Reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Crossing the Border”1 put me in mind of “Going South” as a young man—and as a father in my forties and fifties. For the first decade of the lives of my children, Sela and Samuel, I took them across the border at every opportunity.
I first crossed the border as a high school senior in Abilene, Texas, when coach Dee Nutt organized a trip to Mexico City for a basketball tournament. The Mexican players were doing what today is called a “Euro-step.” But to us at the time, it was just travelling not called.
Breaking away from my conservative Christian family, I went on a basketball scholarship to junior college near Philadelphia. After the Christmas break, early 1974, I left the basketball team–and what was left of my faith. One night after seeing the film Siddhartha in Villanova, I saw on a rock in the middle of a stream to meditate. OM! I spent the summer of 1974 hitch-hiking, all over the U.S., sometimes sleeping roadside, sometimes hearing that a local police station would put up travelers. I made it all the way south to Key West, where I subsisted on coconuts, but was jailed for sleeping on a local wharf. My parents bailed me out. I hitch-hiked up Highway 1, through New York City and all the way to Maine. But it was really south, and west, where I was headed—the high desert Southwest I remembered from when as a boy, my father was a teacher in Hawthorne, Nevada, and Kingman, Arizona.
I met a girl in Phoenix who was became my main squeeze from 1975-1980. The summer of 1979 Cynthia and I spent in Mexico—she in Guadalajara, I at a creative writing workshop at the University of the Americas in Puebla. Then I stayed a month in Mérida, where youths celebrated when the Sandinistas took power. They had been having films, fundraisers, lectures about the Sandinistas every night. There was an entirely different consciousness amongst Mexican youth than what I could find in the U.S. The south was on my map.
As a columnist in Laredo 1981-82, I explored several parts of Mexico with Luz Elena, a TV reporter. In some Mexican motel, enamorado, I spouted romance that I never would have dreamed of in English.
Living in a border town, I crossed the border regularly. As a journalist in Austin 1982-89, I still wrote about forays into Mexico. I interviewed refugees of political violence in Central America. The Contras entered my lexicon. Wherever I looked, the best and most politically engaged music and literature—the creative expression that spoke most directly to me—seemed to come from south of the border.
While a grad student at the University of California-San Diego, I began long stays in Guatemala every summer, living with native families, and attending language schools. After returning from a month in Quetzaltenango with Valeria in 1993, Sela was conceived.
As my marriage went south, I began taking my children south. With single-minded determination, I raised them in Spanish. The trips across the border were an important reinforcement before they entered bilingual schools.
In the summer of 1997, I took Sela, then three, to Cuernavaca. Always, I came back with books, videos, building up a library of Latin American literature and children’s books. From the South I also brought back art—rugs, masks, a stylized indigenous Madonna onyx paperweight that still sits on my desk. Sela came to call me “The Culture Man.” Mostly for her that meant Latin American culture.
While Samuel was a toddler, Sela and I went south on our own. In December 2000, I took her to Guanajuato. Sela, now six, tuned in at the Diego Rivera museum. She had read a children’s stories about this Mexican muralist, his relationship with Frida Kahlo, and children’s stories about Frida’s own life and art. One of those was the Diego written and magically illustrated by Jeanette Winter.
Summer 2001 Samuel joined us in Querétaro, one of my favorite Mexican cities. That was the last time I carried Samuel, a big strapping boy at three. At Campanas Hill on a sweltering afternoon, I put him down and told him that he was on his own. He complained mightily, but kept walking.
Querétaro was near enough to Mexico City that one could feel the cultural winds of the federal district. The young people dressed fashionably. In a Querétaro art shop, we met two smartly-dressed young Mexicanas. Sela struck up a conversation with the two chavas. Sela, then a Power Puff Girls fan, asked them what their special powers were.
“Saber dialogar,” one responded.
I thought that two-word response was powerful, and characteristic of their generation at that point in time. The Zapatistas were still on the public mind. Comandante Marcos kept saying that el mal gobierno did not know how to listen, to engage in dialogue. The Zapatistas tried to listen to society’s “others.”2
What skill could be more special, than knowing how to engage in dialogue? When I compared this to responses Sela might have gotten up north, it filled me with wonder. It seemed a true expression of what we were learning by “going south.” We carried some of this cultural consciousness back to Oklahoma City, where we were surrounded by Mexicanos.
On one trip I took Sela and Samuel to Oaxaca. That first night I paid a mariachi group to serenade my children with “Las Mañanitas,” a song they had grown up with, at home, and in schools and libraries, as part of their cultural “mother’s milk.” But it meant something different, being serenaded while eating our first mole. You have to go south to understand what Oaxacans have done with this culinary tradition—mole. You have to wander the region to understand why Oaxaca has historically been a hotbed of resistance. We followed a Zapotec guide on an overcast day at Monte Alban. Through his words, and the experience of being at the pyramid, I got a vision of historical continuity not unlike that which the young Che experienced at Macchu Pichu. But Che would go on to leave his children with his wife, and write them farewell letters about being “good revolutionaries.” Eventually he “headed south” into Bolivia, where the peasants rejected his fixed idea of an armed revolution. He had written this script himself, where he would achieve the “sacrificial death” he had imagined as a teen.
Che’s idea of revolution went south, disastrously. Even so, that flat line became the iconic version of eternal life for millions of youths around the world. The Puerto Ricans I teach still wear his T-shirt, as did students in Jamaica, at South Florida, and elsewhere. I tell students that leaving women and children behind to go fight the revolution is not my idea of being a “real revolutionary.” In fact, Che’s version of fathering, or that of Bob Marley, or many other iconic figures, served as anti-models for me. That negative example led me to seek an alternative, further fathering, when I took my children south. I imagined hands-on fathering itself as something revolutionary. The revolution was staying home and making the sacrifices necessary for our progeny to have intercultural communication skills, and to live sustainable lifestyles.
I taught Sela to swim in Tepotzlán. Samuel learned to swim at a Morelos language school. In Cuernavaca I began a romance with a Mexican woman from a moneyed family in D.F. They had a resort home in Cuernavaca, where we stayed one night. Beatriz’ sons were vigilant in keeping us separated. Sela, by contrast, urged me to pursue this relationship. She continued to ask me about Beatriz for years—the image for her of a certain sophistication in Mexican culture.
In the late 1880s, leading up to the Mexican revolution, bandidos would cross the border to pillage, then “go south” with their booty. Pancho Villa’s strike into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 was one memorialized raid. The memory of that borderland incursion was visible in various monuments and museums when we lived in Las Cruces from 2008-2010.
The notion that one heads south after making a heist, orchestrating a “great escape,” has entered into common speech and popular culture. One hears getaway connotations in idiomatic expressions such as: “Lefty went south the minute he got out of the pen.” There’s an echo of that legacy in Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ South (1978), where the third-rate criminal Nicholson plays is fleeing to Mexico, but his horse “goes south” in the more modern sense.
The term only became more widely known from the 1970s. It started with falling arrows on an economic graph “going south.” But the term was uncommon until the beginning of the 1990s, after which its common usage exploded.
There is, of course, the sexual variant—below the belt. That’s part of what is implied in two recent movies, Going South by the Korean director Lee Song-hee-ill (2012), and Sébastien Lifshitz’s Going South (2010). Such cinematic representations of the “south” have a longer lineage. There’s a scene in Bye Bye Brazil (Carlos Diegues, 1979) in which a travelling actor (José Wilker) describes to ruffians the process of going to the southern regions of his wife’s body (Betty Faria). Nowadays “going south” is often a crude reference to oral sex. But in the broadest sense, going south is understood as “when a situation, person, or animal gets out of control,” degenerates, etc. The milk in the fridge has gone south. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” in the line of a Robert Burns poem, and later a John Steinbeck novel.
The tale of the unraveling of my fatherly relations to my first two children has a bit of all the above—physically going south, a “disappearance” from family, awakening or re-awakening sexuality, and in the broadest terms, a situation getting out of control.
There was a court date just before our departure to Jamaica in 2004, and legal maneuverings cast a shadow over the entire stay. As I wrestled to get a phone from Jamaica’s maddening bureaucracies, my ex campaigned to try to prove that I was not letting the children speak to her. I bought calling cards to use from other people’s phones, but those calls left no trace. I heard back in legal documents that I was preventing communication. As had been the case since lawyers entered my life around 2001, I was told that I had to document my fatherly life. I had to leave a paper trail. The process was infuriating: I had to take the time to record all emails, phone calls, visits to the doctor, etc. Fathering under the shadow of a court introduces a certain falseness, a performative element. Children pick that up, and learn that the “present absence” of the court can be played, to get what they want, or to simply not have to obey.
I enrolled my children in St. Andrews, one of the best three “prep” schools in Kingston. That first semester in 2004, every day I took them to school on the public buses, getting off in Halfway Tree, walking to school, catching the bus back, jam-packed, sweltering. Returning to Mona, I would teach, and in the early afternoon repeat the process. On return trips, Sela and Samuel clung to me in the sauna-like buses. There was no avoiding the press of human flesh.
Each afternoon, standing under the blistering sun, I would buy my kids a bag juice. I remembered the sweat; the kids remembered the bag juice. This too became part of the recorded, public documents of my fatherly life. Valeria, their mother, spent $5,000 on a lawyer to try to prove my incompetence. Next time back in Oklahoma City, I took the children to see him. When he asked them to describe life in Kingston, they drew a child’s paradise: sipping on a bag juice.
After I had returned the children to their mother for visitation, this lawyer took me out for lunch. “You are not as Valeria described you,” he suddenly said. We would have yet another trial date (2005). Yet again, I was called on to try to prove my competence as a father.
We went through a series of court-appointed children’s lawyers–Guardian Ad Litems. Four or five GALs interviewed mother, father, and children, and then testified to the court. At first, the GALs were inclined to support the mother. The GALs were all white women. What good-hearted white woman would not want to support the black mother in a case involving biracial children? But over time, these GALs would observe two things—the seething, obsessive animus on the part of my children’s mother, and the quality of life that their father provided. Time after time, they came to support me. This went against the grain of expected outcomes for most men in legal proceedings, especially the dynamics of a black woman in a “white court.”
In the summer of 2005, the court re-confirmed its view that the children would be better off with this particular father. The GAL and the judge wrote strongly worded opinions—the GAL about the mother trying to “poison the well,” the judge about a “collusion” between mother and daughter. Sela was sent back to Jamaica against her will, because her mother had promised her a species of utopia, and painted life with father as a sort of prison.
The people in the legal system had seen this all before. At the time, it seemed to me that I was finally being rewarded for doing the right thing. But the script was being re-written by other means. Like the dripping of water on a rock….. First, Sela had been given a script: she would have freedom with Mom, and artistic glory at Classen School of Performing Arts, where her mother had enrolled her. That was the collusion to which the judge referred. But there was also the matter of what the court would hear in my absence. Just because I was no longer in Oklahoma did not mean that the campaign would cease. Drip drip drip….
I got a driver for the children, and a helper at my house, so life in Jamaica acquired its share of pleasures. In Spring 2005, leaving my long sojourn through celibacy, I rediscovered women. Sela began her menses that spring. She needed female figures around the house, I knew. That female presence was provided by my lover, by the Cuban helpers, and by the students who would occasionally babysit when I went out.
I kept finding blood-stained panties, stuffed in corners of the closet, behind books, in the trash. I talked to the women who came through my house—the lover, the helper, the babysitters. All of them had been brought up to clean their own panties. It goes without saying. However, Sela would not even help me hang her panties on the line after I had washed them. Several things were clear: Sela needed female guidance, but her mother had not prepared her for this stage. She refused to listen to the women who spoke to her. Sela’s version of entitlement was that she was destined for stardom. Someone else would always do the cooking, the cleaning.
Puberty did a number on Sela, as on many girls. But that wasn’t the only thing rewriting her script. There was the strange racialism in Jamaica, a twisted view of mixed-race people—browns as they are called in Jamaica—as both despised, and highly desired. Sela was styled a white girl. Men made Sela aware of herself as a commodity: doubly as a brown girl, and as an American. The Jamaicans had split attitudes towards Americans: their youths were immersed in U.S. popular culture, and wanted the material things an American lifestyle promised. Yet there was also a projected “othering” of America as the imperial north, a latter-day slave master.
Then there was the residue of American pop culture, in which the young female singers Sela admired went through a metamorphosis, and become sexual divas overnight. This all played out live and online, over and over.
Some things remained the same. Sela, Samuel, and I still read in Spanish every night. We travelled together. We rode bicycles. Yet what had once been a source of pride for Sela, became a sort of stigma. She wanted to be like the other girls—not the Jamaicans, the American girls, the version on display in music videos.
I entered into a tempestuous relationship with a Spanish woman in the Spring of 2006. Sela tried to prevent me from sleeping in the same room with my woman. She was used to having Dad to herself. But there were other things going on, beneath the surface.
When Sela came back from visitation with her mom in Oklahoma, Spring 2006, she was in open defiance. Resistance proliferated. She refused to get on the bicycle. The local excursions by bike the kids and I had done—across the road to swim at the faculty club, or pick up fruits and vegetables at the market—were no more.
I remember dining at the house of my colleague, Mauwena. Sela was glued to music videos, captivated by female pop stars who had made a sudden transition to sexualized divatude. The signs had been there. When we traveled, in the airports, Sela wanted to buy magazines like Cosmopolitan, with its “30 new tricks to please your man in bed” stories. I saw what was coming but I could not do anything about it. Sela wanted to be like the girls who became celebrities.
Sela’s grades began to fall. After taking the Common Entrance exams Spring 2006, she was assigned to an all-black public high school, Merl Grove, which she attended for a few weeks Fall 2006. The girls styled her as a white girl. Sela, a would-be pop star, was now in purgatory. Her memory of that time was summed up by a girl who cut in front of her and said: “Black first.”
Later, when I read Kapuscinki on “white skin is the wolf ticket,” his account of racial binaries in the Congo, it resonated with what we experienced in the “little Africa” of Jamaica.
“You get that ticket when you cross a certain parallel. When you reach a place where you find out that you have white skin….Right away you find out what’s assigned to you, which line you’re supposed to stand in. Right away that skin starts itching….. You can’t jump out of it, and it cramps your style. You can’t exist normally.”3
There was no getting out of the “white line” in Jamaica. People never let you forget their view that you are irredeemably tainted. Sometimes it is comic. Sometimes it feels like hell—the non-stop loathing, the micro-aggressions and the macro-insults and assaults. The insults co-exist with the accusations of white privilege. To be sure, all those European and North American tourists in the all-inclusive resorts were very exclusive indeed. On the ground in Kingston town, things were different. “Think you’re in heaven but you’re living in hell.”
I took Sela to meet the director of Campeon, an elite school near Mona. The woman took an interest in Sela. When a spot opened, she arranged for transfer. The rest of that fall semester, Sela hobnobbed with the children of Kingston elites at Campeon. All these kids were enraptured by American popular culture. They saw Sela as an embodiment of that “glamorous life,” a semi-celebrity in her own right.
Sela and Samuel went to Oklahoma over the Christmas break. I published an essay, “The Sexual Schizophrenia of Celebrity Culture.” The next day, I heard from my lawyer. Sela had threatened suicide if she had to return to Jamaica. She was taken to the psychologist Valeria had paid to write a report. His opinion was that a suicide was unlikely, but that as a 12-year-old, Sela needed to be with her mother.
I never heard from Sela on that break, or for months afterwards. During this silence she had a rough time, I found out later. She had imagined freedom in Oklahoma as a paradise. But at her elite school, she felt ostracized. She began self-cutting, which went on for years. There was drinking, and drugs. I did not learn about any of this until years later.
Sela visited me a couple of times in Jamaica—official visitation rights. But for all practical purposes, she was gone from her father’s life from age 12 on. The absence of communication was almost total, throughout her teen years.
Samuel and I did not speak of Sela for months. We both enjoyed the peace and quiet. There was a tacit understanding that life was better this way—without the dramas that had accompanied Sela’s entry into adolescence.
For a long time, Samuel would come into my bedroom en la madrugada, the pre-down hours, and I would stroke his tight curly blond hair. If I forgot custom, he would place my hand upon his head—like this. When a woman came into my life, when she stayed over, I had to lock Samuel out. But still, most nights she was not there, he returned to my side, over and over.
We read the first two of Christopher Paolini’s books, in Spanish, during those 18 months when we had the house to ourselves. We made fun of the teenaged author who in Eragon did not know what to do with the love interest but keep her unconscious, on the back of a dragon, for half the book.
One of Samuel’s babysitters was a Trini who was taking Japanese. She got him into it, and through this door he developed a passion for Asian languages that continues to this day.
Upon moving to Jamaica, the admissions people at St. Andrews put Samuel into second grade, out of kindergarten. They took one look at this big strapping kid, and were afraid that he would beat up other first graders, I joked. So Samuel missed the first grade experience. This produced a social awkwardness that was still pronounced in high school. No matter where we were, Samuel was always socially in his own space. He tended to think other kids were picking on him. Certainly in Jamaica, as a Spanish-speaking biracial boy who already had informed opinions about many things far beyond the grasp of his classmates, he stood out.
In kindergarten, teachers used to call me in the middle of the day to come to Shidler and straighten him out. I took him outside and swatted his butt a couple of time. But even at age five, the physical resistance Samuel put up made it clear that any traditional discipline would not be effective. Samuel never responded well to criticism of any sort. So that was an end to corporeal punishment. I’d had that with my Dad, who would take a belt to me if I acted up at school. I didn’t want to pass that script on to my own son. But how to provide appropriate discipline to Samuel was something that no adult ever seems to have figured out.
Samuel and I biked everywhere in Jamaica. We organized baseball with College Commons kids. We swam frequently. We discoursed on everything under the sun. It took him a year or two to get up to speed, academically, with kids often 18 months older. But although his social skills always lagged, it was early clear that he was “gifted.” Speaking that other language of gifted children caused social problems with other children who were not so labeled.
Only towards the end of my four-year stay in Jamaica did Samuel begin to speak of Sela. I met Janice in November 2007. After we married and relocated to Las Cruces for two years, it became apparent: Samuel felt that this woman who had married his Dad was invading his turf.
There in the Southwest, returned from the far south, fissures grew. In Summer 2009, when Samuel returned from Oklahoma to see his newly delivered sister Safiya for the first time, he had a green Qu’ran which he would not allow me to touch. This was a gift from his Moroccan stepfather, the “brown daddy.” The writing was on the wall. Samuel had already chosen another father. By the next summer, Samuel was gone. Following script, he was incommunicado with me. I only saw him in court, where he went into the judge’s chambers to make his wishes clear.
In August 2010 Janice and I went South again—to the University of South Florida. Samuel stayed in Oklahoma, where the “Muslim Father” would be the male authority in Samuel’s life for the next five years.
During my year in Saudi Arabia, 2013-2014, when Samuel called, I would stumble out of bed after midnight to take his video call. From Oklahoma, Samuel would play me a song on his ukulele, or tell me his latest plan to set up an empire as benevolent despot in some “uninhabited” spot–the Western Sahara, or an island. That dream had been in place since he was 10. I had studied the history of Islam, and had travelled in the Middle East and Northwest Africa. There would always be people in whatever parcel of the earth he wanted to take over, I suggested. Those people would be unlikely to welcome him with open arms. But Samuel was a youth with fixed ideas. I loved him fiercely, but Samuel had “gone south” in his own way.
In August 2014, I moved far south once more, taking position at the University of Puerto Rico. There, reunited with my wife, I dedicated myself to being with Safiya for the rest of her school years. Here in the southern borderlands of American empire, the path as a literary writer has finally opened for me. The southerly version of “writer-in-exile” suits me.
1). Ryszard Kapuściński’s “Crossing the Border” is from Travels with Herodotus (Vintage, 2008).
2). Gregory K. Stephens, The Poetics of Indigenismo in Zapatista Discourse: The Mexican Revolution Revisioned Through Mayan Eyes (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019).
3). Ryszard Kapuscinki, “The Offensive,” in The Soccer War (Vintage, 1992): 62.
Gregory Stephens is Associate Professor of English, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. His book “Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance” was published by Intermezzo (2019). Short fiction from the novel-in-progress “A Terrible Racket”: “Making Do with the Residue” (2020) and “Close to the Bone” (2019) Literary nonfiction: “A Team of Mules”; “Spanking the Baby: Second Thoughts on Discipline”; “Voice, Conscience, Community”; “Integrative Ancestors redux–a Child’s story from the past to the future” (2018); “Split-Screen Freedom,” and “Che’s Boots: Discipline and the flawed hero.”