The Ongoing Exile of the Undocumented
Oscar Villalon on The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez
What’s striking about Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s exhaustively researched and well-told story of Aida Hernandez—a young Mexican American woman who was swallowed up by the machinations of what passes for immigration policy in our country, only to escape from it and land into further uncertainty—is the wider narrative of the history of Mexican Americans his book alludes to. It’s a credit to Bobrow-Strain’s journalism in The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story that this backdrop emerges. By depicting Hernandez’s life with a focus and craft typically reserved for presidents, great artists, and other “persons of consequence,” and by asking us to consider the regional and national policies that will shape the narrative’s imminent calamities, Bobrow-Strain’s book raises questions that are just beyond the scope of his book—the plight of the undocumented—but discernible all the same.
Bobrow-Strain, a professor of politics at Whitmore College, immigration activist, and author of a book about landowners and violence in Chiapas, has given us a work about what it means to be essentially stateless in the United States (inasmuch as he’s writing about people denied the full protection of the law because they can’t provide a birth certificate or a green card, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of abuse; and people whose “homeland” guarantees them, at best, an indifferent reception, if not a murderous one, upon their deportation). The book is an often lyrical and intimate account (one informed by shoe-leather reporting and broadened by scholarly research) of contemporary Mexican American life in Douglas, Arizona, a tiny border city of nearly 18,000 people. It is in the detailed relating of these two realms—the life of a border community and the personal travails of Hernandez—that the thinness of the line demarcating the fate of undocumented Mexican Americans from their “legal” brethren becomes obvious.
Once Hernandez endures the excruciating anxiety—the terror—of facing indeterminate imprisonment, once separation from family and friends is avoided, and once the brutality and exploitation has been sealed off, what then? Even for Mexicó Americanos from places much bigger and deeper into the U.S. interior than Douglas (perhaps even for those of us who are only a generation or two removed from border crossings made reluctantly or expectantly, whether through an official point of entry or, unofficially, across the river), the experiences of marginalization in Douglas we learn about are hardly foreign. From the Pew Research Center: In 2013, of the country’s nearly 35 million “Hispanics of Mexican origin,” about 10 percent who were 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree (compared to 30 percent among the entire U.S. population), and 26 percent of these tens of millions lived in poverty (compared to 16 percent of the general U.S. population).
But let’s return to what’s in the fore of the book: the complex individual, the radiant, “light as a dancer,” curly haired morenita (to quote Ema, the Ecuadorian woman Hernandez will fall in love with while in ICE detention), whose path forward, already pot-holed by inauspicious economic and educational circumstances, was trip-wired since the mid-1990s when her mother, Luz, brings her and her two sisters from Agua Prieta to Douglas, leaving behind her husband and the father of her children. As they assume their place in the predominate Latino (which is to say, Mexican) population of a once prosperous copper town, one now financially reliant on the mammoth presence of an increasingly militarized border protection agency, Aida, her sisters, and mother blend in seamlessly, indistinguishable from their fellow put-upon peers. There is, however, that thorny matter of documentation.
To summarize what plays out for Aida Hernandez—the often brutal challenges she faces, beginning as an effervescent girl and becoming an abused teen mother, moving toward her painful resurrection (as the title suggests) following the trauma of a horrific stabbing in Mexico, and then the limbo of ICE imprisonment—would risk diminishing Bobrow-Strain’s portrait of one woman as her spirit and intellect are forged. As the author states in the book, he worked closely with his subject to tell her story (and, in fact, sales from the book will be split between him, Aida, and a Douglas health center that “helps people dealing with domestic violence or sexual assault”). What could easily have been dressed-up bullet points—truancy, drugs, absent fathers, abusive spouses, machismo, etc.—are instead opportunities to sensitively examine what it means to experience all of these things as Aida Hernandez, which is to say how to navigate all of this when one slip up, one threat made good can exile you from what you love and know.
At one of the points when Hernandez finds herself forced back to Agua Prieta she finds work as a bartender at a popular club. She “laughed loud and poured friends’ drinks with an extra flourish. But inside, she winced. Most of her friends and acquaintances didn’t know that she was undocumented. Even though deportation was as much a part of daily life in Douglas as quinceañera parties, Aida felt ashamed—different. She refused to admit what happened to her.” For the undocumented, there is marginalization within an already marginalized people, “othered” among the others.
One of the beauties of the narrative is that while this is indeed a case study of the fallout of enforcing an immoral immigration policy put into action during during the Obama administration, Hernandez is never reduced to a lecture prop. She is the protean American, in search of herself, re-inventing as she must. She’s at times a chola, a stoner, a goth. She’s straight and she’s gay. She’s Mexican, American, mother, and daughter. She’s nearly broken by PTSD; she doesn’t quit. And she’s far from perfect, making dumb if understandable decisions. She is fully alive, worthy as every individual is of dignity and respect, though she is often begrudged this because of her accursed status:
All her adult life the border had weighed on her. Even during her most carefree moments, its walls, fences, agents, and lights bristled on the edge of her peripheral vision. It was a constant physical reminder that no matter how at home she felt in the United States or how much she contributed—working, raising Gabriel, paying taxes—she was still excluded from full belonging. Like a tree gnarling around a fence post, she’d grown up twisted by the border into an irreconcilable position—fully a part of the Douglas community and yet alien to it.
That image, of being misshapen by larger-than-life forces, resonates, as does this passage from earlier on in the book:
The smelter closed nine months before Aida’s birth. By the time she and David sat as students in Douglas High bleachers, most of its visible traces were gone. Only the memory remained, sweet and bruised. For Aida and David, finding the American Dream would be more complicated than it had once been, if it had ever been that simple. But Aida, at least, still believed that it was possible—even when her surroundings told her it wasn’t.
If it ever had been that simple. Long before the creation of ICE, the U.S. had conducted mass deportations of Mexican Americans during the Depression. Along with that is a history where segregation and lynching of Mexican Americans were a fact. There was the 1918 massacre at the hands of the Texas Rangers at Porvenir in Texas. There are the militias “patrolling” the border today. Police brutality. Toxic fields. All the things that came after the Alamo. What makes The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez exceptional and powerful is that by getting us to care about Hernandez, and by not relying on a dishonest, feel-good ending, the book also guides us, whether intentionally or not, to ask if a story about the undocumented living along the border is also a story about the value we place on the well-being and the futures of Mexican Americans in general.