Interviews November 2001

The Hearts of Strangers

Ruben Martinez, the author of Crossing Over, describes the Mexican migrant experience, and reminds native-born Americans that they, too, were once strangers in a strange land
Crossing Over

Crossing Over
by Ruben Martinez
Metropolitan Books
330 pages, $26

Every year hundreds of thousands of Mexicans make their way north to America in search of jobs and opportunity. For most, the border-crossing is perilous and illegal, and the work they find is demeaning and poorly paid. Some bring their earnings back with them to Mexico, while others strive to build futures for themselves on this side of the border. Though U.S. policy does not officially recognize Mexicans living and working here without proper certification, this country in fact relies heavily on their labor, and for the most part tacitly allows their illegal entry and presence—especially during times, such as fruit-picking season, when cheap, unskilled manpower is in high demand.

For the migrants, the decision to leave Mexico behind is usually a wrenching one. It means saying goodbye to loved ones and a familiar lifestyle and landscape to strike out for an uncertain future in a more impersonal and not always welcoming land. Many Americans are barely aware of the migrant subculture, encountering Mexican migrants perhaps only as unobtrusive emptiers of wastebaskets or sweepers of floors. Others, who must compete with them for living space and employment, feel threatened by their intrusion into what were once mostly white or black neighborhoods and workplaces.

In 1996 the writer Ruben Martinez decided that the Mexican migrant story should be told, so that the large subgroup of Mexican migrants in America might be better understood. After spending four years talking to and living among Mexican migrants on both sides of the border, Martinez wrote Crossing Over (October 2001), a portrait of the lives and aspirations of several migrant families.

The book centers primarily around the Chávez family, who lost three adult brothers in a tragic border-crossing car accident in April, 1996. Martinez tracked down the deceased brothers' surviving relatives in the dusty, dead-end town of Cherán, Mexico, where they had grown up. The mens' mother, their wives and children, and their younger, married sister were living together in a tiny shack-like house at the edge of town. He came to know the Chávezes and many of their fellow townspeople quite well, and describes their lives in Cherán as a peculiar mix of hopelessness, thwarted ambition, supportive family networks, tradition, religious faith, cultural pride, and encroachments from American pop culture imported by returning migrants. Anyone who wants to make something of themselves or offer a better future for their children, he explains, must leave for America, which is why most inhabitants of Cherán have family members in the U.S., or live there themselves part-time.

While Martinez was in Cherán researching the book, the Chávez brothers' younger sister Rosa and her husband Wense decided to try their luck in America. So Martinez followed their story up north, detailing Rosa's border crossing (she crossed separately from Wense) and their lives as illegals in Wisconsin. Martinez sought out other Cherán families north of the border as well, and describes each family's disparate experiences in their neighborhoods and workplaces, interviewing not only the migrants themselves, but their American neighbors and co-workers. Most, he discovers, work grueling hours for little pay, and, to the dismay of their American neighbors, crowd extended families into single-family houses. A few, however, have attained impressive levels of success—progressing from pickers of strawberries to owners of their own strawberry fields, or sending their children on to college and graduate school in fields like accounting and biomedical engineering.

Regardless of the place each migrant has found for him or herself in America, all seem to share an uneasy feeling of divided identity—of being no longer quite Mexican or quite American, and of having had to make excruciating choices and sacrifices. The experience of Reyna Guzman, a Mexican-born California property-owner whom Martinez interviewed is representative:

This is Reyna's life: she is physically present in Watsonville but conjuring up Cherán at her altars and in her meals and in the lessons of tradition she teaches her kids, even as influences of their new home inexorably pull at them. It's a classic immigrant story: she has lost some precious things and gained some others. It would be hard right now for Reyna Guzman to easily answer the question of whether the bargain was worth it. But then again, who can?

Ruben Martinez is the son of first-generation immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service, a correspondent for PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, and the author of The Other Side (1992), a book about Latino culture in Los Angeles. He is the 2001-2 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

Martinez recently spoke with me by telephone from Los Angeles.

—Sage Stossel

Ruben Martinez
Ruben Martinez   

How did this project develop for you? Did you set out knowing the general outline of what you would accomplish—that you would interview many families and follow them over the border to visit with them again up north? Or did it start out as a smaller project specifically about the tragedy of the Chávez brothers?

I moved to Mexico City in early 1996 because I knew I wanted to write a book about migrants in general and about the relationship between the United States and Mexico. And shortly after my arrival, the car crash that begins the Chávez family's story in my book occurred. I knew from the beginning that that story was going to figure somehow in the book. But I didn't know I would end up spending the next four years following them back and forth across the border.

Was it difficult for you to establish what your role would be with respect to your subjects and the extent to which you would become involved in their lives?

That's something I'm always thinking about. I consider myself a part of American documentary tradition. For many years I've worked closely with a photographer colleague, Joseph Rodriguez, whose photographs are in the book. He's mentored me a lot and taught me the importance of the writer's establishing as much familiarity as possible with a subject. Joe's way of working is to spend not just weeks or a couple months as a usual feature writer would but a period of years following somebody around. I very much took that lesson to heart, and that's what I set out to do once I knew that the Chávez family and others from that town would be the main subject of the book. I spent as much time as possible with them so that I could be a witness. But whenever you get that close to somebody, when you keep on showing up on their doorstep month after month, year after year, it becomes no longer just a relationship between writer and subject, but an actual human relationship. At times I definitely crossed the line from just being an observer to being somebody involved in their lives. We still talk pretty often. And there was actually a recent little family drama that I was quite involved in. Wense Cortez—Rosa's husband—was deported. And I was very much involved in trying to get him back across the border.

Is he back now?

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