These American Lives
Ann Heppermann spent last year in El Paso creating “The Real Housewives of Juarez.” All photos by Debbie Nathan
“Last year, when I first discovered Emily Cruz’s blog,The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juarez, I read all of it—two years worth of over 60 lengthy posts, recalls Ann Heppermann, a radio producer for almost 15 years. “Months later, I came to El Paso. When I first met Emily and started talking about some obscure stuff on the blog, she was taken aback to be face to face with an obsessed fan.”
Heppermann worked closely with Cruz, helping her fashion her blogging about border life into a 22-and-a-half minute audio diary about her and her husband, Raymundo’s, experiences on the border. They live in Ciudad Juarez, the violence-ridden Mexican city just across from El Paso, Texas. The Cruzes moved there in 2010—after Raymundo, who was undocumented, realized he could never be legalized in the U.S. unless he returned to his native country, Mexico, —and have been there for the past three years. The piece ran last week on Public Radio International’s This American Life. As an intimate portrait of one couple’s love and marriage, the story achieves a rare intimacy. In so doing, it invites audiences to meditate deeply on the failure of immigration policy, and that failure’s effect on real people.
This is not the first time Heppermann has created programs dealing with immigration. She is obsessed with showing the human side of the issue. She painstakingly coaxes sound from people, then makes art from what she records.
Heppermann grew up in Arizona and attended graduate school there, studying applied anthropology in Flagstaff, not far from the Grand Canyon. She dates her interest in immigration stories to 2002, when she was a host for Flagstaff’s Arizona Public Radio station.
“I was doing the news in the morning,” she recalls, “and we had a wire service and could choose pieces for the newscast. It was summer and there were a lot of deaths in the desert, a record number. One day, when I was in the booth, I got a call from the station manager. He said, ‘Border deaths are a southern Arizona story. We’re in northern Arizona. You shouldn’t always read those stories.’ I was taken aback and started collecting the stories off the wire. I was trying to figure out what to do with them. Decoupage them? Put them on a wall?
“Then the Third Coast International Audio Festival had their first ‘shortdocs’ competition. The theme for submissions was ‘Thirst.’ That just clicked. It was my first foray into talking about issues of immigration and thinking about an artistic way of doing so.”
With co-producer Kara Oehler, Heppermann created And I Walked, a radio piece about undocumented immigrants becoming dehydrated, and many dying, while attempting to cross the border through Arizona in the summer.
To craft the piece, the producers used conventional techniques, such as interviewing people in migrant shelters and detention centers. Unconventionally, however, they wove these narratives into a recording of writer Charles Bowden. He was living in southern Arizona then. They brought a copy of his essay “Blue” to his house and had him read parts of it. The essay is about Bowden’s crossing the desert himself, in order both to understand the immigrant journey and to burn out grief about his wife, who had just succumbed to cancer.
Heppermann and Oehler included music made with a vibraphone and a saw. And they “gathered all the sounds” in the desert, Heppermann remembers. “Even the wind—we gathered it. And we did a ride along with a medical unit that goes out along the border looking for crossers in distress. We went to a detention center and talked to a guy who was going to be deported. He talked to us about having been surrounded by coyotes who were waiting for him to die.” The producers did not translate all his Spanish; they wanted listeners to hear his voice, not just his words, firsthand. “The medical people were checking him with a stethoscope, telling him to breathe. In the program you hear his breath.”
For a program aired in 2007 and 2008, a series titled One Thing, Heppermann and Oehler asked individuals from several refugee communities to describe the most meaningful possession they had been able to take with them when they fled their native countries.
Interviewees lovingly described everything from home movies they’d rescued, to a song that two Burundian women composed in a refugee camp—and sang in duet for One Thing.
Heppermann carefully chose translators to assist during these interviews, including, for the singers, a Burundian social worker in Phoenix. These interviewing techniques, Heppermann says, created a powerful entrée that made it “much easier for the refugees to talk about their journey and what had happened to them.”
After One Thing, Heppermann worked with her husband, composer Jason Cady, to turn the refugees’ voices and narratives into multimedia art. The result was Chorus of Refuge. It’s a haunting installation that uses six boomboxes, various radio frequencies, and ingenuous vocal mixing, to evoke displacement, wandering, and cultural intercourse across borders.
Heppermann had a different idea for The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juarez—rather than interview Emily Cruz, she thought Cruz herself could make an audio diary.
“The first night we met, I trained Emily to use a recorder, and I played her some audio from the the Tyrieshia Douglas segment” of public radio station WNYC’s series on women boxers, a collaboration with The New York Times. Heppermann wanted Cruz to experience the audio diary form and feel comfortable with it. “I firmly believe that if you’re doing an audio diary, it’s a collaborative process,” she says. “To me, Emily was already a journalist: a storyteller and blogger. My role was to bring that voice out.”
Heppermann visited the border twice to get to know Cruz, her husband and her friends, other U.S.-citizen wives married to deported, Mexican husbands. Cruz took Heppermann home with her to Juarez, where Heppermann spent nights—despite the city’s reputation as very dangerous. The two went to house parties, picnics in the park, and other places where deportee families live their lives. But mostly, she hung out with Emily. “When I was in El Paso, I was constantly going to her place of work and picking up sound and dropping off the recorder,” she says.
Debbie Nathan, who assisted on the production of “Housewives,” shot photographs of life in Juarez during her stay.
Cruz had assignments to fulfill as she worked on her audio diary. Heppermann “came up with a list of questions for her to ask her husband. I don’t speak Spanish and it was an obvious barrier between me and him, but I had her interview him—and she asked him the whole list. In the piece that aired, she says she has to finish up in eight minutes so he can watch his telenovela. But the interview went on for 40 minutes. He missed his novela for sure.”
“It was really important to me that Emily do the translation of her husband,” Heppermann adds. “Translation is so often a problem in this kind of work, maybe because the work gets done so fast, and people don’t think about the translation. But it’s so important. Bad translation can ‘other’ people.”
The result of the two women’s collaboration is deeply intimate. Cruz got so comfortable with the recorder that she would “go out onto the porch and talk into it as she smoked. It was amazing,” says Heppermann. “Listening to the This American Life piece, you will notice all these sound moments that highlight her humanity—like when she sighs, yawns, lights a cigarette.”
Finding these sounds is Heppermann’s way of developing a political aesthetic. “I like to think about ways that can be artistic in telling stories about immigration and immigrants,” she says. “A lot of times, we get so wrapped up in policy, and in standard stories, that we forget the human element—not that the standard stuff isn’t important. But we need more than talk about the laws, the protests, the political spectrum. We need the human side.”
Heppermann decries this superficiality, which does little to overcome xenophobic approaches to considering immigration, even as she defends immigrants’ right to just be, in all their ordinariness, the way everyone else has that right. “I firmly believe that if you try to portray someone as human, you must be complicated and nuanced. Why do journalists simplify so much? I think it’s this whole idea that either you demonize the “other” or you exonerate—but either way, you are still treating them as the other. And maybe we’re afraid that if we show the everyday of someone’s life, it will be kind of boring. Yet there’s something to be learned by just following the everyday.”
Debbie Nathan is a freelance journalist in New York City who has lived and worked extensively on the U.S.-Mexico border. She served as assistant to Ann Heppermann for This American Life’s “The Real Housewives of Juarez.”