Arts & Culture » Book Review

Both Sides of the Border

Mexican immigration isn't just transforming the U.S.--it's also transforming Mexico.

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SAM QUINONES | ANTONIO'S GUN AND DELFINO'S DREAM: TRUE TALES OF MEXICAN MIGRATION (UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO PRESS)

In 1920s Mexico, in the dusty town of Jaripo, Michoacan, lived a cruel and ruthless man named Juan Muratalla. Muratalla had been an enforcer on a hacienda before the Mexican Revolution. Now, from a chair in the town plaza, his rifle propped between his legs, he terrorized Jaripo's poor villagers as a hired gun for the cacique--the local political boss and one in a long list of powerful elites who've controlled life in Mexico, from Aztec emperors and Spanish kings to viceroys, dictators, caudillos, and the regional heavyweights of today.

One day Muratalla shot a rancher, and the rancher's son, Antonio Carrillo, begged his mother for his father's pistol to avenge the killing. Fearing for his life, she refused. So Antonio left for the United States, found work, and bought a pistol there. Then he returned to Jaripo and put an end to Muratalla. "That gun was Antonio Carrillo's alternative to submission," writes journalist Sam Quinones in his new book, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, a collection of stories from both sides of the razor wire. "To the man who departs pesoless yet returns with cash to spend, the United States affords dignity, respect, and sweet vindication. Ignore the allure of that psychological boost and you miss a lot of the immigrant story."

Quinones, who grew up in California, spent ten years in Mexico as a freelance writer before coming home to work for the Los Angeles Times in 2004. While he was down there, villages like Jaripo were emptying out, their residents pouring into towns like South Gate, California; Garden City, Kansas; and Wauconda, Illinois. He writes about these immigrants' struggles to find their place, both politically and socially, in American society, and their complicated relationships with their communities back home.

As in his first book, True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, the stories here are told in the stripped-down language of a daily newsman, but they're dense with detail: Quinones leaves no tangent unexplored. Just 15 pages into a chapter examining assimilation in the context of a Kansas high school's soccer season, he's discussed the cultural underpinnings of football and soccer on the High Plains; soccer coach Joaquin Padilla's origins in Patzcuaro, Michoacan; the first European explorer to see western Kansas (Coronado, who strangled the Indian guide who brought him there); the invention of the turbine water pump; and the last 50 years of the U.S. cattle industry.

Hundreds of people turn up in these 300-plus pages, but Quinones's knack for storytelling makes even the secondary characters memorable. Take Diez, for instance, the cool, up-and-coming young coyote who smuggles Delfino Juarez across the border but barely makes it out alive himself. Dehydrated and delirious, he lies in the desert, his good-luck cap still in place, and throws his wad of cash into the air; $3,000 in bills settle onto the sand around him.

Versions of many of these stories have previously been published in newspapers and magazines, which can make the book a choppy read at times. (A chapter on the origin and proliferation of Chicago's Taco and Burrito Houses--a fascinating tale about immigrants from Atonlinga, Michoacan, who "put up a restaurant like the Amish raise a barn"--ran in 2001 in the Chicago Tribune Magazine.) And two chapters seem to have little to do with the migration of Mexicans to the U.S., at least on the surface. One is about the introduction of opera to scrappy Tijuana, the other about how a small-time entrepreneur from Georgia and painters in Ciudad Juarez flooded every corner of the continent with black velvet paintings. But the immigrants in Quinones's book aren't just transforming America--America is transforming them. When Joaquin Padilla returns to Michoacan after spending a year in a Kansas high school, he finds he can't stay. "Everything was the same, but I was not."

The author's anecdotes illustrate a fluid world in which ideas and dreams and people cross borders in all directions. The arrival of opera in Tijuana, for instance, is connected to the fall of the Soviet Union, a Mexican teacher's aide's visits to a San Diego Tower Records, a public radio show, and a local soprano who sells hardware by day.

While Quinones is sympathetic to immigrants, he isn't blind to the possibility--and tragic irony--of immigrants re-creating in the U.S. what they hoped to escape in Mexico. In one chapter on the politics of South Gate, California (followers of Chicago machine politics should relish this one), local democracy is nearly destroyed thanks to Mexican-style political apathy and imported PRI political tactics. (One campaign flyer accused a South Gate councilman of abandoning an illegitimate daughter, paying cash for a new Lexus, spending thousands on "European vacations with his new gold-digging, Norwegian bombshell wife," being the godson of despised former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gotari, and being a "card-carrying member" of the PRI. None of it was true.)

Quinones laments migration from Mexico--not because of what it means for the U.S. or the immigrants themselves, but because of its effects on Mexico. When Delfino Juarez finally gives up on construction work in Mexico City and crosses the border, his country considers it a "minor loss," Quinones writes. But "his kind of gumption was what Mexico continually lost in its people's northern exodus--and no amount of money they sent home made up for it."

Quinones says he learned to tell stories by listening to his father, a literature professor, retell adventures from Homer's Odyssey on car trips. In this book, Quinones's characters are heroes--flawed and conflicted, but heroes nonetheless--in an epic tale of liberation, reinvention, and self-realization.

Sam Quinones

Tue 10/23, 7 PM, Damen Hall, Loyola University, 6525 N. Sheridan, 773-508-3929

Wed 10/24, noon, UIC Latino Cultural Center, Lecture Center B2, 803 S. Morgan, 312-996-2445

Thu 10/25, 7:30 PM, Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted, 312-413-2665

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