Cross Over Water by Richard Yañez is the coming of age story of “Ruly” Cruz, a Mexican American boy growing up 0n the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. The book begins following Ruly at the age of 12, when he’s still an aloof tween whose primary preoccupations are masturbating and hanging out with his cousin Laura. Following his mother’s promotion, Ruly is uprooted from his childhood home into a new house in the suburbs, throwing the routine of his life into disarray. As he eases into young adulthood, Ruly begins to mature into a thoughtful young man who is slowly embracing his roots and seeking out his past. Through it all, El Paso is just as important a “character” as Ruly is: isolated in the middle of a desert, right across from Juarez, Mexico, the city is Ruly’s playground, home, and teacher.
The first half of the book traces all of the typical rites of passage of a Chicano teen boy growing up on the border, like navigating the social hierarchies of junior high and high school, dating (and trying to lose his virginity in the process), and crossing the border into Mexico to party with friends. The writing here is pretty straightforward; in restricting his narrative to reflect Ruly’s maturity at any given age, Yañez allows the reader to grow along with Ruly. Although it was at times trying to be stuck inside the mind of a boy obsessed with his “palito,” by the end of the book, one can certainly appreciate the overall evolution of Ruly’s interests and desires.
After high school, Ruly’s friends move on to the next phase of their lives while Ruly stays on in El Paso, lonely and working in a dead end job at a grocery store. For a while, it’s business as usual. He continues goofing off, until one day he stumbles across the community of homeless people living in People’s Park. From that point on, Ruly’s eyes are opened; he absorbs the stories of everyone he encounters and has a sudden urge to learn about his own history. Walking back home with his girlfriend shortly after this intellectual awakening, dozens of thoughts swim through Ruly’s mind:
He didn’t want to turn her off by admitting how much he didn’t know from books…he wondered why no teacher had ever bothered to teach him about Cesar Chavez and the UFW and their place in his people’s history. If it hadn’t been for his grandparents taking him to church, he wouldn’t have learned about La Virgen either.
Having grown up in an English-speaking household and largely ignorant of Chicano movements and figureheads for the better part of his teen years, Ruly’s priorities completely shift once he becomes aware of all the things he does not know about his culture (I have a similar background, so this was certainly something I could empathize with). As events in his personal life unfold, Ruly also finds himself forging–and at times defending–his own meanings of family, friendship, and loyalty.
It was refreshing to come across a Latino coming of age story that didn’t revolve around the immigrant (or child-of-immigrant) experience. The El Paso described in these pages is warm and vibrant, and Yañez ushers his young protagonist from adolescence to adulthood with compassion and nuance. As Ruly “crosses over” into the next stage of his life, you can’t help but root for him as he builds bridges between his cultural past, present, and future.
Cross Over Water was released by University of Nevada Press on February 1, 2011.