Broken Systems: Fiction at the Intersection of Immigration and Criminal Justice
David Lida Writes of Love, Death, and the Border
David Lida’s new novel One Life, published last month by Unnamed Press, comes at a decisive moment. His jaded protagonist Richard works as a mitigation specialist to uncover the lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants facing the death penalty in the United States. Over the course of the novel, Richard works to save Esperanza, a young wife and mother who moves from Morelia to Juárez, and from there to Louisiana, where she has been arrested for the murder of her daughter.
While thousands in the US await what Trump-era immigration will look like, Lida’s dark-humored novel mixes journalistic and dialogic literary styles to reveal the injustices that are largely invisible in discourse on both immigration and the US criminal justice system. By detailing US-Mexico relations, he situates the trauma and abuse that are at the root of the cases he mitigates. He writes, “Most people who are facing death row come from families in whose bosoms there is systematic abuse, neglect, violence, and poverty to the point of malnutrition.” Richard’s own story is told through the lives of others, and his mobility and fixation on death counterpose the stories of his prisoner clients awaiting trial.
I sat down with Lida in Mexico City, where he has lived for the past 15 years. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines internationally and publishing four books, he is also a mitigator. In his work as a mitigation specialist, Lida investigates cases in which Mexican nationals, incarcerated in the US, face the death penalty. He interviews family and community members who can speak to a defendant’s character in attempts to find compelling, mitigating evidence—mental illness, trauma, etc.—to convince a jury to save the defendant from capital punishment. As much his novel is a meditation on loneliness, loss and remembrance, the novel’s honest portrayal of the border region adds vital narratives to debates on immigration and the criminal justice system.
Andrea Penman-Lomeli: How did you end up in Mexico City?
David Lida: I came here to live in 1990. Every since I was an adolescent, I’ve been restless. I wanted to go to live in another country and see what it would be like. I was born and raised in New York and in those days, everyone thought that New York was the be all end all, but I didn’t. I wanted to see more of the world. I loved Mexico, I came here a few times in my early twenties, but when I got to Mexico City, I thought, wow, I could live here. At the time I had been working at a newspaper in New York for five years and had quit to become a freelancer, which I could continue in Mexico. I’ve only been mitigating for the last nine years—that come late in life. I do very little journalism now. Between writing books and working as a mitigation specialist I have very little free time.
APL: You’ve written extensively about Mexico City in your books. I was wondering if you think the work would have been possible had you not been in Mexico City. Do you think the move was necessary to produce the writing that you did?
DL: I don’t exactly know the answer, but I would say that when I came to Mexico I found a subject. I found something to write about. My first book is a book of short stories, and all the stories are set in Mexico. Then I wrote two books about Mexico City, and now I’ve written the novel. I feel like Mexico gave me something to write about. One of the marvelous things about journalism is that, particularly for a young person, before you figure out what story you have to tell, you can tell other people’s stories. And you learn how to write a story.
I certainly felt that way when I started to mitigate. One of the reasons I wrote about it through a novel is that I’ve always wanted to write a novel. But the other is that the information from my cases is privileged information. I can’t write about it in a nonfiction way, in a journalistic way. So I thought, Ok, I have to write a novel.
APL: Besides the information being confidential, was there a reason you chose to tell these stories. Beyond the individual stories, did you intend to share the political and social injustices that created these stories?
DL: Absolutely. I mean for one thing, I think that you can’t really write about Mexico and the United States in any meaningful way without it at least being implicitly political. I mean it would be terribly superficial to not. All of my books have a political element, even if they’re not overtly political. I never have, and I probably never will, write a political treatise, or an essay. But certainly if you’re writing anything about illegal immigration, the criminal justice system, on either side of the border, and how it works against the undocumented it’s impossible not to.
Of course, when I finished this novel two years ago, Trump wasn’t even a blip on the screen in those days. I never thought . . . To me this book is the other side of the coin. But obviously I didn’t think this was going to happen.
APL: In the novel, the protagonist compares the immigrants’ traumas to his own family’s traumas. Is there are reason why you juxtapose those stories?
DL: The truth is I do come from a very traumatized family. When you work as a mitigator, a lot of the discourses about trauma and PTSD inform the work. The idea I had was to tell the story of Esperanza, the woman who needs to be mitigated because she’s facing capital murder charges, but I thought at the same time I would mitigate the character Richard who is mitigating her. Again, the idea is at least to implicitly show how they can be similar.
APL: You also talk about how these traumas carry through generations. I was wondering if you could talk about how the political or economic subjugation ends in domestic violence.
DL: That’s a really good question . . . My first cases all involved domestic violence in the family and I think frankly that that is something Mexico doesn’t acknowledge enough. There’s all this discourse about how terrible the violence is in this country, speaking of narcoviolence. But that doesn’t come out of nowhere. I once said this at a public forum at the Oaxaca Book Fair. There was a question about violence against journalists, which is of course terrible in this country. But I said that this violence does not exist solely against journalists but also against women and children.
APL: I was wondering why you chose to write a female protagonist, and one that is supposed to be likable, as Richard is in love with her.
DL: Well all of them are likable. I have to tell you, I’ve never disliked a client. I’ve only had one I didn’t like. He made it really difficult for us. But I’ve liked all of them. So the book is about love and life and death. And US-Mexico relations and the criminal justice system, but I also wanted it to be about love. I wanted it to be a love story, and the easiest way for me to do that was to write Esperanza.
APL: Juárez is notorious for being one of the most dangerous cities; I was wondering why you chose that city for partly the setting of the novel?
DL: I actually worked on a case in Juárez, and I went to a factory. The details I have gotten as a mitigation specialist have been so outrageous. I needed to find a way to write about Juárez, because to me it is so emblematic of the NAFTA.
The trajectory of Esperanza going from her small town to Morelia, to Juárez, to Louisiana is representative of clients I’ve worked with who have had similar trajectories. It just seemed to me that I should include it. A lot of women go to work in Juárez, and to this day most of the women who work in the maquilas are women. There is an enormous female presence.
I have a dear friend, Sergio González Rodríguez who has written a ton. He wrote the best book about feminicide, called Huesos en el desierto, and he really helped me understand my experience in Juárez. When there’s something I don’t understand I call him. For example, the first weekend I spent in Juárez, on the following Monday the paper reported all the murders that had been committed that weekend. They didn’t report every death because there were more than 40 over the course of three days. I talked to Sergio, and he helped explain that it is in the authorities’ best interest to make readers believe that the dead are drug dealers or prostitutes, when in fact many of the people who were being murdered in Juárez in 2010 were just working women who wound up in the crossfire. I put this in the book; this literally happened. There was a case where six female waitresses were murdered. These waitresses hadn’t done anything, but they’re boss hadn’t paid whoever he was paying off to operate the night club, and so they killed the women to show them what happens when they fail to pay.
APL: So there’s a part in One Life, at the end of the news report that you write, where you insert a bunch of racist comments underneath. Why did you choose to include the racist backlash to immigration in the novel?
DL: Well, one of the first things I do when I begin a case is to read the local news reports online. I’ll find out how the case has been reported, and then I’ll read the readers’ comments. They tend to be so malicious, so vituperative, so vitriolic, and so racist; I’m always appalled. I felt I needed to include these comments so that there would be an understanding of what we’re dealing with, to contextualize the story. But guess what? These comments became the political platform of a presidential candidate. I mean, I didn’t anticipate that these views would becomes so widespread, but maybe today if I had written it, I wouldn’t have had to include that because it wouldn’t be necessary to show those opinions. I barely changed a word of those comments. Those comments are literally things I read. I tweaked them a tiny bit, but they mostly read as I read them. There’s one where the writer writes about the ten commandments… I didn’t make that up.
APL: I watched the interview that you did last week with Daniel Alarcón at Strand Bookstore where you talked about the Mexican literary scene. You said that people don’t usually talk about this part of Mexico. Could you talk about your experience as a white writer portraying others’ stories, and if you felt there was any risk in the portrayal of immigrant women like Esperanza?
DL: I’ve actually thought about this a lot recently—the debate concerning whether it’s okay for white writers to write characters of color. Most people say if it’s good writing, then it’s okay. But I don’t think it’s for me to judge; I’m certainly not black, or Mexican, or a woman. I do feel that, as a writer, I should be able to include these characters, and I did my best to paint them as realistically as I could. Almost all the people I wrote about are based on people I’ve met. I also felt that, if I don’t tell this story, who would? As a writer, that’s one of the most interesting questions. Is this something that 1,000 other people could write? How many mitigation specialists are also writers? I thought, if I don’t write this book, no one’s going to write it. That’s a tremendous feeling. You don’t know if you’re going to get it right. You don’t know if it’s going to be a good book, but I think it’s a good reason to try to write a book—if you’re the only one who can do it.
APL: I’m interested in the formal differences between journalism and literature. Did you feel that these stories would be more powerful, or reach more people, if they were in novel form?
DL: I started to write because I wanted to write fiction, but in journalism, at least when I was a kid, you could actually make a living.
It’s like a paradox. When you’re writing journalism you are a prisoner to the facts. You have to tell it like it really was. Fiction gives you the freedom to make stuff up, to deviate or detour from the facts and start to invent. But I believe, actually, that somehow you might get to a larger truth with fiction, than with only the facts.
APL: Could you tell me about your process? You said you finished the novel two years ago.
DL: It took me a ridiculously long time to write the novel, about six years. There were about two years at the beginning of working in mitigation when I was just taking notes. I didn’t know what I was going to write, but I took a lot of notes. I had about 20 pages of single-spaced notes before I thought, well, here’s a story. Let me take it from here.
APL: Obviously the protagonist’s life is based on your own experiences. Can you talk about why you set out to write a novel instead of a memoir? In what ways did you fictionalize the protagonist?
DL: I didn’t want to write a memoir, and I also don’t think I could have while writing about my cases, because of client-attorney privilege.
The protagonist is a lot more reckless than I am. I say as a joke that he’s younger than me, he’s got more hair than me, he drinks more than me. He has more sex than I do. But also, he makes more errors in judgement that I try not to make on this job. When I travel on these cases I don’t hang out; I lead a pretty conservative existence. His irony is me. I did feel very elated when I started doing mitigation. I felt very psyched about it. I do remember, like Richard, the joy I felt after I helped save my first client—I was sure that guy was going to die.
APL: In New York, you spoke about how these cases are at the intersection of a broken criminal justice system and a broken immigration system. Beyond these death penalty cases, in what other ways do you think the criminal justice system is targeting undocumented immigrants and retaining them instead of, let’s say, deporting them?
DL: I just think that the whole political discourse against the undocumented is utter hypocrisy. I said this in New York, but I’ve seen towns in which if the undocumented were to disappear, there would be nobody left to cook a meal, to prune a tree, to kill the pigs in a slaughter house. Entire economies are dependent on this labor, and its just not in their best interest to carry out a deportation regime like the one Trump describes. I read this somewhere, that something like 12 billion dollars are paid by the undocumented in taxes. Compare that to Trump. In terms of the criminal justice system, there’s no way around this; the criminal justice system favors people with money. That’s why Trump is not in jail and the people I work with are. If you don’t have money, you don’t have white skin, if you don’t speak the language—you’ve got some serious strikes against you. You don’t need me to tell you that.
Some of my clients are US citizens. I’ve worked on cases with chicano families or Mexican families in which the person who is in jail was born in the US. The problem these families face is that they don’t have the recourses, either economic, practical, or emotional.
APL: One of the things people pointed out after the election was the media bubble—that people in the media were surrounding themselves with people whose ideas they also shared. When you were writing this book, did you think you would be swaying opinions, or speaking to readers that didn’t agree with you?
DL: I think the novel is a parallel discourse to the discourse of the racist state.
But, absolutely not. Those who believe in the death penalty will continue to believe in it no matter what evidence you throw at them to tell them it doesn’t work.
Also, a novel is about asking questions, not answering them. Journalism may be more about convincing people of an argument. I wanted to tell the story of these things I was seeing that not even my Mexican friends were seeing. I would come back to Mexico City and tell my friends about the places I’d been to, and I realized not even my friends there knew about this. So, I’m thinking: it’s not just the gringos who don’t know. There’s a story I can tell that no one else knows. I do want to plant these questions, but not necessarily try to convince people. You have to write the story and let people come to their own conclusions. A friend of mine told me that she really liked my book but that the people who needed to read it probably wouldn’t be reading it. And that’s probably true.
APL: Do you think you’ll stay here?
DL: Mexico City has become home to me. If you told me I had to go back to the United States, I’d be pretty sad. Particularly now. But I’ve felt this way for a while, that the United States has become this very divided place, polarized ideologically. I feel no sense of community there.