch, we talked about the various book ideas he felt he was running out of time to pursue. As a parting gift, he offered one to me: a comparison of the Rio Grande Valley and the St. Lawrence River Valley. I had never even heard of the St. Lawrence River Valley, but I gratefully filed away the idea. Six years later, I played academic roulette and was lucky to land a visiting professorship at St. Lawrence University in far upstate New York, just a few miles south of Canada. When I realized it was the exact same region John McPhee had suggested exploring six years before, my entire being shuddered. And when I started learning about the border struggles of the Mohawks of Akwesasne—who lived a 40-minute drive away—I frantically began taking notes.
GM: But what do Mohawks and Tejanos possibly have in common?
SEG: At first glance—nothing. More than 2,000 miles stand between our communities, and—with the exception of Catholicism—our cultures hold little of that ground in common. Mohawks traditionally subsisted on hunting, farming, and fishing in one of the coldest regions of the United States, whereas Tejanos tended cattle in one of the hottest. They are matriarchal; we tend toward machismo. We are fanatical about football; Mohawks don’t just revere lacrosse, they invented it.
Every time I visited Akwesasne, however, I experienced déjà vu. Practically every story I’d heard in half a lifetime in South Texas was echoed there. Just as my ancestors preceded our borderlines by centuries, theirs did, too. Many Tejanos do not speak Spanish anymore because our elders had it humiliated out of them in public school; ditto with Mohawks during their century of Indian Residential Schools. My vaquero (cowboy) elders lost their traditional lifestyle because of corporate buyouts of ranches. Mohawks can no longer support their families hunting, trapping, or fishing due to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Our fence-line communities are likely being sickened from the toxins released by the petrochemical industry; theirs, by General Motors, ALCOA, and Reynolds. Too many of our youth are imprisoned for smuggling; theirs, for trading. In borders north and south, we must contend with the trafficking of firearms right through our neighborhoods. We die in frightening numbers from diabetes caused by obesity wrought by poverty. We grieve the loss of our land, the loss of our culture, the loss of our dignity. The violations of deeds and treaties. The creation of checkpoints. The abundance of chokepoints. The Predator drones that so often target our own.
GM: At least the Mohawks don’t have a border wall!
SEG: Not yet! But they do have a series of bridges that link one part of their nation to another via New York and Ottawa. Any time they leave home—for school, for work, for groceries—they must check in with Customs, a process that can take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. And that enrages them—especially since most Mohawks refuse to acknowledge the border at all. They are a sovereign people who employ their own police force and operate their own library, museum, media, school, and court. They look not to Washington or Ottawa for governance but to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, of which they have been members for centuries. Even though we associate bridges with connectivity, their architecture can be just as oppressive as a wall.
GM: How did spirituality become such a powerful force in this book?
SEG: When I first started interviewing the Tejanos most impacted by the injustices I researched—refinery workers and activists, immigrants and drug runners, artists and historians—a pattern emerged. Betrayed by the government and neglected by social services, a surprising number had turned to the supernatural for solace. Time and again, I heard stories of talking trees and healing masses, of wooden madonnas who sprayed glitter from their heads and of Virgins who appeared on grain silos, backing up traffic for miles. The entire Rio Grande Valley seemed steeped in miracles.
When I began spending time with Mohawks—tribal chiefs and medicine women, Black Jack-dealers and social workers, pawnshop owners and clan mothers—I again heard stories that necessitated the suspension of disbelief. Like the time Kateri Tekakwitha (Native America’s first canonized Saint) emerged from the flour someone sprinkled while making dumplings, and everyone came running with their rosaries. Like the traditional Longhouse members who threw fistfuls of tobacco out their backdoors at the first clap of thunder. Like the time I watched one hundred men, women, and children dance and chant for four hours in honor of the first fruit of the summer: the strawberry.
When you live a few miles away from an arbitrary line that drops you into an entirely different consciousness with its own history and culture and references and rules, your mind becomes more receptive to additional imaginative leaps.
GM: What is your own relationship with spirituality?
SEG: Like many Tejanos, I grew up Catholic, and—despite my wildly divergent views on everything from abortion to the Vatican—I still claim to be one. It’s practically cultural heritage. I was also weaned on fantastical stories about curanderos who could diagnose what ailed you by tweaking your nose, about brujas wielding horsehair whips, about lady ghosts that wailed down by the river. An inner skeptic, however, was born in journalism school and nurtured in a succession of newsrooms. So that is another tension that animates this book. Not only do I straddle two cultures, I also inhabit the space between faith and doubt.
GM: Can you tell us about the book’s title, All the Agents & Saints?
SEG: Would you believe it was a typo? One morning, I was transcribing a Catholic prayer called the Confiteor that includes the line “all the Angels and Saints.” Only instead of typing the word “angels,” I accidentally wrote “agents.” For years, I had been struggling to find the right title for this book. A little electric current shot through my body when I realized I just did. For better or worse, (Border Patrol) agents and (Catholic) saints are the twin protectorates of our nation’s borderlands. It seemed apt to honor them in this way.
GM: What do you hope people will gain by reading this book? What is its takeaway?
SEG: Empathy, for starters. I want U.S. citizens to realize that to be a member of our borderlands is to forever reside on the periphery. It’s a region where your car will be searched, your identity questioned, and your allegiances tested on a back road so remote, no one will hear you when you scream. Because a borderline is an injustice. It is a time-held method of partitioning the planet for the benefit of the elite. Fortunately, we have legions of activists, artists, and faith keepers out there, petitioning on humanity’s behalf, but they need serious reinforcement from the rest of us.
Far too often we hear about the U.S. borderlands only from the politicians who dictate their policies from afar. Rarely do we learn from the descendants of the regions’ early inhabitants. In All the Agents and Saints, I align their stories side by side as testimonio, or a document of witness, of what life there is truly like. Because it’s time to stop sending more “boots on the ground” and start listening to those who are actually rooted there.