Cristina Rivera Garza: “the traces that shelter us”

One novelist spotlights an object, feeling, or sensation where the relay between past and present, or present and future, becomes visible.

Two women stand at the edge of a plaza in Zaragoza, Coahuila, making tortillas by hand. Their “precise movements, perfectly coordinated” suggest to Cristina Rivera Garza—in her deeply researched family memoir Autobiografía del algodón (2020)—the elegant routines of synchronized swimming.1 She and her family buy thirty tortillas from these women before driving back to Houston. There, standing in the kitchen, they eat them one after another. In the process, we read, something dissolves, transforming into something else:

Soon, Zaragoza will disappear into our open mouths and will form part of our alimentary bolus thanks to our saliva enzymes, the fate of digestion. Then, once it’s broken down, decomposed by teeth and gastric juices, it will pass into our stomachs, where the molecular bonds will be broken, turning into nutrients. We will walk, we will be kept upright, thanks to the nourishment from Zaragoza.2

Why describe digestion in such technical detail? Reading this passage, we are led to imagine a physical trace that is geographical, social, historical, and biological. The food being enjoyed and absorbed into the body comes from elsewhere, which means that it indexes that place, and it was made by other hands, which means that something of those hands remains present. Those hands, in turn, in their precision and coordination, echo earlier “choreographies” of daily life in the same place, where lives were lived that persist in the present, through the habits that are passed down through gesture, language, and culture.

Autobiografía del algodón ends with this scene: three family members standing in a kitchen, talking about Dostoyevsky and eating flour tortillas while they prepare dinner. They had sought, earlier in the day and without luck, to find a family burial place. The reader has followed them through vivid landscapes, bureaucracy, and town life, and in the preceding chapters, through an exploration of family interwoven with regional history.

Past and present commingle. An old store on the Zaragoza plaza is where, Rivera Garza speculates, the eyes, hands, and elbows of her forebears must have once come into contact with the world, passing through the open doors of their senses. “We come here,” she writes, “to live together with our dead.”3 She imagines the “measured choreography of their bodies”: the rhythmic, ritual movements of their everyday lives.4

Recovering the material remnants that envelop our present is the focus. Rivera Garza spotlights an object—tortillas, in this case—or a feeling or sensation where the relay between past and present, or between present and future, becomes visible. Such passages register, in all their minute physicality, the autonomic or habitual actions that sustain us, usually beyond the threshold of our awareness. They anchor us in material reality, where knowledge is fragile and necessarily incomplete. They are a mechanism for imagining what things might or must have been like, and what they might become someday. Perhaps also for learning what they really are like, already.

Rivera Garza is inviting us to think ecologically about both language and subjectivity. As she puts it early on in Autobiografía del algodón,

If as inhabitants of the earth we have no choice but to be with others or to go back to being where others once were, then the most basic, most honest, most difficult task consists in identifying the traces that shelter us. This is the ethical moment of all writing and, what’s more, of all experience.5

This effort to identify the “huellas” (footprints, tracks, or traces) that “nos acogen” (hold or shelter us)—the cities and structures, the bodily habits, the symbolic forms where we carry out our lives—makes up, I would argue, the heart of Rivera Garza’s recent work.

Literary forerunners open and demarcate the spaces where new work is germinated. In Rivera Garza’s case, the work of Juan Rulfo represents an important antecedent. Widely known as the author of the novel Pedro Páramo (1955), Rulfo is a frequent point of reference in her writing. In her imaginative, detailed study titled Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué (2016), Rivera Garza turns her attention to the jobs Rulfo worked alongside his literary labor. First as a sales representative and publicity agent for the tire company Goodrich-Euzkadi and later as a member of various governmental commissions, Rulfo traveled throughout his country as an ambivalent participant in the modernizing projects carried out in Mexico from the 1950s onward, the same decade when both Pedro Páramo and his collection of short stories El llano en llamas (1953) would be published. By studying his work life in counterpoint to his writing, Rivera Garza portrays Rulfo as a kind of Benjaminian angel of history, attentive to the rubble left in the wake of progress.

In 1951, Rulfo drove the route of the Carrera Panamericana, a race first carried out the previous year and which took drivers from the northern to the southern border of Mexico. On his own journey, Rulfo passed out documents along the way: specifically, the new driving guides mapping tourist attractions throughout the country. Rulfo in fact had worked on the one of these titled Caminos de México, which allows Rivera Garza to connect Rulfo’s travels to the burgeoning tourism economy. At least nine such guides were published in Spanish between 1928 and 1940, and they had important consequences. Rivera Garza argues that they effectively justified and stimulated the construction of highways while also producing, in the process, “the very idea of a nation.”6

In order to situate Rulfo in this context, where new highways emerge alongside new ideas of nationhood, Rivera Garza combines research with the imagination necessary for all vivid historical reconstruction. She imagines him in dialogue with the future. And she imagines how he might have operated his car:

That’s how one drives on the highway: alert and off-guard at the same time. Eyes half on the horizon and half on the road, and you’re off. Keys, the sound of keys. The tips of the keys brushing against your thighs; your knees. The embossed seat. The clutch. The gears. First gear. Then second. The machinic assemblage of the car. This purely dreamlike state. Third gear.7

The author’s attention to detail invites us to feel, or to attempt to feel, as readers, the physicality of time’s passage: the sequence of actions, the proliferation of entities, and the stream of sensations registered by a body. That this passage focuses on the car and the highway, emblems of modernity in Rulfo’s time, further situates us in relation to the historical transformations taking place. Just as trains and railroad tracks might remind us of the agricultural export economy of the late 19th century, cars and highways represent the more industrial modernization projects of the mid-20th. Rulfo experienced these projects firsthand; there he is, some imagined version of him, shifting gears and looking at the horizon.

The ethical task of writing, and indeed of experience generally, involves discovering what traces left by other beings grant us harbor and sustain our lives.

There is a deep empathy involved in this kind of writing, something that becomes visible when Rivera Garza details her search for Rulfo’s traces on the roads of Oaxaca, where the town of Luvina—the title of one of the most haunting stories in El llano en llamas—is located. Walking, like driving or writing, is a physical act, which prompts the writer to imagine Rulfo’s concrete circumstances: “I imagined his shoes: What kind of shoes for climbing this mountain?”8

This is a literalization of a common metaphor for empathy: to walk in someone else’s shoes. And while empathy is necessary to imagine the past, Rivera Garza attends to how it doesn’t fully close the distance between her present and Rulfo’s. “One cannot feel what is felt by another, that’s true,” she writes. “But one can be there, in that shared space, and feel what is one’s own.”9

In other words, she can be there, in Luvina, this place Rulfo once used as a setting to dramatically illustrate the disconnect between well-intentioned modernizers from the capital and rural people who disbelieve their promises, the Janus-faced nature of the development state. But when Rivera Garza asks, during her own visit to Luvina, if Juan Rulfo is remembered there, a woman smiles and identifies him as “that man who had told many lies about the place where she lived.”10 To inhabit the traces of others might mean living with the contradictions they left unresolved.

Published several years later, Autobiografía del algodón also begins by excavating the traces of a well-known Mexican writer: José Revueltas. An important luminary of the Mexican Left, Revueltas appears here in his relative youth, riding on horseback into a place called Estación Camarón, one of a chain of towns in northern Mexico that are named after train stations. As the animal strides into town, we are invited to imagine its footfalls, the way its hoofs touch the ground, the sound of its breathing, as well as the names of local species, both plants and animals. Revueltas is likely thirsty, and he shares this sensation with the arid environment. Cotton is grown here, Gossypium hirsutum, a sturdy bush, which “had faced off against drought and salt, incredulity and the latifundio, and had won.”11

This is how Rivera Garza situates his arrival in 1934, as an envoy sent by the Mexican Communist Party to this outpost of cotton workers about to go on strike. Estimates vary, we read, but the strike involved somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 workers. Revueltas wrote about this place in his book El luto humano (1943), and for Rivera Garza, his writing means an encounter between the written word and the lives of her ancestors. Because, as it happens, her grandparents were among those cotton workers. She imagines the possibility of an encounter between her grandfather and Revueltas: “That moment exists. The moment when José Revueltas could have met the eyes of José María Rivera Dóñez in the middle of an assembly.”12 In this way, Revueltas’s writing creates a space wherein Rivera Garza can investigate her own family.

As with the book on Juan Rulfo, moments of historical reconstruction abound, rooted inextricably in the present-day action of imagining. We see Revueltas in front of an old Oliver typewriter, “sitting with difficulty in a wooden chair with some nails sticking out.”13 And in even more detail, we read about Rivera Garza’s grandmother Petra learning, as a young girl, to write:

When she held the charcoal and leaned over a piece of paper, her siblings observed her with a hint of reverence that they avoided showing when she would raise her head. No one in their home, no one in that long line of generations who lived and died in Los Cuarenta, Jalisco, had done that. That position of the body was unheard of. A true revelation. Her grandparents and the grandparents of her grandparents had always signed their contracts with an inked thumb and they used their eyes to read the sky, the dark seams of coal, the loose soil.14

This is writing carried out at the scale of the human body, and in the very particular circumstances in which Petra, in the second passage, and Revueltas, in the first, found themselves. As if in counterpoint to these descriptions, we also read excerpts from official telegraph transcripts from the period leading up to the strike and a disastrous flood, after which the inhabitants of Estación Camarón would emigrate elsewhere. By placing human movement in relationship to the multiple forms of writing that have survived, Rivera Garza excavates and exhibits the traces left behind.

In other words, she gets at how large-scale social change is felt in the flesh. How, that is, do the great dramatic shifts of history feel to specific people in specific places? In response, Autobiografía del algodón overlays the economic history of one cycle of boom and bust leading to another—cotton, sorghum, the maquila, and fracking, for example—atop other, more granularly described realities. Toward the end of the book, in a passage that contemplates the long, cruel history of cotton, in dialogue with the work of Sven Beckert, Rivera Garza looks at a photo of her father and another of workers smiling, and suggests a question that can only emerge out of this multilayered approach to history: “¿Cuál es la otra cara de la crueldad?” she wonders, “What is the other side of cruelty?”

This question is poignant, considering the book’s overall argument that there is an important connection between the “ephemeral abundance” of the cotton boom and the present-day “bloody war waged by the Mexican state” known commonly as the “guerra contra el narcotráfico” (“war on drug trafficking”).15 This is, on its own, a powerful historical argument about capitalism and the modern state, but Rivera Garza simultaneously takes care to document and imagine how things happen at small scales. Complex realities of care and labor surge and beat beneath the surface of history, described in marvelous passages like the long one that details the steps involved in making a cotton mattress:

They had to take care to distribute the cotton evenly, avoiding uncomfortable edges. And, when it was all smooth, then they had to made six or eight depressions at equidistant spots on the mattress: little obstacles of thread to keep the material evenly balanced. It needed to be thick enough for your back to rest on, but also light enough to be transported from one place to another with ease. It needed to smell clean.16

This passage gives us a sense of the care and craft involved in articulating the “other side of cruelty.” The late anthropologist David Graeber has written about the “communism of the senses” that underlies our lives in common, and to me, these are the traces that give shelter.

I’d like to conclude with Rivera Garza’s recent book, El invencible verano de Liliana (2021), which focuses on reconstructing her sister’s life, in the months and years before she was murdered. While it shares much with the two previous books, it is unique in foregrounding the generative nature of the writing process. The task of reconstruction seems to involve, in a greater degree here, the creation of new spaces of shelter.

We can see this clearly in the first chapter, as the author chronicles her attempts to recover the police file from the investigation carried out some three decades before. She visits offices and lawyers, spends long days accompanied by a friend in the presence of those who might be able to help, but by the end of the chapter, no file has surfaced. “Files die too,” she reflects. 17 And, what’s more:

If that file disappears, I say for the first time while the maddening traffic of the city surrounds us, there will be no official memory of Liliana’s presence on earth. If that file dies, as all files do die, let’s not believe even for a minute that they live forever, then the possibility of finding the murderer and making him respond to the arrest order will die. There will be a trial. There must be a trial and there must be a sentence. There must be justice.18

Absent the official paperwork, absent this process of justice, the chapters that follow seek to construct an alternative file. Liliana’s notebooks and letters represent an important source, as do the testimonies of her friends from the university and family members. And, as with Rivera Garza’s study of both Rulfo and her own ancestors, the palpable experience of concrete places represents an important source of knowledge.

For example, the initial search for the police file begins in Azcapotzalco, one of the sixteen delegaciones, or boroughs, of Mexico City. Rivera Garza tells us that the name in Náhuatl means “place of anthills” and that legend has it that the god Quetzalcóatl had followed the ants into the nether regions of the earth to recover the bones of the deceased from which to remake the human species, as well as carrying the grains of corn that the new people would eat.19 But Azcapotzalco is also “territorio de Liliana”: not so much because it’s where the author is sent to seek the police records, but more significantly because “All of this was once touched by her eyes. The birds that receive us … are all her birds.”20 The traces of other lives emerge via language and etymology, as well as through the analogical reasoning of sense experience.

But language also presents challenges for the victims of patriarchal violence. Rivera Garza reiterates at various moments that her sister struggled to find ways to articulate her experience in the period when she was being stalked and harassed. And language is material, not an abstraction. Reflecting on the murder of Lesvy Berlín Osorio, a student at the UNAM who was killed by her partner, Rivera Garza draws her together with her sister through alliteration. “Lesvy and Liliana. The combined sound of their two Ls makes me place my tongue behind the back part of my top front teeth and push air out the sides of my mouth. Lateral consonant. Could they have been friends?”21 Identifying their shared consonants is not simply a way of noting a coincidence. Rather, by emphasizing the physicality of language, the tie between phonetics and the body, Rivera Garza reminds the reader that early death at the hands of violent men sadly connects the two women.

In a similar way, Rivera Garza’s careful engagement with her sister’s notebooks reveals her painstaking attention to the details of the physical text. Numerous quotations from her sister’s notebooks appear in a different font, one designed especially for this book using Liliana’s own handwriting as a starting point. There are details about stickers and other decorative elements; about the color of ink used; about how her letters to others were folded; about the spareness of her notes, her starts and stops; about her strategies of subterfuge, for example writing a letter to a close friend without any spaces between the words, as a way to evade the prying eyes of her dangerous ex-boyfriend. These materials, generously excerpted throughout the text, are accompanied by numerous testimonies from Liliana’s friends at the university and, in the penultimate chapter, from the sisters’ parents.

Reading these notes and testimonies, along with the author’s own interpretations throughout, is a powerful experience. Following the construction of this alternative archive, through both the process of discovery and the narrative threads that are revealed in the process, we are allowed a window into a rich and vivid life, unjustly cut short.

This richness, this vividness, is the result of concrete narrative and historiographical effort. The three books under consideration here illuminate the detailed contours where lives unfold alongside others. They represent ways of finding and celebrating the traces that give shelter and sustain life in all its generous complexity, often in the face of forces that would rather destroy, possess, deny, or ossify it.

To me, it’s very convincing to think, along with Rivera Garza, that the ethical task of writing, and indeed of experience generally, involves discovering what traces left by other beings grant us harbor and sustain our lives. These books represent responses to that imperative, and their shared emphasis on deep, almost meditative description illustrates the kind of attention required by it. A form of attention that seeks the subtle truths of the world around us, that asks us to listen closely, even to what we can’t understand, to remember that we too are leaving traces that will become shelter for others—and, perhaps most importantly, to make those traces as hospitable as possible. icon

  1. All quotations in the text are my own translations, with the originals in the footnotes. In this case, “movimientos exactos, perfectamente coordinados.”
  2. “Pronto, Zaragoza desaparecerá frente a nuestras bocas abiertas y formará parte del bolo alimenticio gracias a las enzimas de saliva, la suerte de la digestión. Luego, desmenuzada ya, descompuesta ya por dientes y jugos gástricos, pasará a nuestros estómagos donde se romperán los enlaces moleculares para convertirse en nutrientes. Caminaremos y nos sostendremos en pie gracias al alimento de Zaragoza”.
  3. “venimos aquí … a convivir con nuestros muertos”.
  4. “coreografía acompasada de sus cuerpos”
  5. “Si como habitantes de la tierra sólo nos queda estar con otros o volver a estar donde estuvieron otros, entonces la tarea más básica, la más honesta, la más difícil, consiste en identificar las huellas que nos acogen. Este es el momento ético de toda escritura y, aún más, de toda experiencia”.
  6. “la idea misma de una nación”
  7. “Uno maneja así en la carretera: alerta y desprevenido a un tiempo. Uno coloca los ojos a medias en el horizonte y a medias en el camino, y luego arranca. Las llaves, el ruido de las llaves. El roce de las puntas de las llaves contra los muslos; las rodillas. El asiento abullonado. El clutch. Los cambios. Primera. Luego, segunda. El ensamblaje maquínico del auto. Este estado de pura ensoñación. Tercera”.
  8. “Imaginaba sus zapatos: ¿qué tipo de zapatos para subir esta montaña?”
  9. Uno no puede sentir lo sentido por otro, eso es cierto. Pero uno puede estar ahí, en ese sitio compartido, y sentir lo propio”.
  10. “ese señor que había dicho muchas mentiras del lugar donde ella vivía”
  11. “se había enfrentado a la sequía y al salitre, a la incredulidad y al latifundio, y había ganado”
  12. Existe ese momento. El momento en que José Revueltas pudo haber encontrado los ojos de José María Rivera Dóñez en medio de una asamblea”.
  13. “sentado con dificultad en una silla de madera a la que se le salían algunos clavos”
  14. “Cuando agarraba el carboncillo y se inclinaba sobre un pedazo de papel, sus hermanos la observaban con un dejo de reverencia que se cuidaban de mostrar una vez que ella elevaba la cabeza. Nadie en su casa, nadie en esa larga hilera de generaciones que crecieron y murieron en Los Cuarenta, Jalisco, había hecho eso. Esa posición del cuerpo era inédita. Una verdadera revelación. Sus abuelos y los abuelos de sus abuelos habían firmado siempre sus contratos con un pulgar entintado y utilizaban los ojos para leer el cielo, las vetas oscuras del carbón, la tierra suelta”.
  15. “esa efímera abundancia algodonera y la sanguinaria lucha que desata el Estado mexicano”
  16. “Había que tener cuidado de distribuir el algodón de manera pareja, evitando bordos incómodos. Y, cuando estaba ya todo lisito, entonces había que hacer unas seis u ocho hendiduras en puntos equidistantes del colchón: pequeños obstáculos de hilo para obligar a la distribución balanceada del material. Tenía que ser lo suficientemente grueso para garantizar el descanso de la espalda, pero también lo suficientemente ligero para ser transportado de un lugar a otro con facilidad. Tenía que oler a limpio”.
  17. “También los expedientes mueren”.
  18. “Si ese expediente desaparece, lo digo por primera vez mientras nos cerca el tráfico enloquecedor de la ciudad, no habrá memoria oficial de la presencia de Liliana sobre la tierra. Si ese expediente muere, como mueren todos los expedientes, no vayamos a creer, ni siquiera por un minuto, que viven para siempre, morirá la posibilidad de localizar al asesino y obligarlo a responder a la orden de su arresto. Habrá un juicio. Debe haber un juicio y debe haber una sentencia. Debe haber justicia”.
  19. “lugar de los hormigueros”
  20. “Todo esto alguna vez fue tocado por sus ojos. Los pájaros que nos reciben apenas si llegamos … son todos sus pájaros”.
  21. “Lesvy y Liliana. El sonido combinado de sus dos eles me obliga a colocar la lengua contra la parte trasera de mis dientes frontales superiores y a empujar el aire por los lados de la boca. Consonante lateral. ¿Podrían haber sido amigas?”
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image: Cristina Rivera Garza, by Thelmadatter / Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)