Spotlight: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
‘I’m an abnormality,’ says Silvia Moreno-Garcia. ‘It’s always been an uphill battle for me and my agent. The system isn’t designed to accept other points of view.’
The other points of view she is talking about are Mexican stories and perspectives which land outside the limited subjects the publishing world (and film and TV) think audiences want: stories about cartels and immigrants crossing the border into El Norte (The North). Moreno-Garcia’s bestselling novel Mexican Gothic broke free from those restrictions: a historical horror story, about a young woman investigating her cousin’s claims that her husband is trying to murder her.
Her new book Velvet Was the Night is a shift away from her fantasy work. A historical noir thriller about a bored secretary and a gangster, the novel is set against the backdrop of 1970s Mexico City at the beginning of the Dirty War, a period of violent repression of student and leftist activism. 2021 marked the 50-year anniversary of the Corpus Christi Massacre, which inspired Moreno-Garcia’s book. Also known as El Halconazo, or the Hawk Strike, because of the involvement of government-trained paramilitaries Los Halcones (the Hawks), the events of 10 June 1971, the day of the Corpus Christi festival, saw around 120 student protesters killed.
‘There had been a previous large attack against students in 1968, which people are more familiar with, as it coincided with the Olympics in Mexico,’ explains Moreno-Garcia. ‘1971’s is less famous but significant. After 1968, there was a new guy in power, and people hoped the new guard would be different from the old guard. But from 1971, it became clear nothing had changed, which intensified the guerrilla activity and launched the government into an even more aggressive campaign against leftists. That would last the whole decade.’
What happened in Mexico was part of a global picture. ‘All over the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a focus on women’s rights and student rights and young people wanting to do things differently, and governments who saw this as dangerous. They were saying things governments didn’t want to hear and asking for concessions governments didn’t want to give.’
With support from the CIA, who trained Mexican operatives in the torture, capture and interrogation of activists, the Mexican government was successful in suppressing the demands for change. ‘No one went to jail,’ says Moreno-Garcia angrily. ‘All the people involved in the massacres, violence or torture, and all the politicians, they died in their beds, happy, or went on to bigger, better political careers. After 1971, there was the same power structure in place, the same players, and you didn’t see change in the country. We had the same party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), for decades. No one was ever brought to justice. It’s even hard to know how many people were killed, disappeared or tortured because we don’t have acknowledged counts. It was only a few years ago that Mexican textbooks included 1968 and the student movement as something that happened. It’s as if the United States’ official textbooks didn’t include the Vietnam War.’
Moreno-Garcia grew up in the north of Baja California, close to the US border, but now lives in Vancouver, Canada. Through her books, she hopes readers will discover there is more to Mexico than common perceptions. ‘Nobody should use my book as an encyclopaedia,’ she suggests. ‘But so many people know so little about Mexico, and have such stereotypical images and a limited conception of the country, its history and people, so hopefully when I write about it they acquire something more expansive and eclectic.’
The success of Mexican Gothic has made life easier for her. But she doesn’t believe the publishing world has suddenly become more open to diverse voices. ‘As well as having this stereotype of only narco or immigrant stories, there are narrow expectations of what constitutes Mexican literature or Latin American culture,’ Moreno-Garcia argues. ‘For Latin America, people say One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gabriel García Márquez, and think that’s that. People assume all our literature is “magic realism”. There’s a massive body of work that doesn’t fall into that category. I have my own small micro print and we recently put out The Route of Ice and Salt, an English translation of Mexican author José Luis Zárate’s erotic gay gothic horror novella, set aboard the boat taking Dracula to England. That’s the sort of book no one associates with a writer from Mexico or Latin America. Maybe that will change one day.’