Cada vez más pequeña mi pequeñez rendida,
cada instante más grande y más simple la entrega
mi pecho quizás ruede a iniciar un capullo,
acaso irán mis labios a nutrir azucenas
Each moment smaller my defeated smallness,
each instant grander and simpler the surrender
my breast will roll over to launch a rosebud,
perhaps my lips will nurture tuberoses.
–Julia de Burgos “Poema para mi muerte (Poem for my death)”
With no end in sight, la cuarentena–quarantine, an Italian-origin term referring to forty days of isolation to prevent the spread of plague, now widely in effect due to the COVID19 pandemic–creates a desperate need for dark humor, abject performance or deep historicity, all of which Latinx literature has cultivated for centures. With over half a million deaths in the United States (20,000 in New York alone), la muerte (death) is on our minds. La muerte has been a protagonist in Latinx literature for centuries, although perhaps not on such a global, socially mediated scale. Junot Díaz’s superheroine matriarch in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Belícia, encountered the hazel-eyed, black-pelted mongoose in the canefield and barely escaped death before getting onto a plane to New Jersey to escape Trujillo’s henchmen in the Dominican Republic. Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood (2005) documents in a page turner “brown gumshoe” novel on the Juarez femicides. A brilliant nun living during the seventeenth century Spanish colonial occupation of Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, perished in a plague while caring for her fellow nuns, after spending most of her life in a convent writing poetry, plays and philosophical treatises. The Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos imagined her death in New York as a defeated smallness growing grander each day. She imagines parts her body helping to unfurl a rosebud or to nourish the intense scent of tuberoses (la muerte’s favorite flower). Generations of unquiet dead, border crossings, and frequent encounters with the miraculous nourish Latinx literature.
La cuarentena has kept many essential workers–medical personnel, cashiers, farmworkers and deliverers–on the front lines. As one Sunset Park migrant notes in a handwritten placard, “La clase trabajadora no puede trabajar en casa (the working class cannot work at home).” U.S. Latinos are being diagnosed and are dying at higher rates, and nearly half of Latinx workers have lost their job or taken a pay cut due to Coronavirus. These figures, based on rates of application for unemployment, do not reflect conditions of the undocumented, the majority of whom are of Mexican, Central American and Hispanic Caribbean origin, and for whom the virus has compounded pre-existing structural conditions, such as straddling borders.
The pandemic lockdown requires most to stay home, sometimes in cramped quarters, in search of ways to make sense. Latinx expressive culture has provided some of that sensemaking. I watched the 1984 film El Norte with my daughter Marta, which is based on a story by Gregory Nava about two Guatemalan migrants who flee to the north after their parents are assassinated by the military. In darkness, with no end in sight, the protagonists Rosa and Enrique Xuncax crawl through a sewage tunnel between Tijuana and El Paso. On the other side, they joined other Latinx migrant workers and learned the ins and outs of an economy that preys on disposability. Facing death from the typhus she contracted from rats in the tunnel, having fled death back home and finding no welcome in the north, Rosa Xuncax wonders if in death she will finally have a home.
Another award-winning Latinx film, Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators (2018), presents an inspiring contemporary sequel. The filmmakers set out to document how two Mexican un-DACA-mented dreamers in 2012 infiltrated a detention center in Broward, Florida, in order to free detainees inside and to stop deportations of migrants. The resulting hybrid of fiction and doc began with Emilio, son of Claudio Rojas, a migrant from Argentina, googling “how to stop a deportation.” The film combines actors and migrant activists playing themselves to show how straddling borders, working inside and outside, can end detentions of people whose only crime is to migrate. Especially now that Trump is threatening to curtail all immigration, aligning the pandemic with anti-migrant discourses trafficking in stereotypes of foreign invaders, the film helps those outside and those with documents imagine how detainees have begun hunger strikes in overcrowded facilities that COVID19 threatens to make into death traps.
At a time when everything we read, write, teach, learn or say is mediated by screens and devices, the “news” does not offer a very tenuous grip on what is really happening. It is unclear whether the United States will halt all immigration and asylum processing and where that will leave tens of thousands of migrants currently in U.S. custody. The Supreme Court is deliberating about hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients–undocumented youth who once had a path to citizenship and who have been in limbo since 2017. Tens of thousands of migrants continue to camp out along the U.S.-Mexico border, having survived the conditions of migration detailed in Oscar Martínez’s The Beast and Claudia Milian’s analysis. It is difficult to tell the full scope of the transition underway during this pandemic. When I talk to migrants in detention through my work with the New Sanctuary Coalition’s anti-detention hotline, and callers describe threatening guards, inadequate food, or the inability to distance socially, I listen and encourage them to write their stories.
No one knows what to expect on the other side. But we can be certain that Latinx literature will help us and future generations recover, mourn and celebrate. Even as the fragile worms begin to knock on our doors, as Julia de Burgos predicted in the “Poem for my Death,” we will be saluting these writers whose words keep us alive when death is near.