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Poet Benjamin Saenz Considers Uncertainty Along Mexico’s Violent Border

June 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally, another in our series on poets and poetry — tonight, Benjamin Saenz. He lives on and writes about a part of the U.S.-Mexico border beset by violent crime in recent years. Saenz has authored numerous books of fiction and poetry. His latest collection is called “The Book of What Remains.”

BENJAMIN ALIRE SAENZ, author, “The Book of What Remains”: My name is Benjamin Alire Saenz. I live on the Juarez/El Paso border on the U.S. side. I’m a Latino writer, poet, artist, children’s book writer.

I really actually like to identify myself these days as a (SPEAKING SPANISH) someone who lives on the border. This is the place that really defines me, because it is such a difficult terrain to negotiate, because there are no sense of certainties, the fixed ideas of one’s identity, of one’s natural boundaries, the way one uses words, that they come from all sides. And, sometimes, they come at you like bullets.

It’s not a comfortable place to live. And, if you want to be a writer, you don’t want to live in a comfortable place.

“Meditation on Living in the Desert No. 11″

“I am looking at a book of photographs. The photographs document the exodus of Mexicans crossing the desert. I am staring at the face of a woman who is more a girl than a woman. She is handing her documents to a government official. I know and you know and we all know that the documents are forged. The official is not in the photograph, only the frightened eyes of the girl.”

I think the reason I started writing these odes to Juarez is that I feel a profound connection to that city and to the people of Juarez. Juarez used to be a place where you could go and have a drink, meet people for dinner. It used to be a playground, if you will, of some sort, to become — it’s become this dangerous place, which is the opposite of a playground, really.

Murder happens with impunity. There is no institutional system of justice that’s working. And, to me, that is not only terrifying, but profoundly sad.

So, some people leave. Some peo

ple have to stay. Some people still come back and forth. Some people try to live as normal a life — most people try to live as normal a life as they can. Some people do move if they have the means.

This is when borders do become fluid. Wealthy people can move anywhere they want. Wealthy people are welcome anywhere in the world, which then we have to say then borders are really to keep out the poor.

“Ode to Juarez No. 5.”

“This is where we live. The old man sits. There is nothing to do but remember. He is too old to work, too healthy to die, too rich to starve, too poor to leave the city. He hears a rumor. El Cartel de Sinaloa has defeated El Cartel de Juarez. If the war is over, then why is there still killing? We will be dead and buried before the killing stops. The killing will go on for an eternity, killing our new addiction, our new cocaine.

“People are leaving. The old man and his wife, Elena, will stay. This is where they were born, where they have always lived. The words they used to speak are disappearing. It hurts too much to talk. Sometimes, it hurts too much to breathe. Sometimes, it hurts too much to wake. There is no other place but here. There is no place to go. They have to stay and wait, but wait for what?”