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Two Countries

Two Countries

Sabina Berman

Translated by Tanya Huntington

Sabina Berman gave the following keynote speech before members of the PEN Club in New York on April 27, 2016 during this year’s literature festival dedicated to Mexico.

Writers often write to give voice to the voiceless. In my latest play, for example, I have given voices to cows. Two rather Buddhist cows.

More often, writers give voice to what in human society is voiceless —and hurts. Hablamos por la herida, as we say in Spanish: we talk through the wound.

However, given what is happening in America —that river of hate against Mexicans that is inundating public discourse— I feel that my moral duty today is precisely the opposite: it is to describe not what hurts in Mexico, or what hurts in the relationship between our two countries, but to describe the big picture of that relationship. The big picture is, indeed, what is ignored —what is not said, what is forgotten— when Americans talk about Mexico these days.

Maps say Mexico and America are two countries divided by a border. True, but they also say they are two countries joined by a border, the longest border between two countries on the planet.

What is even more interesting is that in everyday life, that isn’t true anymore, either: Mexico and America are two countries whose border has become irrelevant. It has become irrelevant because above it, every day, from Monday to Sunday, no less than a thousand five hundred airplanes fly from north to south and from south to north. (And I ask you to hold that image for a moment in your mind: one thousand five hundred tiny airplanes in the sky: a veritably massive air fleet that crosses above the border, back and forth, every day.) While every time an American sits down to eat a meal, seventy percent of what he eats has been cultivated or raised by Mexican peasants, working on the fields South and North of that so-called border.

More remarkably, one of every four Mexicans now lives on the northern side of that so-called border. That is to say: today thirty-seven million Mexicans live in America. Thirty-seven million Mexamericans: more than all the French people on the planet.

So, the paranoid gringos, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz, and their kind, need to be told: do not fear the Mexican invasion of America. Relax: it already happened, ten years ago.

No, the border is not what defines our two countries in this day and age. If one has to choose a single image to capture our intense and complex relationship, that image would be a network of communicating vessels. You already know what communicating vessels are: those vessels joined together by tubes, so that if you extract water from one vessel, the water diminishes in the other vessels as well; and if you add liquid to one vessel, the water rises in the other vessels as well.

And today I would like to describe, by way of example, merely three sets of these communicating vessels that connect our two countries.

Let’s go shopping at a Mexican supermarket. Please notice that out of every six products on the shelves, four have American brand names. Coca-Cola Company. Sunbeam. Kraft.  Lipton. Budweiser. Tide. Philip-Morris. Nabisco. And so on, and so on.

Now, let’s stroll down a street in San Antonio, Texas. The shops here are named La Lupe. Abarroteria.  I’m reading them in English: Washateria. La bella airosa. Los titanes de Culiacán.

The American brands that rule over the shelves of Mexican supermarkets, and the fact that in San Antonio, six of every ten residents were born in Mexico or to Mexican parents, are not isolated facts. They are facts connected by a sequence of causes and effects.

Here’s the story: three decades ago, an American president said in Berlin, referring to the wall that divided the communist world from the capitalist world: tear down that wall.

And that wall was, indeed, torn down.

By then, America had decided to open up the borders of all the countries in the planet to commerce. And it did open them up, often in a most friendly fashion –knocking at the doors of the countries: knock, knock– but sometimes, in a less cordial fashion –crashing through them with bombs –boom, boom.


Well, no government in the world accepted this new American deal more gladly than the Mexican government.

And thanks to the new free trade agreement between our countries, American brand names came to dominate the market of consumer goods in Mexico, bringing about the destruction of a great deal of our industry and agriculture, which is why a great many jobs in our fields and our factories vanished, while the new gringo transnational corporations created millions of new jobs in America, in Mexico, and in other countries.

Which is truly why, millions of farmers and workers left Mexico for the North, for your country, both legally and illegally, and millions in Mexico entered American owned factories.

No, thirty-seven million Mexicans didn’t tiptoe by night across the border to find a better life —which is the story Americans repeat in books, movies, and newspapers—Mexamericans are the result of globalization, which, by the way, has enriched America enormously. According to Joseph Stiglitz, over the last thirty years, American wealth has increased by fifty percent. 

I invite you now to Berkeley. A few years ago, I was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, and I learned you cannot understand Mexico City without Berkeley. At Berkeley, as you are no doubt aware, the civil rights movement was born. The second wave of feminism was born. And finally, queer theory was born.

Well, my generation was the one that in Mexico City took up those struggles, since the 1990s, and today Mexico City has surpassed Berkeley in terms of rights and freedoms.

Today in Mexico City, a person may choose to change their birth certificate to boy, girl, or fish. One may choose whether or not to become a mother at clinics paid for by the state. One may marry whomever one chooses: man, woman, or chimera. Any citizen may smoke five joints of marihuana in the park —if he is crazy enough to smoke five churros one after the other in the park. There are in the mayor’s cabinet more women than in the cabinet of California. And the pride parade for the LGBTTTRXZ community—give or take an initial or two—with its gentlemen wearing hot pants and butterfly wings and its ladies wearing moustaches, marches for several miles every year until reaching its destination right outside the presidential Government Palace.

Finally, let us visit four other connected places. First, let’s enter the Golden Triangle on the East Coast of Mexico, by direct invitation of the Chapo Guzmán family, which is the only way one can enter the Golden Triangle. What we encounter is this: a region the size of the state of the state of Delaware, with no electricity and no landlines, just emerald green fields of marihuana.

Now let’s go to the University of Kansas on a Saturday night. And let’s attend a frat party. Let’s see the young gringos smoking marihuana like students used to drink martinis in the nineteen fifties.

Well, it’s obvious: the Golden Triangle exists because that party of potheads exists on a Saturday night, and that party exists because the Golden Triangle is there.

For a more gloomy prospect, let’s visit a small town in New Hampshire, whose name I’ll choose to forget, because I am about to say some nasty things about this little town.

People here are not fat; they are obese. It’s a community of fat people painted by Botero that don’t walk, they roll; who do not work, they are on welfare. And they spend their days watching TV and getting high on prescription drugs that contain heroine derivatives, or they just go ahead and shoot up —and fly away like balloons.

Meanwhile, in the Golden Triangle, every season, marihuana fields are being supplanted by fields of poppies because another hundred thousand Americans have gotten addicted to heroin.

Now let’s watch the persecution of drug traffickers by the Mexican army, armed with American guns. Let’s listen to the machine gun fire. Bodies fall, riddled with bullets, above all on the side of the traffickers, on the side of the illiterate warriors stupefied by drugs. Young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five: the sacrificial victims of the drug trade that makes it possible for the obese people of New Hampshire to continue watching TV all day, sitting there eating popcorn and, now and again, between one kernel and the next, popping a pill.

So my friends, thirty years ago an American president said: tear down that wall, and the border between our two countries became irrelevant.

And now Americans at rallies shriek: build up the wall, build up the wall, that is: a wall between our two countries, ignoring —my God, ignoring so much.

Ignoring for starters that what has made you Americans extremely rich is precisely tearing down walls.

Ignoring that the relationship between Mexico and America is mostly beneficial for both sides, and what is not, what is terribly wrong, the deadly drug traffic, cannot be solved by a wall mainly because there are these new machines—airplanes, they are called—that fly over walls, and these old things called tunnels, that run under walls, and then of course there are ships, that go around walls.

And ignoring finally that —contrary to what those shrieking mobs believe— the enormous wealth produced by globalization won’t come back to America if you build a wall on the border, because the best part of those riches are already here in America  —that is, someplace right around the corner: on Wall Street.

sabina_berman_libro_alemaniaSabina Berman is a playwright, storyteller, essayist, and film and theater director. She has been awarded the Premio Nacional de Dramaturgia in Mexico on four occasions, the Premio Nacional de Periodismo twice, and has also been honored with the Premio Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. Her novel Me (Who Dove into the Heart of the World) has been translated into eleven languages and published in thirty-three countries. Follow her on Twitter: @sabinaberman

Posted: May 3, 2016 at 10:32 pm

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