WSJ Review of Paul Theroux’s New Book (Malawi)

‘On the Plain of Snakes’ Review: Why María Left Oaxa

After a visit to the Mexican border, Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65), resolved to return by car and find out why so many risk crossing furtively into the U.S.

The author, near the Mexican border, talks to a man who had been deported after working for 12 years in the U.S. PHOTO: STEVE MCCURRY


Andrew R. Graybill
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 25, 2019 7:10 pm ET

A couple of years ago, the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux visited the U.S.-Mexico border. South of the line he interviewed several people at a shelter serving migrants and deportees, and his memory of an encounter with a woman named María stalked him thereafter “like an apparition.” She wept as she told Mr. Theroux how she had left her three young children with their grandmother in Oaxaca, deep in the Mexican interior, so that she could find menial work at a hotel in the United States. But she had lost her way in the desert and was arrested, abused and deported. “Later I saw her alone,” he writes, “praying before she ate, an iconic image of piety and hope.” He resolved to come back and travel to María’s home region by car in order to find out why she and so many others risk crossing furtively into the U.S. “On the Plain of Snakes” is the fierce and poignant account of his monthslong quest.

Mr. Theroux starts out in early 2017 by driving all 2,000 miles of the border between San Ysidro, Calif. (just south of San Diego) and Brownsville, Texas (near the mouth of the Rio Grande), looping back and forth between Mexico and the United States as if stitching the two countries together with his automobile. It is a haunted landscape, where—in the words of the writer Gloria Anzaldúa —“the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” And blood there is: thousands of murders every year, with some victims dismembered or decapitated. Mr. Theroux’s narrative calls to mind the maxim of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who—save for brief interludes—ruled with a mailed fist from 1876 to 1911: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.” But if for Díaz the threat was Yankee imperialism, now it is the ravenous appetite of Americans for illegal drugs, on which they spend more than $100 billion per year, fueling so much of the cartel-driven violence.

Then, like a swimmer who has tested the waters, Mr. Theroux dives into Mexico. In San Luis Potosí, in the north-central part of the country, he stumbles upon a demonstration by a group called the Caravan, which seeks justice for the 43 students thought to have been disappeared by drug traffickers in league with local law enforcement in the southern state of Guerrero in 2014. On the outskirts of Mexico City, Mr. Theroux is extorted by a corrupt police officer—the bane of Mexicans and foreign visitors alike—who shakes him down for all the pesos and dollars in his wallet. But things improve dramatically once he reaches the capital, where, thanks to his reputation and professional connections, he leads a 10-day writing workshop. He is smitten by his students’ intelligence and generosity, as well as by their willingness to share in his adventure. Together they visit a clandestine shrine to Santa Muerte (Holy Death), a folk saint “offering hope to the desperate (as well as to drug dealers, prostitutes, smugglers, and gangsters).”

But Mr. Theroux soon shoves off again, avoiding “the worst big-city vice,” which is “forgetting that the hinterland exists.” He drives southeast to Oaxaca, María’s home state, where many of its indigenous residents speak Spanish as a second language. Like most visitors to Oaxaca City, Mr. Theroux is beguiled by the food and drink, the local handicrafts, and the nearby pre-Columbian ruins at Mitla, Monte Albán and Yagul. But he remembers what he came for—to learn why María and so many others leave—and so braves roadblocks and pitted thoroughfares to inquire at remote villages. The answer is almost always the same: dire poverty. Take a woman named Magdalena, whom Mr. Theroux meets in the tiny hamlet of Santa Cruz Papalutla. To pay for her husband’s operation, she borrowed 70,000 pesos ($4,000), a bill she hopes to settle by earning 100 pesos per day weaving bamboo baskets. She would like to seek work in Texas but does not want to cross illegally or leave her children behind. Mr. Theroux departs just as the debt collector pulls up on a motorcycle.

His last stop before the long trip home is Chiapas, Oaxaca’s lush southern neighbor and the poorest state in Mexico, where “the Beast”—the infamous migrant train—originates near the border with Guatemala. Mr. Theroux attends a meeting, or conversatorio, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The group burst onto the scene on Jan. 1, 1994, when it launched an uprising against the Mexican government protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was expected to have disastrous consequences for the country’s indigenous peoples. To his surprise, Mr. Theroux learns that he is scheduled to address the meeting, and he is eventually summoned to the stage by none other than Subcomandante Marcos (real name: Rafael Guillén ), the Zapatistas’ masked, pipe-smoking leader. After a short speech lauding their “patience, their humanity, and their resolve,” Mr. Theroux is embraced by Marcos, who implores him to return, noting that “many people travel here with revolutionary intentions, and then what happens? They become courtesans of politics, conservative in their thinking. Come back. . . . We don’t want to be merely an anecdote in your recollection of being here.”

For Mr. Theroux, the possibility of coming back to Chiapas in the future, at least by car, seems remote—after the age of 76, he explains, drivers in Mexico must pass an eye test every two years (Mr. Theroux is now 78). But “On the Plain of Snakes”—which he dedicates to his queridos amigos (dear friends)—reveals how attentively Mr. Theroux listened to the people he met, grasping their plight and admiring their perseverance. He sums up his voyage with a Mexican saying: “Arrieros somos y en el camino andamos—All of us are mule drivers, headed down the road.” This declaration of common cause with our southern neighbors offers a sharp rebuke to the idea that Mexicans who come to the U.S. are rapists bringing only drugs and crime. And it should shame those among us who would revile people like María, who risk everything in the hope of securing what so many Americans take for granted: comfort, safety and, above all, a better life for their children.

Mr. Graybill is a professor of history and director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.



Leave a comment
  • Well done Mr. Graybill. This is a most enlightened review of Theroux’s book. Your words will provide a stiff tonic for WSJ readers who see these words:

    “This book offers a sharp rebuke to the idea that Mexicans who come to the U.S. are rapists bringing only drugs and crime. And it should shame those among us who would revile people like María, who risk everything in the hope of securing what so many Americans take for granted: comfort, safety and, above all, a better life for their children.

  • Thank you for this fine review. Thank you John, for posting it, and, most of all, thanks to Paul for sharing with the world his observations about the people who seek safety, rule of law, and futures for themselves and their children in this country.
    People forget that, after those languages spoken by native Americans, Spanish was spoken in this country over a century before the first Europeans arrived.

  • This is wonderful and important testimony. I too think it important for WSJ readers to get the messages, And one message that seems to get skipped over is the overwhelming appetite for drugs on our side of the border that brings much of the pain to the Mexican side. And while we are at that, what about the chemicals that skate across the border easily to be used in the manufacture of drugs (Sudafed was clamped down on–after years–but I understand that there are many others used in manufacture). And what about the guns? We worry about the guns among us, but how many guns are smuggled and moved legally to Mexico, where they too add to Mexican pain. Just how vigilant are we about the traffic going INTO Mexico? I would like to hear from the Border Patrol, Homeland Security, the Administration, et al.

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