Mountainfilm: John Vaillant’s “The Jaguar’s Children”

Mountainfilm: John Vaillant’s “The Jaguar’s Children”

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It is an old story that gets retold every time Congress debates immigration policy – or when a particularly gruesome account of violence against illegal border crossers provides grist for 24-hour news mills.


Still, the sad truth bears repeating and can’t be stated strongly enough: traversing the U.S.-Mexican border has become increasingly dangerous. Would-be immigrants face kidnapping, murder, and rape at the hands of violent drug cartels and ever more ruthless human smugglers. Crossing unforgiving desert areas exposes travelers to heat exhaustion and dehydration. People in search of the American Dream find instead a nightmare, with hundreds dying every year while attempting to enter our country.

The Heritage Foundation had this to say on the issue:

“…illegal immigration is dangerous not only to the illegal immigrants themselves—it is costly to societies and nations as a whole. In order to fight illegal immigration and reduce the toll on human lives, the United States must take a comprehensive approach of increasing border security and improving legal immigration procedures and public diplomacy, as well as fostering reforms and greater efforts to crack down on human smuggling in Latin America.”


Five years ago, journalist and celebrated author John Vaillant came to Telluride Mountainfilm to tell the story behind the story of his award-winning “The Tiger,” the true and truly gruesome tale of a hunt for a murderous cat near the far-eastern border of Russia. You could hear a pin drop in the packed house.

With “The Jaguar’s Children,” John turns his attention to a whole other breed of predator, coyotes, shorthand for the criminals who traffic in dreams. He returns to the 37th annual gathering of the tribe to talk about this story at the Festival over Memorial weekend, May 22 – May 25. (Passes to Mountainfilm here.)

John Vaillant

John Vaillant

“The Jaguar’s Children” is John Vaillant’s debut novel, his first non-fiction work, but the plight of Hector and his companions appears to have been ripped from all-too-familiar headlines.

The plot follows Hector Lazaro, the protagonist (and narrator) and 14 fellow travelers, Mexicans from Oaxaca, the southern state where corn was first developed. The group paid human-smuggling coyotes roughly $2,000 each to transport them to America, “el Norte.” To make the journey, the men and women climbed into the tank of a water truck and were sealed in. Hector, and his buddy César, who gets injured, hunker down towards the back. Because it’s a short trip from their boarding point in Altar, Sonora, across the border to Arizona, everyone on board carries only a liter or so of water and meager possessions. Then truck breaks down. The coyotes take off with all the passenger’s money in search of a mechanic – but, big surprise, don’t return. A thirst for freedom is overwhelmed by the thirst for water.

“For anyone wanting to truly understand the onslaught of illegal Mexican immigration to the United States, look no further than this book. It’s a timely, gorgeously written example of how great fiction can prove more illuminating than even the most stirring nonfiction,” wrote The Dallas Morning News

“Vaillant’s triumph is the way he invites readers to know Héctor so intimately as he waits for salvation or death,” raved The New York Times. 

“A terrifying border tale…though the geography of the story is that of Cormac McCarthy, the plot shares more territory with Edgar Allan Poe…an end that is improbable, dripping with irony, and entirely satisfying. Border fiction has a new top-shelf title,” Outside

According to an interview in Salon, the seed for the “The Jaguar’s Children” “was planted nearly a century ago when Vaillant’s grandfather, who studied archaeology in the 1920s at Harvard, went down to Mexico and wrote what stood for two generations as the definitive history of the Aztec nation. Although Vaillant never met his grandfather, he has spent much time near the border and in Oaxaca for the past three decades.”

In “The Jaguar’s Children” Vaillant addresses the age-old issue of The Other:

“When those Greeks were hiding in that horse they wanted to attack the city,” Hector ponders, “and when the terrorists were hiding in those planes they wanted to attack the country, but when Mexicanos hide in a truck, what do they want to do? They want to pick the lettuce. And cut your grass. There are brave fighters in my country, I swear, but most of them are dead or working for the narcos.”

He also takes no prisoners on the subjects of illegal immigration, human trafficking and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which large corporations exploited for more wealth, destroying the Oaxacan way of life.

And through Hector, John Vaillant ultimately proposes a fanciful solution to the ongoing crisis:

“Maybe this is our destiny — not for Mexico to lose her people or for America to lose her soul, but for all of us to come together — the United States of Améxica. It will be a new superpower, but with better food.”

Are you listening Heritage Foundation?


To learn more, click the “play” button and listen to my conversation with John Vaillant.

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