Mexico Is Not One Country: A Q&A with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Article by mark

by Mark Haber


BAREFOOT DOGS, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut collection of stories, is unlike anything you’ll read this year. It tells the stories of a single Mexican family, the Arteagas, when the patriarch is taken hostage and the dangers of remaining in Mexico are too vast. Ruiz-Camacho, a widely published journalist, reports on a world disrupted and transfigured. The foreign landscapes of Austin, Madrid, and the suburbs of California--all places to which the Arteaga family tries to adjust--come into a hazy focus. The United States especially, with its innocuous swimming pools and landscaped lawns and a McDonald’s on seemingly every corner, is a soft landing pad for members of the family, but strange and painful in its insipid harmlessness. 


Loss is an important concept in BAREFOOT DOGS, and each story approaches the subject in a new and provocative way. The stories are heartbreaking and funny, accessible and strange; they deal with exile, fate, and grief, all written with aplomb. Each story evokes the sense of losing one’s internal compass--language, culture, identity, class--when one’s family is scattered across the world. The longing for Mexico City, for home, is palpable. There are plenty of books about drug cartels and the violence of corruption, but few examine the aftermath of the people left behind. BAREFOOT DOGS explores the vague and tenuous universe of the displaced family, a universe most of us are lucky enough only to read about.




Brazos Bookstore: Your stories describe, both directly and indirectly, a Mexican family’s diaspora. Did you want the different situations of the Arteagas to symbolize the fates of other Mexicans, or simply to be about a single family?


Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from all social and economic backgrounds have been displaced by the wave of violence that has raged through the country in recent years. Many of them have sought refuge in cities like Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. The circumstances depicted in the book might be particular to the Arteagas, but the sense of dislocation and grief and loss after the disappearance of a loved one, or as a result of forced exile, is, unfortunately, widespread among many Mexicans these days.


BB: An interesting aspect of the stories in BAREFOOT DOGS are the different social classes that are affected by the patriarch’s kidnapping/murder. Was it important for you to show the different social classes--not only the immediate family, but also the housekeepers and the help?


AR: Mexico is actually not one country, but two: the one inhabited by a minority that gives orders and makes the big decisions that set the course of the nation, and the other one, populated by the majority, who follows those orders and must endure oligarchic decisions in which they hardly ever have a say. Nothing describes this duality like the relationship between servants and masters in a traditional middle-class Mexican household. Both ends are bound by a complicated array of intense sentiments–from love to resentment to regret to admiration to envy to desire–that cut both ways. I meant to show the various forms of impact that a life-changing event can have on the different members of the same family--housekeepers included. But of course, as it also happens in real life, the members of the working class usually get the worst part of the deal.


BB:  Were there specific authors who influenced the writing of these stories or short story collections that inspired you?


AR: Right when I started writing the stories that would end up being part of the collection, I took a class at UT with Pete LaSalle called “Metaphysical Messages,” in which we had to read a great deal of material that was not only new but overall strange and unexpected to me, from María Luisa Bombal's NEW ISLANDS to Nabokov's TRANSPARENT THINGS, and even several of Mark Strand's stunning, weirdly playful, ultimately moving poems. The whole experience of reading these works through that lens was inspiring and encouraging and liberating all at once. These works somehow resonated deeply with what I wanted to do in fiction, and sanctioned some of the literary pursuits that, I hope, will come across in BAREFOOT DOGS: to reflect the parallel realities that we often experience in our lives, to capture the emotional import of trauma, and to investigate humans' usually flawed, helpless reactions to the worst possible scenario.


In addition to that, a book I kept coming back to as I wrote these stories, and which, curiously enough, I've found myself coming back to continuously again now as I'm translating BAREFOOT DOGS to Spanish, is José Emilio Pacheco's BATTLES IN THE DESERT. It tells the story of a middle-class eight-year-old Mexico City kid who falls in love with the mother of one of his friends. It takes place in the late forties, right when Mexico was going through a big social and economic transformation and there was a lot of hope about the future in the air--Mexicans at that moment still believed the country was bound for greatness. It is such a short novel--what you might call a novella--but it manages to encapsulate everything that Mexico was and, for better and for worse, still is. Furthermore, it is gorgeously written. Pacheco, who sadly passed away last year, was, above all, a poet, one of the best the Spanish language has ever had. For Mexicans of my generation, the one born in the early seventies, LAS BATALLAS EN EL DESIERTO, as it was originally called, was a must-read. I kept going back to it for inspiration in the use and cadence of language, but also because I was writing about Mexico City from a distance, as a way to remain tethered to the place where my characters originated.


BB: Is it important to you that the reader follow the Arteaga Family Tree while reading BAREFOOT DOGS, or is it something that the reader can choose to overlook and read the stories on their own? 


AR: They're free to completely ignore it. I had originally placed it at the beginning of the book, but I noticed that it could influence readers' expectations not in a positive way, or give the wrong idea about the kind of story that BAREFOOT DOGS tells. So, I moved it to the back, in the hope that the reader would only discover it upon finishing the book. I thought it would be fun, and hopefully intriguing, to have a graphic representation of the family relations that populate the book, and also to pique the reader's imagination. Some of the characters in the family tree don't appear in any of the stories. I sometimes go back to it myself and start thinking about them, wondering what happened to them, how this event changed their lives in ways that remain beyond my understanding and my knowledge.


Barefoot Dogs: Stories By Antonio Ruiz-Camacho Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476784960
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Scribner - March 10th, 2015

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