The opening lines of "First Shell," from Ray Gonzalez's Turtle Pictures (University of Arizona Press, 2000), seem to recount how the immigrant moves from one border to another. But it could easily be a tale about Gonzalez's own struggle of leaving and returning to his native Southwest.
He lived to be the other, contrary to the tracks of the turtles in the mud. ... startling evidence that the slow crawl and the peaceful harp of the turtles kept him alive, gave him a terrible loss, and made him move across the great landscapes he tried to shake off at birth.
Gonzalez crosses many borders. Most salient is his formal and aesthetic traversing. Turtle Pictures is a poetic, meditative performance. It's one of dozens of books Gonzalez has published, slipping as easily from prose poetry, essays, memoir and short fiction to editor of poetry anthologies. His latest is Human Crying Daisies, prose poetry put out in 2003 by Small Press Distribution. His prolific outpouring has also garnered prestigious awards during the last decade.
Gonzalez does all this work as an expatriate of the El Paso/Juarez border to which he returns repeatedly in his books, seemingly in all his dreams.
"I'm in exile yes, but it's vastly different from someone seeking political asylum. It's more a cultural, linguistic exile," he says by phone from Minneapolis, where he teaches poetry, writing and multicultural literature.
"As a writer, you're placed in one culture, one environment. How do you bring those two together?" he wonders.
Gonzalez has lived almost equal parts of his life in two vastly disparate areas of the country: the first half in El Paso; the last, in the Midwest. In The Underground Heart: A Return to a Hidden Landscape (UA Press, 2002), Gonzalez's essays scream quiet nuances about Pancho Villa myths, crippling poverty, the tackiness of border tourism, the stunning beauty of emptiness.
I left in 1979 but have never been able to create a natural sense of home in other cities where I have lived. The memory of the desert creates an invisible nest of roots that allows a native to wander far before finding a way back. ... I cannot let go of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande, the Franklin and Organ Mountains, El Paso and La Mesilla Valley--the falling world of my childhood and teenage years when I became a writer through the sheer immersion in an isolated yet vibrant place.
"Most writers are fairly obsessed with two or three topics," admits Gonzalez. "For me, I wrote nonfiction about growing up in El Paso. But once I left, and was writing from a distance, then the more researched writing started, and it led me to the essays, which made sense with my journalism background. I didn't study creative writing until the early '90s. I'm trying to put the small world into a greater context."
Gonzalez's small world is vast: miles of desert and river dividing the country he was born in and the immigrant experience of anticipated crossing.
"My family is all based on Mexican history. But I have to deal with two worlds--their history and the fact that I got an education in this country," he says.
Each of the "Shells" in Turtle Pictures seems to echo this theme, progressing Gonzalez toward healing. Pages of rhythmic, two-line stanzas begin with "All I saw was the river," and answer with a line that resonates Gonzalez's experiences as a Chicano poet living far away from the Southwestern landscape. It's a cloth woven with stories of people who are crossing the Rio Grande and his own journeys through "Amexica."
In The Underground Heart, Gonzalez notices contradictory realities of the border, too.
The national media act as if life on the border is a brand new phenomenon--or the latest Ricky Martin tune you can dance to. ... But (the media also) highlight ...flabbergasting facts about the region in the post-NAFTA madness: The Wal-Mart in Laredo ... is the highest grossing one per square foot in the U.S.: the border population is growing at almost twice the national rate; 31 percent of all TB cases are found in the four border states.
Yet tourism is thriving.
In his essay, "The General on the Border," he describes a surreal tour ride through miles of barren desert to Columbus, N.M.
I am here to experience a different approach to (Pancho) Villa's legend--the one created by heritage tourism. ...The mystery of two different death masks representing the same man fits the way border economic dreamers have rearranged the past for the best dollar yield, taking a region rich in historical significance and squeezing as many fabricated myths out of it as possible.
As a periodic visitor, Ray Gonzalez slips between the contradictions with luminous accuracy.
"I was just in El Paso and I was amazed to see that the U.S. government workers buy Mexican food for the Mexican detainees awaiting return. What a clash of worlds. It's a very restless area," he says.
It's a restlessness that is certain to show up in a future Gonzalez-penned masterpiece.