Book review Immigration imagination

An 'LA Times' correspondent follows the trail of Latin-American border crossers and finds a story as old as America

As with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," the ballads of Johnny Cash, and the myth of Horatio Alger, time has twisted the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville into patriotism. When you hear of him today it is as a wide-eyed tourist who came to study the greatest democracy in the world. Yet when the 25-year-old Frenchman left America, he was hardly impressed. "The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint," he wrote in his chronicle, Democracy in America, "but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through."

If de Tocqueville were to travel the nation today, the color he would see peaking through would not be aristocratic, but Latino. 2005 marks the first year that Latino-Americans have become the largest minority group in the country, and to see how exactly this has changed the texture of America - not just its color - Los Angeles Times correspondent Héctor Tobar hit the road and toured the Spanish-speaking United States. He traveled to Omaha and Atlanta, Salt Lake City and northern Michigan, even the woods of Maine. The hotbeds of Latino culture, really.

Translation Nation, his record of this journey, is an essential and illuminating read that is full of discoveries, one of the most immediate being that while immigration begins at the borders, its effects are felt all over the country. Like in Anniston, Alabama, where, disguised as a migrant in search of a job, Tobar travels by bus with several other mexicanos to do swing shift work dismembering chickens. It is mind-numbing, tiring work, "the kind ... that erases portions of your memory if you do it too long," Tobar writes. Once a week, a bus would come to the little town and take workers in for a day of shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. The only time Tobar sees a white person inside the plant is when it shuts down due to a contamination problem.

As bleak as these living conditions are, they do not always stay that way. Four years later, Tobar returned to Anniston and discovered a Catholic church had been erected, and the Latinos no longer living in trailers but in homes. In Dalton, Georgia, things were even better, as in a burst of "pure self interest" the town decided to spend $7,400 per child to provide a good public education to its new Latino-American population - to prevent social ills arising later on councilmembers say. The community now has a Spanish-language newspaper and neighbors who treat them for the most part with decency. At one point, Tobar is interviewing a man when a good ol' boy drives by in his pickup and waves.

"Do you know him?" I asked.

"I think he's one of my neighbors, but I'm not sure." Seeing that I was a bit confused, he added. "Sometimes, I'm out here working on the yard and white people, strangers, drive by and wave hello. In my pueblo people do that. But in Los Angeles, they're more likely to give you the finger."

Translation Nation:
Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States

By Héctor Tobar
Riverhead Hardcover
$24.95, 320 pages
ISBN: 1573223050
This sort of treatment has pushed the Latin migration into this country off the coasts and into the heartland, Tobar observes. Throughout Translation Nation, he introduces us to men and women who have come from Guatemala, Mexico, and beyond, and this book reads like a mosaic of Mayflower stories. We hear from truck drivers who come to this country and become mechanics, guerilla fighters who turn into labor organizers. Immigration is a chance for transformation, not just translation. And not just for Latinos. Take Ben Reed, a white guy who goes on air as a DJ in Utah, becomes Ben-ha-meen Reed, announces in Spanish, and channels his inner Mexican across the airwaves.

Tobar celebrates such cross-cultural moments, but they are not yet the norm. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has begun to set up detainment centers away from the borders, so when smugglers get pulled over for a busted taillight in Iowa or North Dakota, their cargo is not immediately set free. "I wonder if at a date in the distant future the travails of the desert crossers will become the institutionalized and mythologized narrative that the Underground Railroad is today," Tobar writes. If that day does indeed come, Translation Nation will be looked upon as both a cornerstone and a corrective, the kind of book that didn't just document American life, but showed us the way of the future, too.

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