Q&A With Stephanie Elizondo Griest: ‘Mexican Enough’

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  09.22.08 | 1:13 PM ET

imageTravel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of Around the Bloc and 100 Places Every Woman Should Go. Her new book, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, takes her deep into Mexico, as well as inside questions about her own identity. Sandra Cisneros called the book “a travel journal for the new millennium.” I caught up with Griest via email in Corpus Christi, where her family lives. They were spared the wrath of Hurricane Ike, she said, adding, “My friends in Houston and Galveston, however, suffered tremendous losses. I’m hoping to go there soon to volunteer.”

World Hum: Why did you decide to write a book about Mexico?


Stephanie Elizondo Griest: Aye, it’s complicated! For starters, I’ve always had hang-ups about being a “bad Mexican.” Even though I grew up 150 miles away from the Mexico border and much of my mother’s family speaks only Spanish, I never learned the language or culture—perhaps because I was so hell-bent on escaping South Texas. In college, I studied Russian and Mandarin and then jetted off on a four-year jaunt across the Communist Bloc (the adventures of which inspired my first book, “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana”). While traveling in those nations, however, I was struck by how fervently Stalin and Mao tried to destroy centuries of religion, tradition, and ritual by forcing their citizens to conform to socialist culture. Yet hundreds of thousands of people defied them. During the Soviet regime, for example, countless East Europeans risked banishment to the Gulag by illegally distributing newspapers printed in their native tongues. Even today in China, Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans gamble with imprisonment by practicing their faith.

All of this made me reflect on how, in the United States, those of us who haven’t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. I, for one, had totally abandoned my own Mexican heritage. Gradually, I realized the need to turn inward. So, on Dec. 31, 2004, I quit my day job, put my stuff in storage and flew to Mexico City. My goal was to learn Spanish and explore my ancestral roots, but history had other plans. Mexico was on the brink of a social revolution back then—what with the populist rebellion in Oaxaca, the Zapatista Red Alert in Chiapas, the fraudulent presidential election, the drug war, immigration rallies—and I was running around with a pad and pen. “Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines” is the result: a memoir that combines root-searching with journalistic reportage.

My sense is that, when it comes to travel, Mexico is underrated by many Americans. They see it as a place to go for a beach vacation, and maybe now some tasty mole in Oaxaca, but that’s about it. And yet, there’s so much more to the country. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?

imageActually, where I am from (Corpus Christi), people are afraid of Mexico. Practically every week, the media covers another shoot-out in Nuevo Laredo or unsolved femicide in Ciudad Juarez. Newspaper headlines warn of narco-traffickers in every cantina (and explosive diarrhea from every comedor). Although I am a seasoned traveler, I worried about going there alone.

But for the most part, the “danger zones” are limited to the border towns (which many Mexicans fear, as well) and parts of Mexico City. The rest of the nation is one of the most tranquil places on the planet. The landscapes are stunning, the food is fantastic, the music is hip-swiveling and fun. And the people tell the wildest stories you’ve ever heard. I spent some time with Mayan Indians in Chiapas, and although many of them could not read, they could all recite legends originally written in codices that got destroyed by Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago. Sit with them long enough, and you’ll start to hear cuentos about the Hurricane Woman and the Butterfly Man. 

Of the 30-plus countries I have explored, Mexico is hands-down my favorite. And I have yet to set foot on its beaches! The real pulse of this nation beats in the interior—the jungles, the mountains, the desert. And above all, in its vibrant people.

So what’s next for you?

I’ll actually be touring for “Mexican Enough” for much of the next year—some 25 cities). My boyfriend and I are planning to spend Christmas in Cameroon, and then I’ll head to a writer’s colony outside Chicago to commence the next book.

Thanks, Stephanie.

4 Comments for Q&A With Stephanie Elizondo Griest: ‘Mexican Enough’

Pablo Suneson 09.22.08 | 3:57 PM ET

I can’t seem to understand your comments on Mexico.  The real issue is the demand for drugs in the USA, which is fueling the frenzy in Mexico to supply them.  Your understanding of the Mexican culture lacks insight into the real question.  Why do Mexican-American in the USA discriminate against their own people in Mexico?  Perhaps a visit to Nuevo Laredo can help you understand that the State Department (of the USA) has dealt a blow to the border economy by issuing an alertagainst travel to the border area.  This has gone a long way into hurting the wrong people.  The drug cartel are too rich to be hurt by this alert, however, the everyday working man and women on the border have been left with nothing to do because the tourist industry has been destroyed by the alertagainst travel to the border area.  American are not target of any aggression.  The man and women on the street in Nuevo Laredo that used to sell there wares to American tourists visiting the border area have had to endure the brunt of this travel advisory.  I invite the author to visit me and I will show you exactly what is going on in Nuevo Laredo so that you may writeabout it in a way that shows the reality of the situation.
Thank you,
Pablo Suneson
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Porter M. Corn 09.22.08 | 5:32 PM ET

I agree with Pablo’s comment.

I have lived in Nuevo Laredo for the past ten years and also have homes in Monterrey, Celaya, Cd Juarez and Puerto Vallarta.

Here, you want trouble, you can find it easily enough. But the man or woman on the street does not see the violence.

Until recently, the cartels have gone to great lengths to keep the civilian population away from their feud

and yes, it has hurt the merchants of this wonderful city, especially the State Department alerts written by some bureaucrat sequestered in an office in Mexico City.

I too love this country

Stephanie Elizondo Griest 09.24.08 | 11:17 AM ET

Hola Pablo & Porter,

Thanks so much for your comments. Looking back over my interview, I can see how bordertown residents might take offense, and for that, I sincerely apologize.

Just to clarify, I have actually spent quite a bit of time in Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez, and other border towns, and include a chapter about them in my book. In fact, I am writing this from Brownsville—a few blocks from Matamoros.

Unfortunately, the statement “the man or woman on the street does not see the violence” doesn’t ring true to my experience. I have interviewed scores of people on the border who have experienced severe violence, and I have witnessed the ramifications myself. But I couldn’t agree more that U.S. drug policy plays a significant role in this violence, and I say as much in my book (and regret not doing so in this interview). I invite you all to read my work, and contact me via my website, http://www.MexicanEnough.com, with further comments or concerns.

Gracias y saludos,
Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Monica Santiago 10.09.08 | 6:15 PM ET

I am attempting to contact you via your web site, but have been unsuccessful.  I would like to speak about the possibility of having you as a keynote speaker for a youth conference encouraging youth to speak on their thoughts and theories on the drop out crisis; causes and solutions.  Is there some other way to contact you?

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