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Even now, six years after Charles Bowden died, I still roam around bookstores, hoping I missed an old title of his, or wondering if an editor has unearthed a long-lost manuscript. Ever since I first encountered Bowden’s dark and deeply personal reporting about the Southwestern desert and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands almost 20 years ago, his writing has ensorcelled me.

I’m not the only one aching for more of his insights and experiences. The University of Texas Press, the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust and the Lannan Foundation created the Charles Bowden Publishing Project, whose goal is threefold: re-releasing the author’s out-of-print books, publishing three new manuscripts uncovered after his death, and commissioning new books about him. So when a package arrived last year—delivering America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden and Bowden’s own Dakotah: The Return of the Future—I spent a sleepless night, plowing through the essays and Bowden’s own words.

Those pages reminded me how much words and memories matter, how complicated it is to mourn, and why we need to be honest about our heroes. 

My father died the year before Bowden. Our relationship was a complicated one, and his final words to me over the phone, before going into surgery I didn’t expect him to survive, were inscrutable at best, and at worst, cruel. Months after his death, I scoured his white Toyota pickup truck, which my mom had passed along to me, convinced that a message was hidden inside, one that would set his soul to rest within my heart. I flipped up the seats and pulled out every tool and zip tie, draping his raincoat around my shoulders, checking out the double sets of Coleman camping silverware. Finally, I popped open an ancient tobacco tin, hoping it held a clue.

But it didn’t—just a roll of toilet paper.

I never met Bowden in person. We exchanged emails over the course of a few years—short messages about everything from writing to the bird species in his backyard. But I remember the first time I read his words. Working as a cocktail waitress in Albuquerque, I was transitioning between two careers and renting a room from a fisheries biologist. When the biologist learned I’d never heard of Bowden, he slapped Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America into my hands. Within pages, I was mad for Bowden’s style. His ferocity and pace of storytelling inspired me—as it did countless other journalists—to not shy away from infusing reportage with emotion. I frequently re-watch an interview he did with the radio producer Scott Carrier, in which he speaks of the moral obligation of the writer. He calls it a crime, a sin, to use that gift to write “advertising jingles” instead of the truth about the world around us.

“It’s easy to make a living telling the people in control they’re right,” he told Carrier, adding, “Look, you have a gift, life is precious. Eventually you die, and all you’re going to have to show for it is your work.”

In America’s Most Alarming Writer, the best essays are those that don’t idolize Bowden or indulge our compulsion to honor the dead. Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis, for example, writes about arguing with Bowden when they were fellow reporters in the 1980s, even as he looked up to him. Davis describes him as “one part poet, one part novelist, one part conservationist, one part dirt-digger, one part bottom-feeder, scraping literary insights from the dregs of the earth.” Leslie Marmon Silko deconstructs his coverage of the border and violence, suggesting that he likely embellished some of the dangers he described, while Judy Nolte Temple writes about his frequent objectification of women's bodies. Molly Molloy, Bowden's partner, has a heartbreaking essay that will resonate with anyone who’s walked behind a loved one. And both Molloy and Bowden’s ex-partner Mary Martha Miles also describe editing his work, complicating the idea of his intrepid life by acknowledging their labor.

Meanwhile, Dakotah’s chapters jump around from Bowden’s reflections on his family to his ruminations on Lewis and Clark, the forced migrations of Sioux tribes across America’s “heartland,” and even Daniel Boone. The slim book fails to offer a full picture of any one story, and I finished it feeling low. So I re-read his classics, like Down by the River and Killing the Hidden Waters, seeking the growling, confident voice I wanted to hear.

Trying to cast the dead as either heroes or demons often leaves one empty-handed, like I was when I popped open my dad’s old tobacco tin. Wending my way through the pile of Bowden’s books reminded me that a person’s final words are rarely definitive. Seeking the truth means looking for messages in the right places. And as Bowden taught his many admirers, seeking the truth also demands we open our hearts, interrogate our own assumptions—and acknowledge that people are always more complicated, terrible and lovely than the characters we craft on paper.

Laura Paskus works for New Mexico PBS and is working on an investigative project in collaboration with FRONTLINE. Her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate, is forthcoming from UNM Press. This piece originally appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

Dakotah: The Return of the Future

By Charles Bowden

University of Texas Press

184 pages, $24.95

America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden

Edited by Bill Broyles and Bruce J. Dinges

University of Texas Press

352 pages, $29.95

Published in Literature

Emilio Gutierrez Soto had to flee Mexico a decade ago to seek asylum in the United States—because people there took his journalism too seriously.

He may get sent back because an American judge does not take it seriously enough.

In 2005, on page 10 of El Diario, a Juarez daily, Gutierrez published a story with the headline: “Military personnel rob hotel in Palomas.”

“Six members of the Army, and one civilian who have been positively identified, robbed the guests at a motel in this town on Friday night, taking from them their money, jewelry and other personal belongings,” the story read, according to the translation of Molly Molloy. “The robbers then fled, but not before threatening their victims with death. Yesterday, the victims gave up their right to file formal complaints about the events to denounce the crimes against them, facing the possibility that the threats they had received would be carried out.”

Gutierrez later told Charles Bowden, a great chronicler of the border, that army officials were angry about his story and summoned him to a hotel in the center of the town of Ascension, near Chihuahua Ciudad. He was told: “If you don’t come, we’ll come looking for you at home or wherever you are.”

When he got to the hotel, he was surrounded by soldiers. “You have no sources for that information,” the general said. He asked Gutierrez why he didn’t ever write about the narcotraficantes. Gutierrez confessed that he was frightened of them.

“You should fear us, for we fuck the fucking drug traffickers, you son of a whore. I feel like putting you in the van and taking you to the mountains so you can see how we fuck over the drug traffickers, asshole,” a general said. 

“You’ve written idiocies three times, and there shall be no fourth. You’d better not mention this meeting, or you’ll be sent to hell, asshole,” another officer said in a final sendoff.

Gutierrez knew they were serious.

In April 2007, he shared a byline with a reporter named Armando Rodriguez. The story was about a third reporter, Saul Noe Martinez Ortega, who “was found wrapped in a blanket and appeared to have been dead for several days, possibly after his kidnapping that took place last Monday, April 16, in the city of Agua Prieta, Sonora.”

The penultimate line is a gut punch: “It appears that an agent of the Municipal Police was present at the abduction of the journalist, but he did nothing to hinder the kidnappers.”

Molloy added a brutal translator’s note about Gutierrez’s co-writer: “Armando Rodriguez was a well-known crime reporter for El Diario de Juárez. He was shot to death at point-blank range on his way to work in Ciudad Juarez on Nov. 13, 2008.”

Rodriguez had been threatened, but ignored the threats.

“I can't live in my house like a prisoner,” he told the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I refuse to live in fear." Then he was gunned down in his driveway, with his 8-year-old daughter in the back seat.

Gutierrez had left for the United States in June 2008, a few months before the murder of Rodriguez.

Molloy, a border and Latin America specialist at the New Mexico State University Library, hit on the insane logic of the infernal machine that governs the asylum process.

“He received a death threat and he fled rather than waiting around,” Molloy said when I called her up to talk about Gutierrez. “Emilio is seen as in less danger because he is still alive. If you take a threat seriously and flee for your life and seek asylum, people aren’t going to believe your story because you’re not tortured and you’re not dead.”

Gutierrez and his son were separated and held in custody for seven months. Shortly after Obama took office, they were freed. Although Obama was often called the Deporter-in-Chief by immigration activists, Gutierrez attributed his release to the American president.

When he was finally released, Gutierrez and his son went to live in Las Cruces, N.M., in the house of some friends. Bowden had also recently moved to Las Cruces to live with Molloy. Bowden published Gutierrez’s story in Mother Jones, while Gutierrez had a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S.

“He was sort of at a loss for what he was going to do,” Molloy said. “He wanted to write newspaper stories, but he really couldn’t, because he’s living in the U.S. and couldn’t write in English.”

Like so many immigrants, he had to piece together a living, working in landscaping and food service as his request for asylum dragged on. The request was finally denied last December, and Gutierrez and his son Oscar were locked up once again.

Among the reasons that Judge Robert S. Hough gave for denying his request for asylum was a claim that Gutierrez wasn’t really a journalist.

“He didn’t really believe that Emilio was a journalist, because he didn’t produce many articles he had written,” Molloy said, noting that Gutierrez’s house had been ransacked before he left—and that Mexican papers weren’t as fastidious as, say, The New York Times at keeping clips. Nevertheless, she compiled well more than 100 stories bearing his byline—and translated a few of them.

Still, Gutierrez and his son were put in a van and driven toward the border—and what he thinks would be certain death. A last-minute stay halted the van and bought Gutierrez a little more time and another shot at asylum. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia (of which the Independent is a member), the National Press Club and other journalistic organizations have come out in support of Gutierrez.

But the Trump administration’s deep hostility to those seeking asylum from Mexico, along with his hatred of the press, does not bode well for him.

Charles Bowden often wrote that Juarez was the city of the future. Trump’s attacks on the press sound an awful lot like the Mexican general who threatened Gutierrez a decade ago. Trump hasn’t started to actually kill journalists—but sending Gutierrez back to Mexico would be a start.

Baynard Woods is a reporter for the Real News Network and the founder of Democracy in Crisis, a project of alternative newspapers across the country. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter: @baynardwoods.

Published in National/International