With all the talk about illegal immigration in the United States (especially in the context of Arizona’s controversial SB1070 law), Urrea offers a balanced and sympathetic description of Mexican emigration that supporters and opponents would do well to read. But this isn’t a scholarly assessment or weekend supplement puff piece—it is fiction based on Urrea’s own experience and conveyed by his skillful writing. It is also one of the funniest books I’ve read this year.
The isolated village of Tres Camerones is threatened: a band of drug runners has stumbled across it. More importantly, there are no eligible men in town—they’ve all gone to “Los Yunaites” to find work. Nayeli, one of three girls who have recently finished high school, realizes that when she looks around during a showing of The Magnificent Seven and sees that there are no pregnant women in town. The lone young man, Tacho (Nayeli’s employer and friend) is the proprietor of his own business, but he is known by all to be gay. In a burst of enthusiasm, Nayeli proposes that she, her two girlfriends, and Tacho cross over into the U.S. and recruit their own Magnificent Seven—Mexican men who will come back and save Tres Camerones.
With money raised by her Aunt Irma, the five set out on their quest. Their ruminations on the United States (the water does what to you?) reveal a set of preconceptions and misunderstandings that sound eerily familiar. But they also face the dangerous border crossing, separation from one another, and the dawning realization that their quest may be doomed.
Nayeli also has a second, personal, quest. She wants to find her father, with nothing to guide her but a postcard from Kankakee. She and Tacho set off in an unreliable van, encountering illness, suspicion, and outright hostility along the way. Although it features a heroic librarian, the end of that journey is the book’s emotional low point. It is also the start of a new chapter in Nayeli’s life.
Like most traveling tales (I dislike the obscure term picaresque), the story is easily envisioned as a series of episodes that come together in a unified whole. The funniest of these highlight the quirky characters Nayeli and her friends encounter, but there are dark and disturbing ones as well—life on a dump outside Tijuana, the terror of committing to a border-crossing smuggler, the vulnerability of rural innocents in a viciously corrupt city.
Urrea is the perfect translator for this cross-cultural journey. Born in Mexico, his parents moved to San Diego, where he moved between the Hispanic and Anglo cultures on a daily basis. His nonfiction reporting on the problems of the border informs the story, but this rollicking journey is his own fully-developed creation. Urrea also finds a grain of hope in what seems like an intractable relationship between Mexico and the United States, reminding us that this debate is not about populations but people.
Check the WRL catalog for Into the Beautiful North.