In This Is Not Miami, Fernanda Melchor Transforms Violence Into Folklore

The Mexican journalist turned novelist Fernanda Melchor’s This Is Not Miami looks unsentimentally at crime and violence. Unable to address its structural causes, Melchor’s characters create mythical explanations of human cruelty.

A boy attends the funeral of a victim of the mass shooting at the Caballo Blanco bar in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, 2019. (PEDRO PARDO / AFP via Getty Images)

Folk fairy tales are populated with violent sadists, monstrous figures who take their hatred out on those closest to them: there is the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” who fattens the young boy up to make him more appetizing; the stepmother in “The Juniper Tree” who kills her stepson and feeds him to his own father in a delicious stew; “Bluebeard,” whose wives disappear under mysterious circumstances. And then there is the paragraph-long Grimms story of a disobedient child whose hand raises from the ground as he is buried, raising with it the question of whether he is buried alive. The mother gets into the grave, lowers his hand, and then, we are told, he can finally rest peacefully.

These are stories told and retold; wish fulfillments packaged as children’s stories; articulations of our darkest fears and desires. For Sigmund Freud, folk fairy tales, which he sees as enmeshed in children’s psyches, usurp the place of real memories, cloaking an event we would rather not remember in a beguiling fiction that has some similarities to everyday life. For the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, the fairy tale is embedded in the contradictions of utopian longing. Folk tales morph and shift over time, but the desire for a better life and for justice keeps alive the wish fulfillments at the heart of these tales.

The Mexican author Fernanda Melchor uses the wrathful genre of the fairy tale to elucidate the relationship between structural crises, violence, and storytelling. In Melchor’s Mexico, people routinely attribute acts of brutality to evil spirits and bad vibes; journalist and police reports cite the presence of “witches” against whom men act in violent self-defense. Melchor sees the fairy tale — like the genres of sensationalist crime reportage and narco-literature, a subgenre that emerged in the mid-2000s — as reproducing real-world violence.

In the 1970s, new feminist versions of folklore and fairy tale began to appear in which the silenced female figures at their heart could be seen and reclaimed. These retellings were driven by a conviction that the creativity of these tales could be rescued from their violence. But Melchor is not interested in this. Instead, she frames folklore and fairy tale within contemporary scenes of violence to show the role they continue to play in mediating what is most unbearable.

Since the publication of her second novel, Hurricane Season, in English in 2020 and Paradais in 2022, which were short-listed and long-listed for the Booker Prize, respectively, Melchor, who was born in Veracruz in 1982, has been widely recognized as one of Mexico’s most promising and original writers. Fans of her work obsess over its hallucinatory intensity, the sense of being pushed entirely inside a character’s head and consumed by a psychosocial situation in which there is literally no exit. In these novels, narrative control cedes entirely to the voice of people who have perpetrated violence or have had violence done to them. Judgment, and all forms of moralism, are mercifully absent from Melchor’s stories.

Melchor studied journalism in Veracruz, and her profession informs her style and approach to writing. Alongside Cristina Rivera Garza and Yuri Herrera, she is part of a generation of authors who have found new ways to write about violence in Mexico. But whereas Rivera Garza’s fantastical stories and Herrera’s contemplative tales take place in the Mexican borderlands and push beyond the tenets of realism, Melchor’s writing is entrenched in the rough, expletive-heavy everyday language of the eastern seaboard state of Veracruz — a landscape that is rich in oral tradition, superstition, and brutality.

Melchor’s latest book to be translated into English by Sophie Hughes, This Is Not Miami, the imaginative forerunner of her two previous novels, is a series of accounts or essays in the style of crónicas, as they are known in Mexico. These are stories that cross reportage and narrative nonfiction, riding roughshod over the line between fact and fiction.

The tales, which all spiral out from real events, start off on relatively innocent footing. In one, Melchor’s nine-year-old self mistakes Colombian cocaine planes in the Veracruz night sky for UFOs — a modern kind of fairy tale. Swiftly, This Is Not Miami’s stories become more violent. “The Devil’s House,” a story told by a man who would become Melchor’s lover, concerns supernatural possession; another tale recounts Mel Gibson’s displacement of a prison population for the shooting of his 2012 film Get the Gringo.

These are snapshots of a Mexico in which, as Melchor recounts in an interview, “the only guarantee offered by the social contract seems to be impunity.” The backdrop to these thirteen stories, written over a ten-year period, between 2002 and 2011, is the economic liberalization of Mexico in the 1980s and the social dislocation it engendered.

Many of the tales circle around media stories that have become legend in the city. Others are fragments of tales that Melchor has stumbled upon, presumably through her day job as a reporter. They give the impression of listening to an ancient mariner figure, like that of El Ojón, or “Bug Eye,” one of Melchor’s sources who tells her about the Vice Belt — the cantinas or bars in Veracruz’s historical center that never closed during the height of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s rule in the 1970s.

The fourth story in the collection, from which the book takes its title, narrates an encounter between a port worker and Dominican refugees who are diverted from their promised odyssey to Miami and find themselves, lamentably, after days of traveling, only in Veracruz, a city that is repeatedly given the air of historical stasis — a kind of purgatory, where hell is moving ever more steadily into view.

Initially, the refugees appear as nine spectral figures who emerge out of the water “soaked to the bone, with their arms and legs covered in welts that looked like whip marks,” and they remain a spectral presence in the tale, haunting what should have been an “uneventful” night shift at work. The port workers’ gesture of solidarity to the stowaways — to help them pass safely through the city — is challenged by one of the crewmembers, who is on a retributive mission to New York to avenge the killers of his own family, and whose murderous impulse makes him a liability to all.

One of the folktales to which Melchor returns repeatedly is that of “La Llorona,” or “the weeping woman,” a vengeful ghost who mourns the children she drowned on account, it is said, that she had no food to feed them. The tale, which has shades of Medea, is reportedly pre-Hispanic but is commonly associated with the colonial era and with indigenous women, who were frequently wooed, impregnated, and then abandoned by Spanish men. As punishment for this vengeful act, La Llorona, in the traditional folk story, is condemned to roam the earth as a ghastly apparition with the face of an angry mule and hairy spider legs — the eternal image of a woman undone.

In This is Not Miami, the myth of La Llorona takes the form of a twenty-four-year-old former beauty queen, Evangelina Tejeda Bosada, who made tabloid headlines in Mexico in the 1980s when she was accused of murdering her two young sons and, in another folkloric twist, planting them in a pot on her balcony in the National Lottery Building in downtown Veracruz. The backdrop to the tale is Mexico’s 1982 debt crisis and the songs of Rafael Pérez Botija, sung by José José and Rocío Dúrcal, which Melchor describes as “the anthem for co-dependency and emotional worthlessness, the defining zeitgeist of the eighties.”

In weaving together a true-crime story and a folkloric tale, Melchor positions Bosada as a legal, social, and psychiatric case history of this riotous moment in Mexican history, where the spectacle of carnival conceals the unraveling state and unfolding violence behind it. That its subject’s whereabouts are, at the time of writing, unknown is also evidence of how easy it is, in a country with scant social security, to slip through the invisible safety net.

In 2007, a decade after her definitive sentence, Bosada’s case resurfaced as it was linked to that of Oscar Sentíes Alfonsín, a character feared by crime journalists in the early 2000s. Alfonsín, who became romantically entangled in prison with Bosada, pushed, through connections with Los Zetas, who were by then running the Veracruz carceral system, for her early release. A year later, Alfonsín was killed in the cell in which he had been put for attempting to organize another revolt. Rather than portraying perpetrators of mass violence as inhuman, Melchor forces us to see the desperation and perverse desires out of which their actions emerge.

Along with the obvious fact that Melchor takes her inspiration from true crime, her stories do not confirm folkloric conventions in one other sense: they restrain from offering any moral interpretation of the world. Instead, Melchor aims to understand the world out of which violence transpires: the airlessness of poverty, the frustrations of thwarted ambition, the desire for power and freedom. In finding a narrative for those who are rarely given literary or any other kind of airtime, and in writing in a vernacular that acknowledges the cruelty that lurks in the language of neutral observation, Melchor writes a new kind of folklore that allows us to hear the ferocious reality of contemporary violence.