October 10, 2023
Alma García’s debut novel All That Rises is about secrets, lies, border politics, and discovering where you belong—within a family, as well as in the world beyond. It is a novel for the times we live in, set in a place many people know only from the news.
In the border city of El Paso, Texas, two guardedly neighboring families have plunged headlong into a harrowing week. Rose Marie DuPre, wife and mother, has abandoned her family. On the doorstep of the Gonzales home, long-lost rebel Inez appears. As Rose Marie’s husband, Huck (manager of a maquiladora), and Inez’s brother, Jerry (a college professor), struggle separately with the new shape of their worlds, Lourdes, the Mexican maid who works in both homes, finds herself entangled in the lives of her employers, even as she grapples with a teenage daughter who only has eyes for el otro lado—life, American style.
What first sparked your interest in telling this story?
All That Rises started its life almost twenty-five years ago as a single short story—my first published story, as it so happens. It won a debut writer’s award. I was floored.
Fearing that this might be the only writing success I might ever have, I set out to keep the protagonist of this story alive. And so, I began a collection of linked stories that took place in the neighborhood and amongst the neighbors of this protagonist: a young Mexican-American gardener grappling with the loss of his complicated father. Semi-consciously, I understood this neighborhood to be located in El Paso, Texas, where I grew up, though this setting remained quietly in the background.
Little did I know that this was to be the start of an epic journey, in which—owing to a variety of major life transitions and the fact that it was eventually made clear to me that the manuscript wasn’t working as a collection of linked stories—the book would be transformed, over another decade and a half, into a full-blown novel. As I completely re-envisioned the story I meant to tell, centering different characters and entangling their families with one another, I discovered that the characters had become a part of something far larger: the history of El Paso itself, which is inextricably bound up in the cultures, legacies, geography, and the ever-evolving politics of the borderlands. What I also discovered was that I had been writing this book because I wanted to tell stories about the kinds of people I grew up with—people with their feet in more than one culture, whose lives I hadn’t seen much of on the page.
How has your relationship to the Southwest and the U.S./Mexico border changed over time?
I lived the first part of my life in El Paso, and later, in Albuquerque. My extended family still lives in the El Paso area and has roots in the area that go back for many generations. With a few exceptions, I have gone back to visit for most of the years of my life.
Of course, it’s a different world there now than it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. In those days, as was common, my family thought nothing of crossing the border to buy groceries or go to dinner; my older relatives would go over to get their hair done or for dental work, and of course, then as now, many families (though not mine) are split between El Paso and across the border in Ciudad Juárez. That’s to say, it was fairly free-flowing and easy to go back and forth; the two cities felt very much like two sides of the same coin. Sadly, a number of realities in recent years have chilled that dynamic—safety issues south of the border, the new complexities of mass migration and the politicization that surrounds it; a horrific act of home-grown terrorism in 2019 that demonstrated how white nationalism can force its way even into a Mexican American-majority border city.
But as much as things have changed, there is also much that remains deeply familiar to me. During the years I spent writing this book, as the city transformed from a mere blip beneath the radar of the national consciousness to a place that became the epicenter of the news again and again, I felt even more urgency to portray it with all the depth and complexity that is its due, and to reflect its inhabitants back to the world in a way that centers their humanity—even when that sense of humanity is complicated.
In any case, it might be ironic that I wasn’t able to write this novel until I moved away from the border itself. I’ve lived in Seattle since 2001, and it was only here—in the cool, dark, misty, green Pacific Northwest—that I was able to separate myself enough from the world that I came from in order to reflect upon it, to truly see it for what it is, to be able to re-enter it in my memory and in my imagination—at least until the next time that I physically returned to it. There’s plenty I miss about this world. For sure, there are days I miss being in a place where I never have to tell anyone how to spell or pronounce my name.
Do you think family dynamics are an ideal way to reflect border issues?
It might be more accurate to say that, on the border, border issues are frequently reflected in family dynamics. There are the literal realities of those whose families are split between two cities and two countries, of course, and the cultural legacies that anyone with a family history in the area inherits (and often passes on in complex ways). Heritage itself is a fraught concept, especially as who or what people understand themselves to be is sometimes at odds with a family’s beliefs or perceptions or records. Add to this brew the fact that the border is always about duality—where you “belong,” and where you do not belong. From there, it’s not a very big leap to start asking yourself where you belong within your own family, and how that determines where you belong in the world beyond.
The border is also a powerful metaphor, and this metaphor can manifest itself in the psychological and emotional borders people create between themselves. When people become entangled with one another—whether by accident or intention or geographical location or by blood relation—the boundaries between them sometimes blur in unexpected ways. Where does one person’s world end and another’s begin? Who is “us” and who is “them”?
The political issues facing the border today are many, as you reference above, and the book also brushes up against a number of related phenomena unique to this area, including Border Patrol culture, the economic inequality exacerbated by the American-owned maquiladora system in Ciudad Juárez, and the prosaic struggles of domestic workers whose well-being depends on access to the American side of the border. Yet with the many up-to-the-moment social urgencies and emergencies issues you could draw upon, the novel is set in 2005 and 2006, rather than the present day. What’s behind this choice?
There are two reasons for this. One was practical: Originally, this book was set in the present, whatever “the present” means when you’re writing a book over a very long period of time. But the current events, politics, and even the landmarks of the city changed so much over the years, it became impossible to keep up. The world was evolving—and continues to evolve—rapidly, and I needed a fixed point from which to examine it.
The second is a reason that proved to be far more thematically meaningful. The mid-2000s marked a period of time in which the border first began to noticeably tighten, but it was still a deeply different world than the one we find ourselves in today. You can trace the development of our current affairs to this time; had we but known, we could have seen a lot coming. As one character puts it, “The problem with history is that by the time you realize it’s repeating itself, it’s already happened.” I think the book offers a fair amount to unpack around that notion—especially in a time when what happens at the Texas/Mexico border has implications far beyond the borderlands themselves.
Do you have an idea for your next novel or other project that you would like to share?
I can only provide you with a hint, because what’s new in my writing world is currently evolving as well, wildly and deeply. Suffice it to say that there is likely to be intrigue surrounding secret identities; the unholy trio of fact, fiction and fake news; and the shape-shifting world of ethnic impostors. Suffice it to say that the story might be set in a place just slightly further north than this one, but I am still keeping one foot in a place I recognize as home.
Alma García is a writer whose award-winning short fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine and most recently in phoebe and the anthology Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. This is her first novel.