Books and movies about northern Mexico often dramatize drug gang violence — decapitated bodies, gory shootouts and brutal kidnappings. But for award-winning Mexican author Carlos Velázquez, who published an English language translation of his fiction anthology “The Cowboy Bible” with Restless Books on Tuesday, northern Mexico isn’t defined by drugs alone. Instead he wants readers to see that beneath the drug war horrors is an innovative place where people and cultures are reinventing themselves.
“We are living through an important stage of norteño (northern Mexico) culture,” he said in a phone interview with NBC News Latino. “The border has moved from the Río Bravo (known in the United States as Rio Grande) to Zacatecas (in north-central Mexico), transforming half of the country into a cutting-edge laboratory where people and cultures are mixed into something new.”
For Mexicans and Americans, the border between their countries is like a double-sided mirror where they can see different parts of their lives and cultures reflected in each other. And for Velázquez, who compares his home of Torreón with Baltimore in HBO's TV drama The Wire — two postindustrial cities with over 600,000 people whose lives have been changed by the ongoing drug war — northern Mexico and the U.S. share a common culture. Both countries idealize rugged lonesome cowboys and charros (Mexican cowboys), and romanticize Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and drug lords like El Chapo.
But if you expect to read hardboiled stories about frontier heroes and villains in “The Cowboy Bible,” Velázquez will tell you that his book is not for you. Even though the Mexican author grew up with his father reading pulp western novels, Velázquez uses music (and movies) to set up another story that focuses more on the feeling and experience of living at a crossroads where your life and perspective are always changing.
“I was born in a corner. In a wrestling ring… I’m rudo — a thug, a rascal,” he writes at the beginning of “The Cowboy Bible.” But just when you expect a tense hand-to-hand combat between masked Mexican wrestlers, you realize that the ring has become a stage for diyéis (DJs) facing off against each other with fast-spinning music.
In this sense, Velázquez compares writers with DJs, especially in the way he mixes different characters and themes. In the last story, for instance, he blends the lives and writing of a Mexican country folk singer with a díler (drug dealer) and the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs to show how books are created from different cultural experiences.
“The Cowboy Bible” itself is also a character, appearing in one story as a sacred denim-bound book, then magically transforming itself into drunk burrito vendor in another story, and changing into other people and objects throughout the anthology, which captures the surreal experience of living in a world that is always changing.
Velázquez’s short story collection is set in the fictional territory PopSTock! (the name comes from a Spanish Rock magazine). But before you’re tempted to compare this imaginary territory with other famous literary places like Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo or Mississippi writer William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Velázquez says he was influenced more by James Joyce — whose writing is packed with many cultural references — and urges readers to think of his book as a music collection, a looping soundtrack that is influenced by different cultures and places.
“The idea I want to convey to readers is that this book is a discography, your music collection at home,” said the Mexican writer. “And that reading the book is like listening to a playlist of songs repeating.”
And as both Mexican and American readers think about the playlists in their lives, they will see themselves reflected in each other’s culture. A Mexican listening to NAS’s “Street Dreams” or 50 Cent’s “Corner Bodega,” and an American listening to Julián Garza’s “Era Cabrón el Viejo” or Los Tigres del Norte’s “Contrabando y Taición” will recognize familiar stories about popular heroes and villains on both sides of the border. But "The Cowboy Bible" will also challenge readers to push beyond cultural stereotypes and rethink everything they know about northern Mexico and their homes.