Nearly every day here in the Southwest, we hear tragic stories of human trafficking across the U.S. Mexico border: The lengths people will go to in hopes of a better life in America; paying coyotes large sums of money to hide in vehicles, or hike across the desert. Many don’t make it. That is the storyline of John Vailant’s novel, "The Jaguar’s Children," this month’s Southwest Book Review. In the words of commentator Mary Sojourner, the story tore her heart out.
It is likely, but not impossible that you have never been smuggled across the Mexican border in a sealed water tanker—and been left stranded in the American desert. You have not sat next to a dying friend, his cell phone clutched in your hand, praying that the one bar would magically transform to two. You have not listened to your travel companions quietly and not-so-quietly die around you—from dehydration, from starvation and from loss of hope.
Hector has. Hector, whose surname the reader will never know, is the narrator of John Vaillant's brutal and loving novel, “The Jaguar's Children.” Hector begins recording his story on a file in a smart phone. The phone is not his. It belongs to his friend Cesar, who lies close to death at his side. Hector tries to text the one name on the phone: annimac, but the phone has only one bar. Later, there will be two bars and Hector will reach his mother in Oaxaca. She will not be able to hear him, and he will understand that he is stranded. He will understand the immutably fragile nature of hope.
John Vaillant's powerful gift as a writer has allowed him - without being trapped and dying in the desert—to fully bring the reader into the near-airless truck and into the mind and spirit of Hector, a man from Oaxaca, who has fled a country in which he could barely survive. As Vaillant tells Hector's story, he educates the reader about the horrific consequences of importing GMO corn into Mexico; the impact the importation has on what is Mexico's most important—and sacred—food; and the domino effect the contaminated corn has on the economy and the ability of the Mexican people to earn livings and care for themselves and their families.
Hector writes the moans of the people around him into the little phone, of finding a tiny opening in the truck through which he can breathe, and of the brother-hood he has felt and feels for Cesar. He teaches a person he may never reach about the injustice of America's immigration laws and the cruelty with which they are enforced. He reminds us that what we might believe about our courage may well be nothing but a chimera drifting in our easy lives. But, perhaps more than anything, he teaches annimac, and us, about death—and the astonishing perseverance of one human being in fighting it.