Héctor and Lilia are a happily married young couple living in a quiet seaside Mexican village, but Héctor has always been restless for more. He envisions himself making the dangerous journey into the United States, working hard to save up money, then sending for his wife and infant daughter when he can secure their safe passage. When the opportunity arises, Héctor impetuously jumps at the chance to seize his dream. He leaves behind his wife and child, promising them that he’ll send for them as soon as possible.
Michel Stone’s The Iguana Tree is an emotional roller coaster that illuminates the some of the harsh realities faced by undocumented immigrants. Though Héctor lucks out and manages to find a close-knit community that supports him once he’s in the United States, it is the journey into the United States that truly sheds light on the darker aspects of of immigration. As Héctor witnesses during his own harrowing crossing, the trip across the border can be fatal. Immigrants are in the hands of the coyotes they pay to take them across the border, and since trafficking people across borders is a lucrative business, coyotes can be manipulative and cruel towards the unsuspecting people who pay them. Rape, physical assault, and theft are common, and there is little anyone can do about it.
Back in Mexico, Lilia anxiously waits for updates from Héctor, whom many believe will never come back. A family friend encourages her to move on with life, reminding her that many who leave for the United States die along the way and are never heard from again. When Lilia finally gets the message from Héctor that he is alive and well, she stubbornly decides to join him, even though everyone urges her to be patient and wait for Héctor to save money and make proper arrangements with a trustworthy coyote. She quickly realizes how foolish her decision to leave was, and their family pays a painfully high price as a result.
The Iguana Tree is a fast-paced, painful read that is extremely sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants. Even after Héctor and Lilia are reunited in the United States, their once-happy marriage suffers from the strain of their decisions. Though Héctor has been fortunate enough to find a sympathetic employer and a loyal group of friends who are happy to support the couple, he and Lilia are still vulnerable to the hardships suffered by undocumented immigrants in the United States. And as someone who lives along the border (in fact, about an hour west of where Lilia crossed over), this is the only part of the book that felt like a misstep in terms of high-risk moments.
At one point in the book, Héctor and his friend Miguel drive down from their new home in South Caroline to pick Lilia up from Brownsville , Texas. The three are understandably on edge and don’t want to draw attention to themselves, but end up being targeted by a policeman who felt like the typical Texas policeman stereotype: white and slightly overweight with a Texas twang. Thing is, it’s unlikely they would have been singled out they way they were, as the Rio Grande Valley is about 90% Latino (and Brownsville is probably closer to 95%). No, where I was actually anxious for the group was when they left Brownsville and headed back up to South Carolina: they’d have to pass through the Border Patrol checkpoint about an hour north of Brownsville, at which point they’d get the third degree and would likely get caught, regardless of their fake IDs. But they were able to pass through there without any mentions of checkpoints.
Those issues aside, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve read extensively about the experiences that undocumented Latina/o immigrants face in their attempts to cross into the United States, and Stone did a great job of conveying those realities in fictionalized terms. I also loved her descriptions about life back in Mexico (and yes, an iguana is involved). It’s a gritty yet enjoyable piece of immigration fiction.
The Iguana Tree was released on March 1, 2012 by Hub City Press. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.