“Trash”, by Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny: in Mexico, female solidarity head-on

March to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in Mexico City, November 25, 2022.

“Trash” (Basura), by Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Julia Chardavoine, Le Bruit du monde, 250 p., €22, digital €15.

The trash can: a perfect concentration of the splendours and miseries of the contemporary world, for the Mexican Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny. Set in Ciudad Juarez, a border town between Mexico and the United States, his first novel plunges into the huge open-air dump that made his “reputation”. A handful of protagonists live there or rub shoulders with it. Alicia, a very young girl, has settled there, alone, since her adoptive mother and her new boyfriend abandoned her. She survives there by salvaging and selling what she can. Griselda, a female doctor from El Paso, across the Rio Grande in Texas, is conducting research there to better understand the “public health and environmental issues”. Finally Reyna, born a man under the name of Raymundo, directs and lodges, not far from there, a small band of transsexual prostitutes. Three female destinies, therefore, which intersect and interact, without knowing what unites them – and which the reader will eventually discover.

Aguilar Zéleny tactfully explores the inequalities between these women, all natives of Mexico, depending on whether they live on one side or the other of the border. For lack of financial support, Alicia had to leave school and sink into destitution, while Griselda, adopted by her aunt on the death of her parents, was able to benefit, just a few kilometers away, at the Texas, a solid college education and the comforts of home. As for Reyna, if she found a well-paid job in the United States, where she had emigrated, she had to prostitute herself, back in Mexico, to be able to survive as a woman.

Rage to survive

By alternating these three testimonies in the form of monologues or dialogues, the novel gives a vibrant voice to their stories. Sad, harsh, but treated without catastrophism, they bring out all sorts of feelings: guilt for Griselda, the luckiest; rage to survive for Alicia, the youngest; humor of despair and self-mockery for Reyna, the prostitute. Also varying the forms of writing – sometimes introspective, sometimes nervous or earthy – Sylvia Aguilar Zéleny nicely gives substance to these women, through their flaws and their hopes.

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But the book convinces especially by its painting of the bonds of solidarity which are woven between the individuals struck by the tests. Reyna, rejected by her family because she is homosexual, has become, much more than a madam, a protective mother for the girls who work under her authority. A quality that she will put to good use when the young Alicia, expelled from the dump, will no longer know where to turn. As for Griselda, the doctor, it is by going to live with her aunt, Meyla, stricken with a neurodegenerative disease, that she will give her back the support that she had given her after the death of her parents. If the term were not so overused, one would be tempted to speak of sorority in connection with these women weakened by all the dangers that surround them – violence of narcos, feminicides, precariousness, disease –, and who rely on each other others. But it’s about something else: a keen sense of responsibility and probity. So many qualities that this novel, endearing without excess of good feelings, delicately puts in the spotlight.

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