Most of us worry about what can go wrong when traveling, even if those of us who are United States citizens realize the phenomenal privilege that we have in crossing most borders. We might lose our passports, get kidnapped, get lost, miss our flights, spend more money than we intended. Recently I fretted about letting my teenage son travel alone because some countries have cracked down on unaccompanied minors due to amplified concerns about human trafficking. But for most Americans, ending up in a Mexican detention center in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t, even in our most neurotic moments, among these intrusive fears.
Yet this did happen to Jacobin contributing editor Belén Fernández (who is also a friend of mine). Through a series of screwups — she had been living in Mexico since the beginning of the pandemic, and her migration paperwork was not up to date — Fernández landed in one of the worst places one can imagine: a prison that has been singled out for criticism by human right monitors for overcrowding, detainees’ lack of access to water and many other vital human needs, and detainees committing suicide.
“Before I ended up in Siglo XXI,” she writes, “it had not occurred to me that my own movement through Mexican territory might ever be curtailed in any way — such being my shameful normalization of gringo privilege even as I opposed it in theory.” Fernández’s singularly bad travel luck is good fortune for the reading public. Her book Inside Siglo XXI is a hilarious and deeply humane account of imperial violence by one of our most astute socialist critics of US capitalism.
As a gringa in Siglo XXI prison, Fernández’s situation is so unusual that her fellow inmates react with uproarious laughter when she tells them her nationality. She is referred to by inmates and guards alike not by name, but as “Estados Unidos,” underscoring the unique nature of her plight.
The book would be valuable enough as an exposé of the conditions in Siglo XXI, where journalists are not allowed to go, and for Fernández’s deft history lessons in how the United States contributes to these border emergencies in other countries. She succinctly explains the United States’ role in creating crises in countries like Cuba, Honduras, and Haiti, from which migrants are fleeing in hopes of reaching the United States. She also effectively describes the imperial relationship between the United States and Mexico, and how Siglo XXI exists because the US outsources border enforcement to its weaker North American partner.
But in her skilled use of her own experience and persona, Fernández also offers a moving critique not only of US policy, but of US society. Despite her book’s brevity, it somehow manages to be a tremendous celebration of human solidarity and collective resilience.
She regards the possibility of deportation to her country of origin, where she grew up and has taken pains to avoid residing for years, with dread. To Fernández, it’s a sick society — the only place on planet earth where children are routinely shot in school — and she finds the ruthless individualism required to survive here detrimental to her mental health. She is hilariously self-aware about how silly that sounds to people who have risked death to trek through deserts and jungles to get to her rejected homeland:
None of the Haitian detainees I would soon meet in Siglo XXI — not to mention those of other nationalities — was overly impressed with my deathly fear of being deported to the country that many of them were risking their lives to reach. Charitably, however, they mostly restricted their reactions to hysterical laughter.
In one conversation like this, Fernández notes, “I was starting to feel like an incurably ludicrous asshole.” Thankfully and thoughtfully, her fellow women prisoners change the subject and make sure someone shows her how to get a shower.
In Siglo XXI, the solidarity among these women becomes a major and profound theme of the book. As soon as she arrives, a group of Cuban women announce that they don’t want her to feel alone and befriend her. One of them, Daniely, even insists Fernández, unable to find a place for her mattress on the overcrowded floor, must share her bed. When Fernández tries to sleep with her feet off the bed to avoid kicking Daniely in the face, her Cuban bedfellow adamantly grabs her feet and puts them back on the bed, giving her some clothing to use as a pillow. Daniely insists, “Here we share everything.”
When Fernández is “plodding methodically” in the jail yard by herself, “exercising a morose turn at every corner,” her fellow detainees — a “staggered chorus” of Honduran, Salvadoran, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, and Cuban women — shout in “purposefully exaggerated English: ‘Hello my friend!’” They insist she sit down with them. A student from Honduras holds up a towel to give her privacy in the shower. Another detainee gives Fernández part of her meager allocation of toilet paper. Another young woman insists on befriending her, demanding, “Why are you alone?”
She reflects that this kind of loving care from strangers is something she experiences everywhere when she is outside the United States, noticing how often she had “been on the receiving end of inordinate generosity from folks the United States had fucked over. . . . I had spent most of my contemporary life being treated very well by people my country had treated very badly.” Even people for whom her country of origin has caused so much suffering — from the Cubans and Hondurans in Siglo XXI to people who host and feed her throughout her nomadic journalistic life in Lebanon, Colombia, Iran, and elsewhere — have shown her kindness.
Her stories show that the individualistic violence and cruelty Americans experience every day — and perpetrate on the rest of the world exponentially — isn’t “human nature.” Indeed, it’s not even how most people choose to organize themselves. Of the generosity she enjoys from the women of Siglo XXI, she reflects that it seemed like a kind of “fuck you” to the US system and ideologies exercising so much violence on these people.
Fernández possesses considerable literary gifts, but this book probably won’t get much mainstream attention. Even as discussion of domestic racism and economic inequality has gone mainstream, even after decades of US war crimes all across the globe, anti-imperialist analysis remains muted, even stigmatized. But if an engaging narrator and lively prose could help change that, Fernández would be that narrator and Inside Siglo XXI would be that book.