Rubén Martínez’s latest book, Crossing Over, ends by finally stating what Martínez has been alluding to all along: “There is no border; the line is an idea.” Crossing Over chronicles the vitality, resilience and internal conflict of Cherán, a small Mexican pueblo, after the death of three of its community members. While attempting to cross the border in order to earn money to support their family, three Chávez brothers died in an automobile accident. Martínez’s non-fictional account traces the anguish of a family and a community that is very aware of the imminent risk involved in crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, but still continues to make the crossing because they see it as imperative to the survival of their families.
Martínez, a Mexican-American himself, visited the town of Cherán shortly after the death of the Chávez brothers. What he found was a community rich in tradition and receptive to change; the American dream had been shaping their cultural landscape for decades. The locals, many of whom proudly claim to be Purépecha Indians, have over time been forced, in one way or another, to integrate certain aspects of another culture into their own. Throughout the book, Martínez’s experiences in Cherán reinforce the idea that the U.S.-Mexican border is merely a figment of our imaginations.
Crossing Over argues that the border laws are hypocritical; the ways they are enforced are dangerous to the migrants who cross over to provide for their families. It makes this statement by delivering a human aspect, by putting names, personalities and emotions to the stories we hear about on the evening news. Martínez brings to light the migrants who wait tables, pick harvests and do other odd jobs for low wages so that Americans can live comfortably.
Martínez portrays the residents of Cherán as striving and jovial, holding fast to their traditions. The approaching fiesta is a running theme throughout the first part of Crossing Over, and the details of customs like these allow for a more intimate picture of their lives. However, Martínez also wants the reader to realize that their way of life, marked by a rich heritage and a cheerful countenance, is far from utopian. As Martínez said to The Crimson last week, “though they may celebrate certain parts of their lives, especially culturally, how much a part of the modern world they are, the whole thing isn’t like some sweet American Dream for them. If it is, it’s a dream with nightmarish edges.”
Crossing Over’s prologue, entitled “The Passion,” sets the tone of the book, which reads like a memoir. When asked why he did not take his accounts of his stay in Cherán and turn them into a fictional account, Martínez responded that his journalistic style, which is “part manifesto, part reportage, [part] memoir,” allowed him to “expand and contract, like an accordion.” This is evident in his effective handling of complex issues in his narrative. The book explores a series of borders, the borders separating different generations of immigrants, as well as the physical, hazy border that separates Mexico and the U.S. Crossing Over makes the argument that the borders separating these entities are merely ideas.
Crossing Over reads in the first person, with Martínez recounting his exploits in Cherán. Written as such, it was impossible for Martínez not to impart to the book certain aspects of himself. Alongside the transformation of the Chávez family was the transformation of Martínez. His interest in the Chávez story extended far beyond that of a journalist covering a beat. He had a personal stake invested in making the Chávez story known, and said he felt a great responsibility in telling the story; an obligation to those before him who crossed the border and those who died due to the hypocrisy of border laws. “Their story is my parents’ and grandparents’ story, and it’s an American story,” said Martínez. The aftermath of the Chávez boys’ deaths was a noticeably humbling experience for Martínez, who noted that it led him to “recommit” himself as a political journalist. “The mundane details” of daily life were rendered “not that important,” and he asked, “how do you get excited about the next [Arnold] Schwarzenegger movie?”
As a political journalist, Martínez is aiming for a modification of the border policy. Tragic events like the deaths of the Chávez boys often go unseen. Prior to the events of Sept. 11, Martínez had hoped to have the book in “every congressional office” so that Crossing Over could contribute to a political dialogue on the reshaping of relations between Mexico and the U.S. Throughout Crossing Over he asserts that during certain months, the border patrol is lenient when farmers need cheap labor. However, during other times of the year, the border patrol’s tactics can be so vigilant and irresponsible as to cause the death of three Mexican migrants. Although it was not one of his original intentions, Martínez wants the book to allow Americans to see that, “even though [Mexican migrants] lack papers, they’ve suffered like other Americans.” Martínez, whom many of the Cherán residents referred to as “Gringo,” undergoes a transformation as he comes to realize the fullness of the people of Cherán’s humanity. Through Martínez’s own transformation, Americans are offered a glimpse into the lives of a migrant family. It remains to be seen whether they take Martínez up on his offer or continue to ignore the reality of the evanescence of the U.S.-Mexican border.
330 pp., $26