Q&A with Aaron Bobrow-Strain

In Their Own Words: Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Aaron Bobrow-Strain
Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is a professor of politics at Whitman College, where he teaches courses dealing with food, immigration, and the U.S.-Mexico border. In the 1990s, he worked on the U.S.-Mexico border as an activist and educator. He is a founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington State.

Bobrow-Strain’s most recent work, The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez, tells the true story of a Mexican teen mother journeying through the U.S. immigration system and the obstacles she faces. Taking us into detention centers, immigration courts, and the inner lives of Aida and other daring characters, The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez reveals the human consequences of militarizing what was once a more forgiving border. With emotional force and narrative suspense, Aaron Bobrow-Strain brings us into the heart of a violently unequal America. He also shows us that the heroes of our current immigration wars are less likely to be perfect paragons of virtue than complex, flawed human beings who deserve justice and empathy all the same.

We spoke with Bobrow-Strain via email ahead of our free virtual program with him May 19 at 6:30 pm Central. Read on to learn more about Bobrow-Strain, his activism, and how he navigated telling this story as a white man without making it about him. Then be sure to register for our free virtual program here!

American Writers Museum: You’ve been described variously as an activist, a sociologist, a journalist — how did you define your approach to Aida’s story? Who did you come to it as?

The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Aaron Bobrow-Strain: I’m an interdisciplinary scholar-activist, with roots in ethnography, political economy, and immigrant rights work. If I’m honest, a big part of me went to Douglas, Arizona in search of straightforward political arguments about the border. That was not a good initial approach. By immersing myself in the collaborative work with Aida over years, I learned that her story was so much more than an illustration for any political argument, and that I had to tell it like that. With the help of Aida, her family, friends, and dozens of other community members, it became a story about a real, complex, flawed, brilliant person. There are still plenty of political critiques in the book, but the power of a narrative bearing faithful witness to Aida’s life goes far beyond that.

AWM: About the border in general — is the way we are writing about it changing? Are we more open to stories that are nuanced and multi-faceted now, or has that regressed since 2016?

ABS: There’s a perennial tendency to sensationalize and exotify the border. You see this not just pre- and post-2016, but going way back. I’ve read journalist dispatches from the 1910s brimming with tropes that wouldn’t be out of place in border reporting today—the wily border bandit (now a “narco”), the blank-eyed refugee child (now an “unaccompanied minor”), the dangerous erotically-charged red light district, the clever fixer who slips between countries and cultures with ease, the sleepy cantina with a dark secret… The border comes across like the bar in Star Wars sometimes.

A lot of this stems from well-intentioned efforts to capture the intense experience of living life across language, cultural, and political borders in a place defined by flux and movement. Some of the exotification, though, is just racist. I remember when a reader affiliated with publishing (not my amazing editor or his staff!) gave me feedback on a draft saying something like, “Can’t you make Agua Prieta seem way more sinister and threatening—more like Sicario?” Ugh!

This was the challenge I set for myself: Do justice to the horrific violence that vulnerable people experience every day on the border, but try to do this without reinforcing stereotypes of the border (or its people) as generally or inherently violent. Make sure it’s clear that violence foisted on the border today is the direct result of policy choices made in Washington DC and Mexico City.

“Aida believed that telling her story was a chance to take all the horrible experiences she’d been through and turn them into something that could make a difference in the world.”

I would also say that the borderlands are still too often portrayed only as a backdrop for stories about the drama of migration, smuggling, and border enforcement. It was really important for me to spend a lot of time learning about mundane details of everyday life and history that had very little to do with the actual border. I learned early on, for example, that for most of the past 100 years, the Phelps Dodge smelter was far more important to Douglas than the border. The smelter gave the town its identity and its sense of a place in the world. Its closure in 1987 was the biggest trauma to rock the town—nine years before border crises began to hit. Although Douglas has this crazy, unique border location, in a lot of ways it is not that different from the town in Wisconsin that lost its washing machine factory or the place in Iowa where the bean cannery closed. It would have been impossible to understand how people responded to the steady militarization of their town through immigration enforcement without understanding the impact of the smelter closure.

AWM: When you approached Aida, what kinds of concerns did she have about her story being told in this way, and how did you address them in your work?

ABS: We talked about the potential risks and benefits a lot. I steered the conversation towards this at some point pretty much every time we met. Aida talked with her therapists, family, and her partner at the time about the project. The idea of having someone write a book about you wouldn’t necessarily click with a lot of people, but it did with Aida. She believed that it could be a part of her healing process and that telling her story was a chance to take all the horrible experiences she’d been through and turn them into something that could make a difference in the world.

“I would do my best to portray her, not as a demon or a saint, but as a real, complex, flawed, brilliant person.”

Two years into the research, Aida and I decided together that we would split proceeds from the book in three ways—a third for her, a third to fund work with people experiencing gender violence on the border, and a third to me to cover the costs of research and writing. In the course of all this, whenever we met, I made three commitments to Aida:

First, that she could end the project at any time if it didn’t feel right to her. No matter how far along we were, I was prepared to stop.

Second, that she would read drafts throughout the process and that we would make it as collaborative a process as possible. And, if she ever revealed something in an interview that was too personal in retrospect, she could tell me and I would take it out. She didn’t end up wanting to take anything, but we did make a lot of decisions about the book collaboratively. For example, we went back and forth together for a long time about whether to use real names. In the end, we decided to err on the side of caution with pseudonyms, primarily to protect her family members’ privacy.

Third, that I would do my best to portray her, not as a demon or a saint, but as a real, complex, flawed, brilliant person. That her story would matter in itself, and just not as an illustration for a set of political arguments. Some of these commitments might have rubbed hardcore journalists the wrong way, but they are much more the norm within the world of ethnography and activism from which I come.

AWM: You have extensive history working as an activist on immigration issues — did Aida’s story change how you saw your previous years’ work at all?

ABS: It made me very aware how much U.S. immigration debates turn on an impossible binary pitting flawless, high-achieving, innocent “good immigrants,” who deserve sympathy and rights, against supposedly bad “criminal aliens” who deserve all the punishment they get. As, Rosie Mendoza, a badass formerly-undocumented social worker who works with people experiencing domestic and sexual violence on the border who plays a key role in the book, often says: “Humans make mistakes. Immigrants can’t.”

But Aida’s account did not disavow her very flawed and imperfect past, or solicit anyone’s pity. It just burned with pride and sufficiency and power from having survived by the seat of her pants time and time again.

If you follow the threads of Aida’s death (the one she survived) and her life (the one she is still fighting for) you will see that she challenges those of us who look at immigration and the border from a more privileged position to recognize that undocumented immigrants whose messy human lives don’t fit into our good/bad binary (which is to say most people) are still deeply part of their communities. They are active members and makers of their communities, regardless of whether they fit external images of “perfection,” “innocence,” or “achievement.”

“Aida had known all along that the book would make a difference in the world…but she hadn’t known how much of a difference it would make in her own life to have people see her, ‘not like trash,’ but like a ‘real hero. That floored me.”

AWM: Were you concerned about being accused of cultural appropriation, of somehow trying to trump the stories being told by people like Aida in their own voices? How did you negotiate your responsibility as a writer alongside your identity?

ABS: Coming into this project as a white man—even one with years of experience working in Mexico and on the border and doing immigration work—I knew that the risk of me missing things, misunderstanding, or exploiting people’s stories was huge. I put a lot of work into trying to get this right. Actually, it was the thing that kept me awake at night for years.

For me, doing the project ethically meant, first and foremost, making it as collaborative as possible. Aida and I were in continual conversation about every aspect of the book. She reviewed drafts and shaped the narrative. This extended to making sure that her family and many other people who appear in the story could give feedback on drafts.

It also meant engaging with scholars and activists of color, particularly women, through every stage of the project–people who could read drafts and understand the benefits of a book like this, but also its risks in a very immediate way. Often, after people read a draft, the first question I asked was simply, “Should I publish this?” The feedback, critique, and encouragement I received through that process deeply shaped the book.

In the end, it’s not for me to say whether I handled this well. It’s been moving to see Latinx immigration activists and border residents praising the book’s sensitive handling of challenging topics. I am always learning about ways I could do this kind of work better, though. The most important feedback has come from Aida. As I mentioned previously, she called me a while back to say that she had known all along that the book would make a difference in the world (she is confident like that!), but she hadn’t known how much of a difference it would make in her own life to have people see her, “not like trash,” but like a “real hero.” That floored me. I would rather not have gone through the years of anxiety about the ethics of this project, but I also don’t think it would have gone as well if I hadn’t.

“For me, being American has some incredibly positive connotations, but it also means having to live with and reckon with the fundamental rot of inequality and racial violence at the heart of our system.”

AWM: Some of your previous work engages food as a way of telling stories of immigration and history — do you think that’s a valid way of encountering other people and cultures?

ABS: Food is a great window onto all kinds of bigger questions. Writing White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, which was about 100 years of debates over industrial sliced white bread, I learned that when we, as a society, argue about what counts as “good food,” we are almost always really arguing about things like class and status, gender roles, or the meaning of responsible citizenship. That approach is a bit different from your question about the validity of cultural encounter via food, but I think it helps. In my case, I was turning the food lens around: using a loaf that seemed bland and “cultureless” as a way of trying to get U.S. readers to encounter their own histories in a new way.

AWM: What does the word “American” mean to you? What does it mean to “be American”?

ABS: That is a tough one, especially right now, when the current crisis is so clearly laying bare the fundamental rot of inequality and racial violence at the heart of our system. For me being American has some incredibly positive connotations, but it also means having to live with and reckon with that fundamental rot.

AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past, who would it be and why?

ABS: Novelist and folklorist Américo Paredes, early defender of human rights on the border and incomparable chronicler of borderlands culture. There is a richness and a beauty and a creativity to life in the borderlands that often gets left out of reporting solely focused on border “crises.” Paredes captures that. (Also his prescient name! Américo Walls).

“I’m a visual thinker, so images are key to my writing research: Google Street View, YouTube, and historical image databases are some of a writer’s best unsung friends.”

AWM: What are you reading now? Who should we be reading?

ABS: I seem to be on a big kick of Irish and Canadian writers lately. Will that get me kicked out of the AWM?

AWM: Absolutely not. Our founder, Malcolm O’Hagan, is an Irish expat whose lived in the States for a while now. Plus good writing is just good writing, which brings me to my final question: Any advice for aspiring writers?

ABS: I’m terrible at making up stories, so, for me, the most important advice is, “research, research, research.” When I encounter writer’s block or am scribbling nonsense, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t done enough research. I’m a visual thinker, so images are key to my writing research: Google Street View, YouTube, and historical image databases are some of a writer’s best unsung friends. Aida and I, her in New York and me in Walla Walla, would spend hours looking at Google Street View for Douglas, Arizona, with me asking things like, “Wait, is that the tree you were talking about, or is that one it?” On YouTube, I found homemade videos from a Mexican club where an important scene in the book takes place that dated to around the same time as the scene. I also found incredible historical footage of the inside of the prison where Aida’s father spent many years.

Our virtual author talk with Aaron Bobrow-Strain takes place May 19 at 6:30 pm Central. Sign up for the free and live chat here. To purchase a copy of The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez please visit our bookstore partner Seminary Co-op or visit our page at Bookshop.org.

American Writers Museum presents a virtual author talk with Aaron Bobrow-Strain on May 19 at 6:30 pm Central

This program is part of the Jeanne M. and John W. Rowe Program Series, presented in conjunction with special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which you can now visit virtually.


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