When I wear my alligator boots

When I wear my alligator bootsI left at the crack of dawn the very next day for Madison, so I couldn’t post about this before: last Wednesday Shaylih Muehlmann gave a reading from her new book, When I wear my alligator boots: Narco-culture in the US-Mexico borderlands (University of California Press, 2014) at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (where she was an Early Career Scholar last year).

Her reading was beautifully judged – a series of exquisitely written (and read) extracts that re-traced the narrative arc of the book, explained her own take on ethnography (and its writing), and sparked a lively discussion.  Thanks to Gaston Gordillo‘s generosity, I was able to devour the book on the flight to Madison; since I had to get up at 3 a.m., that was no mean feat and speaks volumes about the book.

When I Wear My Alligator Boots examines how the lives of dispossessed men and women are affected by the rise of narcotrafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. In particular, the book explores a crucial tension at the heart of the “war on drugs”: despite the violence and suffering brought on by drug cartels, for the rural poor in Mexico’s north, narcotrafficking offers one of the few paths to upward mobility and is a powerful source of cultural meanings and local prestige.

In the borderlands, traces of the drug trade are everywhere: from gang violence in cities to drug addiction in rural villages, from the vibrant folklore popularized in the narco-corridos of Norteña music to the icon of Jesús Malverde, the “patron saint” of narcos, tucked beneath the shirts of local people. In When I Wear My Alligator Boots, the author explores the everyday reality of the drug trade by living alongside its low-level workers, who live at the edges of the violence generated by the militarization of the war on drugs. Rather than telling the story of the powerful cartel leaders, the book focuses on the women who occasionally make their sandwiches, the low-level businessmen who launder their money, the addicts who consume their products, the mules who carry their money and drugs across borders, and the men and women who serve out prison sentences when their bosses’ operations go awry.

Read it to find out much more about the intersections between popular culture, the ‘drug wars’ , and the borderlands than the usual cartel-talk.  A central theme of the book is not so much the narco-corridors snaking across the border as the narco-corridos, folk-ballads telling stories of the men and women who work the drug business.  These are also the subject of Shaul Shwarz‘s prize-winning documentary Narcocultura (2013); I’ve embedded the trailer below, and you find out more here and read a thoughtful review here.

Shaylih’s subjects, then, are the low-level players who are, in their way, also being played.  For this very reason, their construction and celebration of narco-culture is also a real challenge to the corruptions, exactions and violences of the state.  Shaylih unravels the connections between prohibition, poverty and addiction in northern Mexico, and en route her gift for narrative – for telling their stories – provides a powerful analytical lens:

‘The people whose lives are chronicled in this book reveal the extent to which the war on drugs ultimately pushes many of the costs of trafficking – the deaths, the vulnerability, and the risk – over the border into Mexico and particularly onto the Mexican poor.  These are the people who run the risks of the business, experience the brunt of the violence, and serve the prison sentences that the wealthy cartel bosses largely avoid…  In the stories that follow, we will see that those who become involved in the narco-economy do so precisely because the Mexican and U.S. governments have declared war against it.  And as their stories show, for a long time this war was already being waged against them.’

Read it, too, for an object lesson in writing prose that doesn’t hobble the flight of the intellectual imagination – as even the chapter titles show:

Introduction: Life at the Edges of the War on Drugs
1. Narco-Wives, Beauty Queens, and a Mother’s Bribes
2. “When I Wear My Alligator Boots”
3. “A Narco without a Corrido Doesn’t Exist”
4. The View from Cruz’s Throne
5. Moving the Money When the Bank Accounts Get Full
6. “Now They Wear Tennis Shoes”: Social Debts and Calculated Risks
Conclusion: Puro pa’delante Mexico

You can access the first chapter here (box, top right). The marvellous title is easily explained:

‘Javier … wore alligator boots like a badge of his past smuggling work… He said that while you may see people dressed as cheros, the alligator boots are how you know if they are really narcotraficantes.’

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