The Grapes of Wrath, Mexican-Style

By Geri Smith


A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail

By Rubén Martínez

Metropolitan Books -- 330pp -- $26

One April dawn in 1996, a truck jammed with 27 undocumented Mexican migrants flipped over and crashed in California as the driver tried to escape arrest by the U.S. Border Patrol. Among the eight killed were three brothers from the Chávez family of Cherán, a small village in central Mexico, who were on their way to Watsonville to pick strawberries. The crash made headlines but was soon forgotten--little surprise, considering that 200 to 300 Mexicans have died each year since, attempting to sneak into the U.S.

The accident, however, captured the imagination of Rubén Martínez, a grandson of Mexican immigrants. To find out why so many Mexicans abandon everything familiar to embark on a dangerous voyage to an often hostile country, the California journalist proceeded to spend 18 months commuting between Cherán and U.S. cities where migrants live. He befriended the Chávez family and others in Cherán, accompanying them to concerts, bullfights, and bars and listening to their stories.

The result is an engrossing chronicle of migrants' lives. Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail is sure to become a favorite in university courses on the migrant experience. It is a sympathetic portrait of people who risk their lives, endure long separations from their families, and eventually change the character of their villages when they return--bearing money, new values, and new customs.

Martínez' book is timely, appearing as Washington rethinks its approach to the estimated 4.5 million illegal Mexican workers toiling in the U.S. economy. During a state visit in early September, Presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush created a bilateral commission to consider a possible amnesty for illegal aliens and the expansion of a guest-worker program. But the September 11 attacks cast a chill. Border security was tightened just as the U.S. slowdown was forcing legions of migrants to return to Mexico. Many Americans now are more suspicious of immigrants.

Still, the overall acceptance of Mexican migrants has grown. They take jobs at rock-bottom wages that most Americans don't want--and during the booming 1990s, the extra hands were much appreciated. Today, even the AFL-CIO supports immigration reform, eager to recruit Mexican workers at a time of dwindling union membership. Latinos are now the country's largest minority, and more than half of them trace their roots to Mexico.

Martínez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, delivers a visceral picture of life in poor, rural Mexico that makes it clear why Mexicans migrate. With U.S. jobs paying 10 times what Mexicans can make at home--if jobs even exist in their villages--staying in Mexico is simply not an option for most. As he says, "the future is in America, the past in Mexico."

Martínez focuses on Cherán, population 30,000. But he could be describing any number of villages where most adult males have bolted for the U.S., leaving behind families, sometimes for years, wiring them $150 to $200 once or twice a month. The migrants pick tomatoes in Arkansas, fix plumbing at Colorado ski resorts, build furniture in North Carolina, and harvest grapes in Oregon. It's a symbiotic relationship: The U.S. needs them, and Mexico needs the $8 billion they send home annually.

With a storyteller's eye for color, the author describes the virtues and vices of small-town Mexico, from the close-knit families to the heavy-drinking despair of jobless men. Cherán, a farm town with no local industry, has been forever changed by returning migrants, who cruise around in American vehicles blasting hip-hop music.

Most migrants dream of returning home with enough savings to open a business. But many settle in America, altering the social fabric of towns such as Norwalk, Wis. (population: 564), where 12 members of the Enríquez family toil six days a week at the Valley Pride meatpacking plant. Around 70% of the plant's 250 employees are Mexican, doing hazardous jobs that most locals shun. The Enríquez family drives to Cherán for the annual fiesta in a fleet of five 1989 Chevy Silverado trucks. They own houses in Norwalk and in Cherán. The family patriarch longs to retire in Mexico, but Martínez doubts he will. "Home," he says, "is beginning to look more and more like Wisconsin."

Martínez doesn't provide a policy-wonk argument for easing immigration controls. Crossing Over is more of an impressionistic portrait, with observations that at times border on the fantastic: Do we really believe that pigeons in Mexico City succumb to pollution and fall out of the sky? On occasion, Martínez seems to deviate far from the book's main point, as when he spends page after page describing local witchcraft traditions and the antics of drunken, itinerant bullfighters.

Still, he excels at telling the story through Mexican eyes. President Fox calls Mexico's migrants "heroes" for providing the country's third-largest source of foreign revenue. While pushing for an amnesty, he's also trying to create jobs in towns that send the most people to the U.S. But that may be pie in the sky: Until wages in Mexico improve, it's inevitable many will go north. Indeed, that's the path chosen by María Elena, the Chávez clan matriarch. A few years after her three sons' deaths, she borrows money from Martínez to pay a smuggler to help her join the rest of her family in St. Louis.

Smith is Mexico City bureau chief.

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