This week Alfredo Corchado not only reported international breaking news, he was himself the subject of a PBS Newshour's segment thanks to his newly published memoir about investigating Mexico's drug cartels, Midnight in Mexico. (See Part I of this profile here.)
Corchado says that, for him, "home is the border."
"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 U.S., the more Mexican I am and the closer I am to Mexico the more American I become."
Corchado, a veteran journalist accustomed to the black and white world of fact-seeking, may be comfortable, even happy, about choosing the grays of border-living, but doing so leaves him vulnerable.
More than any other security measure implemented over the years to protect Corchado from threats against his life, he credits his "crumpled blue U.S. passport," for keeping him alive.
And yet, as one of his contacts reminds him in MIM, "You don't look American, bro." The protection afforded American journalists who "look" American may not always find journalists who look like Corchado. An American passport won't save his life if members of Mexico's organized crime, usually eager to avoid American scrutiny, fail to recognize Corchado as American.
Of course, as shown by the waves of racism shamelessly voiced on Twitter last month when Sebastian de la Cruz, an 11-year-old mariachi performer native of San Antonio sang the national anthem at the Spurs' semifinals, Americans may also reject him as one of their own.
As someone with brown skin and an accent, Corchado is not readily read as American no matter his "American brain" or "ideas bleached by American ways."
In the same interview Corchado asserts he's "a son of Mexico," he easily crosses to the other end of his border identity. "It's a sad reality of us as Americans. Slaps us with ignorance," Corchado says about the racist Twitter rants against De la Cruz. "No other country impacts the United States more on a daily basis than Mexico and no other country with more people butts up against the US than Mexico. And vice versa."
Corchado says that "a deep lack of understanding between both nations" leads to Americans feeling threatened by Mexicans, who in turn "often see Americans as nothing but bullies."
Si se puede
"The attitudes are changing, painfully at times, but changing," he said. "I think the fact that you have some 35 million Americans of Mexican descent and more than one million Americans living in Mexico helps out. Also, you have $500 billion in trade going both ways: music, culture, the cars you drive, much of it comes from Mexico. What we see with Sebastian, or in my case, is the last defense mechanism of trying to protect what you have, what you have known, who you are, even as the storm gets closer."
Sounds of a time and a place
Like millions in the United States, Corchado is navigating life across languages. The memoir tracks his bilingual musical preferences as much as the dangers of investigating the U.S.-Mexico's narco wars.
In MIM Corchado comes out as a fervent fan of Spanish Miguel Bose (as a teenager, he went so far as dressing like Bose in "red ballet tights") and a collection of other Spanish and English-language stars such as Juanga, Marco Antonio Solís, banda music groups, the Doors, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, Alejandro Fernandez and Pepe Aguilar (and their fathers) among many others. I asked him if a bilingual, multicultural/genre playlist is the answer then to better cross-cultural relations. His response was a playlist that included the guilty pleasures of many across borders: everything from Mexican rancheras to Colombian rock to Swedish pop.
"This is obviously the hardest question," Corchado joked.
"I'm still proudly a Miguel Bose fan. And yes, I find music to be a way to bridge worlds. As a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Miguel Bose, Juan Gabriel, ABBA, Juanes, and [the tequila label] Siembra Azul brought together fellows from some 29 other countries. We danced to the songs and came to appreciate and realize how music, its rhythm and beat are universal. Some didn't speak each other's language, but the smiles were always there, as we kicked out feet. So much that the Cambridge police got tired of coming over to tell us to tone it down. Music and tequila were the key forces behind the book. Music revived old memories, brought me back to moments I thought I had forgotten. Music brought back taste and sounds of a time and place."
The tequila that Corchado says won him and his fellow fellows/partiers attention from Cambridge police is also mentioned throughout the memoir. Corchado says he's visited the plant several times and has listened to Vivaldi and Mozart during the fermentation process. ("It is surreal," he says.) Corchado told me that if you smell the pages of the book you will "actually catch a scent of the tequila" since he drank it while writing.
(I can tell you that I grew increasingly thirsty as I read the galley.)
Of facts and truths
When I began reading MIM, the opening line of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's thriller-turned telenovela, La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South) immediately came to mind: "The phone rang, and she knew she was going to die." In the novel, that call sends protagonist Teresa Mendoza running from a fictitious Sinaloan cartel intent on keeping her quiet. MIM also opens with a phoned-in death threat against Corchado.
Corchado says he didn't read the novel, didn't want anything to influence him. He shares that he had actually begun MIM with chapter six but listened to the advice of "some friends who thought the present chapter one would work best" and is "happy with the results."
MIM is Corchado's first venture outside of journalism. What was it like transitioning from journalism to creative nonfiction? I asked him how he reconciled facts with emotional truths. He said it proved "the hardest thing" he's ever done.
"I gained much more respect for journalism in the sense of spelling things in black and white, but also in understanding and defining the gray areas," he said. "I came to terms with the emotional truths when I realized that in using them I could better explain the complexities of both countries and that in doing that I could serve as a better bridge of understanding without compromising my journalistic integrity. In the end I tried to balance facts with emotional truths, whenever I felt the need to generate deeper, richer understanding."
Although he says he enjoyed the benefit of "great editors who could detect any and every time [he] tried to hide behind the veil of journalism," really "it was about finding and embracing [his] own voice."
In Midnight in Mexico the journalist writes that it will be five years this July since he last "felt safe in Mexico." Does he view the overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the book, as granting him the type of exposure that could help keep him safe as he continues his work in the country?
"Part of me wants to believe that my U.S. passport offers protection and that by being out there, with a book, [a] byline, I will only find additional protection, protection that my colleagues in Mexico do not find," Corchado said. "We're all hopeful the book shines light on the plight of my colleagues in Mexico and leads to the government providing more protection for journalists in general."
The life of a journalist living on the borderlands of the two countries that feed his stories is not one all can understand. It may be that while some people can empathize with his chosen grays, others may question their blurred edges. But most can recognize what's at stake as he sets out to do his job.
"I try to think that these criminals have more pressing things on their mind these days. But it's unavoidable that from time to time you feel these shadows looming over you, trees become persons and you look behind you, constantly," Corchado said.
Referring to the premise of his memoir, he says next time he's threatened he "won't think twice again" about walking away.
"In the end I've learned to embrace fear and measure the consequences."