What do you do when your faith in the U.N. is shattered?

I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in 2017 properly jaded. I had just completed a year-long stint with the U.N. office of PAX, where I worked on a series of reports outlining the particular cruelty and inhumanity of the sieges in Syria at the height of media coverage of the siege of Aleppo. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of feelings about spending the next month somewhere that had been kept under the longest siege in Europe since WWII.

Scrap of paper in front of government building which reads 1 March 1992: "do you vote for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and of other people living in it?" 
5 April 1992: First victims are killed at a peace rally
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

A frequent theme my cohort returned to—as is often (justifiably) the case in these conversations—was the failure and inadequacy of organizations such as the U.N. or USAID, and the Western states that frequently dominate them, to deliver on their promise to protect civilians and maintain international peace and security. And this is a fair point, the U.N. is one of the most powerful international institutions, but still is unable to effectively prevent, end, or resolve violent conflict—and if the UN is unable (or unwilling) to stir up political will to prevent or end conflicts, then what hope is there?

Scrap of paper in front of monument of canned beef, which reads the UN has trouble sending humanitarian aid to Sarajevo. The average civilian lives on 159g of food a day. When aid does arrive, citizens find biscuits and canned mean that had expired 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the UNSC "strongly condemns these acts of unspeakable brutality." UNSC Resolution 798, 18 Dec. 1992
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

During one incredibly poignant moment of my month in BiH, I was sitting at the back of the bus with a member of my fellowship who had lived through the war. He told me that as a child he hated the U.S. because of its inaction and resented having to suffer through trauma that no one should have to, while the U.S. stood by waiting, watching, pretending to care. But that wasn’t what stuck with me—it was that he shrugged, rather casually, and said, “but look at what is happening in Syria, and here I am, I’m doing nothing. So, who am I to judge?”

Scrap of paper in front of yellow high rise building which reads, Sniper Alley. Roughly 5-15 people were wounded each day by snipers, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019
Scrap of paper in front of apartment complex, which reads 15 Jan 1993
8 civilians killed, 20 wounded by mortar shell while waiting for water. Azra & Asim Lačević were among the victims, leaving behind their children, Berin & Delila, who were among the severely wounded.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

But isn’t that the whole point of an international community? Aren’t we exactly who is to judge? If not each of us, then who will judge the massive failure of the West and its international institutions?

Scrap of paper in front of marketplace which reads UNSC resolution 816 "deploring the failure of some parties concerned to cooperate dully with United Nations Protection Froce (UNPROFOR)" 
31 March 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It is in the spirit of these questions that I compiled this photo essay during my time in Sarajevo. I wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of what the U.N. presents in official documents versus the lived experience of conflict. I was inspired by my colleagues—as well as the speakers who addressed us over the month we were there—to explore a Sarajevo that feels quite distant from the city you’ll find today. It is actually there, right below the surface, which in many ways feels like it is begging to be shown, not to be forgotten. I spent several days reading through UNSC resolutions about Bosnia, especially any that were around key dates and times. I explored the few resources online about the siege, and compiled enough information to create my own “walking tour” of the city.

Scrap of paper in front of broken concrete painted red to evoke blood spatter which reads of the 11,541 people killed during the siege, 1,601 of them were children. 
UNSC Resolution 820: "Deeply alarmed and concerned about the magnitude of the plight of innocent victims of the conflict" 
-17 April 1993-
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

I wanted to explore things that felt important to me personally, but also call attention to sites that—specifically tourists—might walk past without a second glance. Because of this, all of the sites photographed are easily accessible, notable, and are frequently seen or visited locations. The project is organized more or less chronologically, in order to give the viewer a visual timeline of the siege. The third photo in the series is irony meeting irony, as the canned beef monument—a literal larger than life rendering of a can of beef much like the ones dropped by ICAR, which Sarajevans would “rather die than eat”—is itself a jab at western aid agencies’ complete failure to provide humanitarian assistance.

Scrap of paper in front of state of a man yelling in a park which reads UNSC Resolution 819 "Demands that all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surrounding areas as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." 
17 April 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

In the background of the fourth photo, you can see the Hotel Holiday—the infamous yellow hotel that was notoriously inhabited by journalists bravely covering the siege—sitting along what was once one of the most dangerous streets to navigate, but is now one of the main thoroughfares and trolley lines in the city. The photo of the brewery was taken only one block from my apartment in Sarajevo, which felt exceptionally moving, to learn that there had been, within my lifetime, a massacre at a place I had just gotten drinks.

Scrap of paper in front of church which reads on average, 329 missiles were fired at Sarajevo daily. On 22 July 1993,  3,777 missiles hit the city in a single day.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

The photo after this one is taken at the Markale Market in the center of the city, where some of the largest massacres once took place at the height of the siege. Today there is little more than a memorial wall, mostly hidden by the vendors. The Sarajevo Rose depicted is not one of particular note, as these memorials span the city, serving as their own unassuming reminder that we are never too far from history. I wanted to remind both myself and others, through the juxtaposition of the official documents about the conflict with the current state of the city, that the consequences of our actions are not theoretical—as they can sometimes feel as we sit in our comfortable London classrooms—but are in fact painfully real.

scrap of paper in front of dilapidated buildings which reads 10,000 buildings were completely destroyed. 100,000 buildings were heavily damaged. 
UNSC: "Decides to remain actively seized of the matter"
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It’s something I have come back to a lot during my time at SOAS. As students at a highly critical university, learning about international institutions, norms, transitional justice, and peacebuilding through decolonial and feminist perspectives can make the world seem disheartening—but at the same time it helps prepare you for the realities of how the world functions. That being said, it’s natural to feel burnt out every so often, to wonder why we’re even bothering or if we should have just gone into banking or marketing. Or worse, to feel like you’ll have to end up working for and perpetuating the very systems about which you’ve spent an entire post-graduate degree learning. Because I very much want to continue working in the field of advocacy and transitional justice, this is something I have to reconcile on a daily basis.

scrap of paper in front of view of large village which reads UNSC resolution 900 "emphasizing the crucial importance of achieving complete freedom of movement for the civilian population and humanitarian goods and of the restoration of normal life in Sarajevo, determined to restore essential public services in Sarajevo" 
4 March 1994
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

This was as maddening to navigate in BiH as it is today. Once you become aware of just how deeply broken everything is, it is incredibly daunting—and to be frank, depressing—to feel like one day it will be up to you to fix it all. I wish I could tell you that I’ve come to the solution, but I think we’ll have to keep on working through it together. I desperately want to do something right in a world that makes it feel nearly impossible, I hope that exploring what you can do when your faith is shattered can be one small thing to help us understand our positionality a bit better.

Is There Still Hope for Reconciliation in Northern Ireland?

Just as the walls have begun to come down in Northern Ireland, Brexit risks putting another back up. The question remains whether the Irish Peace Process can survive the shock.

At the time of writing, just under twelve weeks remain until the United Kingdom potentially crashes out of the European Union without an exit deal. This means that just under twelve weeks remain until border checks are reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a free-movement zone that has existed in some form since 1923, and completely since 1997.

It’s clear that the return of borders in Northern Ireland is now an all-too-possible reality. As recently as 4th January, the Guardian reported that some 1000 police officers from Scotland and England were preparing for deployment in Northern Ireland in the event of public disorder resulting from a no-deal Brexit. The return of armed officers from Scotland and England echoes the deployment of British soldiers during the worst periods of political violence in the “The Troubles,” a conflict which witnessed over 3000 deaths in acts of terror and assassination over the course of three decades.

The deployment is a sobering reminder that a conflict thought resolved is still anything but, and although violence almost certainly won’t return to levels seen during The Troubles, the process of reconciliation between divided communities remains fragile. Since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement brokered a political agreement between Nationalists, who favor becoming a part of Ireland, and Unionists, who prefer remaining a part of the United Kingdom, communities divided by decades of violence have struggled to reconcile. School segregation, housing discrimination, and even physical barriers have created divisions, both physical and otherwise, between neighborhoods which remain long after the conflict’s end.

Tearing Down the Walls

Bringing down physical walls is essential to peace to Northern Ireland. Some 99 “Peace Walls” alone separate Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from Unionist Protestant spaces in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, while even more exist in other towns such as Derry and Portadown. Before Brexit, the future of these walls looked to be ending: in 2017, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice proposed a deadline of 2023 for all Peace Walls to be removed. The first of these were demolished as of 2016, heralding positive signs for the island’s future.

But a hard border between Northern Ireland and its most important neighbor, Ireland, throws this progress into question once again. Complications don’t just arise due to trade barriers, or the logistics of moving from one part of Ireland to another– issues often cited in Westminster Brexit debates. For the people of Northern Ireland, the physical border is as much a psychological barrier to peace as a physical one. The free movement of people in Ireland is viewed by Nationalists as a step towards a United Ireland, in which Irish people on either side of a border are differentiated by little more than kilometers vs miles on roadside signs. For Unionists, open borders still allow Northern Ireland to remain an essential part of the United Kingdom, an important distinction for many Unionists who identify as British. It’s no surprise that over half of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, a vote largely shared in both Unionist and Nationalist communities.

In this light, a hard border in Northern Ireland doesn’t just mean leaving the European Union – it means tearing up twenty years of hard-earned peace, in which removing barriers between Ireland and Northern Ireland is just as important as tearing down the walls between Nationalist and Unionist neighborhoods. Already, radical political factions on either end of the Nationalist/Unionist divide have used the potential for a no-deal Brexit to push their own sectarian goals, to the detriment of the peace process. Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican party, has called for a referendum on Irish Unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a referendum Unionists vehemently oppose. For the hard-right DUP, currently in a loose coalition with Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, a hard border is preferable to a possible compromise customs border in the Irish Sea, which the party believes would delegitimize the British identity of Unionists in Northern Ireland.

A Fragile Future

Neither of these options will bring about greater peace, but instead could very well serve to destroy it. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was created under the idea that Unionism and Nationalism could live side-by-side in Northern Ireland without violence, and its success was only possible when powerful leaders on both sides – such as Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Ian Paisley – decided to battle their differences in the halls of the legislature instead the streets of Belfast. Today’s leaders in the still paralyzed Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster of the DUP and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, increasingly treat Nationalism and Unionism as a matter of politics instead of peace, and the Brexit debate as yet another a vehicle for political goals. Their brinkmanship in these regards could once again send their tiny corner of the island of Ireland over the edge.

While working in Northern Ireland as a peace volunteer in 2017, I saw firsthand how the shock of Brexit might tear apart the fragile peace. Schoolchildren still receive education in segregated facilities; streets in Belfast are still defined as Nationalist or Unionist—with barriers between them; and the extremist militias of twenty years ago remain the forms of the Real IRA or the Red Hand Defenders, ready to take advantage of a return to sectarianism. While there is hope for Ireland’s future – with young people especially beginning to see past Nationalist/Unionist identities – it is an uncertain hope, and one that is very much fragile in the face of a no-deal Brexit.

Reconciliation is a slow, uneasy process, and Northern Ireland still needs its own time to heal from the traumas of the past. During the short-sighted Brexit vote, the peace process was all but forgotten in the rest of Britain, but as the fate of a no-deal Brexit becomes more certain, it can no longer be taken for granted. As the peace walls fall in Belfast and Derry, another still cannot rise in its place in Ireland if sustainable peace is to be achieved. Either a deal must be made where the return of the border is rejected outright, or better yet Northern Ireland could not leave at all.

Photo Credit: Devin Windelspecht

Uganda: The People v. The Government

Photo Credit: Adams Jones 2012, CC BY-SA 3.0

Old Man Robert Mugabe, former long-time President of Zimbabwe and Facebook icon (see “Robert Mugabe Quotes”, where fake quotes are published as “the renowned Statesman’s commentary on the fast paced times we now live in”), was forced out of office in 2017. Since 2017, Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni finally ranks in the top-three longest-serving leaders of the continent.

Certainly, Museveni is one of the most iconic leaders: the East-African President, often abbreviated as “M7” by his subjects, is well-known for showing up with a tremendous cowboy hat and colourful yellow shirts. M7 has sparked laughter not only among Ugandans, but also among members of the international community. He is known for being colorfully ostentatious, once telling his people, “It is dangerous to stick a finger in the anus of a leopard because you are in trouble” (referring to himself in the context of upcoming elections) and, “the mouth is there to eat and not for oral sex.” He invited Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to the State House and publicly offered himself to be a mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict in front of a high-level Israeli diplomatic delegation commemorating the 40-years anniversary of “Operation Entebbe” (during which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother was killed).

Clumsy on the outside, but what is behind the curtain?

Museveni’s  public appearance can hardly be called anything but clumsy; he appears to be a friendly grandad figure who does not hesitate to stop his several-dozen vehicle convoy to make a phone call on the roadside before taking photos with local villagers. But behind this facade, Museveni is everything but a friendly grandfather. In fact, the Bush War (1981–86) veteran has profiled himself as a ruthless strongman with a natural sense for power. After brutally cracking down on separatist movements and rebel groups in Northern Uganda, he successfully used international justice mechanisms (such as the ICC) to prosecute whoever was left of his opponents in the region. He conducted crack-downs on media outlets and intimidated and persecuted a variety of opposition movements.

Museveni consistently adapted his strategies to sufficiently match whatever dissident thought sparked throughout Uganda. This did not only include the obvious rigging of elections in 2016, but he has also successfully led a campaign to remove the presidential age limit from the constitution after protests sparked over an attempt to change his own birth date. But that is not all: during his more than 30-years rule, “M7” sacked powerful competitors from his own party, including the former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi and the former Inspector General of the Police, Kale Kayihura. Besides favouring members of his own tribe in government positions, he established a dynasty: Museveni made his wife a minister (several times) and appointed his Sandhurst-educated son, Muhoozi, as a Presidential Advisor, possibly paving the way for the him to take over the presidency of the East African nation in the future.

The People v. The Government?

Recently the Ugandan government introduced a so-called “social media tax” as a reaction to “gossip” allegedly published in social networks and spread through messenger applications. The objective of the new tax, apparently, is to target the young, urban, poor populations of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and other big cities — those people that have the tendency to support the opposition movement of “Bobi Wine”, a prominent self-made music star from one of the poorer areas Kampala.

Bobi Wine, by the real name Robert Kyagulanyi, became an elected Member of Parliament in 2017. He was arrested several times for speaking out against the Ugandan government in general, the removal of the presidential age limit in particular. After being charged with “treason” and abducted by security forces in August 2018, he was apparently tortured in custody by members of the security apparatus and had to seek treatment in the USA.

Bobi Wine certainly poses a threat to the reign of Museveni. For how much longer will 74-year old President Museveni hold on to power? No one knows. Certainly not much longer when it comes to many of the country’s youth, who make up the largest part of Uganda’s population. But how can Uganda get rid of the new “Old Man of Africa” and how can it achieve political change for Uganda’s 40 million citizens?

The removal of Museveni from the Presidential Office would present a chance for young Ugandans wishing for political change and economic opportunities. It would open up the possibility of holding members of the Ugandan government and the security apparatus responsible for war crimes committed in the country’s Northern provinces. As it appears, international justice mechanisms so far have failed to charge or even investigate crimes committed by sitting members of governments.

What comes next?

With the General Election coming up in 2021, it seems difficult to predict if Museveni himself will be physically fit enough to run for the presidency again. But at the moment, possible successors (with the unlikely exception of Museveni’s son, Muhoozi) are not in sight — it seems that a lot depends on how the opposition will position itself in the next few years. If the opposition wants to win a democratic election in Uganda, they will have to give Museveni, his family and allies, plenty of assurances, as the new “Old Man of Africa” will certainly not leave with the looming prospect of spending the remaining years of his life in the courtrooms of Kampala or The Hague. Neither will the hundreds and thousands of people in political offices, the police and military, and Museveni’s business partners, all of whom benefited from Museveni’s everlasting reign.

Remembering Mass Violence

The 27th of January marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and around the world people paid respect to the victims of the the Holocaust. In December, managing editor Megan Manion and senior editor Rachel Salcedo traveled to Poland and here offer some reflections on their visit to sites of Holocaust remembrance:

Poland in December likely wouldn’t strike most people as a desirable travel destination, but for us the dark, cold, and snow felt somehow fitting for what we had planned to be a decidedly sombre experience. We visited a number of memorials throughout the country—most notably, Auschwitz-Birkenau—as we sought to think through the vastly complex and layered histories of multiple occupations, mass atrocity, and the building of a national collective memory. As scholars of transitional justice, we were interested in understanding the praxis and politics of memorializing violence that occurs at such a large scale.

After suffering under the profound violence of German occupation, Poland was given little respite before Soviet occupation began, so remembering the damage of the Holocaust became caught up in the unfolding trauma of totalitarian repression. Thus, we considered the politics of identity in conflict settings and the narration of those identities in post-conflict reconstruction. We also contemplated what it means to memorialize certain instances of violence in lieu or at the expense of others. Below, we consider the politics of memorialization and the challenges of narrating a cohesive national memory that conflicts with the complexity of survivors’ realities.

What does it mean to be a memorial?

A memorial takes many forms, and largely depends upon who is doing the memorializing as much as what they are attempting to remember. A critical feature of memorials is that they engage the spectator in the experience of their subjects. Memorializing should be understood as an active process narrating an experience of violence; thus a site of that experience must be understood, at least in part, to be about evoking a response.

One of the key ways Auschwitz-Birkenau is effective in this regard derives from allowing visitors to live its history, standing where victims stood and imagining themselves amongst the prisoners. It is so difficult to fully understand how quickly and how brutally people lost their lives in extermination camps, particularly when today we are inundated with images of the Second World War and partly-fictionalized imaginings of what it was like for those who suffered in concentration camps. In reality, however, these images pale in comparison to what one is able to imagine when standing along the tracks leading to Birkenau’s gas chambers or in cells where prisoners were made to sleep eight to a bed, stacked on top of one another three bunks high.

Walking along these tracks toward the ruins of gas chambers that Nazi authorities destroyed before the camps were liberated, we imagined the racing thoughts that might have crossed a young mother’s mind as she made the same short walk seventy years ago: would she have been relieved by her decision not to be separated from her child? Would she realize that this decision sealed her fate, and that if she’d let an elderly woman take the baby she might have been allowed to live? Or would she be too tired and worn down and disoriented to have these thoughts, to be fearful anymore?

As the memorial stands, it demonstrates the damage of the Nazi regime and the evil contained in the camps by clearly showing the harm done to all groups targeted. In functioning as a museum, however, the site literally narrates the experience of a victim as they moved through the camp and the overall experience of those targeted by the Nazis. In this way, the amount of information presented to guests means that at times Auschwitz-Birkenau struggles as a site of memory: space for memorializing the victims is often truncated by the memory of what was done to them.

We felt this conflict through much of the camp, most palpably in the buildings that once housed prisoners at Auschwitz and which today display victims’ possessions. Walking along halls that contain thousands and thousands of shoes, stacked haphazardly on top of one another, looking almost as if they had been thrown into the display, our attention was drawn to the few dainty heels and sandals that lie alone toward the front. Another room offers the same organization of eyeglasses, another contains pots and pans, another suitcases—all labeled as though they might be reunited with their owners.

Another room contains orphaned prosthetics and crutches, another still is filled with hairbrushes and shaving materials. But none of these displays compare to the dimly lit room filled with a mountain of actual human hair, matted and tangled together so you can’t quite tell the hair color or type; in fact you don’t immediately identify the mountain as hair at all, in part because it is difficult to accept the reality that you are looking at. This literal dehumanization of victims in order to illustrate the dehumanization that occured at the hands of the Nazis acts at some points to overpower the individuals that were there.

Why is remembering different than memorializing?

Personal and public memory play different roles in post-conflict communities, and with those roles come particular politics. Remembering is a personal process of naming what someone has survived. To remember, one must engage in a performance of that trauma in order to take ownership of one’s narrative, body and agency. Engaging personally reimagines what it means to be a victim, and indeed, a survivor.

In the words of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, jailed by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self” (89). Personal memory—a survivor remembering what was done to them, or a perpetrator remembering what they did—establishes a socially liminal site at which healing is presumed to begin. Remembering then can be understood as distinct from memorializing, in that remembering atrocity allows someone to grieve and mourn harm done to them, while memorializing serves to create a publicly meaningful truth of what happened to others.

It is of note, then, that Auschwitz-Birkenau attempts to narrate the objective truth of WWII by identifying the victims who exist outside of public meaning. As the text throughout the camp and our guide articulated, though Jews were targeted most in number and were most prevalent in Nazi documentation, others also lost their lives and their freedom. Persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people of color, political dissidents, ethnic minorities, religious communities, and prisoners of war were targeted alongside Jews: Nazis stole their property, their dignity, and their humanity before murdering them. In a way that seems to controvert public narratives, Auschwitz-Birkenau made explicit reference to these victims who also lost their lives, but are pushed to the margins of memory and memorial.

Where do we locate a person’s humanity?

This question is a central one that drew us to work in human rights and transitional justice in the first place. A critical factor of understanding atrocity and conflict is unpacking profound questions of what gives someone the right not to be brutalized, what is right and just in war and politics, and ultimately, what makes us human and why. But the politics of identity are a very real framework through which we individually and collectively identify who has the right to be; however, this approach risks being reductive and may distract from the lived reality of mass atrocity for victims and perpetrators.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, we struggled to comprehend what it must have felt like for victims who lived and died there. But we also considered the experience on the other side of the fence. What must it have been like for the Nazis, what makes someone comfortable with such cruelty? It should be noted that, according to our guide at the camp, Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps throughout Poland had to request placement there; thus, we must argue against common narratives of complicity—camp authorities and operators perpetrated atrocity with measured intent and even enthusiasm. How was cruelty and hatred so effectively and efficiently weaponized?

At least one explanation is derived from the politics of establishing the ideal enemy. The millions of people who counted as the enemy were subjected to unbelievable cruelty and violence because they were treated as if they were not human. Where the enemy is not even human, violence against them is allowed and, more importantly, just.

Reflecting on the memorialization of these events, as well as the events themselves, feels especially urgent at this moment in history. As we see a surge of right wing leadership globally, as well as a rise in nationalism and xenophobia overall, it is important for us to consider the narratives we have constructed through memorials of the Holocaust in order to prevent us from going down a similar path. If we really mean it when we say “never again”, then we must begin to have more open conversations about our histories, and our performance of public and private memory surrounding atrocities—we hope that this can be a starting point.

Photo Credits: Rachel Salcedo

Book Review: Signs Preceding the End of the World

Herrera, Yuri. Signs Preceding the End of the World. Translated by Lisa Dillman. London: And Other Stories, 2015.

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, arrived in English in 2015, mere months after many thousands of “unaccompanied minors” from Central America arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum and amidst intensifying presidential campaigns. As the reductive national conversation obsessed over border policy, security, and national identity – but rarely considering the individuals whose border-crossing transgresses these mutually reinforcing processes of nation-building – Herrera’s narrative, barely one hundred pages long, was not just a translation from Spanish to English, but an attempt to translate the very experiences that are so absent from mainstream discussion.

Makina, the novella’s heroine, undertakes a journey to the “other side” on her mother’s behalf, to beg her brother to come home. Mexico and the U.S. are rarely mentioned explicitly. Their deliberate, nameless invocation is almost mythical: “signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, […] salt of the only earth worth knowing” (56) describes American society, for example. Though Herrera’s ethereal approach to writing borderlands skirts magical realism—a somewhat overused catch-all for Latin American fiction—Signs might better be termed an epic. When we meet Makina, she is already working connections in Mexico to plan the crossing and her movement never stops: confronting abusers on the journey, crossing the river, running from a vigilante militiaman. Finally, she reunites with her brother, whose life in the U.S. under an assumed identity is nothing like his messages home had implied.

Translation—both literal and metaphorical—abounds in Signs, and Herrera’s poetic language (bolstered by Dillman’s translation, carefully replicating his colloquial, immediate tone) illustrates complexity too often ignored by American discourse. Fluent in Spanish and English, Makina’s ability to literally translate her surroundings rescues her from situations that might have meant deportation for a monolingual Spanish-speaker; at one point, she talks several detainees out of an immigration roundup and the arbitrary nature of the encounter comes into stark relief, as we understand exactly what would happen without her.

Figuratively, Makina’s observations of the U.S. (as quoted above) offer the English-speaking reader an inverted viewpoint from which to understand America. Above all, she is presented as a messenger, constantly reaffirming her desire to return home—introducing the possibility that not all migration in North America has the same motivations or stakes as hegemonic narratives would have us believe. Makina’s internal wrestling with expectation, responsibility, and the impermanence of migration makes accessible a state of existence almost invisible in American discourse: “You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot. You are the door, not the one who walks through it” (18).

On the other hand, one wonders whether the fantastical, epic nature of Herrera’s narrative makes Makina’s case sympathetic only insofar as it is exceptional. For a society so preoccupied with identifying right and wrong among its immigrants, Makina’s example is, frankly, dangerous—it might for instance help the skeptical reader further demonise her brother’s “illegality”. Despite this, perhaps it is not that Herrera and Dillman have somehow failed in rendering Makina’s story, but that many more such accounts will be needed in English before the American conversation surrounding migration truly begins responding to their unquestionable particularity.

Photo Credit: Rachel Salcedo