This appreciation was published on 3 September 2014.
Last weekend, writer Charles Bowden died at his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The reporter stood out for his writings and books published about the border, violence and drug trafficking over the past twenty years. In 1996, Harper’s Review published his journalistic essay, “While You Were Sleeping,” a central text where he presented Ciudad Juárez as a laboratory of neoliberal globalization. The title, taken from a crime news show on local television, alluded to the U.S. public’s indifferent attitude towards the havoc let loose by NAFTA’s goal of economic integration.
Globalization has been here for about thirty years, Bowden wrote almost two decades ago. For Bowden the history of the future was being written in Juárez with the blood of Mexicans and U.S. dollars. His work brought a group of photographers to prominence; each was trying to articulate a criticism of globalization from the local. That collaboration with the photojournalists resulted in a classic, “Juárez, the Laboratory of our Future,” that has since become a reference book for those who want to understand the violence of femicides, drug trafficking, and the depredations of neoliberal capitalism. More recently, Bowden published books and articles that caught attention and provoked arguments, among them Sicario, an interview with an alleged assassin converted to Christianity and Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.
Although he had a lengthy career as a reporter with a string of books, from the 1990s onwards Bowden’s name came to be eternally associated with Juárez. His writings about the city brought him prizes and international recognition. “It was like finding my white whale,” he told an interviewer at California State University Northridge in a nod to Melville and his classic work, Moby Dick.
Bowden exercised poetic license on numerous occasions and it wasn’t odd that he should have succumbed to the temptation of turning Juárez into an apocalyptical allegory. In his work, he presents the city to readers as the heart of the darkness that he – a white liberal writer – had dared penetrate. In his eagerness to account for the severity of the social problems that exist in Juárez, Bowden showed a tendency to erase all types of grass roots resistance and political subjectivity.
In fact, he maintained that Juárez was a city of sleepwalkers. A city where nobody paid attention to basic things, like the number of its residents, and where hope was impossible. Although he was generous with them, and he recognized them as his mentors, he reduced the photographers to the role of native informers, whose role was to confirm the stereotypes held by city folk about the border. He described them as avid violence chasers, ready to do anything for a photograph.
His critics accused him of fetishizing the border. Journalist Debbie Nathan argued with him and noted his frequent lack of rigor as a reporter. In his willingness to denounce the consequences of free trade, Bowden was wont to make offbeat and imprecise statements.
As author he shaped an influential way of looking at border reality and turned Juárez into an apocalyptic symbol of the future. The ghost of the wild frontier possessed by radical evil circulates through his texts. He situated this region in an ahistorical plane. His anti-neoliberal discourse was peppered with an apocalyptic vocabulary, framing the other as subaltern and expendable. His use of metaphors – gulags, sleepwalkers and masked men – indicates the rhetorical and political pressures of an age. At moments his voice could sometimes be confused and become aligned with the agents of neoliberalism that he ceaselessly sought to denounce. Charles Bowden was 69 years old. Last Saturday he died, while he was sleeping.
Writer Willivaldo Delgadillo grew up in Juárez / El Paso. He won the 1995 Chihuahua Prize for Literature. His latest book, Garabato, has just been published in Mexico by Samsara. Follow him on Twitter @willivaldo2000. This opinion piece appeared under the title, “El Juárez de Charles Bowden,” available at: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/09/03/opinion/a06a1cul.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.