It’s December, that magical time of year when newspapers and websites across the globe unveil their “Best of the Year” lists. Valeria Luiselli has been all over them with her innovative novel The Story of my Teeth, and lucky for us, this week Guernica gifted us a new Luiselli short story, “Shakespeare, New Mexico,” translated by Christina MacSweeney.
Like Luiselli’s previous work, “Shakespeare, New Mexico” starts off normal, mundane even, and slowly gets weird. So slowly that you almost don’t notice it, like you’re a frog in pot of water and Luiselli is slowly turning up the temperature until, before you know it, you’re boiling.
We open with a family on a long car trip. There’s a husband and wife and two little boys. The boys keep asking when they’ll get there. The parents are annoyed. Totally normal. Then we find out their destination: a ghost town in New Mexico that is now a 24-hour historical Wild West reenactment site, and they’re part of the production.
In order to make Shakespeare a going concern, the company managing our historical re-enactments had decided that we would offer an experience that was “more real than real life.” In practice, that meant the actors in Shakespeare lived right there on-site, wore period costumes every day, and were permanently in character, so that when any tourists turned up in the town, they would have the impression that they were voyeurs in a real place, and not the audience in some artificial, ephemeral tourist trap.
While Luiselli is immersing us in the strange world of Shakespeare, where modern technology is absent, violence (or faked violence) is rampant, and Doc Holliday secretly dreams of playing Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, she also indoctrinates us to a world of casual racism and sexism. The family applied for the reenactment job twice, the first time playing the roles of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Erp, Big Nose Kate, and Doc Holliday. They were refused.
In the email turning down our application, they gently recommended, considering we were Mexicans, that we audition for Mexican parts rather than those we’d originally selected. My husband and I talked it over, and agreed that we could perhaps start out as Mexicans and little by little make our way up to more important roles.
Luiselli presents this casual racism simply and nonchalantly, with no outrage, as if saying, of course this happens, why are you surprised? The placid delivery only heightens the sting. And once the family gets to Shakespeare, it only gets worse.
Between 1870 and 1890—when the real-life events we would re-enact had occurred—there were around twenty Mexicans in Shakespeare, all miners, laborers, or domestic servants. We, as a family, would represent the Bacas: Juan Baca (35), Juana Baca (28), Teresio Baca (6), and Victor Baca (4). As there were more male roles than available actors, my husband Juan Baca would also play, as required, Mexican Outlaw, Mexican Smuggler, and Mexican Bandit…
In that one paragraph, Luiselli reveals a multitude of problems: the stereotyped and all criminal Mexican roles, the interchangeability of a Mexican face, the reminder that not that much has changed for Mexicans since 1870. Luiselli also touches on sexism and violence towards women. There is an Apache girl who is some sort of domestic slave to the drunken sheriff, though we later find out that she isn’t Apache at all, “but the first-generation immigrant daughter of a Tamil family, and had grown up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” There is also a reenactment in which Jauna, our narrator, is raped:
After tying Juan Baca to the post, Billy the Kid would return to the cabin, take me hostage, march me to a room in the Stratford Hotel, and rape me.
The rape, of course, wouldn’t happen, and our scene together ended when he pushed me, or sometimes dragged me by the hair, into what served as one of our props rooms in the hotel. We had to wait ten or fifteen minutes there, after which I returned to the cabin, and he set out to look for Doc Holliday, buttoning up his fly as he went.
Although the rape doesn’t actually occur, the scene is still abundantly disturbing. The violence of the abduction, the swagger of Billy the Kid buttoning his fly, the implied dispensability of women, the fifteen minutes she has to wait while she’s being pretend-raped, and the fact this is enacted over and over again—all of it is horrifying.
Luiselli’s mashup of modern day and the past through this historical reenactment town brilliantly exposes the latent racism and sexism that still exists today. The story gets stranger and stranger as it goes along, as the actors in the town slowly lose grip on themselves under the constant reenacted brutality. But somehow, among all the chaos and violence of the Wild West town, with its semi-constant shootings and hangings, the moments of casual racism and sexism stand out as the most brutal things of all, even though they’re the most everyday.