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Border Reality Defeats Gonzo Writer

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In the wake of 9/11, Johnny Rico left his job as a Colorado probation officer and enlisted with the U.S. Army. Soon he was fighting in Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Division and stealing away at night to pen his war memoir Blood That Makes the Grass Grow Green. Hailed as a gritty, ruthless depiction of life in the war zone, the book put Rico on the map as an adventurous, self-styled gonzo journalist and left readers poised for his next high-wire escapade.

Rico wanted his sophomore effort to echo the danger and drama of his debut; all he lacked was a shtick. Then he discovered the U.S.-Mexican border. In 2006 and 2007, border issues were reverberating through the Americas. The president had proposed a guest-worker program, but his own party killed it. Lou Dobbs ranted, Minutemen mobilized, and millions protested in the streets. All the while, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers continued to seep through the porous 2,000-mile border. Rico, the pseudonym of a white American who doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish and had never seen the border, let alone crossed it, dreamed up a tired gimmick. Border Crosser is the account of Rico’s attempt to illegally cross from Mexico into the United States in the summer of 2007.

Physically and mentally, Rico is woefully unprepared for the task he has assigned himself. Nevertheless, he sets out with testosterone-fueled arrogance and a naïve, fetishized view of the border-crossing experience. At the outset of his journey he sits comfortably in a Denver hotel room surrounded by maps and GPS equipment, pondering which migratory route he will take—a moment of indulgence I’m sure no immigrant has ever had the luxury to entertain. Arizona? California? South Texas? “I was happy because this route selection was a tenderly private moment,” he writes, “what I imagined it would feel like choosing a first wedding dress.” His plan is to enter Mexico and procure a coyote to smuggle him across the border with a migrant group. The rest of his fantasy plays out like this:

At first, I wouldn’t fit in very well but over time, [my fellow travelers would] recognize my warm compassionate heart and then, of course, we’d probably end up bonding. … By the end of the journey, the women wouldn’t be able to contain their respect and admiration that I, a relatively comfortable American, had taken this journey with them if for no other reason than to experience it, and while still holding my hand, the men would pull me into a tight hug.

Needless to say, at the end of the book, Rico remains hugless.

The author begins in San Diego and works his way east along the border toward Texas, meeting with various border players along the way. Though the primary goal of these interactions is self-serving—Rico wants to collect as much reconnaissance as he can for his own border crossing—these interviews provide a welcome reprieve for the reader who too often feels like a burr unwittingly stuck to the author’s pant leg. The book is at its best and most textured when Rico hits his mute button and allows the border people to speak for themselves.

In the California hills, we are introduced to all varieties of Minutemen and border vigilantes. Men with names like Leland, Duke, Kingfish and Gus, many of them veterans living off Social Security in ramshackle outposts who feel duty-bound to defend the border. The most colorful of these characters is Little Dog, the self-appointed captain of the Mountain Minutemen, a one-man army stationed at a makeshift fortress called Patriot Point 30 yards from the border. Little Dog spends his days and nights guarding his corridor, a favored route of drug traffickers. During his visit, Rico witnesses a steady flow of human traffic through the hills as Little Dog dutifully calls in their positions to the Border Patrol. Though Little Dog works alone, he has constant company in the form of cartel operatives on the other side of the border with whom he trades barbs on the radio as they watch each other through binoculars. “They watch us, we watch them, they watch us watching them, we watch them watch us watching them,” Little Dog says, explaining his role in protecting the country. This nonstop tête-a-tête reveals one of the ironies of border living: the begrudging intimacy kindled when enemies live every day within spitting (or, more accurately, shooting) distance from one another.

Farther east into Arizona, Rico encounters an aid group that provides water stations through one of the most brutal parts of the desert. He takes a ride with Border Patrol agents and tours a National Guard surveillance post boasting technological prowess but neutered powers. Members of the National Guard may, under federal law, only observe illegal immigrants; they cannot apprehend them. In Phoenix he attends an angry citizen-action meeting where upcoming agenda items include a boycott of the Phoenix Museum of Art for hosting an exhibit on Mesoamerican artifacts, a clear affront to U.S. sovereignty. Rico talks to a crusty old rancher too stubborn to sell his land, despite it being ravaged by foot traffic and violence. He visits a Catholic safe house in El Paso run by former Fortune 500 employees and Ivy League grads.

Because the author doesn’t speak Spanish, his interactions with Mexicans are less frequent than those with Americans, and the book suffers from this glaring absence of perspective. One earnest attempt to collect stories from migrant workers near Tucson becomes a scene of exploitation and humiliation as Rico offers pitiful sums of money to desperate men for their tales of immigration. “I want really bad stories, the worse the better,” he tells Marty, a Mexican who agrees to be his translator for the afternoon. They’re not hard to find. Many of the men wait three to four days for one day’s work. They are desperate to send money home, not just to feed their families, but to pay off the coyotes who smuggled them for a year’s pay. It’s little consolation that Rico is aware of his tactics, even self-conscious: “I was the decadent white boy paying poor Mexicans for their sob stories so that I could collect the private shames of people I didn’t know. It was emotional prostitution and I was a pimp.”

Despite the wealth of information he gleans from his border interviews, Rico’s recon only serves to spook him. He considers crossing the border through California’s Tecate Line, then demurs. Too crowded and too many drug runners. Devil’s Highway? Too much desert. Arizona’s Amnesty Trail? Too much exposure, no cities to hide in. An Indian reservation? Too heavily patrolled. The El Paso corridor? Too much surveillance. McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley? Not enough access roads. Like Goldilocks and her bowls of porridge, Rico wants to find the route that is juuust right.

Although Rico is obviously reaching for Hunter S. Thompson in this work, one wishes for a bit of William T. Vollman. Personal stories do shed light on the border experience, but there’s scant attention paid to the larger forces of NAFTA, globalization, the drug trade and the war on terror—topics which would provide much-needed context and cast individual stories in sharper relief.

But Rico doesn’t have time to probe those issues; he’s racing to cross the border. As his desperation increases, he feels a sudden burst of kinship with his brothers and sisters across the Rio Grande. “Just as the Mexican migrants who crossed were desperate, so now was I,” he writes. “The migrants and I, we had become one and the same.” After all they, like him, simply have to cross the border. Never mind that they do it for survival and he must do it to fulfill a book contract and catch a flight out of LAX.

The only character that looms larger in Rico’s caper than the author himself is the border. Bewitching and brutal in equal measure, it is a beacon and a barrier of mountain, desert and river: both a constant presence and an evolving organism. And though Rico does eventually make his crossing, the act lacks the bravado he imagined at the outset of his adventure. Instead of a deliberate trek through a formal migratory route, his is a breathless, almost accidental, scamper from one side to the other—hardly a valiant odyssey. But by the end of the book, Rico doesn’t care how he gets across the border or how much he has to compromise his original goal. He just wants to make the crossing and get away for good. Rico completes his mission, but ultimately we get the sense that the border has bested him too.

A former editor at Random House, Kirk Forrester is a freelance writer based in Austin.