Confronting Cruelty: Q&A With Cecilia Ballí

A 2010 Dart Ochberg fellow reflects on how her work as a cultural anthropologist shapes her approach to journalistic and literary storytelling.

Note: Dart Center 2010 Ochberg Fellow Cecilia Ballí is the author of "Ghost Town,” originally published in Texas Monthly about the drug war and violence in Mexico's Ciudad Mier, reprinted here. In this Q&A with the Dart Center, Ballí responds to questions about objectivity and emotion, self-care and resilience.

As a cultural anthropologist, writer, and journalist, you exist in the fields of academia, journalism, and literature. How do you balance the expectations of these fields around objectivity, accuracy, and emotion? Does your work in one genre illuminate or impact your work in another?

Although some scholars might scoff at the idea, I think there is a large overlap between long-form or immersion journalism and cultural anthropology, in the sense that we are both interested in people and their everyday lives, and in the way that the particular helps illuminate the whole.

Where an anthropologist might be at odds with this is that anthropologists view stories as social constructions and as highly subjective. In other words, the writer interprets what she learns and imposes her own structure and meaning on other people’s lives. Of course, I agree that all stories are literary constructions, even journalism. But more and more for me, I feel that the best stories come from somewhere deeper – I’m tempted to call it intuition, but that word scares many rationalists. In any case, it certainly emerges from a more profound place of connection and exchange that we have with the subject matter and with the people we interview. As a narrative nonfiction writer, I feel that you have to arm yourself with a lot of background information and facts, and you have to learn from them and analyze them in a way that hopefully deepens our understanding of the issue. But I also believe that you have to be willing to be changed by the reporting experience – you have to experience it with such an open disposition and so intensely that, in the best cases, the story you end up with feels like it has its own force and logic. When that happens is when readers are most moved.

Because my journalism training took place in daily newspapers, I’m really strict about facts – I won’t even join two sentences that were said at different moments in an interview. From anthropology, one of the things I get is a set of ethics about how to approach people and get them to speak with me; I’m not as pushy as other journalists and maybe I’ve occasionally missed a good story because of this.

Your piece, "Ghost Town," is particularly emotional when you are speaking directly with the family in Ciudad Mier. What kinds of self-care or other practices were important to you when reporting this story?

People often tell me that my writing is “emotional,” and as a former newspaper reporter and an anthropologist, this used to make me nervous. Now I embrace it as yet another writing device. From rational thought, we’ve come to believe that emotions somehow cloud our mind or bias our thinking, but I feel it’s possible to both analyze and feel a story as we’re reporting and writing it.

The experience I had in Ciudad Mier was particularly moving for me. The violence that had plagued the town for nine months had been playing out to different degrees throughout the whole state of Tamaulipas. I had been living across the border in Brownsville, Texas, which is next to Matamoros, the city where my parents were raised and where the Gulf cartel is based. For months, I had watched my mother consume gory television reports about the seemingly endless shootings, hangings and beheadings all over Mexico. I had witnessed my family begin to crack as she and her siblings fiercely disagreed over whether it was still safe to visit relatives or celebrate holidays across the border. I had absorbed the exaggerated rumors of horrific new dangers and seen Matamoros quiet down as the poor increasingly stayed home and the middle class moved to the U.S. Although some of these things had also been true of Ciudad Juárez, where I had done research for many years, somehow it was harder for me now that it was happening in my homeland, to my family. There’s a way in which your own community’s tensions and suffering can quietly seep into your psyche and begin to weigh down your spirit.

Of course, the family I wrote about in “Ghost Town” had experienced something severely more traumatic. I was there with another female journalist who had initiated the trip, and I’m still surprised that the family allowed us into their home and agreed to speak with us, because they were deathly afraid of the people associated with the drug cartels. Although the Mexican Army had arrived in Mier by then, nobody knew yet if things were going to get better or worse. So the family members were extremely guarded and adamant about not being recorded or having their real names used under any circumstances. The tension was palpable as they stood quietly around the kitchen while I took the chair they offered and opened up my notebook. At first, they insisted there was nothing they could add to the story, which they felt was evident simply from the extensive physical damage we had witnessed driving into the city. But as the conversation unfolded over the next couple of hours, they started to share more of their experiences and to express more feelings; they choked or teared up when sharing particularly painful reflections.

It was toward the end, though, when the elder couple offered to sing the song that had led to their romancing fifty years earlier, that the emotional floodgates were opened. I wish you could’ve heard the perfect harmony of their wavering, aging voices. The tune they sang happens to be by my favorite Mexican songwriter, José Alfredo Jiménez, who I feel is Mexico’s greatest poet. The sincerity of the delivery and the simple grace of the lyrics (“what a beautiful love, what a beautiful sky”), juxtaposed against the trauma they’d been living, was what broke the dam. Everyone was smiling, and several of us were in tears. The singing ended up going on for at least thirty minutes – they sang sentimental songs and uplifting songs and funny songs. It was all laughter by the time they were done. Then the couple’s daughter told us that their home had always been a happy one; that her mother would play music on the radio since very early in the morning. But that the music had stopped once the violence had broken out and fear and depression had set in. So, the family ended up thanking us for bringing the happiness back into their home, and one of the women said, “It is better to have friends.” I was overwhelmed. Having driven fearfully several hours earlier into a town that seemed falsely deserted, then ending the afternoon with such a burst of humanity and life, left me with a deep sense of awe. That was my self-care.

The murders of young women in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, something you've written about before, have a gendered component to the violence. Did being a female reporter have implications for you when telling this story – or any other story?

I’ve debated the gender question for years – I think male reporters have more advantages – but I’ve come to accept the pros and cons of working as a female journalist. I grew up bilingually on both sides of the border, so I move through Mexican border cities almost like a local, and this somehow makes me feel a little safer. I look younger than I am, which makes me more vulnerable in some ways, but also less imposing. And, it’s not like I’m doing high-danger investigative or undercover reporting – I’m usually interviewing victims and their families, their advocates, and government and police authorities, with whom I’m firm but never aggressive or demanding.

That said, I do believe that we women carry our fear in our bodies more often than men. When I’m in a city where I know there are sexual crimes or some other unusual type of violence being carried out against women, my body tenses up and my state of mind changes. I’m on edge. On a couple of occasions, I’ve visited questionable bars or red-light districts with a male source who thought it would help me better understand some part of my research, and even a stare can feel aggressive to me under those circumstances. It’s hard for women – in many cases this is also true of men – to walk around with any kind of physical confidence when you’re out reporting about violence.

"Ghost Town" ends on a more hopeful note than the rest of the piece. As someone who writes about border violence, how do you balance the need for stories of resilience and strength with the realities of trauma?

One thing I try not to do is to write too simplistically about the “hero” victims of trauma – those who not only survive it, but who manage to grow from the experience and even give back to others in some way. Those stories are inspiring and readers love them, but to me, they are the exception rather than the rule, and they don’t reflect the more typical, everyday experience of living with the effects of trauma. What I’ve witnessed is that trauma is much more grueling and cruel. Even the strongest survivors have their ups and downs; some of them may feel like they’re drowning for months or even years. A few literally die from the experience – in the case of the young women’s killings in Juárez, I know of several of their fathers who either grew really sick and eventually passed away, or else took their own life. This is a much bleaker reality to write about. It’s also much more challenging for the writer, both emotionally and in terms of craft. But even if my family sometimes playfully calls me a “Debbie Downer,” the idealist in me still believes that this is the reality we must communicate if we expect the rest of the world to care and to respond.

That said, there is always some humanity and even kindness that shines through in the most painful moments. When I’d routinely visit one of the mothers of the Juárez female victims – a woman who had spent several years battling severe anxiety and depression – her four-year-old grandson would always offer me a cup of water when I sat down, and then walk me out to my car at the end and ask me to bring him some candy the next time. That always made his grandmother and me laugh and temporarily forget the chilling details she had just spent the afternoon sharing with me. The fact that this woman even got out of bed in the morning and made breakfast for the rest of her kids was a sign of resilience, given her ongoing sense of despair.

I do keep saying that in the near future, I’m going to start alternating between writing heart-wrenching and heart-warming stories. A few years ago, I was at a point where I desperately needed a break from writing about dark subjects, and I asked my then-editor at Texas Monthly if I could write a piece about high school students who were attending the Texas All-State band convention. It was meant to be a goofy story about band geeks – of which I had been one – yet I ended up being really inspired during the reporting as I was reminded of the profound mark that music-making leaves on youth. It was then I realized how much I’d had my mind wrapped around the destruction that human beings are capable of, and not around the beauty and meaning we’ve also managed to create. So, I do think I’m more disturbed now by acts of crime because of my ongoing exposure to it, but I’m also more easily moved by human creativity and connection. I guess you can say that writing about violence has expanded my range of emotions on both ends. It’s deepened my awareness of the mystery of life.