June 14, 2018 500 AM
“How do we fit in?” asks Alfredo Corchado in the prologue of his latest book, “Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration,” published by Bloomsbury and released this June. This question is a key source of tension within the book, which offers an interrogation of immigration politics through the stories of four displaced friends with Mexican roots, who form an unlikely bond at a Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia. At this year’s Agave Festival, Corchado sat alongside one of the friends he writes about — David Suro, a restaurateur and tequila connoisseur — as they discussed the role of immigration in America, and shared tequila onstage at the Crowley Theater. Corchado, a Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News spoke to me about his new book, the so-called “American dream,” and the impending Mexican election. Check out the interview below.
Tell us about your new book and why you decided to write it.
It was during the book tour for Midnight in Mexico that the idea came up. I was doing a talk in Colorado and afterwards I went out with a family member’s friends and I asked one of them, “Do you ever think about going back to Mexico?” And she said, “Mexico is kind of like a rosebud. It’s so beautiful but it never opened up for us.” That little line stuck in my head and I started thinking about the millions of immigrants from all over the world, who come here and who contribute to this country. It’s a story that’s been told before but I thought, “How do I tell this very complicated, complex story in a way that maybe people can relate to?” So, I tell the story, Homelands, through four friends who meet on this night in Philadelphia and in the backdrop you have the biggest immigration shift in the country that’s going on. Obviously the story takes a whole new sense of urgency in November of 2016.
Were you writing this book at the time of the election?
Originally, I was supposed to finish the narrative on election night. The next morning, I wake up, call the publisher and say, “I think I’m going to need more time.” The book was due in February of 2017 and basically they gave me until August. I didn’t want it to become a Trump book and it isn’t but I thought the climate that we were living in had to be a part of the book.
Did the election and its immediate aftermath affect your process of writing the book? Did you feel distracted?
I was completely distracted. I think the best time I had writing the book was when I was in Marfa at Lannan in the fall of 2016. I was focused; my mind was clear. That was weeks before the election. But after that I couldn’t focus. You had an onslaught of attacks from everywhere. The border, the wall, the Mexicans; it was a really crazy time. I finally ended up going to the University of San Diego, California, and took a dorm. I didn’t watch TV. One of the hardest things was that I was taking my parents to Durango for Dia de los Muertos and as we were driving into town my mother said, “I wonder if it was worth it. I wonder whether the sacrifice we made to take you guys out of here was worth it.” And then she got really emotional and started crying and I started crying. I think that moment really sort of shook me up. That’s the part that I think hurts the most — that they sacrificed their lives for us and now they question the decision.
I think there’s often a sense among hyphenated Americans and immigrants of unbelonging; that is, not belonging fully to either place. Do you feel that way?
I’m a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News so I live in Mexico a lot. I’m there more than 20 years, but I completely agree. I don’t feel like I’m ever completely home there. In fact, when I’m in Mexico, I feel more American. And when I’m in the U.S., I feel more Mexican. But I think there’s a beauty to that. There’s a beauty to the fact that after five decades in the United States, I don’t feel like the melting pot took over me. Yes, I’m assimilated. Yes, I speak English and so forth. I work for an American company but I think I’ve been able to really embrace both sides. There’s a turning point in the book where three of us thought, “It’s over in the U.S. This whole thing we thought about the American dream, it’s a myth. Let’s go home.” And then you realize, Mexico isn’t perfect either. So you find yourself constantly in between.
Is the American dream a myth?
The question has haunted me from the day I left Mexico. I had a great life in Mexico. I mean, I was five or six but my first memories are of Mexico. I came here kicking and screaming and I’ve always been curious about what it was that my parents saw that I didn’t see. They kept talking about el sueno Americano, the American dream. I don’t know that it’s a myth because this country’s been pretty damn good to me. It’s given me a lot of opportunities, but I also see tens of thousands of people who’ve died trying to reach that and then to come here and not be welcomed or to see no gratitude for what they’ve done to contribute to this country, to be questioned as murderers and rapists and so forth…
You took a short hiatus from journalism after your last book and then decided to return to it. What made you go back?
I took a year off in 2015, went to ASU, and I thought, I’m going to have time to write, I’ll have time to focus on the book. It took a semester for me to realize that this is not going to happen. I missed reporting, and then I realized, this isn’t working. The election happened and we were in Nogales; we took some students to witness this historic event and the role of the border and so on and so forth. I couldn’t sleep. You just hear this calling, journalism, and you realize, “Shit, why did I doubt myself?” It is a disease, journalism. There’s no cure. I called the Morning News and I said, “Hey — I’m tired of dancing.” And they said, “Welcome back.”
How does it feel writing stories amidst everything that’s been going on?
In some ways, covering Mexico, covering the violence, in a very strange way, has helped prepare me for this; to see the massacre of your homeland and to try holding back your own anger. The values in this country, the ideals, and the principles are being challenged and so forth, and it tears you apart.
What subjects have you been covering in your reporting?
I think President Trump really made the border that much more urgent so there’s a sense that we need to spend a lot more time on the border but also we have an election in Mexico and the consequences of that election are going to have a huge impact in Texas. So we’re trying to balance covering that and covering this.
What are your impressions of the upcoming election?
We just did a poll with the Mexican newspaper, Reforma. It’s stunning to go to some of the most conservative places in Mexico and to see this support for López Obrador, which is up 52 percent. What surprised me was the number of people who questioned NAFTA and who questioned economic integration. Something like 74 percent either said life was the same or that life had worsened after NAFTA. And that surprised me.
There’s been sort of a global trend toward populism. Do you feel like Mexico is following suit?
I think so. I think there’s a sense of, we have to get away from traditional political actors, traditional political parties, and we have to try something new. You don’t hear about Trump, you don’t hear about the wall. Mexico has some real, real issues. 200,000 people killed since 2006, extortions, kidnappings, violence now in Central Mexico, the tax system, the inequality in the country. Mexico has some real domestic problems. Yes, López Obrador is a politician, he’s run for president three times, but what do we have to lose?
Was it a cathartic experience writing the book?
It was in the sense that I walked away thinking, I am comfortable being from two countries. I am comfortable not feeling like I have to choose. There’s a sense of peace. No matter what’s going on in this country, no matter what’s going on in Mexico, you can’t get away from either; you have to embrace both sides.