A book Review/Critique of a personal journey on the migrant trail
Ruben Martinez is a very complex man and author. He is an associate editor at the Pacific News Service, teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston, and was nominated for and won the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. Besides all this, he found time to write Crossing Over, his journal of why Mexican migrant workers cross the hostile border Mexican/ United States border to work for less than minimum wage. Martinez’s book is also am accounting of his own family’s past and their decision to stay in the United States and assimilate.
In an interview before publication, Martinez talked about the Loeb Fellowship and what it meant to him and about the book itself. In speaking of the Chavez’, he related how Wense and Rosa, one family that he tracked throughout the book, are parents of a small child, one of Maria Elena's grandchildren, and will probably stay in the United States rather then returning to Mexico. He talks about how, when the meat-packing company closed in Wisconsin, all the Mexican residents left to be absorbed into this vast nation or returned to Mexico until the need for more money forced them onward again.(1) This is the journey - the beginning, the middle, and of course, the end. But is it? Is that journey continuous? Is it never-ending? Will any of us see the completion of our own journeys and sit back in satisfaction? These are some of the questions that Martinez asks himself through the pages of Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail.
Martinez writes a strong book that shows how forcing migrants to cross the borders is a hazardous and often fatal journey, but a journey they willingly take to support their families in a country with little or no economic structure. He begins his journey with the death of three brothers: Benjamin, Salvador, and Jaime Chavez. Theirs were senseless deaths, caused by a border crossing guide called a coyote, who probably charged each of the brother’s one thousand dollars for this perilous journey. The coyote, not wanting to have his truck seized nor end up in jail, decided to speed on a rain-soaked, twisted road and, for his efforts, injured most of his cargo and killed three from one family.
Martinez humanizes this accident in a way that most people would not regard. He goes to the village and meets the family of the victims. He eventually lives with them, eats with them, listens to their stories, and gets drunk with them. He enters their lives and sees the “why’s” of this migratory movement. In doing so, he discovers the reasons his own family crossed over. He illuminates his points to the reader by example and not just with statistics, forcing them to see the migrants as people and not just illegal aliens.
The journey begins at the scene of the accident and then progresses to the village of Charan where Martinez arrives just in time for the Easter fiesta. He describes the village as small and the people desperately poor but populated by Indians still somewhat steeped in tradition and faith. His description of the parade of young and old men carrying crosses many times their own weight shows the deep religious aspect of these people’s lives. He also describes the hard drinking part of that same celebration as a fact of life there.
Martinez shows the grieving mother and family, some still willing to make the same perilous journey the three brothers made, regardless of the danger. You visualize the heartbreak of Maria Elena in her admonishment to others, “Keep your children at home. I don’t want another mother to suffer what I’ve suffered.” (34) Even as she says these words, she knows she has one son determined to make that journey.
Indian culture is dying in both Mexico and in the United States. The traditional ways are giving way to modern assimilation. In Mexico, traditions die because there is no way for families to make a living. The Indians immigrate to bring home money for survival, and in doing so, bring home differing values that cannot coincide with traditional values. For example, traditional healers live in conflict with medical doctors. However, in this little village, the old and the new work together. (83)
Martinez journeys with those escaping the poverty with hope for a better life. He crosses the border as an illegal. That trip brings home what his family once experienced when they had crossed over. He experiences the fears of those who do this once or twice a year. He meets with an entire underground of children much older than their ages indicate. He finds a clubhouse for this cast-off segment of society unable to take care of its own. For a few hours a day, the clubhouse affords these children a place to bathe, hot meals, and a place to experience life as it should be, not as it is. Martinez takes the reader deep within the bowels of the underground sewers. This - the humanity cast off by society, written off as hopeless - was one of the most emotional segments of his journey. (207)
His journey begins in Mexico and takes him to Warren, Arkansas; Norwalk, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Louisiana, and finally to Watsonville, California, the final destination of the Chavez brothers had they lived. In each of these states and the towns, the reader feels their struggle to survive and prosper from hard work and thrift. Those that make it across live quiet lives in the poorer sections, and yet manage to save enough money to either send home to family members or buy the temptations of their new land.
In Warren, Arkansas, the reader finds Martinez thinking of his father who, although Indian himself, sided with the Cavalry against the Indians on the radio and in the movies he watched. However, he detested movies such as John Ford’s The Searchers, starring John Wayne because Wayne portrayed a character “seething with hatred of the red man.” (222) His father, the son of immigrants, lives in a society that “receives a flood of goods and migrants from Mexico, but hates Mexicans.” (223) He himself calls Mexican immigrants “chusma”, or rabble, and yet detests Ex-Governor Pete Wilson for his anti-Mexican political stance.
From this introspection during his long drive, Martinez finally arrives in Warren, Arkansas and meets the Tapais family. Living in a white neighborhood, they are classified as a good, hard working family with few apparent signs of the poor, Indian village they left in Mexico. Yet, when the reader enters the house, they see what Martinez saw, the crucifix hanging on the wall, and the scarves with pictures of the Virgin Mother. You begin to realize that although the family left Mexico, they did not leave Mexico behind. They brought what they determined to be the important parts of their heritage. (227) Martinez finds basically the same relics in Norwalk, Wisconsin, (239-240), in St. Louis, (279) and in Watsonville, California. In each case study, they all adopt the outward material objects of the average American but they keep within what is important to them: their distinct language and their customs.
Why do they do this? Is it because they are afraid to show themselves different, thus possibly opening themselves up to INS scrutiny? Or perhaps is it because they are truly attempting to assimilate in a country of bountiful harvests, both literally and figuratively. These are questions that Martinez attempts to answer with the journeys; his own as well as the others.
There is so much to absorb in the pages of Martinez’s book that if the reader only skims the surface story, they will still come away satisfied. However, the real grit of what is not written but assumed in this book is found below the surface. The reader learns to respect these people who, until recently, remained to most as faceless, poor humans with no apparent roots. Martinez challenges the reader to ask more questions than his book answers. You close the book wondering what happened to Rosa and Wense. Did they ever return to Mexico to stay? Did they make it away from their family? Maria Elena comes over the same torturous trails that killed her sons to live in the United States with her family. What happened to her? Did she adjust to life here or did she get too homesick for Mexico and return?
In the epilogue, Martinez relates the story of a phone call he got from Wense, whom he asked for money to bring Maria Elena up from Mexico. But Wense was $500 short and needed that money to pay the coyote. Martinez lent him the money, and Wense said he’d pay it back. Martinez was leery of the payback but lent the money out of friendship. Wense was prompt paying the money back and thanked Martinez for being a friend and lending it to him. Shiftless? Lazy? Troublemakers? No! These were – and ARE - people just like you and me, your neighbors, your ministers, or anyone else who came to the United States in search of their dreams.
Before contact and defeat, there were no borders. Indeed, until the late 1800’s and 1900’s, Mexicans owned this land, cultivated it, and loved it. It was not until the West started running out of land to conquer and tame did they accuse the Mexicans of being in the way. The borders were not closed until then, but periodically opened when the U.S. needed crops harvested or menial jobs filled. Only then did the U.S. greet the Mexicans with open arms. During the war years, migrant workers fought in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps alongside the lumberjack from Washington State. Even today, President Bush acknowledges the contribution of the Mexican soldiers and posthumously awarded citizenship to those who died in Iraq. Even in death, the Mexican citizen is treated uniquely.
In conclusion, Martinez was asked about the borders now, post-September 11. He concludes that America’s fear of terrorists is strengthening again, and thus, borders are becoming strengthened. Crossing over is becoming more difficult, but as long as there are crops to pick, garbage cans to dump, beds to make in luxury hotels, tables to bus, and dishes to wash - and as long as Americans choose not to do these menial tasks - Mexicans will continue to fight the odds and cross the borders. Martinez’ own words in this interview say it best:
Martinez: “Nothing is going to change short term. I was just reading some political forecast, like a beltway forecast..."immigration — nothing until 2003." We are talking about immigration reform. It seems like that is pretty accurate. Nobody has the political will to risk their neck right now on a issue that people are so concerned about in a completely different way than they were before Sept. 11. Suddenly, it's not just those damn illegals. It's national security and terrorists. The anti-immigration lobbyists on Capitol Hill hold sway right now — the Center For Immigration Studies and those types.
Sept. 11 didn't do away with the border we share with Mexico. In the most optimistic short-run forecast, it would be really visionary thinking and a public presentation that said, "You know what, if you really want security on our southern border then the US has to work closely with our Mexican partners and develop a border plan."
It's such a hard sell right now. People want to think that that border is closed and protected. It's been beefed up. What I tell people is, "If these terrorists came from anywhere, it wasn't across the Mexican border. It was across the Canadian border. We spend billions of dollars fortifying this border and succeeded in killing 4 or 5 thousand people in a decade. Meanwhile, the people responsible for 4 or 5 thousand deaths at the World Trade Center — at least a couple of them — slipped in through Canada."(2)
(1) Robert Birnbaum. Identity Theory. Interview: Ruben Martinez. http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum31.html
(2) Robert Birnbaum. Identity Theory. Interview: Ruben Martinez. http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum31.html