(Review) By Ruben Martinez, Henry Holt, New York, 2001
By Carol Amoruso, Hispanic American Village Editor
“Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” is a story about crossings and not crossing and is a little bit of a memoir. Ruben Martinez, Mexican-Salvadoreño-American journalist, was taken with the tragedy of three mojados brothers (amongst Mexicans, mojados–“wetbacks”–is not derogatory, but signifies arrival: having made it across the border and, in most cases, having found work) who were killed when the coyote-driven truck carrying them and 23 other undocumented migrants across the Tijuana-San Diego border turned over in a high-speed chase with the U.S. Border Patrol.
In straightforward, journalistic prose, Martinez recounts the months he spent on the immigrant trail, beginning with a stay in Cheran, the town of 30,000 Purèpecha Indians in Michoacan, home of the Chavez family.
Jaime, Benjamìn and Salvador Chavez are survived by 2 brothers, their mother and one sister, and 2 households, one in Cheran, the other in Watsonville, California where they and Florentino and Fernando worked in the strawberry fields. They were returning to the fields after a visit “home” when they were killed.
Martinez’ story is not so much one that pieces together the events of the crash, nor the lives of the three youths, but it is a migrant’s tale, revealed through the crossings of the various Chavez family members and profiles of Cheranos in Mexico and the various locales throughout the States where they come for work in factories, on farms, gardening. “Where there are jobs to be had in low-skill, low-wage industries, sooner or later the Mexicans will be there,” says Martinez. (p232)
In 1994, responding to “la crisis” which sent thousands of poor Mexicans northward fleeing a collapsed economy, the U.S. erected a 12-foot high steel wall on the Tijuana, San Diego border to try to stem the tide. Operation Gateway was soon followed by Operation Safeguard, in Nogales, Arizona; Operation Hold the Line, in El Paso; and, in McAllen, Texas, Operation Rio Grande. All this means, though, is that the same numbers of migrants will try to slip in, most of them outside of town where security is more lax, but where the hazards of the desert, raging rivers, vigilante farmers, border bandits, and, still, the Border Patrol, are great. In the latter half of the 1990s, well over 3,000 people died attempting to reach safe ground in the United States. One wonders at times whether it’s worth the risk and the hardships.
Living amongst the migrants, Martinez is inevitably brought back to the more internal crossings he’s had to make and the price he’s paid for assimilation, an assimilation begun two generations before when his grandfather breached a more hospitable border to find a no more hospitable other side. His reflections speak of the conflicts those who begin a new life for themselves must face: “We are Mexicans in America, Americans in Mexico: we are neither, we are both. Within us, the spirits meld and battle: a quintessential unhappy love affair and, therefore, painful and exhilarating. We cannot love ourselves without hating ourselves; we cannot inhabit one territory without forsaking the other; we cannot be one, must always be two and more than two: the sum of our parts will always be greater than the whole.”
The crossings, for the Chavez brothers and the others on the migrant trail, gave them a new identity, one conferred on them by those left behind. At the end of the road many will become norteños, strangers in their home towns, more North American than Mexican. In exchange, Cheran, and San Luis Potosì, Guanajuato, are transformed and must accommodate to a new class structure, a new economy, infected yearly by the seasonal returnees and even by the weekly phone calls from new-sounding voices with unfamiliar experiences and ways of life.
Martinez spends some, but little time on the working conditions undocumented Mexicans find here. There are instances when he reports a farmer’s benevolence to his wetback workers despite union claims against him. I’m not sure whether this is due to ingenuousness or a decision to leave the realities of abuse to others. (See reviews of “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez” by Jimmy Breslin and “Sweatshop Warriors” by Mariam Chiang Yoon Louie elsewhere The Hispanic-American Village archives.)
Great numbers of migrants, farm hands mostly, come back over the border when the harvest is done, for patron saint fiestas, and for the Christmas holidays. They bring with them all the trappings of American life: the dress, speech and gold chains inspired by African-American B-boys, their oftentimes neighbors, but not as often friends, and other signs of material well-being–boom boxes, VCR’s blenders, speeded up used cars.
Relationships between men and women, husband and wife, are changing on both sides of the border. Most Cheranas will remain in an awful relationship at home, having married and borne children in their early teens, with a typically alcoholic and abusive husband (Maria Elena, the boys’ mother, blessed the day their alcoholic, wife-beating husband died) rather than invite the stigma and the economic vacuum of throwing the bum out. Alcoholism is portrayed as endemic amongst the men. (Martinez notes, however, that a woman seen drinking will be marked as a whore.)
But now we find women who make choices. Women who are insisting on coming north against their prohibiting husbands’ orders–partly to keep concealed their casas chicas, their living arrangements with other, sometimes even gringa, women. Now they can work out of the house, earn their own paycheck and thus gain some independence (and, says Martinez, send the mistresses packing). Rosa Chavez, the young men’s sister, married to macho Wense Cortez, puts her foot down and joins him in St. Louis where he is a farm hand. In Cheran, Martinez notes that women are wielding an influential voice in town affairs, although none have as yet been elected to political office.
In Watsonville, we find Reyna Guzman, Cherana, thrice-divorced, single mother of 5, union activist, the first Mexican to move into her all-white suburban neighborhood, patrona of her own strawberry plot. She’s fought for, and in many ways, attained the American dream of betterment and independence. But the accoutrements remain Mexican: the homespun altars, the food in Reyna’s garden and on her table, certain values and traditions with which she’s raised her kids.
There’s Miguel Ramos, too, in contrast to Reyna, with major land holdings, the boss of all 5 Chavez brothers, an alleged union buster, who began at the bottom picking strawberries. “More than anything, Miguel considers himself an American.” (p320) Ramos believes the migrants should stay up north and let go of Mexico as he has sought to do. “They should stop resisting feeling American,” he maintains, and assimilate completely, become a part of and contributor to the social and political system here.
I read parts of “Crossing Over” during a long ride on the New York subway. At one point, I dozed off to be awakened by two Mexican men in black felt cowboy hats singing mariachis, accompanying themselves on guitar. They smiled touchingly at each other as they played then turned their smiles to us with effusive “Gracias” as we gave generously to their poignant joy. They had crossed over, and were making a go of it. I looked down at my book: “Cultural vertigo again. It’s always the music that does it to me…recalling a place and time far removed.” (p259)