4 Books for a Better Understanding of the Border

When it comes to writing about border towns like El Paso, Tex., where 22 people were killed in a mass shooting on Saturday, “there always seems to be something that’s a little bit off about how it’s depicted,” the novelist Oscar Cásares said. “It’s either demonized or it’s romanticized.”

And while outsiders “talk about it being the end of the country,” he said, “when you live there, you think about it as the beginning. This is where it starts. We are the people who are receiving immigrants.”

Cásares has spent considerable time reading, writing and thinking about such places. His novel, “Where We Come From,” which was published in June, is set in Brownsville, a Texas border town similar to El Paso. Here are four books he recommends for a stronger understanding of the people who live in these dual-culture places and what their lives are like.

‘Retablos’ by Octavio Solis

“It’s just a gorgeous little book,” said Cásares about this memoir in vignettes by a playwright who grew up in El Paso. “Ultimately I think books that work best about the border, without trying too hard, have that fluidity between the cultures.”

In “Retablos,” he said, “sometimes you’re asking yourself, ‘Are we in Mexico or in the U.S.?’ The language is moving back and forth, and you’re in two places at once. I think for people who don’t know much about the border, it’s incredibly accessible, and gives you that sense of wonder that he had as a kid in trying to navigate these two worlds.”

‘Borderlands’ by Gloria Anzaldúa

Cásares recommends this classic of Chicana feminism for “the borders that she crosses simply on the page itself.” Anzaldúa combined “memoir, history, poetry, music” to explore the space in between cultures that defined her experience growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s definitely one I go back to quite often,” Cásares said.

‘The Rain God’ by Arturo Islas

This book is one of Cásares’s all-time favorites. “It’s set in El Paso, but I don’t know that El Paso is ever mentioned in the book,” he said. Instead, the scene is set through descriptors — “how much dust and how sandy it is,” he said. “It’s like this telenovela, once you get into it, how deeply he goes into four or five principal characters within this larger family.”

‘Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots and Graffiti From La Frontera,’ edited by Bobby Byrd, John William Byrd and Luis Humberto Crosthwaite

This book is particularly interesting because it was a collaboration between editors in Mexico and the United States, Cásares said, with stories about the militarization of the border, violence against women and the rise of the factories known as maquiladoras on the Mexican side. It covers “just about everything happening that’s going back and forth between the two nations,” he said. “It’s not just El Paso. It’s up and down the border.”

Concepción de León is a staff writer covering news and culture for the Books section.

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