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  • Coyotes, Comadres, y ColegasTheorizing the Personal in Ruth Behar’s Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story
  • Susana S. Martìnez (bio)

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge of my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses
I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

———Donna Kate Rushin, "The Bridge Poem"Si Aristóteles hubiera guisado, mucho más hubiera escrito. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz

When thinking about the U.S.-Mexican border, the contrasting images of products and people immediately cross my mind. A special issue of Time titled "Welcome to Amexica" lists some of the products that cross over from Mexico on a daily basis: "a million barrels of crude oil, 432 tons of bell peppers, 238,000 lightbulbs, 166 brand-new Volkswagen Beetles, 16,250 toasters, $51 million worth of auto parts, everything from the little plastic knob on the air conditioner to your cell-phone charger. It all comes [End Page 149] in trucks and boxcars and little panel vans, and that's just the stuff that Customs can keep track of" (Gibbs 2001, 38). The thought of these tightly packaged products arriving in trucks and boxcars, however, elicits a second, horrible image. In May 2003 eighty-five undocumented immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico crammed into a sweltering trailer without water or ventilation. Their 325-mile journey took them across the scorching desert. Three hours after filing into the truck, seventeen people, including a five-year-old Mexican boy, suffocated to death in Victoria, Texas, making this the deadliest immigrant smuggling incident in the United States in sixteen years. This scene is reminiscent of the tragic story of fourteen Mexicans who died of exposure to extreme heat in the Arizona desert during the summer of 2001. They, too, traveled north across the barren desert with dreams of finding jobs in the United States. The search for better wages, the demand for cheap labor in the United States, and the militarization of the border guarantee an increased dependency on coyotes, or smugglers.1 Viewed as heartless profiteers, coyotes are despised on both sides of the border for exploiting the needs of immigrants and thus contributing to the larger workings of consumerism and globalization.2

The risky business of border crossing plays a large role in Ruth Behar's Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (1993). This highly acclaimed and controversial text was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and was adapted for the stage by PREGONES, a New York–based Latino theater company. The recent release of the tenth-anniversary edition of Translated Woman (2003)makes this an opportune moment to reflect on its important contribution to U.S. Latina/o studies.

Behar's provocative and ambitious text continues to receive enthusiastic support from people who, like me, find it refreshingly bold. The opening pages showcase words of praise from cultural critics Ilan Slavans and José Limón. Renowned Chicana authors Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldúa also declare their admiration for Behar's text. Anzaldúa, who urged Behar to write courageously, describes the text as, "A finely crafted readable cross-cultural encounter between dos comadres: feminist anthropologist and informant, cubanita de este lado and mexicana across the border. . . . Escribiendo cultura con corazón, compasión y pasión, Behar moves the serpent to speak, and moves us to read and read again" (Behar 2003, i). Likewise, literary scholar Emma Perez notes, "Rarely do academicians engage their contradictions so honestly" (Perez 1994, 836). These writers [End Page 150] and critics, among others, praise the project for defying borders with a passionately personal voice.

With this highly acclaimed and self-proclaimed "naughty" book (Behar 2003, xiv), the Cuban American poet, essayist, anthropologist, and documentary filmmaker "smuggles" a Mexican woman's words across the U.S.-Mexican border.3 In this essay I explore the multiple borders that Ruth Behar crosses to carry out the kind of anthropology that most matters to her. As an experienced border...


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