The Feminist Texican [Reads] will be featuring a variety of fiction and nonfiction books by/about Latin@s throughout Latina/o Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15).
Luis Alberto Urrea is an author whose books have been on my TBR list forever–especially The Devil’s Highway–but it was his most recent book, Into the Beautiful North, that ended up making its way into my hands first. Beginning in a rural Mexican village that’s been abandoned by its young men; they have all left Tres Camarones to find work in the United States, and thuggish drug dealers have taken the opportunity to move in and take over the village. After seeing The Magnificent Seven at the local theater, nineteen-year-old Nayeli gets the idea that she should go up north and bring back her own “magnificent seven”–strong young men who will drive the drug dealers out, settle down in Tres Camarones, and breathe life back into the dying village.
I’m one of those people who likes going into books knowing as little as possible, so the silly plot definitely threw me off. Because make no mistake about it: this is a candy-coated immigration story.
Nayeli sets off for the U.S. with two girlfriends, Yolo and Vampi, and their gay friend (and my favorite character), Tacho; each have their own quirky characteristics that add to the lighthearted tone of the story. They encounter a lot of the typical hardships that immigrants are vulnerable to–robbery, the possibility of rape, being caught by the immigration officials, etc.–but they fare far luckier than most. I was unsure at first how I felt about how easily they surmounted all the issues that, in reality, end up claiming–or at the very least, negatively altering–the lives of so many immigrants each year. But the more I read, the more enchanted I became with the feel-good, serendipitous nature of the book (I mean really…it’s hard not to be charmed by a book with so many colorful characters and awesome movie references).
But there were a few things that bothered me about this book, the main one being that in typical fairy-tale fashion, characters were almost all separated into good guys and bad guys. This is fine, considering the plot; so much of this book’s charm wouldn’t work otherwise. But in one instance, I thought it was overkill. Once Nayeli and her friends are in the U.S. on the search for their Magnificent Seven, they take a road trip up to Illinois to look for Nayeli’s father. Along the way they encounter extreme instances of anti-Mexican racism that didn’t sit well with me.
Now, I too have made cross-country drives both by myself and with others: in every one of these instances, I/we were Driving While Mexican. Like Nayeli and Co., sure, I have pulled into small-town restaurants and eaten very uncomfortable meals while fellow diners stared suspiciously at me. I’ve also been stranded on the side of the road in MiddleOfNowhere, Mississippi, willing myself to not think up movie references of my own (namely, Deliverance).* It’s not always rosy, okay? But the frequency and level at which Nayeli and her friends were experiencing these encounters on their cross-country drives was hard for me to accept. I’ve driven from south Texas to NY by myself a bunch of times, and I have no problem with sleeping in my car at a random rest stop in the middle of the night.** It’s not that bad. I just felt like it was too much, and it was unnecessary; for all the sugar-coating that takes place, Nayeli and her friends experience more than enough to make the reader sympathetic to their cause.
Though I found the book to be uneven in some areas, it is still a highly enjoyable read. I loved the fact that Urrea included a gay character and gave him a story line of his own (which I won’t go into because it would be spoiler-y). I loved the overall cinematic scope of the book; it’s fun and doesn’t take itself seriously. Most of all, I loved Urrea’s storytelling abilities. His writing is captivating; it’s hard to pull off a plot like this, but Urrea does it. I would read anything else he wrote without any reservations.
Into the Beautiful North was originally released by Little, Brown and Company on May 19, 2009. Luis Alberto Urrea has a new novel, Queen of America, that will be released on November 28, 2011.