THE BLOG

What It's Like to Be an American Wanted by the Drug Cartels: The Story of a Mexican-born Journalist, Part I

07/18/2013 03:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

It's been a busy week for journalist Alfredo Corchado. Not only did he lead the coverage of breaking news, Corchado himself was the subject of prime time news. And this just a few weeks after publication of his first book, Midnight in Mexico. (See Part II of this profile here.)

On Monday Mexico's naval special forces captured Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the alleged leader of Mexico's most feared drug cartel, the paramilitary Zetas known for their gruesome go-to means of communication with rival organizations, law enforcement, and the public: beheadings, amputations, and live burnings.

Treviño Morales is no small win for authorities on both sides of the border. Mexico and the U.S. State Department had offered $2.5 and $5 million rewards, respectively.

Corchado was the first American news correspondent to report the prized catch.

And, despite the claim by at least one critic that Corchado "has no qualms about associating Mexicanness with fatalism... a cliché found in countless superficial works about the Mexican people and one that [he] repeats in his book again and again," Alfredo Corchado's first book, the memoir Midnight in Mexico continues to receive favorable reviews and enjoy national attention, the latest just Monday night, a spot with PBS Newshour's Margaret Warner.

Corchado has spent almost 20 years reporting on Mexico, most recently as the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. MIM chronicles his front-row seat view of the country's efforts against what U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza recently referred to as the narco-terrorism of the drug cartels. Oh, and what he did when he was tipped off he was on a cartel's hit list. (He stayed to investigate his sources, assess whether the threat was real and follow the story.)

Corchado was born in Durango, Mexico. His family immigrated to the States when he was still a young child and he grew up following the seasonal crops of California and Texas. He's since become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

In his memoir, Corchado writes that his mother opposed his return to Mexico from the beginning, not only because she feared for his safety, but because she "... saw Mexico as stuck between hope and despair, divided between the rich and those who lived nothing but their stubborn faith." By contrast, he writes that "even with wisdom gained," and "flaws uncovered," he believes in "the promise of a new day" for Mexico.

How has he managed to find "the promise of a new day" given that he knows more than most of what he calls the country's midnight hour?

"Because of the Mexicans themselves, certainly not because of the government," the journalist answered via Facebook correspondence. "I have been covering Mexico since the mid-1980s and I have seen the slow transformation of society, a more open, more demanding, more conscious people finding ways to keep government accountable. This is not the case everywhere, nor is it overwhelming, but the roots are being planted and we see the results: a stronger supreme court, a healthier, stronger press in some regions of Mexico, particularly Mexico City and Guadalajara, and greater political competition."

Corchado said he now sees "a society more willing to shame their own government than to constantly and only blame the United States for everything," and Mexicans that are "learning not to just be victims, but also to take responsibility for themselves -- as if history has finally caught up with them."

"I remain hopeful because I see Mexico from the lens of 20-25 years and have seen how Mexico has slowly transformed," he said.

Riding the hyphen

The theme of duality is everywhere in Corchado's memoir. The reader can't help notice all the back and forth exchange of pronouns in the narrative. At times he uses "I" or "we" to refer to himself both as Mexican and American. For example, at one point Paisana, one of his contacts, tells him "You gringos are crazy," and he responds, "Yes, we are." Later he calls himself "a son of Mexico."

Corchado has been introduced as Mexican American in interviews given prior and since the publication of MIM, but in the book itself, he seems to claim both countries without claiming the hyphen. I wonder, is he simply a MexAm? A Mexican working in the United States? An American working in Mexico? How did writing the book, a volume of personal nonfiction, as opposed to the neutral language he employs as a journalist, shape his understanding of his national identity?

Corchado's respose is humble and forthright, but also telling of the complexities of a dual identity. "I'm glad you caught that because at times I wasn't conscious about it. It wasn't until one of the final edits that I realized what I was doing. I didn't think it would be honest of me to change the language," Corchado said.

He says he's never considered himself MexAm (a term coined by Mexican American author Dagoberto Gilb that I mentioned to Corchado); Chicano, or Pocho (both terms widely used by American-born individuals of Mexican descent who may or may not fully embrace the cultures and languages of both countries, initially pejoratives, both have been reclaimed as empowering); but he acknowledges "la lucha" or struggles of the Mexican American community, and is "okay" that he's "constantly saddled with those terms."

Corchado is unapologetic about being "a son of Mexico who grew up in the United States and has divided time right down the middle between both countries." He remarks that he's developed "an American brain" to go with his "Mexican heart," one that "insists on being romantic and not so pragmatic, or logical."

"It's been a constant battle, but I have come to the realization that I really don't have to choose anymore," Corchado said. "This is who I am. The farther I am from the US, the more Mexican I am and the closer I am to Mexico the more American I become."

(Click here for the second part of this profile.)