A prominent member of a new generation of Latin American writers, Paz Soldán stands in defiant opposition to the magical realism of the past century, instead grounding his work in political, economic, and historical realities. Norte is no exception; it is a tale of displacement and the very human costs of immigration. Shocking with its violence even as it thrills with its language, confounding rather than cowering under the cliché of the murderous, drug-dealing immigrant, Norte is a disquieting, imperative work—an undeniable reflection of our fragmented modern world.
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By Edmundo Paz Soldán, Valerie Miles
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 Edmundo Paz Soldán Random House Mondadori, S.A.
All rights reserved.
Villa Ahumada, Northern Mexico, 1984
He dropped out of school to hang out more with his cousins. He liked to watch them working the crowds at the market and train station, picking pockets or snatching bags, though he didn't take part himself. His cousins tried to avoid confrontation whenever possible but didn't shy away from a little violence if it came down to it. In darker alleys they'd flash their knives, which was usually enough to persuade their victims to give in without a fight. The police knew about them but left them alone as long as they stuck to petty theft, no bloodshed.
Around midnight they'd head over to the California, the only strip club whose bouncer would let Jesús in as long as they greased his palm a little bit. Jesús had a baby face and was slightly built, so he looked even younger than his fifteen years. The California served a cheap, nasty signature shot made of sotol and strawberry Nesquik in milk, called a "Pink Panther." They'd throw a few back and order some beers, ogle the strippers shimmying under the neon lights. They were known as troublemakers and, even worse, as bad tippers, so most of the women kept their distance. Only Quica, one of the older whores, was ever happy to see them; she hated sleeping alone in her rented room down by the river. Quica would cruise from table to table and lower her rates to steal clients from the Guatemalan girl named Suzy, a peroxide blonde with a bob and pneumatic tits, or from Patricia, the bimbo from Guadalajara who planned on ditching out as soon as she had enough cash to pay the coyote to cross the border. There wasn't much else for Quica, she was twice their age. She tried not to let it get to her, though. She might have loved the girls like daughters, though she swore no daughter of hers would ever turn into lowlife putas like them.
At three in the morning Quica finally told them it was time to go, but Medardo said, "Let's wait till the song's over, I love Chavela." Justino seized the opportunity to cop a feel and said, "You got a great ass, lady!" Sometimes she'd sleep with Medardo, other times with Justino. She figured Jesús was the type that got off by watching; she'd call him over, tell him to join in, but he always stayed on the couch and beat off.
One Thursday Jesús's mother asked if he would stay in and babysit his younger sister over the weekend, she had work in Júarez and would be back on Monday. He said fine, for a little cash.
That Friday night Jesús lay sprawled on his mattress with its broken springs and piss stains, at the foot of the bed his mother and María Luisa shared. The room stank of kerosene, and the stale kitchen odors seeped into everything.
María Luisa was asleep. Jesús killed time staring at the posters of Mil Máscaras on the wall. One of them showed the wrestler soaring high above Canek in a magnificent jump while El Halcón eyeballed him menacingly. Another was a movie print of Misterio en las Bermudas starring El Santo and Blue Demon. Jesús liked lucha libre for being a rough sport with spectacular maneuvers like the slingshot crossbody or the suicide dive. He had four masks of his own and a wrestling action figure, a parting gift from his father before he crossed the border into thin air.
That's what he was doing when he dozed off.
A sudden noise roused him from sleep. He opened his eyes to a half squint and pawed at his face, trying to remove the mask he had been wearing in his dream. It irritated him not to find it. Slippery raindrops clung to the window.
Jesús straightened and sat up on the mattress; he felt edgy, as if he were afraid he might turn into a monster like he'd done in a repeating dream so many times. Dawn was breaking and the first light of morning filtered into the room. His eyes tried to focus, to sharpen the contours of things, until they fixed on the bed where María Luisa lay. There she was, Jesús thought, all alone.
He moved in a little closer, watching her, noticing how her black hair framed her face, how her eyes were closed, her breathing measured. A pang of fear mixed with titillation gripped his stomach like an electric current. María Luisa was eleven now, her breasts were developing, you could see them pressing against her clothes, getting the neighborhood boys all riled up. She'd always been a pretty girl, with pouty lips held in a gesture of wonder before the world, and wide, almond-shaped eyes whose deep green contrasted with the cinnamon tone of her skin. She was filling out, swelling, growing restless.
Several hushed minutes passed.
Jesús climbed onto the bed.
"Wh-what you doing?"
"I just ... I wanted to visit with you."
"Mom's gonna have a fit, Jesús."
"She don't have to find out. You want me to stay or not?"
"Mom's gonna have a fit."
It aggravated him to see how difficult she was to figure out anymore, and it'd been this way for a few years now. She used to be so easy, so see-through, like she was made of glass. Mamá had had a hard time keeping things together after Papá left, so Jesús and María Luisa had stuck together a lot. They shared a bed, and at night he would let her keep the light on since she was scared of the dark. Then when Mamá got home from the cantina, she'd stretch out in the middle of them. Most of their afternoons were spent playing in a hollow tree in a field near their home. He'd make up stories inspired in the radio serials he liked to listen to so much, about grave robbers, killer mummies and the undead. Things had gone on that way for a few years until Mamá made him start sleeping by himself on the old mattress he and Luisa had shared before Papá left. He slept there on the floor now, while Luisa spent all her time with her school friends. She was slipping through his fingers and he couldn't do anything about it. He asked her to sleep with him like they used to one day when he was feeling depressed, but she answered with a curt "We can't," and he said, "We can wait till Mom's asleep," and again she said decisively "We can't."
Jesús rolled on top of her now and tried to kiss her, but she slapped him in the face and jumped off the bed. "Are you loco?" she said, trying to keep cool, self-assured. "You're not allowed to do that."
He recovered from the slap. How easy it would be for him just to corner her and take what he wanted. But that wasn't how it was supposed to go.
"You gonna be sorry you did that, hermanita," he said.
She turned around and strode out of the room, into the kitchen.
Jesús lay back down on his mattress and plunged his face into the pillow.
When the sun finally came up, he was still awake.
He found his cousins sitting near the river, on the far side of an iron archway by the soccer field. They were sitting quietly, watching a game. Justino followed the ball closely; the metal buckles of his black boots flashing in the sunlight. Medardo's mustache looked like a theater prop.
Medardo and Justino were a few years older than Jesús. Medardo had done a three-month stint in prison for running stolen cars across the border, and Justino had had to skip town for a few years, until the rumors of his having raped a neighbor girl died down ("she's a hot piece of ass for sure, but it wasn't me, all I did was stick my fingers up her pussy a little bit").
They stood up to leave and Jesús followed behind. They strode down a hill to the riverbank and followed a pathway that led through piles of debris at a dumpsite. Jesús had the creepy feeling that someone was watching him from the mountain of garbage: he finally spotted the blue eyes of a doll that were staring, wide-eyed, straight at him. The boys stopped under a low bridge where bats were slumbering along the ceiling, hanging, waiting for twilight to fall.
The bridge groaned with the weight of the trucks passing overhead. Would the structure hold? What if it collapsed and crushed them?
Medardo pulled a plastic bag from one of his socks and inhaled deeply. He passed it over to Justino, who did the same. Justino handed it to Jesús, who wedged his nose into the bag and breathed in the fumes that smelled like fresh wood.
They pulled out the bottle of sotol. Jesús took a swig and it burned his throat. He started giggling hysterically and had to make an effort to control himself.
There was more glue and more sotol, until Jesús finally stretched out on the ground. His mind wandered back to a time he was with Papá and María Luisa strolling the streets of Villa Ahumada; whenever the circus came to Juárez or Chihuahua they'd go see it together. Papá would spoil them buying all kinds of candy and toys. He had taken some accounting classes and was good with numbers, but work was scarce back then. He did odd jobs to make ends meet, from managing a boxing club to running a pawnshop called La Infalible. Papá developed a little side business while he was working at La Infalible, keeping part of people's payments and then lending it to others at bargain rates. The last few months before he left were like a bonanza: they got a black-and-white television set, there was meat and fruit on the table, they even bought some new clothes. It didn't last long, though. One night he gathered the family into the kitchen and told them he had to go look for work across the border. The sweat beaded on his forehead and he wiped it away, looking around anxiously. He promised us he'd be back soon. María Luisa bawled, but Jesús was optimistic: Papá had never let them down before. He left the next morning at the crack of dawn, before Jesús got up. Eventually Jesús would come to understand that it wouldn't be easy for him to come back. The owner of La Infalible had detected the missing funds and had threatened to kill him if he didn't pay the money back.
Jesús cackled anxiously. Then he bawled. He laughed again. Finally he fell asleep.
On Monday morning, Jesús cruised over to María Luisa's school, Padre Pro. He waited for gym class to start, then stood at the fence to check out how the girls were filling out. María Luisa pretended not to see him there, but Jesús knew she could feel his presence, watching her. A nun came over to scold him and she called security, a man with a beer gut who promised to crush his skull if he ever saw him in the vicinity again.
Jesús found his cousins in the market this time. They were sharing a plate of meat and beans and drinking horchatas. A stench of stale piss seeped from the nearby urinals.
Medardo was all worked up because Suzy had rejected his advances the night before. "All I did was touch her waist and she slapped me."
"I saw her," Jesús said, "but I didn't know it got you so pissed off."
"I wish it didn't, but I'm still bent about it wey. Fucking bitch said you look but you don't touch. So I yelled cunt, what you dress that way for then. You pay me, she said, we'll understand each other, so I go baby I never pay cause the ladies just love to play with my bazooka. And she told me to grow up before I talk back again. And we're the same fucking age, the puta!"
Jesús tried to calm Justino down but only made things worse: "Who does the bitch think she is, so full of herself, thinks we're a waste of time or something."
"Yeah, well I know where the bitch lives," Justino said. "We could wait for her to get home."
"And beat the shit out of her?" Jesús asked.
"First things first," Medardo said. "Give her a little of my good stuff, wey."
Jesús liked the idea. Suzy had been nice enough to him in the California, but she had a way of looking down her nose, acting all superior when she talked to him that irked him, like she was his mother or something. As if her peroxide hair and diamond belly-button stud were too good for him, like those tights stretched hard over long sexy legs, the thigh-high stiletto boots, were out of his league, only for truck drivers and polleros. But Jesús had graduated from being a mere bystander to his primos; he'd robbed his first couple as they left the station the other day, and he'd done a good job. He swiped the woman's pearl necklace right from her throat and, when the man ran after him, pulled a knife on him, stopping him cold in his tracks. The pearls were fake but no matter, he proved he could do it and that's what counted.
"I got some lucha libre masks at home," he said. "We could use them for protection. Just in case someone sees us."
"You learn fast little cousin," Medardo said.
They finished working the market and went back to the bridge. There was enough sotol and glue for the party to last through the night.
It was 4 a.m. when Suzy got out of the cab and made her way to her apartment building, the heels of her boots clacking in the night air.
She opened the door to her building with a flick of her wrist, holding the key like a blade in her hand. She felt a little woozy. Not a day went by that she didn't imagine herself free of the stinking puddles of the California's floors, the smoke that stung her eyes all night, the ear-splitting Van Halen and Prince, the rancheras, the drunk men constantly groping her.
Suzy was closing the door when she heard a familiar voice.
"What's the rush, bitch?"
"How quickly we forget."
"Oh, it's you ... You scared me."
"Don't move," Medardo said flashing his knife.
She took a few steps backwards, clutching at her purse, until she felt the cold tile of the wall behind her. There were bags of trash heaped up in the corner.
Medardo, Justino and Jesús entered the building and closed the door behind them.
"What you chamacos want? It's late and I'm tired. Please just let me be. Don't make me have to call Patotas."
Medardo grabbed her and threw her into the stairwell. Suzy felt a sharp pain in her back when she fell against the edge of one of the steps: she wanted to scream but a hand covered her mouth. She tried to squeeze out of Medardo's grip and crawl up the stairs; they struggled until he finally turned her over to immobilize her. Where was her purse?
"Please, please don't."
Medardo pulled down her tights and ripped her thong off. Suzy continued to struggle, though her strength was quickly draining. She felt him penetrate her and tried to scream. Maybe the couple who lived in the room next door would hear the noise?
Justino tore open her red blouse and sucked at her tits, licking and smearing his saliva all over her. By now she was letting them do what they wanted without putting up a fight; the knives terrified her. She conjured up images of her daughter Yandira, who was with her mother in Tlaquepaque — imagined her running around the courtyard at home with her blue skirt and black hair, the only good thing she'd inherited from her prick of a father. Her baby's hair was gathered in a splash of colorful barrettes. She'd get out of this alive and report them all to Patotas.
Now it was the last one's turn, the one who hardly ever spoke.
Jesús climbed on top of her. She had curled up into a ball and couldn't stop crying. Her clothes were ruined and she covered her face with her hands.
Now was his chance to show his cousins a thing or two.
He grabbed her by her wrists, forcing her arms open wide, and had each of his cousins hold one arm while he unbuckled his pants and told her to blow him. He struck her on the cheek so hard it made her bleed. He could see Medardo's and Justino's shocked expressions just out of the corner of his eye. They never thought he had it in him. Fucking bastards.
Suzy opened her mouth and started sucking Jesús's dick. She was trembling and had the hiccups. "Careful she don't bite you," Medardo sniggered.
Jesús watched her face transform into María Luisa's.
He closed his eyes and opened them again.
Still María Luisa. "So you didn't want to sleep with me, huh?"
He forced the handle of his knife up Suzy's ass. She squealed like a scared pig and Justino covered her mouth again, cursing her mother and telling her she don't deserve to be alive, she'd better shut the fuck up or things were going to get really ugly.
Jesús penetrated her with his fist and Suzy shrieked. He moved it around inside of her more and more viciously, as if he were feeding off her growing desperation. He opened his fingers as wide as he could and plunged them into the soft, gummy inner walls. Then he punched her in the face with the same fist.
"You didn't want to sleep with me, huh?"
The pain in his knuckles made him stop.
Suzy's cheekbones were black and blue and her nose was shattered. Nearly unconscious by now, she slumped against the stairs. She was lucky though: she hardly felt the blade puncture her heart.
"What the fuck you do that for?" Medardo asked Jesús.
"She was gonna rat on us."
"Primo, you shouldn'ta done that."
"Better safe than sorry, wey."
"I never thought you ... ," Justino stammered.
Excerpted from Norte by Edmundo Paz Soldán, Valerie Miles. Copyright © 2011 Edmundo Paz Soldán Random House Mondadori, S.A.. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Villa Ahumada, Northern Mexico, 1984
2. Landslide, Texas, 2008
3. Stockton, California, 1931
4. Villa Ahumada, 1984
5. Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 1985
6. Landslide, Texas, 1985
1. Landslide, 2008
2. Stockton, California, 1931–1948
3. Juárez, México—Smithsville, Texas, 1985
4. Smithsville, Texas, 1985
5. Juárez, Mexico; different cities in the US, 1985–1988
6. Landslide, 2008
7. Starke, Florida, 1988–1994
1. Landslide, 2008
2. Juárez, Villa Ahumada, northern Mexico, 1994
3. Auburn, Califonria, 1948–1952
4. Landslide, 2008–2009
5. Rodeo, Mexico; various US cities, 1994–1997
6. Landslide, 1997
1. Auburn, 1952–1959
2. Landslide, 2009
3. Houston, Texas, 1999
4. La Grange, Texas, 1999
5. Landslide, 2009
6. Rodeo, 1999
1. Auburn, 1959–1963
2. Rodeo, 1999
3. Landslide, 2009
4. Texas and New Mexico, 1999
5. Albuquerque, 1999
6. Landslide, 2009
7. Landslide, 1999
Epilogue: Huntsville, Texas, 1999–2009
Notes and Acknowledgments