Midnight in Mexico

When I was 16, whenever I thought about Mexico, I don’t think a single real image came to mind.

Selena. Tacos. Heat. Cancún.

Other approximations, but nothing real.

My high school was 30% Latino. My best friend at the time was Mexican. I had taken years of Spanish classes. And yet I didn’t seem to know a goddamn thing about the place.

Mexico was somewhere over there. Somewhere decidedly not here.

That was somewhere around 2003 when stories of Juárez’s murdered women and the violence of the cartels was creeping into the news. The stories only got worse as I went off to college, peaking somewhere around 2010 with 23,000 dead in just 3.5 years.

But what was the country really like? What was happening there and why?

The older I got, the more it felt like time to take the initiative to become less willfully ignorant, but I never knew where to start. Finally, last year I was able to find a list of reads that gave me a jumping off point, and with my reading goal set for 2015, what better time than now? I might finally start making sense of it all. I might finally learn something.

I decided to start with Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico.

A reporter during one of the bloodiest periods of the war between the cartels, Alfredo Corchado receives a tip one night in 2007: in 24 hours, the cartels will kill an American journalist—Corchado’s source thinks it’ll be him. In this memoir, he recalls his mad search for the source of the threat as well as his internal struggle to reconcile two halves of himself: his Mexican heritage and his American upbringing. All the while continuing to report on the mounting violence and political upheaval.

A quick read, we get to peek at the layers of Corchado’s life as well as Mexican history. From Corchado’s childhood and his years of reporting in Mexico to Mexico’s shift from dictatorship to democracy and the bloody battles that came with it. It even touches upon the rise of El Chapo, leader of the largest criminal organization in Mexico, who was only arrested in February of last year.

I admit I had high hopes for this book. A memoir would be personal enough to give me the emotional connection I needed to start understanding a country I knew so little about. Not to mention the fact that Corchado’s story is gripping. And while the book was indeed fascinating and sad and maddening and honest, Corchado’s writing doesn’t really live up to the task of relaying it.

So often, I’d find his sentences clunky and the way he infused Spanish into his English writing frustrating instead of immersive. There would regularly be multiple pages where Corchado is relaying a conversation that clearly took place in Spanish, but since the bulk of the book is in English, he chose to write the dialogue in Spanish, immediately following every sentence or phrase with its English translation.

I still have a working knowledge of Spanish, and my goodness was this tedious to read. It was like reading every single sentence twice. Here’s a brief example from a scene in which Alfredo is arguing with his mother about the future of Mexico:

“‘Sólo Dios sabe,’ she’d replied, looking straight ahead. Only God knows.

‘Don’t underestimate God,’ my mother responded. ‘Dios es grande.’
‘Don’t underestimate the people,’ I retorted, and returned to eating barbecue beef grilled by Mundo.
My Mother shot me a look that said, ‘Ay, my Fredito, mi solecito. Ya no eres tan mexicano.’ Oh, my little sunshine, now you are naive as only an American can be.”

On its own, it’s not too troublesome. I definitely respect and agree with his desire to quote his family, friends, and sources in Spanish when they were speaking Spanish. The problem comes when he uses this same tactic four times in two pages. Then again on the page after that. Then four more times a page or two later. And again and again and again.

I would have preferred him to either write it all in English using punctuation to alert us when something was originally said in Spanish or, better yet, just write it in Spanish and trust his audience enough to be able to figure out the meaning through context clues. Or use footnotes if he’s that worried.

The flip-flopping back and forth was incredibly cumbersome in a book that was suffering from awkward phrasing and poor flow already.

It was this overall clunkiness that kept me from forming the emotional connection to the material I was craving. I wanted to feel utterly wrapped up in Corchado’s story, and I just couldn’t get there. Whether that’s entirely Corchado’s fault or whether his editor should be blamed is debatable, either way I was left unsatisfied.

But if anything can be said, reading Midnight in Mexico made me excited to read more about Mexico. To read more Latino authors. To read more Latino news. The book led me to more Mexican authors and reporters and ultimately to Francisco Goldman’s brilliant series in the New York Times on the missing 43 (a heartbreaking and brilliant bit of writing that I fully recommend to all if you missed it this past winter).

On a very basic level, Midnight works. It conveys the story, and it got me interested enough to want to learn more. If you’re new to the subject like I was, it’s not a bad place to start, but I’m sure there’s something better out there. I know I’ll be looking for it.

The Looming Tower

On September 11, 2001 I was 14 years old and largely disinterested in politics. Aside from the quick rundown of the headlines on the morning news, I didn’t pay much attention to the world at large. I was intensely self-absorbed, as most teens are at that age. My own life felt so overwhelming that I didn’t have time to worry about the rest of the country.

Then came the a.m. announcement that the towers had fallen, that we were under attack, and that people were dead. Something was changing, but I didn’t know what and I couldn’t know how much.

Today, I’m happy to say I’ve become a moderately well-informed adult, even if I’m still far from as knowledgeable as I want to be or, perhaps, as I should be. Yet when I look back on the War on Terror, I once again find myself realizing that I don’t know why we’re here, and that I don’t really know how any of it happened. But this is the central question that Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 attempts to answer.

In order to get to the bottom of it all, we start at the beginning:

“This is the man, then—decent, proud, tormented, self-righteous—whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the Muslim world, and beckon to a generation of rootless young Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in jihad.”

A perfect description of bin Laden, no? Except Wright isn’t talking about bin Laden. He’s talking about Sayyid Qutb, a man who I’d never heard of until I picked up this book. A 1950s Islamist radicalist, Qutb is Wright’s patient zero, so to speak. Angry, conservative, and anti-modernism in almost all its forms, Qutb’s writings seem to be the domino that start a horrifying chain reaction.

In just the first chapter, we can already see that the road leading to 2,977 dead Americans and our longest war is longer than I ever expected. Wright’s book was beginning to answer questions I didn’t even know I had.

When we look at Looming Tower through the lens of a post-Arab Spring world, a world Wright couldn’t have begun to imagine yet, it tells us so much more. It explains (although briefly) the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, how radicalism spread from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and the trail of assassinations and regime changes leading up to those that would be overthrown in 2010.

When I finished it, I would describe the book to friends as “the most balanced a book about 9/11 written by an American could be.” What I mean is that it’s obvious that the author was affected by the tragedy in 2001. It’s obvious that he believes violence against innocent civilians is unjustifiable, that radical Islam is misguided, and that al-Qaeda was wrong. Common thoughts, but also largely secular, Western thoughts. At the same time, Wright isn’t shy about pointing the finger where it’s due.

He shines a light on bureaucratic bumbling by the CIA and FBI, our failure to recognize an obvious threat, and the irreparable mistakes of the US Military and the Clinton administration in the Middle East. There were even moments when key anti-American players are assassinated, but the bloodshed is so terrible that I couldn’t help but feel empathy, not elation. And that’s something I deeply appreciated about the book. It’s not blindly pro-American just because we happened to be the victim of this one particular tragedy.

By the time I reached the end of the book, my understanding of bin Laden, the attacks, and the war had increased tenfold. So many questions were answered, but at the same time there was still so much more I wanted to know beyond the falling of the towers. 2006 feels so long ago at this point—so much more has happened. It’s easy to imagine a sequel, another few hundred pages explaining how we got from there to here, filling in the rest of the picture. But for that, we’ll just have to wait.

[This was re-edited from a review originally posted on November 13, 2013.]

Boss

 

“‘He can’t quit. It’s almost a sickness. If he can, he’s going to hold onto it until he is dead. I’m sure he wants to die in office.’

And why not? He had worked all those years to get it, and it was his, the Machine, the city, and nobody could stare him down.”

 

Mayor Richard J. Daley at an election campaign rally Feb. 3, 1975. Photo by John Tweedle.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years, and I grew up in the near West suburbs. I was born in 1987 and from 1989 until 2011, Daley was the mayor of Chicago. It was a big deal when he decided not to seek a seventh term, though I knew I was too young and too new to city life to truly comprehend what that meant. He was part of a legacy I understood even less. The Daley Dynasty. Our longest serving mayor, he served for 22 years, just barely surpassing the previous record holder—his father. Daley, Sr. ran the city from 1955 until his death in 1976. He’s the reason for Richard J. Daley Center, Daley Plaza, and that famous Picasso.

But none of that is what spurred me to pick up Mike Royko’s seminal 1971 biography, Boss.

Illinois politics (really, Chicago politics) have a reputation. Four out of our last seven governors went to prison. Chicago has never really shaken its association with crime from Capone’s heyday, and the number of city and federal officials charged with everything from bribery to extortion isn’t doing anything to change anyone’s minds. And to top it all off, violence in the city remains at an all-time high with at least 82 people shot and 16 killed over the Fourth of July weekend. With stats like that, you can’t help but wonder what the hell is going on.

As a resident of this place for the foreseeable future, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions. Questions like, why is it like this? How did we get here?

I do my best to keep up with the news, but I wanted more. I wanted some history. I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Enter, Boss.

Royko’s tone throughout was absolutely pitch perfect for me. I tend to prefer memoir to biography because I find the language used in the former to be more engaging or even lyrical, depending on the book. But Boss was able to do just that while still getting straight to the facts. Its first pages set the scene.

A dark Bridgeport street. A quiet red-brick bungalow. A black limousine.

We’re introduced to the indomitable Richard J. Daley as we follow him through a typical day. We meet who he meets. We go where he goes. We see the world through his schedule rather than his eyes. This is how Royko sucks you in.

Once inside, it’s a barrage of names, dates, places, favors, and phone calls. Royko’s playful writing seems to find a kind of joy in unveiling Daley’s inner wheelings and dealings. Whether it’s recounting his infamous outbursts during meetings or the biblical page-long recounting of the nepotism running rampant in the city’s government. Who begat who becomes who hired who. In Royko’s words:

“A Chicago Rip Van Winkle could awaken to the political news columns and, reading the names, think that time had stood still.”

While focusing more strongly on Daley’s reign during the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s, Royko also does his best to describe the inner workings of what he refers to as “the Machine.” It was the democratic party’s vice-like grip on the city and even the state, and it was a force to be reckoned with—a force I certainly didn’t understand.

When reading, there were times where information was flying at me so fast it was hard to keep anything straight. Between the ward bosses and city officials, between all these terms and names I was hearing for the first time, I occasionally found myself feeling lost. I think non-Chicagoans might find themselves in the same boat, but I don’t think it’s a serious detriment. Royko’s language really does its best to carry you along. It’s as if you’re at a dinner party and he’s welcomed you to a seat at the table even though you don’t know anyone, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s got you by the arm and is introducing you. Before you know it, you find you know enough, even if you can’t remember anyone’s names.

The climax of the book comes in 1968 with the Democratic National Convention. All hell breaks loose and the scene bears uncomfortable similarities with what’s happening in Ferguson today.

Police and demonstrators clash in Chicago on August 28, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention. Photo: ©Les Sintay/Bettman/CORBIS

Police and demonstrators clashed and Daley’s infamous order to “shoot to kill” eventually led to his being forced to testify in court over the conflict.

At the end of the book, I still wished I knew more. It covers a considerable number of years, but I wanted it to keep going. I wanted a part two.

Chicago citizen or not, Boss makes for an entertaining and enlightening read. It’s certainly not the whole picture of Chicago politics, the Machine, or the ‘60s, but it’s an interesting, in-depth look at a man who—like it or not—helped shape both the city of Chicago and the country we live in today.