Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

Coyote Songs
By Gabino Iglesias

Publisher: Broken River Books | Release Date: Oct. 26, 2018 | Pages: 212

Note: This review was originally published on Michael’s website on Dec. 1, 2018, but has since been taken offline and is republished here in its entirety.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On an island in the New York Harbor, a French woman stands tall, proud even. Time and ocean have covered her body in a green patina, but her torch and all that she stands for still shine. A handful of words epitomize the sum of her ideals, and those of her country:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

More than two thousand miles away, migrant children, babies, women, and men fleeing violence in their home country of Honduras are tear gassed as the US Border Patrol fires across the US-Mexico border. The tear gas is banned in warfare, and yet American police routinely and liberally use it against American citizens protesting various causes and politics, an authoritarian reminder from the state to its citizens on who has the bigger dick. Now, despite the Geneva Convention, we turn a potent chemical upon the unarmed, the weak, and the helpless. Political asylum seekers awaiting their turn to apply are identified by the numbers marked upon their wrists, an image that recalls the Nazi persecution of Holocaust victims in World War II. Elsewhere along the border, children are torn away from their family, many seemingly never to be returned despite US court orders, housed in newly erected concentration camps.

This is America.

This is a young country that has, over time, built its own mythology, full of righteousness and idealism. It is a myth that has been sold to its own citizens and the rest of the world in turn, predicated upon these inalienable rights that we hold to be self-evident, a simple and common truth that all men are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We then, in turn, elect to represent us an embarrassing cadre of racists, sexists, and the moronic, people who on a daily basis remind us that the American myth is merely that. We elect to the highest office in our land a man who calls white supremacists very fine people and decries all Mexicans as little more than rapists and thieves. The Christian evangelicals among us demand that we, in turn, speak of these politicians with deference and civility.

This is America. A country built by immigrants, its borders drawn upon murder and bloodshed and theft. A melting pot of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants who, in turn, vilify immigrants and condemn immigration. Myth versus reality.

The tension of myth running headlong into reality is at the beating and bloody heart of Coyote Songs, a mosaic novel set along the US-Mexican border. Through a handful of characters, Gabino Iglesias presents to us the life of those living along la frontera, characters who are driven by the myths and beliefs of their forebears and who have internalized the myth of America and want in on a piece of the action, hoping to flee the impoverishment and violence of their barrios and succeeding only in finding themselves ensnared in an old and familiar cycle of violence and impoverishment elsewhere. We have sold them a promise, and with it a false bill of goods.

Pedrito's father speaks more English than Spanish, believing a fluidity in his adopted language will make their eventual escape into America easier, opening for his family the doors of opportunity. Alma, a multicultural, bilingual black Puerto Rican in Texas, believes she'll make it big as an artist, until she runs headlong into the realization that she's little more than a puppet for the rich and entitled whites, like Mr. Wilson, who offers her a free venue in order to capitalize upon her performance, and hopefully, later, her body. The coyote runs kids across the border because he believes that such is his mission in life. We never learn his name, but have no need of it; he is a man defined by his job - he is the coyote, nothing more or nothing less. He is a servant of La Virgencita, and saving the children by helping them flee into America, the land of so much promise, is his sole purpose. And then, in the desert, there is the ghost of Inmaculada, thirsting for revenge.

Coyote Songs is ugly at times, necessarily and honestly so. It's a dusty noir told with a dry desert rasp, and it's all the more powerful for it. Gabino Iglesias is one hell of a writer, his voice authentic and predicated upon lived experience, observation, and honesty. I don't know anything about Iglesias's background or his personal history, but I know from reading Coyote Songs that he writes with authority and sincerity. There's no sugar coating his characters, and each come across with a natural rawness. Even those with idealism are shaded with the expectation of violence, of having to fight for what they believe in, knowing full well that they will be handed nothing nor given any quarter because of the color of their skin and the language on their tongue.

Iglesias spins a compact yet wickedly strong narrative through a revolving door of voices, cycling between his characters to share with us the darkness of their lives, and the minor bits of light that momentarily befall them. Not a word is wasted, his sentences punchy and pointed, driven into the reader with the practiced smoothness of a skilled craftsman.

Most important, though, is its fundamental honesty. Iglesias forgoes any kind of romanticizing of la frontera life, and he refrains from gilding the American promise in our time of political upheaval and turmoil. For those along the border, there is no escaping the threat of the orange idiot and the corrupt ICE who kidnap children to sell them to gangs and cartels. This book is raw and honest, and written so smoothly the pages turn themselves. Iglesias has plenty to say, and when he throws a punch, always properly justified here, it lands hard. There's a balletic grace to the violence, a poetic refinement to the writing, and a constant truth that sounds throughout. Coyote Songs is a book of and for our times, its author a vital voice we would do well to pay attention to.