Even if Herrera never labels it as such, Makina’s journey from her small Mexican town north and across the U.S. border is immediately recognizable as a migration narrative. But Herrera’s novel provides a fresh, critical perspective on the genre by exposing precisely how stories of migration have become an influential myth in rural Mexico, and basing his novel on a different myth: the Mexica underworld tale of Mictlán. In doing so, Herrera shows how the process of migration from a homeland to a new country fundamentally and irreversibly shifts one’s identity, bringing one into a hybrid condition of living and mediating between worlds that both destroys who one was and entails rebirth into a new, more complex form of being.
Herrera adds a broader context to the dangers of the harrowing journey across the border in order to highlight the difficulty of migration and, more importantly, demonstrate how migration narratives are such an ingrained and influential part of Mexican narrative culture that they have begun to, in turn, produce more migrants. Herrera knows that an endless stream of previous stories about the border set his readers’ expectations for Makina’s and deliberately has her come across every stereotypical figure and challenge of such a story. She meets with a series of gangsters, one of whom enlists her to deliver a package that probably contains drugs. She confronts endless risks: crossing the river to avoid border checks, escaping through the desert, the angry anglo rancher who shoots before asking questions, and the policeman who mistakes racism for “patriotism.” Herrera uses these overwrought tropes because, besides being true, they allow him to expose the sense in which the story of Mexican migration to the United States has become more powerful than the reality of it, especially as a motivator for future migrants. In Makina’s town—as in many towns across rural Mexico, Herrera notes—almost all of the men have left to go work in the United States. Makina follows her brother, who in turn followed a rumor he heard about his father: they both travel based on testimony and guesswork, influenced by the mythical tale of pursuing adventure, riches, and danger one takes on by going to the United States.
But Herrera juxtaposes the migration narrative alongside the much more unexpected Mictlán story, which allows him to reinterpret immigration stories, presenting migrants’ experience as a kind of death and the border as a “place of re-creation,” in addition to extending his argument about myth’s prophetic function. The Mictlán myth fundamentally structures Herrera’s novel, to the point of serving as a template. Each of the novel’s nine chapters takes its name and much of its imagery from one of the nine stages that, according to the Mexica culture, a deceased soul must pass through to reach its final resting place. Indeed, Makina’s first words are “I’m dead,” which positions the novel as an allegory for the journey through the underworld. Notably, the Mexica underworld is about a gradual process of transformation from one thing into something else, rather than punishment or reward for people’s worldly deeds. The last scene of the novel represents Makina its final stage. She feels a sense of nervous anticipation, for she realizes that everything is changing. She receives a folder with a new identity, shedding the baggage of her past to become something new and hybrid (Mexican American). For Makina and Herrera, then, the conventional myth about migration misses this crucial element: people do not stay themselves when they move from one country to another, but rather become something completely new.
While Makina clearly recognizes the economic appeal of the migration, she takes little personal interest in it, and instead focuses entirely on this shift in identity that migrants undertake: they become hybrid, products of not only two places (Mexico and the United States) but also of all the differences and frictions between these places. This hybrid condition means migrants must shed their old identities, just as a soul traveling through Mictlán must shed the characteristics that bind it to the world of the living. But immigrants also gain a new capacity: the ability to creatively generate new identities and perspectives by combining disparate experiences and registers of cultural understanding. Makina notes that many of her fellow migrants buy into the myth—they expect to undertake an arduous journey that will be repaid by better work in the United States. Regardless of whether the myth is actually true, Makina has little interest in it, which lets the reader challenge it for themselves and ask: is the only important consideration in moving from one country to another the material changes people undergo? What happens to people’s identities, psyches, or souls when they reestablish themselves in a foreign land? Makina answers this question by celebrating the ambiguous condition of life as a migrant across the border, which she thinks produces a beautiful, hybrid way of being. She declares that Mexican Americans “are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people.” Their “intermediary tongue” is like “a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, […] a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born.” This last line unambiguously links Makina’s discovery about the generative hybridity of the United States to her feelings of rebirth at the very end of the book.
By the end of the novel, it seems that Makina does not mind shedding her old, fixed identity in order to become a creative “link” or “hinge” between her two worlds or nations. Of course, Herrera represents this experience of an intermediary identity—the immigrant experience and the experience of a soul that is neither completely alive nor completely dead—not only as an empty space between worlds, but rather as an independent, powerfully creative, and playfully ambiguous way of being that can be the source of new understandings, cultures, and modes of human relation.
Immigration, Myth, and Identity ThemeTracker
Immigration, Myth, and Identity Quotes in Signs Preceding the End of the World
I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect
circle and Makina was saved.
Slippery bitch of a city, she said to herself. Always about to sink back into the cellar.
The Little Town was riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust, and from time to time some poor soul accidentally discovered just what a half-assed job they’d done of covering them over.
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.
She couldn’t get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn’t get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon: or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces. That was why she chose to travel underground to the other bus depot. Trains ran around the entire circulatory system but never left the body: down there the heavy air would do her no harm, and she ran no risk of becoming captivated. And she mustn’t get lost or captivated, too many people were waiting for her.
You just took your last trip, coyote.
I’m no coyote, Chucho said.
Ha! I seen you crossing folks, the man said. And looks like now I caught you in the act.
Not the act I’m denying, said Chucho, tho I’m no coyote.
The anglo’s expression indicated that he was engaged in a mighty struggle with the nuances of the concept. He scanned Chucho’s face for a few seconds, waiting for clarification. And now, yessir, chose to point the gun at them.
What I’m denying, Chucho went on, Is that you caught us.
Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. […] Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.
In hers, as soon as she’d agreed to go get the kid for Cora, she packed:
a small blue metal flashlight, for the darkness she might encounter,
one white blouse and one with colorful embroidery, in case she came across any parties,
three pairs of panties so she’d always have a clean one even if it took a while to find a washhouse,
a latin-anglo dictionary […],
a picture her little sister had drawn in fat, round strokes that featured herself, Makina and Cora in ascending order, left to right and short to tall,
a bar of xithé soap,
a lipstick that was more long-lasting than it was dark and,
as provisions: amaranth cakes and peanut brittle.
She was coming right back, that’s why that was all she took.
When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world—some countries, some people—could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment but also a slight subsiding of the fear that had been building since she’d versed from home.
The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.
They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.
Scum, she heard as she climbed the eighth hill from which, she was sure, she’d catch sight other brother. You lookin to get what you deserve, you scum? She opened her eyes. A huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco was staring at her. Makina knew the bastard was just itching to kick her or fuck her and got slowly to her feet without taking her eyes off him, because when you turn your back in fear is when you’re at the greatest risk of getting your ass kicked; she opened the door and versed.
Neither one at first recognized the specter of the other. In fact, Makina stood up, greeted him and began to express her gratitude and ask a question before picking up on the soldier’s uncanny resemblance to her brother and the unmistakable way in which they differed; he had the same sloping forehead and stiff hair, but looked hardier, and more washed-out. In that fraction of a second she realized her mistake, and that this was her brother, but also that that didn’t undo the mistake.
He’s homegrown, he said. Joined up just like me, but still doesn’t speak the lingo. Whereas me, I learned it, so every time we see each other he wants to practice. He speaks all one day in past tense, all one day in present, all one day in future, so he can learn his verbs. Today was the future.
1 guess that’s what happens to everybody who comes, he continued. We forget what we came for, but there’s this reflex to act like we still have some secret plan.
Why not leave, then?
Not now. Too late. I already fought for these people. There must be something they fight so hard for. So I’m staying in the army while I figure out what it is.
Over the door was a sign that said Verse. She tried to remember how to say verse in any of her tongues but couldn’t. This was the only word that came to her lips. Verse.
Makina took the file and looked at its contents. There she was, with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned, she whispered.
When she looked up the man was no longer there and she tipped briefly into panic, she felt for a second—or for many seconds; she couldn’t tell because she didn’t have a watch, nobody had a watch—that the turmoil of so many new things crowding in on the old ones was more than she could take; but a second—or many—later she stopped feeling the weight of uncertainty and guilt; she thought back to her people as though recalling the contours of a lovely landscape that was now fading away: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango, all those colors, and she saw that what was happening was not a cataclysm; she understood with all of her body and all of her memory, she truly understood, and when everything in the world fell silent finally said to herself I’m ready.