By Carole Reedy
Crossing borders is not a modern phenomenon. The walls, guards, surveillance, and divisions between countries that borders establish have been with us for centuries; the border between Mexico and the US is currently a highly-charged focus of the Trump administration.
Many of our favorite writers explore not only the physicality of borders, but also the emotions evoked and the effect on the lives of people seeking new territories. These authors communicate the human side of the story, in contrast to politicians who view virtually every issue from an economic, self-serving perspective.
Apart from the social/political aspect, this selection of books are great reads and exceptional literature.
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
For years this book has been among my top favorites reads, right behind the epics of Proust and Hugo. Boyle’s other books also remain in my memory and haunt me, but in a most positive way. The Tortilla Curtain’s focus is the juxtaposition of illegal Mexican workers and their rich employers in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles. When I think back on this book I first remember Boyle’s descriptions of the wealthy residents’ attempts at guarding their palatial homes and their silly yapping dogs. Humorous, pathetic, and heart-wrenchingly tragic, this tale is an emotional roller coaster in a short volume that compresses a much larger problem.
Many of Boyle’s novels explore the situation of the outsider. East is East is another Boyle novel exploring contemporary America and stereotypes. This one concerns a Japanese refugee who jumps ship from a freighter and finds himself trapped in a posh resort off the coast of Georgia. Boyle’s humor, sarcasm, and brilliant observation of details make for a deeply enjoyable and always disturbing read.
The Crystal Frontier by Carlos Fuentes
Sadly, Fuentes died before he could be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, surely well-deserved. He is admired for his worldly lifestyle as a writer, intellectual, and Mexican diplomat. Together with Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez, Fuentes is considered one of the four principal representatives of the literary phenomenon known as the Latin American Boom that grew during the 60s and 70s.
Among his popular novels are Old Gringo, Aura, Where the Air Is Clear, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and, one of my favorites, the short but clever El Naranjo.
The Crystal Frontier gives us a sprinkling of different characters, from businesspeople and students to visitors and those living on the border. Fuentes explores the fallacy that all Mexicans are poor and dying to get to the US. There is profit to be made by Mexicans as well as Americans and Fuentes’ main character, with a business on a border town, is one of these.
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros has written many novels, but if you’re going to sample just one make sure it is Caramelo, published in 2002. The novel is semi-autobiographical, with settings in Chicago and Mexico City, both places I have lived and loved, so the whole idea of this novel grabbed my attention from the start.
Centering around the members of a family, the story moves from the Mexican barrio in Chicago to San Antonio and then Mexico City, thus encompassing a family heritage, the Mexican-American immigrant experience, and Mexican history. Cisneros was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (a “genius grant”) for her books. She is best known for The House on Mango Street, published in 1984.
Into the Beautiful North and The House of Broken Angels by Luís Alberto Urrea
Urrea is one of the most popular novelists writing about the relationship between Mexico and the US. A sense of humor, vivid characters, and ease of reading make his books deeply enjoyable as well as thought-provoking. Fellow The Eye writer Marcia Chaiken writes from Israel, where she and husband Jan are studying Hebrew: “Urrea is one of the few authors able to combine gritty realism with side-splitting humor. His characters are deeply flawed and unconditionally lovable.” When you read Into the Beautiful North, you’ll recognize Marcia’s comments are spot on.
Urrea just published the semi-autobiographical The House of Broken Angels, which is receiving rave reviews from all the most notable publications. I think the Washington Post sums it up best: a big, sprawling, messy, sexy, raucous house party of a book, a pan-generational family saga with an enormous, bounding heart, a poetic delivery and plenty of swatter. It’s not perfect – in fact, even its flaws are big – but it stays with you, and it stands as a vital reminder of the value of fiction in defining the immigrant experience.
The New York Times headline for its review declares, “Urrea is Making His Fans Cry.” The author is quoted in the review: “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” saying he hopes it will be a “poke in the eye to all the people who have these insane anti-immigrant angers.”
The Crossing, All the Pretty Horses, and Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
These three novels make up McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, books about life on the range and the cowboys who traverse from the Southwest US to northern Mexico. It has been called a masterful elegy for the American frontier.
Although I’m not a fan of the brevity of McCarthy’s style and believability of the women characters, after hearing comments made by a dear friend, former librarian and avid reader Larry Boyer, I may have to reconsider. He wrote me, “My favorite Mexican border book is All the Pretty Horses. Some of McCarthy’s books are so bleak, but this one is just beautiful and evokes a time now long gone and not to be revived.”
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The plethora of beautifully rendered reviews for Herrera’s short but poignant novel has my fingers rapidly typing the title into Amazon for a quick e-book purchase. Valeria Luiselli, a new favorite, young, and innovative Mexican writer, expressed it best for me: “Yuri Herrera must be a thousand years old. He must have travelled to hell, and heaven, and back again. He must have once been a girl, an animal, a rock, a boy, and a woman. Nothing else explains the vastness of his understanding.”
Having just read the book’s first paragraph, I challenge you not to continue. The novel explores the language and transition swimming in the minds of the migrants who cross. There are many levels to this short masterpiece. One reviewer called the novel “The Odyssey at the Mexican border.”
Translator Lisa Dillman tells us in her notes at the end that she prepared this translation as always by reading widely for theme, tone, and style. She claims the most helpful piece of literature was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which was “comparable and analogous and can be read on different levels, one of which is ‘the end of the world.’”
Yuri Herrera received his PhD for Hispanic Language and Literature from UC Berkeley. Currently he teaches at the University of Tulane in New Orleans.