Book Notes: Ramirez Heredia’s La Mara

The Mara is, of course, MS-13, the Salvadoran gang you must have heard about on the news. Rafael Ramírez Heredia was a Mexican writer (he died several years ago), and it’s absolutely unbelievable to me that I’ve never heard of him before because he was a genius. I’m starting to wonder if the way I was taught Latin American literature was wrong because I never even heard of these wonderful authors – Ramirez Heredia, Castellanos Moya – that I’m reading now.

The novel takes place on the banks of the Suchiate River, which is a natural border between Guatemala and Mexico. Crossing Suchiate is what many migrants have to do to get from Guatemala, Salvador, and Honduras into Mexico and then the US. The novel’s characters are migrants, border guards, inhabitants of the border region, gangsters of MS-13 and their victims, prostitutes who work in the border brothels, human traffickers, drug addicts, members and founders of religious cults, and everybody else who is drawn to the fluidity of the border.

If I worked somewhere on either coast of the country, I wouldn’t be able to teach this novel without issuing trigger warnings before every sentence. (And here where I am I can’t teach it for other reasons.) It’s a novel about MS-13, so obviously nobody expects rainbows and unicorns. The novel depicts horrific violence and total degradation that exist on the border. Once again, this is a border between Guatemala and Mexico. The US appears in the novel as a focus of vague fantasies about big houses, expensive clothes, and relaxing beach vacations that beckon the migrants at the end of the journey.

The novel is long, complicated, difficult to read because of all the Central American slang that I’m not very familiar with. But it’s worth every effort and more.

It feels like I spent years reading crap and thinking that was Latin American literature. I read endless Eltit, Valenzuela, Sarduy, Boullosa, Poniatowska, even Allende and Rosario Ferre as an undergrad – and more and more, right into infinity. Hated all this repetitive shit. And now I’m discovering real Latin American literature. It’s like, where the ef was I this entire time and why did nobody tell me?

In short, great novel. Totally worth learning Spanish from scratch just to read it. I think there is a movie loosely based on the novel but I imagine it’s total garbage.

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