A recent review of her poems described Sheila Black as a writer who "does not shrink from expressing opinions that run against the current of common thought." Indeed, in such poems as "Physical Therapy," "Reconstruction" and "What You Mourn," Black critiques the medical hegemony of disability while emphasizing the importance of disability community with insight that can only arise from the authority of personal experience.
In How to be a Maquiladora, however, Black departs from the subject of disability to reveal another side of her experience. This slim volume of poetry portrays life in the borderlands between her home of Las Cruces, New Mexico and the Mexican border. The book is published by Main Street Rag, the same publishers who first sponsored Jim Ferris' now famous book The Hospital Poems. As Black explains in a note to title poem, maquiladora is a term which originally meant a factory on the U. S.-Mexico border, but has come "colloquially to refer to factory workers who are almost all young women."
In Black's own words, "a lot of the poems were written around the subject of the murdered women of Juarez. In the last twelve years, over 350 young women and girls have been murdered in Cuidad Juarez. The crimes have never been solved, though the F.B.I did come in and say it could not be the work of a single serial killer. Some think that conditions on the border - the miles of factories, which hire only women, and the fact that most people in Juarez are under 30, come from somewhere else, and are not surrounded by family--has created a climate of epidemic violence, particularly against women. This whole situation has been intensified by the behavior of the police in the state of Chihuahua who have been generally hostile to the families of the murdered--in many cases telling outright lies or giving wrong bodies, false autopsies etc. As a result, people feel a tremendous sense of betrayal, suspicion, and fear - a consensus that the institutions of community are corrupted and cannot be trusted."
Between the cover and the title poem at the end of the book, Black lays out a country within the United States unknown to many people. To those familiar with it, the descriptions ring achingly true. In "Desert Life" she writes,
In the evening here, darkness ascends, scrup and strip mall swallowed by the violet mouth of the night, which is oblivion, which is desire, all those cars driving, their passengers immune to the hard land, fixed on the sky, larger here than anywhere, so that it is no surprise we feel little attachment to the ragged pieces of this world, starved for the gods of razors, needles, contraband carried over the border lines, the toxic crystals that rush over you like sugar.
This landscape is
home of desert rats and gamblers, once night stands, false ids, naked starts
the ten dollar girl who trolls the corners chips the asphalt with her worn heels
but also of
the mothers with their plastic bags of bargains
the woman chopping onions on the counter next to the oven sheathed in grease.
As Black says,
so many souls desaparecidos.
Many of the poems directly address the climate of violence which surrounds the lives of the maquiladoras. One of the most haunting of these is "Opal," a poem in which the violence of the environment and the violence done to the young women who are part of it, co-mingle in a single fabric.
Juarez, across the Stanton Street Bridge, where the trash has settled becoming thick and oily in the sun, where you run your fingers along the rail and bring them up oxidized the beautiful black of coal, of stoves, of mines they found three girls, dead, link by a necklace of barbed wire, around them like a sham feast emptied oil in paper cups, newspapers spread like place mats, today's tabloids
How to Become a Maquiladora is not a book from which the author is absent, but in which she dwells, like the anthropologist, a participant observer. She wonders about her own relationship to this landscape and in "Paso Del Norte" she says:
No tourists across the bridge except the grifos, the young who still pretend to be in love with death. I, too, used to be able to find what is beautiful in all this lucent despair.
but now, at times, trying to find some sort of stability in the midst of it all admits
Today I despise my own sincerity my face as in a photograph, clean scrubbed hair combed and gelled.
The great strength of How to Become a Maquiladora lies both in its ability to invoke a genuine sense of place through the use of details that, like the land, are deceptive in their apparent spareness and in its ability to show us that lost sense of beauty that intensifies despair.
For one who must live as a maquiladora, Black can only conclude
This is what you must do to survive: ...Do not attempt to gather things of value, the bright smooth-face televisions, The glossy shoes with high heels. Hoard only objects which will tell them nothing of who you are or where you came from.
This is not a book about resolutions, easy emotions or easy answers, but in answer to Black's question, "Who in such a place could care for my small story?" - We could.