In March 2011, without packing or telling anyone, writer Dolores Dorantes fled her home in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and crossed the border into El Paso.
Ciudad Juarez was the city where she grew up, began work as a reporter, and developed a following as a poet — and it was reeling from drug-related violence. The government responded with deadly military action and the deaths of hundreds of young women went unsolved.
In a column for a Mexico City newspaper, Dorantes criticized government policies that failed to put an end to the violence.
She received death threats, she said. Then a writer friend was violently killed and someone set fire to the house where an activist she knew lived. And so she fled.
“I am seeking asylum because I am afraid of being strongly accused, imprisoned, threatened, kidnapped, beaten, tortured, raped, or killed if I return to Mexico,” she wrote in a 299-page petition for political asylum. Her appeal was granted in 2013.
In El Paso, away from the violence, she wrote “estilo,” a book of prose poems that transforms the acts and language of violence into unexpected images:
“7.-Close us. Destroy our mouths. Enter. Torture us in other realities. Take us with your mind and your word. Bring us to our knees. May your gust of birds pass over us. Convert us in a sky cut across by branches. Capture us by the throat as with animals. As with animals, fervor.”
The following year, she published “Querida fábrica,” (Dear Factory) in which she examines how love is like a factory:
An accident crackling across the imagination with which I remember you:
I saw the blood
(something I don’t know is occurring here)
here a dark hand occurs that grasps your neck, sugar
that brings you to your knees, life
“So you remember my dead
So you bind yourself with your back to my dead seas and you listen
to their breathing without seeing and you await another
gallop of the sea and another
wallop of the sea and another (that something might occur, love)”
(hot just like your whip-crack)
Dorantes’ translator Jen Hofer and several other Los Angeles writers urged her to relocate to Los Angeles and join their literary circle.
In 2012, not long after she arrived in L.A. poet Anthony McCann asked Dorantes to read at the Machine Project gallery in Echo Park. She was still homesick for the city she left, but she agreed to read from “estilo,” only if she could stage it as a performance.
“She came up with the idea, and the idea was she would read with Jen if the audience was handcuffed and blindfolded,” McCann said, like the women and men from Ciudad Juarez who’d endured the same before being killed.
Fighting for asylum
Drug-related violence along Mexico’s northern border displaced thousands of people. They traveled into other parts of Mexico and north into the United States. A small number received political asylum in the United States, Dorantes among them.
Dorantes’ petition included vigorous letters of support from leading poets and literary figures from around the United States.
“Dolores Dorantes is an active and engaged member of society dedicated to contributing to positive change for marginalized populations,” wrote poet Anne Waldman, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.
“If granted asylum in the United States, I have no doubt that she will continue to contribute through her writing, community leadership, and social engagement,” Waldman said.
Dorantes was one of 204 Mexican citizens granted political asylum by the United States in 2013. That number grew to 448 the following year, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
Even though the U.S. turns down many asylum claims from Mexico, Dorantes made a strong case that without asylum her life was in danger because of her writing and activism, said Kristen Jackson, a lawyer with the legal advocacy group Public Counsel who helped Dorantes request asylum.
“L.A. is very lucky to have her and the United States is lucky to have her, wherever she may be. We really recognized the value and intensity of Dolores’ work and, in fact, some of her poetry and articles formed part of her asylum claim,” Jackson said.
While in Los Angeles, Dorantes has given autobiographical writing workshops like those she gave for working class and incarcerated women in Ciudad Juarez. She's also given readings outside of L.A.
"The contrasts between the city noises, smells, traffic, police, surveillance, the helicopters flying overhead, make this city a very peculiar and terrible setting, and that makes me love the city," she said of L.A.
She now splits her time between Southern California and El Paso, where she relishes the silence of the desert that lets her write.
As a writer and intellectual with a growing following in the U.S., Dorantes could be seen as a spokeswoman for Mexico’s troubles and her native city's decline. But it is not what she wants.
“It’s tough to see Ciudad Juarez go through so much turmoil, and that’s been used for political means, and for personal gain. I could never use the city’s pain to boost myself personally.” she said.
She was in L.A. last week at Machine Project, and talked about her newest performance, inspired by experiences during her four-year stay in the United States.
“Latin Americans are treated, generally, like servants in order for us to make a living. The other idea is how white artist communities in this country continue seeing us non-white artists as servants, and use [us] as token cultural trinkets,” she said.
LA. writer Roman Lujan and her long-time collaborator Juan Manuel Portillo joined Dorantes for a performance last Sunday.
Portillo recited lines as the conscience and the cynical muse while Lujan – dressed in a suit and tie – played the part of the cultural gatekeeper. Dorantes, wearing an apron that read “No Sirvo,” which translates into “I do not serve,” or “I’m broken,” filled the role as the artist. At various times she kneels to kiss Lujan's and Portillo’s shoes and some of those in the audience in a show of servitude.
“I think it’s a mistake to look at Dolores’ work solely in a political context,” said L.A. writer Ben Ehrenreich. He said Dorantes’ writing is inspired by local, personal experiences but is also infused with larger ideas from world literature and spiritual questions from her practice of Buddhism.
“I think for Dolores these are spiritual battles and they’re profound ones and they’re ones on which she is and has been willing to stake everything,” he said.
It’s an approach to writing that Dorantes tried to spread in Ciudad Juarez and that is summed up in the last line of her performance.
“No hay nada mas cobarde, que un escritor cobarde” — which translated means there’s nothing more cowardly than a cowardly writer.