There exists a separate world along the border of the USA and Mexico. A world that most people only encounter through the news, the internet, or the current president's erratic and uneven focus on it. In stories about La Frontera and the borderlands on each side, be it about the 5,000 migrants making their way from Central America over the past few months or the 30,000 women who have disappeared, the writing rarely aims to give voice or focus on the victims.
For his fourth novel, Coyote Songs, Gabino Iglesias sets out to tell stories centered on La Frontera; of children and human traffickers; of migration and immigrants; of those transported in the backs of trailers and left abandoned in trailers and left to die; of lawless men who endanger others for their own gain. However, this is not your typical migrant’s tale.
The book begins with Pedrito and his father on a fishing trip. They share a few tender moments —Pedrito is focused on his dad’s every word about alligator gars and how to catch them, the right places to cast your line — before the trip abruptly concludes with a violent incident, a gut punch that sets the whole story into motion.
One of the cornerstones of Iglesias’ work and his own particular brand of Barrio Noir—noir that is set among the world of gangbangers and narcos—is the undercurrent of violence that exists throughout the world. Even before it rears its full-blown, ugly head, you know that the characters inhabit a gritty reality that most people don’t know exists. From the opening pages, with the description of Don Pedro chopping up a carp to use as bait, the reader comes to understand that violence is inherent to the narrators’ lives. Throughout the book, Iglesias continues to show us trails of this undercurrent of violence. When he finally delivers on it, his prose is tight and compact, a simple line or two delivers a devastating blow.
There are writers who try to incorporate multiple languages and slang into their work; few are as successful as Iglesias. The way that he weaves between narratives, seamlessly using Spanish, English, and Spanglish, along with the depth of the characters; he creates a world that I know, where language knows no barriers, no walls, and moves exactly where it is most comfortable.
Iglesias creates compelling protagonists. His characters are rich and vibrant, full of pain and sorrow; caught up in the undertow of life that is dragging them away. Jaime is a man recently released from jail; living with his mother and her boyfriend, Cookie, who Jaime suspects ratted him out, rings true.
There is Alma, an activist/performance artist who is drowning in debt and struggling to survive as she tries to create a new piece to go viral. Her tale begins with her struggling to capture the essence of her art in a manifesto:
The Coyote is a man dedicated to helping immigrants make their way across the border at all costs, protected by the powers of La Virgen de Guadalupe. The Mother is struggling with pregnancy, grief, and undergoing a supernatural change. The diversity of the narrators, a healthy mix of both women and men, each with a unique voice helps capture the multitude of injustice encountered by Latino immigrants. It also acts as form of resistance: giving voices to those silenced in the age of Trump.
I recently read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, another book focused on the border, and could not help but compare the two books as I read Coyote Songs. Both novels attempt to capture the surreal experiences of traversing the border, the split between cultures and worlds. Herrera focuses on the singular narrative of Makina and her journey to deliver a message to her brother. Iglesias sets out to tell a multi-layered tale through a mosaic of stories, weaving between the multiple narrators and their stories. These two differing styles work for their respective stories. Herrera creates a surreal progression through Hades for Makina on a seemingly impossible quest; Iglesias, uses an all-too-real pastiche of singular incidents of vengeance, violence, and harm that are all connected to the same threads of nationalism and racism.
Finally, Coyote Songs acts as a critique to our culture as a whole. Alma’s story hits back at the ephemeral qualities of viral video culture and what it means to create art and activism for likes and views. The Coyote and Pedrito’s tales of heroism and vengeance are two sides of the same coin, coming together, both guided by opposing viewpoints of evil and good, La Bruja and La Virgen, to accomplish the same goal.
Whether you are fan of Iglesias’ previous work or reading him for the first time, there is much to love about Coyote Songs, a masterfully woven tale of pain and loss.
Manuel Aragon is a writer, filmmaker and photographer from Denver, Colorado. He is currently working on a short story collection.