Life and Literature in Northern Mexico

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Images of BGSU Firelands Assistant Professor of Spanish Leonel Carrillo in Chihuahua, Mexico.  Above, in his 20s and during his 'heavy metal' phase. Right, a more recent image.

Dry, barren deserts with dangerous rocky landscapes, a soul-sapping silence only pierced by the cold, sharp winds, and the only inhabitants are morally corrupt – cutthroat, cowboy-like Texas Rangers, drug dealers bent on causing mayhem and pain, double-dealing drug enforcement agents.  These are some of the images of the Northern Mexico deserts which have become popular in much part due to popular literary works and Hollywood movies such as “Traffic” and “No Country for Old Men.”

BGSU Firelands Assistant Professor of Spanish Leonel Carrillo was born and raised in Northern Mexico and is eager to set the record straight on the true characterization of his homeland.

“There exists strong myths that the Northern Mexican desert is a place of barbarism, poverty, and violence and this is not accurate,” said Carrillo who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is less than 150 miles from the United States border.

Born into a cattle ranching family, Carrillo enjoyed his experiences in Northern Mexico.  “I loved the weather and landscape of the desert. The sunsets were awe inspiring and something I have never seen duplicated in the States,” said Carrillo, who is in the process of becoming an American citizen.

Growing up in Chihuahua, a city of approximately one million people, Carrillo enjoyed the amenities of any similarly-sized American city and living near the border the community was somewhat Americanized.

As Carrillo entered his teen years, he became enamored with American music.  He and his friends would sneak across the border to attend concerts in Texas.  His first American concert was at the age of 14 when he saw Iron Maiden.

“The fear of crossing illegally as a teenager was minimal.  If we were caught they would just decline entry or threaten to drop us off in Tijuana, which was far from our home,” said Carrillo.

The thrill of crossing the border and the energy level provided by the concerts far outweighed the consequences.  Carrillo attended the concerts of artists such as Judas Priest, Scorpions, and Metallica . . . clearly a heavy metal fan at the time.

For Carrillo, the concerts were much more than mere entertainment, they were also for personal enrichment.  “Truly, I learned the English language through the music,” said Carrillo.

Carrillo had a penchant for literature at an early age and he knew he wanted to attend college.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish American Literature from Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, a master’s degree in Spanish American Literature from New Mexico State, Las Cruces, and he earned his doctorate degree in Spanish American Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Carrillo’s dissertation and much of his current research center on Mexican and Chicano authors of the late 20th century whose work attempted to redefine the popular myths of Northern Mexico.  Like Carrillo, these authors were raised in Northern Mexico and sought to share, through a variety of narrative models, a reality which was more consistent with their own personal experiences.

Through his research, Carrillo is drawing attention to authors such as Ricardo Elizondo, Gerardo Cornejo, Severino Salazar, Miguel Méndez, Jesús Gardea, and Daniel Sada for their creation of a new literary phenomenon known as Desert Literature (literatura del desierto) produced in the last three decades of the Twentieth Century.

“Through short stories and novels, these authors are rewriting traditional discourses that have defined Northern Mexico’s desert territory,” said Carrillo, who has been teaching Spanish at BGSU Firelands since 2011.

Through literary pros the authors seek to add cultural and historical context to the traditional myths and challenge them with the realities of actual life in the desert.

Carrillo’s research on these ‘young’ forms of literature seek to not only provide insight into the Mexican culture and lifestyle for his students, but also serve to create a bridge between the traditional literature and myths to the newer philosophy. 

“I hope to be a new voice into the dialogue of Northern Mexico,” said Carrillo.