When I first heard StoryCorp’s “A Grave Responsibility” episode, I was immediately heartbroken and inspired. In the episode, forensic scientist Dr. Lori Baker describes identifying the bodies of immigrants who died while trying to cross into the United States.
She talks about a skull on a sheriff’s desk, with pens in the eyes. I knew I had to write the story behind the skull — why and how did it get there, was the sheriff just a mean man who wanted to show off his power, or was it a reminder of our mortality and the lives he was put in place to protect? It was in this headspace that “Skeleton Sheriff” was born. It was published in Moonsick Magazine in March.
As a journalism major and someone who wants to remain informed, I’ve been reading articles and opinion columns on illegal and legal immigration, the detention centers that immigrants and their children are held in, and the often terrible ways they’re treated.
The United States is not united at all on how we should treat migrants and immigrants, this varied group of people who are escaping gang violence in Central American countries, war in Syria, or trying to give a better life to their children.
I wondered if the skull had belonged to one of these illegal immigrants who attempted to cross the border. I wondered about what borders mean and how we so clearly create separations between ourselves and keep others out. I thought about the family that person’s skull belonged to — if they knew if s/he had died, or if they still held hope that they might make it and create a new life.
While writing, I worried about appropriating someone else’s story. I worried that I was becoming yet another white privileged writer who was giving voice to those who already had their own and could speak for themselves. Though I’m not Mexican and never had to cross the border into America, my ancestors were victims of the Holocaust and some of them escaped Poland and Russia to travel to Ellis Island. A border crossing of their own. That’s how I came to be born and live in America. This is not to say that these histories are equivalent. They are rich and diverse.
While I still worry about this, and hope that I did justice in the piece, I believe that as writers we’re able to enter into other spaces, ideas, dreams, minds, and bodies and write from them. This dreaming in another’s shoes is how I’m able to learn more about them and myself, and attempt to write a version of truth. This is not a truth — this is fiction. But I recognize that fiction can and does have power, and representation is so important.
Borders and crossings have always been a part of humanity’s history. And they will continue to be important, with increasing unrest and violence in the world. Even when the events of the world become dimmer, people often retain a sense of hope in trying to get to other places where they might survive and have a better life.
I hope “Skeleton Sheriff” was able to encompass some of the thoughts and complexities of borders and living in a border town. I hope you enjoy reading the story.