Auntie’s Bookstore is hosting a virtual event Saturday evening promoting Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s “The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story.” The work, which earned Bobrow-Strain a 2020 Pacific Northwest Book Award, follows Aida Hernandez and the journey she undertook immigrating to the U.S. as a child, her life before being deported back to Mexico and her later struggle to return to the States and her young son.
Author, activist and Whitman professor Bobrow-Strain originally intended to celebrate his recent Pacific Northwest Book Award win for “The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story” with an in-person event at Auntie’s Bookstore. But with quarantine in place, he and Auntie’s have chosen to move the event online. Now, part of Bobrow-Strain’s “virtual paperback tour,” the event will mark the book’s release and address the major elements of the work.
As a professor, Bobrow-Strain has written academic books and nonfiction works for a broader public, but “The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez” is his first written in narrative form. The work is like a novel, a thriller even, but the only fictional elements are the names of its subjects. Some, like those of Aida Hernandez and her family members, are pseudonyms chosen to protect subjects still living in relative precarity. Others were chosen simply because true names were forgotten.
“When you’re trying to bring something alive in people’s memories from 20 years previous, obviously there’s authorial imagination,” Bobrow-Strain said. “But I tried to ground every aspect of that that I could in some kind of research. Aida chose her last name. I chose the first, and she agreed to it.”
He chose the name “Aida” to honor the uncommonness of her real name, but he also felt that the glancing reference to Guiseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name would highlight the intensity of his subject’s true and dramatic story.
“That pronunciation of ‘Aida’ is kind of between the English pronunciation (Ida) and the Spanish (Ai-ih-da), which, in a way, reflects the border context where people move back and forth between Spanish and English continually even in a single sentence,” he said.
In addition to years of research and interview cross-checking, Bobrow-Strain devoted a great deal of time to weaving the personal stories of Aida and many others into the greater narrative and historical context of life on the U.S.-Mexico border, especially between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, where the majority of the plot unfolds.
“The new challenge for me was to apply the tools of novel writing to this heavily researched piece of nonfiction,” Bobrow-Strain said. “I felt the stories of this community, of Aida and her friends and family, were so powerful and compelling that I wanted other readers to experience them in the way I was as I was hearing them.”
Bobrow-Strain’s connection to Douglas-Agua Prieta, or “DouglaPrieta” as the locals sometimes refer to it, extends beyond the recent years he spent researching this book. In the early ’90s, he spent four years working as an activist and educator in cities straddling the Arizona-Sonora border.
Additionally, since beginning to teach politics at Whitman, he has taken groups of students to the area for annual summer field seminar courses to engage in dialogue with people across the political spectrum, particularly focusing on community groups, immigrant rights groups, attorneys, government officials and those operating shelters for recently deported migrants.
“Some of the activist work I did in the mid-1990s brought people from around the world to the U.S.-Mexico border. At that time, it (the interest) had very little to do with migration. That was in the middle of the NAFTA debates,” he said. “People understood it (Douglas-Agua Prieta) as a kind of laboratory where you could try to (extrapolate) what NAFTA would look like on a larger scale for both countries.”
His original interest in the region lay in coming to understand the effects of deindustrialization on a small border town. But as he spent time there, he became more drawn to telling another, not-altogether-unrelated story.
He first met Hernandez, almost accidentally, through a mutual acquaintance. And shortly after learning her story, the two began discussing the feasibility, and the safety, of publishing it. Hernandez expressed some fears at first, but after consulting her therapists and reconciling with herself, she gave the project her full support.
“Knowing that the risk of me as a straight, white male writer misrepresenting or misunderstanding or appropriating the story or reinforcing harmful stereotypes is real, I set out to navigate that risk,” he said, alluding to the controversy that Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” produced in the Latinx community this year. “We decided that to tell the story, navigating those risks meant making it as collaborative as possible with Aida.”
Bobrow-Strain gave Hernandez veto power, explaining that he was willing to end the project at any point if it made her uncomfortable. But she remained supportive throughout, and he made certain that other subjects, border community leaders, scholars and activists of color and others with intimate contextual knowledge could read drafts and provide feedback, as well.
“Getting the feedback and critique and encouragement that came out of that process was key to me feeling like I could move forward with the project and making the project as good as I could,” he said. “It’s not for me to say whether I handled that well, but that’s what I set out to do.”
Bobrow-Strain hopes readers take away two overarching ideas from the book. First, he attempts to show that immigrants, like all people, live “messy, human lives” that don’t fit into the “impossible binary” he sees in the common understanding of immigration between “the good immigrant who maybe deserves sympathy and rights and the bad who deserves all the punishment she gets.”
Secondly, he explains that “as much as this is a book about Aida, it’s also a book told with Aida, with Aida’s expert knowledge about the world that the rest of us have created on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I want people coming away from the book to not just feel sorry for Aida, but to realize that we’re all complicit in having allowed this dangerous and unliveable border to be created in our names supposedly to keep us safe.”
In the live virtual event hosted by Auntie’s, Bobrow-Strain will discuss how the book came to be and provide a brief history and context to life near the border, how it came to be the way it is today and how it could be different. He also will detail the complex process of writing the book as well as the ethical questions that surround telling such a story. Auntie’s will post the event’s Zoom URL on its website auntiesbooks.com at 4 p.m. Saturday.
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