Not So Alien After All

Timely novel gives human face to immigration

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: June 21, 2006

Not So Alien After All

As the public discourse over undocumented immigration becomes more heated and, at times, outright ugly -- particularly in the blogosphere -- attacks on such immigrants are often made in broad strokes and with gross generalizations.

This should not be a surprise, because it is easier to denigrate and reject a group of people if you dehumanize them and make them faceless.

But that's where talented writers come in: With skillful prose, they can focus on a small group of undocumented immigrants and make their struggles and humanity real to the reader so that it becomes difficult to dismiss their plight with a bumper-sticker slogan or the waving of a flag.

Two years ago, Luis Alberto Urrea did exactly that with "The Devil's Highway" (Little, Brown), in which he brilliantly chronicled the plight of 26 Mexican men who, in 2001, crossed the border into an area of the Arizona desert known as the Devil's Highway. Only 12 made it safely across. The book received wide acclaim and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Now comes a fictionalized story of undocumented immigration in Reyna Grande's debut novel, "Across a Hundred Mountains" (Atria Books, $23). Grande tells her story in evocative language that never falls into melodrama.

In the nonlinear narrative, chapters alternate between her two female protagonists, Juana Garcia and Adelina Vasquez. First, we have Juana, a young girl who lives in a small Mexican village in extreme poverty. When a flood leads to yet another death in her family -- a death that Juana feels responsible for -- Juana's father believes that he must earn more money to house his family in safer quarters. He believes that there are abundant opportunities "en el otro lado," based on a letter from a friend: "Ap?'s friend wrote about riches unheard of, streets that never end, and buildings that nearly reach the sky. He wrote that there's so much money to be made, and so much food to eat, that people there don't know what hunger is."

With such dreams, Juana's father decides to leave his family and enter the United States by relying on a fast-talking coyote. He makes numerous promises to send money once he's found employment. But Juana and her mother hear nothing for years, leading to further poverty. Worse yet, Juana's father had to borrow money from Don Elias to pay the coyote's exorbitant fee. Once Juana's father embarks on his journey, Don Elias swoops down on Juana's beautiful mother with ideas as to how repayment can be made.

A few years later -- after no word from her father, and after her abused mother has fallen into alcoholism -- Juana decides to leave home to find her father.

Juana eventually crosses paths with a young prostitute, Adelina, in Tijuana. They make plans to join forces and sneak into the United States together. For Juana, there's a chance to find her long-lost father. For Adelina, there's hope to cast off the shackles of her abusive boyfriend-pimp. This friendship is perhaps one of the most affecting elements of Grande's narrative. And, after a twist reminiscent of Dickens, these brave young women end up insinuating themselves into each other's life more than one could imagine.

The publisher tells us that Grande was born in Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975, and that she entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant at age 9. Despite such obstacles, Grande earned her bachelors of art degree in creative writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz and was a 2003 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow. In other words, Grande is living the American dream and has offered a striking and moving story about people who have traveled the same dangerous journey that she did.

"Across a Hundred Mountains" is a beautifully rendered novel that maintains its power throughout because Reyna Grande keeps control over her language and does not feel a need to trumpet emotionally volatile scenes of alcohol and drug abuse, rape, poverty and infant mortality. This is a breathtaking debut.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

About Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel is the author of four books, including "Devil Talk: Stories" (Bilingual Press, 2004). His Web site is www.danielolivas.com, and he may be reached at olivasdan@aol.com.

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