Getting through

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187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007
Juan Felipe Herrera
City Lights

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery
Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece

Borders, crossings and fluid identity: These are the themes at the heart of a new collection by an established writer and of a graphic novel that envisions the tragedies of lynching.

In the collected “undocuments” Juan Felipe Herrera has included in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, autobiographical narrative merges with poetry, short fiction pieces, and even a sort of lined reporting from the streets. They are “undocuments,” we understand, because the necessity of documentation is a legal one, unrelated to the realities of life on both sides of an otherwise arbitrary border.

Both a poet and a witness, Herrera writes in “A Day Without a Mexican,” from the 2006 demonstrations in Los Angeles, a rushed and breathless description of the demonstration from the inside—with an overlay of memory about previous demonstrations, marches and events in celebration of Chicano and Mexican life. It’s an example of journalism as long-limbed, form-busting poetry. Because Herrera has been at the forefront of the movement for social justice both in Mexico and the United States, his poetry is imbued with political reflection:

        … “Hoy marchamos mañana votamos” “today we march tomorrow we vote” who will vote is                 the question

where will we vote is                 the question
        in what gerrymandered Republican neighborhood
        I lost the question

But Herrera has a heavy dose of joy and comedy as well, proving once again that a revolution without a dance floor isn’t much good, whether Emma Goldman ever said so or not. Try to read “How to Make World Unity Salsa” without swaying your hips and chuckling a little.

Herrera’s reporting, whether from Chiapas, Mexico (“One Year Before the Zapatista Rebellion: Fragments”), or Los Angeles (“Rodney King, the Black Christ of Los Angeles and All Our White Sins”) or from a murderous border town (“Señorita X: Song for the Yellow-Robed Girl From Juárez”), is immediate and necessary. This collection brings the most relevant of four decades of writing together.

Mat Johnson is another witness at another border, the one supposedly between races. Johnson collaborates with artist Warren Pleece for Incognegro, a graphic novel that quite particularly illustrates the fluidity and confusion of race. Zane Pinchback, a reporter for a black newspaper during the 20th century’s heyday of lynching, takes advantage of his mixed ancestry to pass as white and report on the violence from the perpetrators’ side.

But there’s so much more involved. Johnson’s story, based on his own experiences as a black man often perceived as racially ambiguous, tackles the fluidity of race. At what point does one become “white” or “black”? What does a person gain or lose in passing? Even more intriguing, Johnson weaves in a different sort of passing and throws prejudices within racial groups into the mix.

The dramatic black-and-white drawings further serve to highlight the lack of difference. We can’t see the slight variation that makes one person “look” white while another doesn’t.

The bottom line for Incognegro is that identity is more often defined for us than by us. Johnson and Pleece have brought together a nightmarish re-envisioning of the worst of racism in America (and it’s not even all that distantly past—the perpetrators of those lynchings were our white grandparents). It’s a far more common legacy than most Americans are willing to acknowledge, and given the willingness with which we turn on others who don’t seem enough like us, it’s as immediate as the news section of this paper.