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?

Yes. Most people who try to get across do get across in the end. But since the book has been completed, it's gotten harder. And since September 11 it's even harder still. There are all kinds of reports from the border saying that for all intents and purposes the border's closed. People are trying as hard as they can to get across, but are turned back at every attempt. Wense spent five weeks trying to get across until he was finally successful.

In the course of your research for this book you crawled through pitch-black sewage-filled tunnels to understand the experience of homeless teenagers, and even made efforts to accompany one of your subjects on her border crossing. Is it unusual for you to go to such extremes for your writing projects?

Yes. I probably went further in trying to be a participant-observer in this project than on any other previous occasion. I did spend a lot of time in Central America in the 1980s during the civil wars, and did my fair share of trekking through the jungles accompanying army patrols or guerrilla units and stuff like that. In Los Angeles over the years I've spent a lot of time with gang kids and been in some relatively dangerous, edgy situations, but this was on a whole new level for me. With this project I think I finally found the type of intimacy that I'd always yearned for as a documentary writer.

But even with this project there were some things that I missed. I wasn't with Rosa when she crossed the border, which is one of my biggest regrets. I still feel this guilt as a documentary writer for not having been there. Right around the time that Rosa was about to go on her journey I was ambivalent about whether to go back home for Christmas. And ultimately I made the decision to be with my family. It was that decision that precluded my journey across the border with Rosa, although I didn't know that at the time.

You reconstructed it very well, though. Was it through her own account that you were able to do that?

It was from conversations over a period of two or three days immediately following her arrival in St. Louis. I just asked her a lot of questions—going back over the narrative with her again and again and again. That's one thing about this type of research—your subjects have to have a lot of patience with you. There were several times when she said, "Didn't you already ask me that?" And I would say, "Yeah, but could you tell me just one more time?" They had the patience of saints with me in answering inane little questions like, "What were you wearing that night? The grey sweater with the hole in the left elbow?" That type of thing. Those types of details can only come up by really asking a lot of dumb questions a million times over.

You describe the southern side of the border as representing family, community, and rootedness in the past; and the northern side as representing opportunity, orientation toward the future, and a kind of cold impersonality. You even describe the crossing itself as a baptism into a new life. Given that the border is so laden with symbolism for so many people, has it come to figure significantly in Mexican literature and arts?

Yes. Over the last twenty years there has been a very strong contribution to Mexican literature and art in general from people who live in the border region. In Tijuana, for example, there is something called the Border Arts Workshop, founded in the mid-eighties. It's a collective of journalists and visual artists and filmmakers who seek to document this extraordinary space where so many forces come together and contest one another, and where cultures clash and meld and where life and death situations arise all the time.

Many of the people whose lives you followed seemed almost like different people when they were north of the border versus south of the border. Is that your own experience as well? As a Mexican-American, do have a different sense of yourself when you're in Mexico than when you're in America?

Very much so. It's not just in the midst of this project that I felt different on one side or the other. I grew up feeling different depending on which side of the line I was on. As a kid, in my mother's El Salvador I was a polite and proper Latin American boy—a Catholic kid. In the United States I was a rock 'n roller. In the context of this project I've always tried to fit in no matter which side of the border I'm on—you know, do as the Romans do. If I was hanging out with the migrants I would pretty much occupy the Latin-American side of my own identity linguistically and culturally. But in the presence of, say, the boss of the meat-packing plant in Norwalk, Wisconsin—a heartland American type—I would summon whatever notions of American popular culture that are part of my identity. I feel like I'm conversant on that side as well. It's a matter of swimming in these different currents culturally and linguistically. That's not to say that I feel completely comfortable in these different roles. Ultimately I feel like slightly the outsider no matter where I am. But I think I've honed enough tools to not be seen as some totally exotic foreign presence. I try to have as normal a conversation as possible with whomever I'm with in the moment.

Of your and your father's mixed identities as both Mexican and American you write, "we are neither, we are both.... we cannot be one, must always be two and more than two: the sum of our parts will always be greater than the whole." That reminded me of W.E.B. DuBois's description of the "double-consciousness" that African-Americans feel in the United States. ("One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.") You observed that some of the migrants' children were more relaxed than their parents about socializing with blacks. Is it your impression that future generations of blacks and Hispanics will become more aware of their commonalities, rather than avoiding and resenting one another as so many whom you observed seem to do now?

I think that's very true. With the demographic changes we've seen, documented by Census 2000, African-Americans and Latinos share the inner-city space more than ever before. We're going to see more hip-hop in Spanish and we're going to see more mixed-race marriages. We're going to see more intimacy on all levels between these two populations. Does that mean it's going to be a smooth relationship? Not at all. Because by its very nature, life in the American inner city is a tumultuous one. It's a place of meagre resources and lots of competition for those resources. So I think it will continue to be a relationship characterized both by collaboration and intimacy on the one hand and distrust and conflict on the other.

You emphasize that migrants arriving in the U.S. need to earn dignity and respect in order to achieve social mobility, but you point out that this hasn't happened so far: "Mexicans from earlier waves of migration have seen their children mostly remain in the barrio, educated in inferior schools, vulnerable to gangs and drugs, the fate of people who have no future, of families who have no mobility." Is there reason to believe that this will change?

Depending on the day of the week or where I am geographically—in the city or in the country—I'll be either optimistic or pessimistic on this question. You could go to a newly arrived immigrant neighborhood, like Pico Union in Los Angeles, or Mount Pleasant in Washington D.C., and see a really tough neighborhood with a lot of problems and a lot of issues like lack of access to quality education and health care and so on. And yet, if you speak to the families there, you find them incredibly optimistic about the future as a result of their move from a situation that was even worse than what they have now. The first migrant generation, by its very definition, has achieved some mobility, socially and otherwise. I don't want to overgeneralize, but if you go to an older Mexican barrio where second or third generation families live, say East Los Angeles, or one of the poor wards in Houston or San Antonio, you'll find just the opposite. Some families feel that their route to the future has been blocked. You'll see a family of three generations in one neighborhood where none of the kids have gone to college yet. You'll see kids plagued by the typical problems of the American inner city—youth gangs, drugs, etcetera, with avenues toward the future basically closed. In the end I want to feel optimistic—I want to feel like there's a future here for all of us, because if there's not, then that just chops the American dream down. What is the American project if the avenues are blocked for certain people and open for others?

In the future, depending on which way the winds of the economy blow, I think you may see a renewed sense of struggle when the kids of the generation that's recently arrived get a little older. Like Rosa Chávez's daughter. I'll be very interested to see how she does over the next several years—how she does in school, whether she goes to college, and what the job market is like for her. Is she just going to be in the service economy flipping burgers for the rest of her life? And then will her daughter do the same thing? Or can we construct a society in which mobility is not just the goal but the reality for all of us?

Is there a big difference between how legal as opposed to illegal immigrants fare once they get here?

Absolutely. There's no doubt about that. But even Americans who've been here going back five or ten generations have difficulty accessing good health care and good public education. If it's hard for them, then it's doubly hard for a migrant. In the end, the way we see migrants struggling tells us a lot about ourselves as a society and what our institutions are like, and how strong or how weak they are.

Several times you mention that were it not for the release valve of access to the United States, the pent-up frustration in Mexico's rural provinces would explode into revolution. If there were, in fact, no access to the United States, what form would a revolution take? Are there specific groups that would be seen as accountable for the general poverty and lack of opportunity?

That's a great question. I think you've already seen some change in Mexico that might not seem revolutionary outside the Mexican context, but within the historical context of Mexico you could qualify it as revolutionary. The recent presidential elections that brought Vincente Fox into power, for example, was a revolutionary change in Mexican society precisely because there have been seventy years of one-party rule that was anti-democratic. One's vote really did not count. There was tremendous corruption. And there was no possibility of real democratic change. That changed overnight with the first really truly clean elections and an open political process in which political parties were able to access the media in an open and democratic fashion. It remains to be seen whether this administration lives up to the tremendous expectations that have been heaped upon it.

Another quasi-revolutionary sign is the rebellion by the Zapatistas down in Chiapas which began in 1994 and is still ongoing. The fact that this rebellion occurred precisely in a non-migrant area buttresses the theory of the migrant flow as a social release valve. The areas in Mexico that are the most contested politically today are places like Guerrero and Chiapas and Veracruz—states that are not only poor, but also don't have migrant traditions. It's the type of poverty where you can't even imagine moving anymore.

And as for those who would be targeted by people's frustrations, there are plenty of actors in Mexican politics and the economy whom people hold accountable. There's been a tremendous amount of activism over the last several years. There's a middle-class movement against creditors, for example, called El Barzon. These are debtors who have gotten together and have been fighting creditors that charge insane interest rates. A tremendous amount of energy has also been mobilized against corruption in government in Mexico. And there's a fair amount of anti-American sentiment in Mexico as well. It's kind of like that schizophrenic relationship that many migrants themselves have with the United States. They're totally infatuated with American pop and the idea of an American-dream type of future, but they want to hold onto their Mexican past. And virtually every Mexican remembers in a race-memory way the Mexican-American War in which they lost half their territory. And there is also resentment of the absolute dominance of the American economy in the hemisphere. So I think it's a complicated landscape.

Do you hold out any hope that one day Mexico itself might become prosperous and equitable enough that those seeking more than a bare subsistence won't have to leave their homeland behind?

Mexico has always had the potential to have a strong economy. And it shows signs of that every now and again. Mexico is a place with a very strong work ethic. It's actually very ironic. The stereotype always used to be the lazy Mexican sitting under a cactus in the sun. But that old stereotype has been rewritten to a significant extent in the last twenty years in the United States, precisely because Mexicans are now resented for the opposite thing—for working so hard for so little money. So it has never been a problem of laziness. It's always been a matter of geopolitics and endemic poverty and corrupt institutions. Mexico has a tremendous amount of natural resources—a tremendous amount of potential as an economic power. And indeed, in the region of Latin America, Mexico, alongside Chile and Brazil, is one of the three powerhouse economies. So I think Mexico does have a tremendous future ahead. Within the context of the Free Trade Agreement, I think it will continue to grow economically. And I think that as the economy grows, it will affect the migration situation.

You write that when Mexican migrants "are denied their Americanness by U.S. immigration policy, I feel that my own is denied as well." Does this mean that you would prefer to see the border abolished altogether?

In some ways I think we have already moved toward opening the border. We have done it through our hypocritical and highly selective enforcement of the border over the years. It can be a life and death proposition but, by and large, if you want to cross it, you can. The United States government and the United States labor economy are very, very well aware of that. That's why it's hypocritical, I think, for politicians to rattle their sabres about closing the border when they very well know that you can't possibly do that and still maintain the type of economy that you have in the United States right now, which is basically a huge middle class being supported by an even bigger service sector. Of course, right now we're in a very particular situation. Everybody's really concerned about what comes across that border in terms of security threats to the United States. Those threats are very real. Nobody would contest that. But right before September 11, President Fox and President Bush were edging ever closer to reforming immigration laws—talking very seriously about a guest-worker program, and, in essence, recognizing that the border is already pretty much open.

We have a Free Trade Agreement already—so there are no tariffs between us. We have a strong migratory flow. And Mexico is the United States's biggest trading partner. So history has very clearly pushed in the direction of having an open border. The reality is that in terms of culture and commerce and actual people, the border has been open for a long time.

What audience do you hope that Crossing Over will reach? Are there any kinds of specific social or political repercussions that you hope the book will have?

There are several different audiences I'd like to reach. I would love for everybody in a small, heartland town that's received migrants from Mexico to read this book. Hopefully I can provide some context for people who are experiencing this surrealistic change from being an all-white, or all-white and black community, to suddenly having people from another land in their midst.

The book is going to be translated into Spanish also. So I hope Mexicans will read it and see their narrative and their point of view represented. It would be of interest to people who want to learn more about migration in the global sense as well. Because I do believe we live in the "Age of Migration." Migration is an essential part of globalization. And I think the book contributes to a discussion of the human element of globalization.

If the book's theme can be summed up briefly, I think it's very basic: I mention in the text how the Rio Grande in many ways seems like the River Jordan—how the United States can seem like Canaan; how Mexico can seem like Egypt in an epic mythical sense. And there's a passage in the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus, that talks about how strangers should be received: "Thou shalt not molest a stranger for you know the hearts of strangers, for you were once strangers also in the land of Egypt." I think Americans by and large do know how to receive strangers. We've been doing it all along. And this migration is like every other in some fundamental way. But we haven't always received Mexicans—or Chinese or Japanese, depending on the chapter of migration history we're talking about—generously. Certainly Mexicans have seen their share of discrimination and really tough circumstances. But they're strangers in our midst who come offering their good will and wanting to be part of our society—wanting to work hard, and wanting to do the right thing and play by the rules. And I think they need to be received with respect and with compassion.

At one point you describe this project as a "pilgrimage" for you. Was there insight or understanding you gained (or hoped to gain) from the project on a personal level?

Yes. I think every documentary writer or filmmaker—anybody working in this genre called the documentary—always goes on a personal journey alongside the journey of his or her subjects. And I certainly had one. I think my journey brought me to terms with where I come from as an American, that I am the progeny of migrants—the product of the journey of my parents and my grandparents before me. My sense of mixed parentage, my sense that my family comes from somewhere else, but is here now—to me, that's what being an American is all about.

The book's jacket cover quotes from a Washington Post review calling you "one of the brightest voices of a new generation of Hispanic writers." How do you feel about being referred to as a "Hispanic writer" instead of just a "writer"?

Well I don't know if I'm the voice of a "new" generation, because I'm going to be forty next year, so I'm not quite of the young generation. I consider myself a writer, first and foremost. But I can't possibly ignore ethnic politics in this country and say I'm not a "Hispanic writer," though I'm uncomfortable with the mantle of that. In a real political sense Hispanics in this country are in the margins economically, politically, socially, and even culturally. The fact that Jennifer Lopez is on the charts and in first-run movies does not mean that we're in the center of the mainstream. So I'm aware of our marginality, and as such, aware of my political role as a writer bearing this ethnicity. I am not the savior of my people by any stretch of the imagination, and never will be. But I can contribute to the public discourse and hopefully chip away at stereotypes and represent points of view that are underrepresented in our media.