Build it and they will come

The American Dream is as varied as the stories of immigrants who struggle to reach it

To many, the American Dream is still a vision of a good job, a happy family, and a spacious house in the suburbs conveniently located near shopping. Even once those goals are achieved, the elusive dream can evolve into the desire for an even better job, a happier and more entertained family, a bigger house, and a growing impulse to keep strangers away from our nice stuff. To those living in countries south of ours, the American Dream can be a very different vision, a fantasized (tele)vision of Hollywood, Disneyland, and personal and political freedom. The Border Patrol Ate My Dust reveals a few of the countless, and very personal, American Dreams that immigrants held onto as they successfully broke the code to gain entrance into the United States, the largest "gated community" in the world.

Alicia Alarcón, a Los Angeles radio personality and an immigrant herself, has gathered a collection of stories that destroys the stereotype of an illegal immigrant: the young, mullet-sporting, dark-skinned Mexican male. In their own words, translated from Spanish, immigrants from diverse backgrounds describe their passages to el Norte, from as far away as Central and South America, that often include multiple robberies and assaults, rape, failures, miracles, betrayal, and finally, freedom.

The stories reveal a few of the countless,
and very personal, American Dreams that immigrants
held onto as they successfully broke the code to gain
entrance into the United States,
the largest "gated community" in the world.

If you judge the book by its cover, you might think U.S. Border Patrol agents are the sole source of brutality against pollos - chickens, the derogatory slang term for immigrants. Yet, according to the travelers' testimonies, most of the abuse comes from what are called coyotes, the "guides" who prey on the immigrants' desperation. Coyotes conduct most of their business in major Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, nearest to San Diego, and Juárez, across from El Paso. As the producers of the horror movie immigration can become, coyotes arrange for air travel, acquire fake passports, sneak hopefuls under the wall for a perilous run across the desert eluding helicopters and snakes, put immigrants up in putrid safe houses with 30 people, and hide them in the floors of vans, the wheel wells of trains, or in sealed semi-trucks. Almost every story includes at least one shakedown by the authorities. Immigrants usually arrive at the U.S./Mexico border stripped of everything, save their American Dream. If they are fortunate, they arrive at a U.S. destination and are set free after a loved one comes to pay the "delivery fees."

   The Border Patrol Ate My Dust

By Alicia Alarcón
Translated by Ethriam Cash Brammer
Arte Público Press
$14.95, 203 pages
ISBN: 1558854320

Why would anyone risk it? One narrator leaves Mexico enraged: "How could there be such wealth and at the same time so much misery in my beloved Mexico?" A Colombian immigrant escapes the violence of organized crime and narco-trafficking after he receives an extortion letter at his bicycle shop, wherein the thugs threaten to castrate him. Another immigrant speaks about the emergence of a military dictator. A 12-year-old boy escapes with his father when his peers in the neighborhood are drafted into the army. For all these reasons and more, people stream toward the U.S./Mexico border.

These stories reflect the true and firsthand experiences of people who risked it all to cross over to a better life. Many never make it. You hear about them on the news, suffocating in boxcars or drowning in the Rio Grande. One man cries while telling his story, remembering a young woman who drowned in a river when a human chain was broken. By collecting these stories, Alarcón reminds us that when our chain of humanity breaks, we all drown.

By Santiago Garcia

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