When cultural anthropologist and investigative journalist Adriana Páramo read about a woman named Esperanza in the local paper—a mother who had walked across the Mexico/U.S. border with her children, only to have her baby girl die along the way—she immediately knew she had to find this woman. Esperanza had faced an impossible choice: bury her daughter in the desert, or carry her body across the border.
While searching for Esperanza and her story, Páramo found dozens of undocumented women who had endured lives of hardship, who had their own stories of heartbreak and endurance. Páramo immersed herself in the underground world of the undocumented field workers, working side by side with the women. Looking for Esperanza, her book about the experience, and about the untold stories of undocumented farmworkers in Florida, won Benu Press’s 2011 Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction.
I met Adriana Páramo in 2009, as she was working on her first book. We became good friends, and together, we produced Life Out Loud, a reading series that brought true stories to a live audience. I had the opportunity to read advanced copies of both Looking for Esperanza and My Mother’s Funeral, her memoir about growing up in Colombia and losing her mother.
Páramo currently lives and writes in Doha, Qatar. Over the last couple of weeks, we chatted about her books, her work as a petroleum engineer and anthropologist, the world of migrant workers, growing up in Colombia, and her current project, a book about working with immigrant women in Kuwait.
The Rumpus: You’ve written about being a woman in “a man’s world,” working as a petroleum engineer, the hardships and obstacles you faced. How did you make the transition from petroleum engineer to anthropologist to writer?
Adriana Páramo: The truth is it sounds more difficult than it really was. The transition happened in slow motion, almost as if my life was a libretto that someone had already written for me. During my senior year in high school, I took an aptitude test. The results were conclusive: stay away from numbers and focus on the social sciences. That’s all I needed to hear. To prove my career counselor wrong (and my mom, of course), I applied to the School of Mines at the Medellín National University, passed the three entrance tests, and got accepted into the Petroleum Engineering program. It took me seven years to graduate (something to do with marrying an alcoholic, being a single mom, working full-time), but I did it.
I always knew that engineering was not my true calling. So after about ten years, I decided to divorce myself from the oil industry and uproot my life in Colombia. I was at a point in my life where I needed radical changes (something to do with marrying another jerk). Alaska represented, by far, the most radical geographical change available to me at the time. So I packed my books and my little girl’s toys and we made our way to the Last Frontier, where I went back to college and three years later, I graduated as a cultural anthropologist.
In 1996, I had the opportunity to move to Kuwait (something to do with my third husband getting a job offer—I know, I can’t believe it either), where I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation. That was the first time I wrote in English. The dissertation was laden with statistics and footnotes and scientific language, but working on it gave me the writing bug. Later, I was invited to share the results with Amnesty International and an anti-slavery organization, and I was forced to soften the information, to do some serious tone changes, to turn hard data into compelling narrative. That was it: I was hooked.
Rumpus: So the book you’re working on now—your third book—is it a memoir about your time in Kuwait? What kind of work did you do there?
Páramo: When I worked in Kuwait I was in close contact with two opposite ends of the social spectrum: I taught wealthy Kuwaiti young girls during the week, and on weekends, I conducted research with Indian women living and working as modern slaves. The expatriate community, and a short-lived stint as a D.J. (a complete flop), gave me access to other sectors of the population, to other personal stories. I met a battered woman trapped in the tight grip of Muslim marital law; an animal lover who went around the city collecting moribund stray cats, only to put them out of their misery in the most unfathomable way; a woman injured and infected during a botched backstreet abortion, who was sentenced to jail on her deathbed for her crime; a princess who paid me with expired coupons; a group of stateless people who Kuwait refuses to recognize as Kuwaitis; women who did not want the right to vote; women who wholeheartedly supported honor killings; women who dared to love whomever they chose and paid for it.
The book I’m writing is a collection of creative nonfiction stories about what it means to be a woman in modern Kuwait. The fact that I was accused of adultery—and had to fight dirty in order to keep custody of my daughter—adds a personal dimension to the book. You could say that this project is a close examination of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, an examination that is half-personal and half-ethnographical.
Rumpus: I’d say that your first book, Looking for Esperanza, is both ethnographical and personal. It’s about the lives of undocumented women, about the underground world of field workers in rural Florida, and about the effects such work has on their lives. Can you talk about how this project came about?
Páramo: It’s funny how, sometimes, we writers bury our teeth into a complete unknown. I embarked on a personal journey to track down a Mexican woman after reading about her in a Florida newspaper. All I knew was that her name was Esperanza, that she was desperately poor, and had crossed the border to the United States, on foot, with her four children. Her young daughter died of dehydration halfway through their desert journey, and she tried to smuggle her dead body into the U.S.
I didn’t intend to write a book when I started my search for Esperanza. I guess that being an immigrant, a woman, and a mother myself, there was a gnawing connection that was hard to ignore. All I ever wanted was to find her. But there were so many Esperanzas, so many poor, immigrant mothers crossing the border with identical dreams and similar compelling stories, that by the time I found Esperanza, I had, unknowingly, taken an oral X-ray of their subculture. I had amassed too many testimonies, seen too many tears, shared with them too many hours in the fields, to just go home and forget about them.
Looking for Esperanza chronicles my fieldwork with undocumented farmworkers and the anonymous voices of the women I encountered while looking for the mother in the story.
Rumpus: How were the people you met affected by the work they were doing?
Páramo: You mean the farmworkers? You mix nature’s mercilessness with hunger, crushing free-trade agreements, social invisibility, poor health, abject poverty, and you have a community of immigrant farmworkers in Florida. You sprinkle this with domestic violence, garnish it with xenophobia, and you have the undocumented Mexican farmworkers I wrote about.
But what I found most revealing about this group of women is that although weather and poverty had hardened them, left scars on their faces and hands, made their skin leathery and their hair dull, they were all dreamy and mushy inside. If you could turn them inside out you would see yourself in them; you would see the same dreaminess and mushiness you and I are made of.
Rumpus: Looking for Esperanza is not just a work of literary journalism. It’s an innovative book—creative nonfiction that challenges the conventions of the genre, straddling the lines between reportage, memoir, lyric essay, and interview. Your role alternates between storyteller, poet, ethnographer, and historian, and you take on the role of immersion journalist, working side by side in the fields with the farmworkers you’re interviewing. How did this experience change your story? How did it change you?
Páramo: This is another case where it felt as though someone had just handed me the script of my own life for me to recreate. Cultural anthropology has changed quite a bit. Gone are the times where the anthropologist wrote about the world without leaving her office. The modern cultural anthropologist goes out, gets immersed in the subculture she researches, and is not afraid of taking sides. What’s interesting for me is that the concept of creative nonfiction has also evolved into a kind of narrative that, first, interweaves the “I” with the more encompassing “We” (which I believe is the literary response to the current call for a more socially-aware writing), and second, is no longer afraid of mixing personal narrative with advocacy. That these two disciplines have evolved in tandem, and that both can be combined and delivered to the reader in a single package, is a fantastic outlet for a social scientist and writer like myself.
Yes, you could say that Looking for Esperanza is a multilayered book—a combination of journalism, lyricism, and memoir. Now, do I think this little book can be used as a vehicle for social change? Hell yes! Absolutely. But I’m not fooling myself into thinking that it’s going to start a revolution.
Rumpus: Even though you and the women whose stories you tell speak the same language, even though you have your own story of immigration, you’re in a position of privilege, something you openly acknowledge and even examine.
Páramo: Writing a book about border crossing, sexual violence, the loss of a child, in a language that is thoroughly calculated from the comfort and safety of my office, is not the same as crossing the border, being raped, or losing a child. I also learned that although a book does not start a revolution, the act of writing it is highly subversive. I believe that I’m offering the reader the option to be aware, that I’m tapping on the reader’s well of empathy. Unfortunately, the issue of empathy is more ethical than literary and there are no tangible ways of measuring empathetic reading. If only there was a tool to ascertain how many books you have to read before becoming empathetic to the plight of undocumented farmworkers.
Rumpus: In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.” She was speaking of the everyday sacrifices made by the working poor in America—not receiving adequate benefits, working even when they are ill or injured, living in substandard housing, living and working without adequate nutrition. Yet the farmworkers you encountered made unimaginable sacrifices.
Páramo: The woman who leaves Mexico, walks the desert for days, swims the Río Bravo, crawls under barbed wire, is raped by her coyote, gets caught by la migra, and is deported, only to do it all over once more, will never be the same woman again. She is scarred for life. When this woman is beaten by a partner who is also scarred, has lost control, and is trying to regain a momentary foothold, she learns about silence and self-preservation and fear. And when this battered farmworker wades in pesticides all day while she is pregnant, gives birth to a limbless baby, or a baby with a twisted smile, malfunctioning heart, inconclusive genitalia, slow mind, she is forever changed. She lives in a society that needs her and despises her with the same intensity.
Rumpus: My Mother’s Funeral, your second book, is about the loss of your mother. But it’s also a book about so many other things—about living and loving, and about what it means to be a woman, a daughter. This might be impossible to answer, but did the process of writing My Mother’s Funeral change or affect any of those things for you?
Páramo: I think I grew up trying to balance the gamut of feelings I experienced toward Mom. But how do you find a happy medium between blind devotion and sheer hatred when both emotions are experienced with the same ferocity? You have to remove yourself from the situation—which I did by leaving home first, and country later. Then you wait. Not for healing because I carried no significant wounds, but for understanding. Schopenhauer said that the first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it. I guess My Mother’s Funeral is the beginning of my career as a commentator on my own life.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that leaving Colombia gave you the distance and perspective necessary to write about your life, about your mother’s life, and about Colombia. Patricia Engel called My Mother’s Funeral a meditation on “how we may leave our home, but our home never leaves us.” Do you think you would’ve written the same book if you still lived in Colombia?
Páramo: No, I don’t think so. Distance does something to memories; it breathes life into them, it gives them an uncluttered stage where they can reveal themselves freely, and without the yoke of family taboos and cultural constructs. Of course, the danger with the freedom that comes with distance is that sometimes the memories assault you full force, guerilla style, are tinted with garbled nostalgia, shades of forgotten hatred, or are sharp and unwavering, grab you by the throat and leave you there hunched over the computer gasping for air. I don’t think any of this would have happened to me, had I still been living in Colombia when I wrote the book.
Rumpus: One of the things I love most about My Mother’s Funeral is that while the book is in many ways about losing your mother, the story is also full of joy and strangeness and humor and mischief.
Páramo: I didn’t want the book to read as a long obituary. I wanted it to be a celebration of life and womanhood. I wanted to pay tribute to women’s strength, their ability to gang up against poverty and abandonment, and come out triumphant, unscathed. I also wanted to humanize, which is to say, to demystify death. I wanted the guts and the skeletons and the attempted abortions and the rigor mortis and the act of cremating one’s mother and the hit-man’s funeral next door. Facing all of these gritty, ugly bits was, is, fundamental to my personal mourning, and in the process of living the grit of life without Mom, it became necessary to write about it.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the structure of My Mother’s Funeral, how rather than one linear storyline, the story alternates between your parents’ love story, your coming of age, and the present storyline of your mother’s passing and funeral service. How did you decided on this shape for the book? Was it a conscious decision?
Páramo: My mother sent me to school for many years—too many—with two braids. I hated every fiber of them, from the follicles on my scalp to the rubber bands that kept them from unraveling. Yet, somehow, I wanted to use this three-strand thing as a metaphor for that which epitomizes my relationship with my mother; how her acts of love were met with derision on my part, on good days, and sheer hatred on the other 360 days. You could say that My Mother’s Funeral is a literary braid.
I like the flexibility of standalone chapters, how malleable and adaptable they are. So, that’s what I did. I wrote a pile of stories that fell into three categories—my parent’s story, my coming of age, and my mother’s death—then I alternated them. That’s the beauty of standalones.
Rumpus: I have to say, after reading your book, your mother seemed like a remarkable woman. You wrote about how she often reminded you of her lack of education, referring to herself as a “beast of burden,” pushing you to get an education, and how she was often willful and strict, but she was also funny as hell. Was there anything about her you that didn’t include in the book?
Páramo: She was not particularly attractive, but carried herself with utmost dignity. She had fantastic legs. Once, when I was in college, she slapped me silly. When she finally allowed me to bring home my boyfriend, she sat on the couch, in between us and said, “Oh, pretend I’m not here. Go ahead, talk normal.” She suffered immensely when my sister came out as a lesbian. She whistled daily and stridently. She was not a good dancer but expressed deep admiration for music. She ran an unlicensed convenience store from home. She never owned a pair of jeans in her life, and never, ever left the house without lipstick and a pair of earrings. She died thinking that I was still married to my third husband. She would have absolutely loved my fourth husband. (What? I’m a slow learner!)
When I was in college, my parents reconciled for a couple of months. One afternoon, I saw them in bed, and no, Jaqui, I was neither repulsed nor traumatized. I stayed there, looking in awe at my mother, seeing that part of her I didn’t know she possessed. She was a woman, after all, and this simple realization made me amazingly happy.
Rumpus: In each section of My Mother’s Funeral, you return to your parents’ love story, recreating those early years since their first meeting. You even imagine your mother’s fears and dreams and lust on the night they make love for the first time. How did you approach writing about your mother’s history? Can you discuss the difficulties in recreating these very personal moments?
Páramo: My mother was a very passionate woman. Her lust for life was as intense as her lust for my father. The way she listened to boleros, with that dramatic shudder at the end of the good ones. She was never shy to admit that my dad was hard to resist or how well-endowed he was—thanks, Mom! The hours, days, months, years she and I spent alone at home—while my older sisters worked—which she used to tell me all about her growing up in idyllic Mariquita, my dad’s courtship, the marriage, that turbulent honeymoon, their crazy relocations. In retrospect, it was almost as if, by virtue of being her youngest and therefore the only one available to vent with, she appointed me her personal historian. I think that, unwittingly, Mom wanted to transcend, to leave me something that I, somehow, someday, would memorialize.
Rumpus: How difficult is it to write about real people rather than fictional characters? How did your family react to the book?
Páramo: Jaqui, you know as well as I do that I can’t write fiction. I’m obsessed with real life and enamored with nonfiction as a genre. Maybe I have control issues, but what I love about nonfiction is the control I have over the stories I write. They have clear boundaries and I like moving between clear margins. A deep knowledge of a personal story allows me to go there, to dig deeper and to reveal as little or as much as I consider ethical and/or aesthetical. There are no characterization surprises during the writing and because I don’t have to work shaping a fictional character, this frees up a lot of time which I use to focus on tone, setting, and language.
How did my family react to the book? After the initial elation and the congratulations and the excitement, the nagging question came up again: when are you going to get a real job? I’m not kidding. My sisters don’t take my writing seriously. They think it is a lovely, lovely hobby but worry that I’ll never get a real job. I wrote about the way we were forty years ago and, of course, we’re not the same people now. I always felt that because I was the youngest, I was Mom’s baby, her favorite child. Unfortunately, one of my sisters felt the same way and was profoundly hurt by my assertion that I was closest to Mom. Another sister did not appreciate my recreation of mom’s first nights as a married woman. She accused me of fictionalizing a true story, of romanticizing a violent period and a brutal awakening, of trivializing my mother’s life.
What can I say? How can I contest those charges? Neither of us was there to see the events unfold, neither of us knows what actually happened, all we have is our own personal interpretation. It’s like writing third-hand accounts as nonfiction. Like historical nonfiction. But individual perceptions aside, because of the book, I believe we’ve had meaningful moments of mutual recognition and the kind of communion that only sisters understand.