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Home is where the end of the line is
By Steven Martinovich
Fairly early on in his account of a family's efforts to cross the Mexican-American border, Ruben Martinez makes it clear that he does not believe that America's efforts to keep illegal immigrants out are particularly sensible. Despite the fact that billions are spent every year maintaining an armed presence on the border, untold numbers of Mexicans manage to make it over the line to find work. The migrants pay their own price of course, but theirs are measured in lives as well as dollars. Thousands die every year in the attempt to make it to the United States as measured by the bleached bones in the desert.
It is their compelling story that Martinez tells in Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, specifically that of the Chávez family of Cherán, Mexico. A poor community, migration to the United States seems almost as big of an industry as the crops that its farmers grow. For a few thousand dollars paid to a smuggler known as coyotes Mexicans can gamble that they will successfully cross the border and make a new life for themselves working as fruit pickers, garment sewers and any number of other professions that most Americans deem below them.
It was the allure of work in the United States that lured Benjamín, Jamie and Salvador Chávez in 1996 and that lure ultimately proved to be the cause of their deaths. On April 6, 1996, the three brothers were killed on a California highway after the truck they were being smuggled into the United States crashed while it was being chased by agents of the Border Patrol. Their ghosts haunt the Chávez family, torn with knowing that the nation they wish to escape to is also the one where three of their own met their ends. America is a nation which depends on Mexican migrants legal or otherwise to do the work that Americans refuse to, yet is also one which punishes them seemingly for being Mexicans.
It is that duality which is ever present in Crossing Over. Generally hardworking working people with strong religious beliefs who believe that family are the strongest ties that bind, Mexican illegals or as Martinez prefers to term them, undocumented migrants are nonetheless largely looked upon as economic and cultural liabilities. It is a reality that the Chávez family faces firsthand. With the deaths of the three still weighing heavily on their souls, several in the family are still determined to make their way north. Martinez documents their efforts telling both the stories of the migrants and those left behind to deal with their absence from the village, through dealings with the coyotes, until they fan out across the United States before meeting up in the Midwest.
Whether the reader feels any sympathy for the Chávez family and the other migrants is largely dependent, perhaps, on their feelings about immigration in general. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, calls are coming from both the left and the right for more stringent border controls. Only libertarians and objectivists believe in the open borders concept today. And while Americans are likely intellectually aware that fewer migrants means higher prices for food, clothing and other staples of middle class life, whether they will accept the changes brought by the insular migrants is another matter.
Regardless of America's attitudes towards the migrants, they are impacting on the United States in ways that are being felt. Migrant culture brings American attitudes back to Cherán as the hip-hop loving youth of rural Mexico are evidence of while Mexican culture can now be found in traditionally white areas of the United States like Wisconsin. That trend, writes Martinez, will only continue until the cultures of Mexico and the United States begin to resemble each other. With as many as seven million Mexican migrants working in the United States today, Americans will one day realize that an entirely separate nation, one that refuses to jump into the melting pot, has been created in their midst. What Americans do when the implication of what that means dawns on them is a question that Martinez leaves perhaps wisely unanswered. No matter what happens, that and other questions, have yet to be answered which means that the final chapter of the Chávez story has yet to be written.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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