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Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail

Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail

4.7 3
by Ruben Martinez

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The U.S.-Mexican border is one of the most permeable boundaries in the world, breached daily by Mexicans in search of work. Thousands die crossing the line and those who reach "the other side" are branded illegals, undocumented and unprotected. Crossing Over puts a human face on the phenomenon, following the exodus of the Chávez clan, an extended


The U.S.-Mexican border is one of the most permeable boundaries in the world, breached daily by Mexicans in search of work. Thousands die crossing the line and those who reach "the other side" are branded illegals, undocumented and unprotected. Crossing Over puts a human face on the phenomenon, following the exodus of the Chávez clan, an extended Mexican family who lost three sons in a tragic border accident. Martínez follows the migrants' progress from their small southern Mexican town of Cherán to California, Wisconsin, and Missouri where far from joining the melting pot, Martínez argues, the seven million migrants in the U.S. are creating a new culture that will alter both Mexico and the United States as the two countries come increasingly to resemble each other.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Through these beautifully written and important stories, Martínez shows us how "America" is being re-imagined by its uninvited, its disrespected, its invisible, and he shows us that they will change us, whether we like it or not." —Los Angeles Times

"To read Crossing Over is to read not the history of the foreign other, but to read the story of America, to understand the dynamic that renews the strength and hope of the American Dream even as it reshapes it.. . . [Martínez] has depicted a deep, enduring commonality that may change the way we understand immigration" —Chicago Tribune

Even though the U.S. spends billions enforcing its border with Mexico, Mexicans seeking honest labor breach it on a daily basis. Thousands perish making the attempt, and those who do make it across are, of course, considered "illegals." Journalist Rubén Martínez humanizes this often-tragic story by documenting the travails of the Chávez family as they attempt to make a new and better life for themselves. Despite having lost three sons in earlier attempts to cross the border, they are determined to make it. Martínez shows the effect the Chávez emigration has on them, the family members they leave behind, and their newly "adopted" country.
Denise Chavez
Uncompromising in its intensity, Crossing Over is a great testimony to life on this blessed, complex, and turbulent continent.
Julia Alvarez
Rubén Martínez takes us on that quintessential and . . . tragic journey from the promise of America to the reality it offers.
Richard Rodriguez
What begins as a work of journalism . . . ends up, like a work of literature, forcing us to wonder about ourselves.
Sandra Cisneros
Crossing Over is dark, brutal — and brilliant. No other journalist could have written it; Martínez is truly our coyote.
Mike Davis
Martínez writes with moral clarity and razor-sharp wit — no wonder he is setting off sensors all along the border.
Luis Alberto Urrea
Like his spiritual forebear, John Steinbeck, Martínez knows things about the migrant's heart that enrich us all.
Helena Maria Viramontes
Rubén Martínez he is our bravest.
Publishers Weekly
Chronicling a family that lost three sons to a border crossing gone horribly wrong, Martinez travels repeatedly from San Diego to the city of Cheron, in the state of Michoacin, about 200 miles west of Mexico City. Though treated by some of the Mexicans he meets as more of a gringo than a norteno (a Mexican who has lived in the north), Martinez, an American of Mexican emigri parents, gets terrifically close to his subjects, following them from stultifying poverty in Mexico to mortally dangerous illegal crossings and harsh and also dangerous (and illegal) work in Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri and California. Martinez draws a wealth of social, ethnic, linguistic and economic nuance in completely absorbing narratives. Each of the 13 chapters begins with a facing-page photo by Joseph Rodriguez (with whom Martinez collaborated on East Side Stories), showing us the cholos (gang members), coyotes (crossing guides) and pollos ("chickens" being led across), and also the everyday people whose lives are spread, one way or another, across the border. Martinez is now at Harvard on a Loeb fellowship, has won an Emmy for his work as a journalist, is associate editor of Pacific News Service and a correspondent for PBS's Religion and Ethics News Weekly. His book is heroic in its honesty and self-examination, and in its determination to tell its story completely and fully. (Oct. 3) Forecast: With the legal status of Mexican workers apparently on the White House front burner, this will be a huge book for policy wonks; look for terrific reviews, and for Martinez to do many a news chat. This will be a big seller on campus and with left-leaning readers (possibly for years), but the topicality and the qualityof the writing make a major breakout likely. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Emmy Award-winning journalist Martinez here captures the human story of Hispanic migrants drawn north by a hunger for la vida mejor. Hundreds of "illegals" die each year attempting to cross the invisible line between Mexico and the United States. Among them were the Ch vez brothers, three undocumented farm workers who died in 1996 after a coyote's speeding truck flipped and crashed. Martinez spent a year traveling with the brothers' extended family, chronicling a four-generation-long journey northward. They begin in the family's hometown of Cher n, Michoac n, and travel across the southwestern desert to timber mills in Arkansas, meat-packing plants in Wisconsin, and greenhouses in Missouri, eventually arriving near the strawberry fields in California, the brothers' original destination. As he relates the passionate story of this migrant family on its never-ending search for identity, Martinez identifies components that contribute to the cultural swirl of the migrant experience and predicts the creation of a multiracial future. Martinez honestly articulates both the ideals and the enormous risks taken by migrants, showing how la tradici"n has foiled assimilation and the "melting pot" myth even as migration creates change on both sides of the border. Recommended for large public and academic libraries. Sylvia D. Hall-Ellis, Denver P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The U.S.'s persistent effort to prevent undocumented workers from crossing its border with Mexico has cost thousands of lives in recent years. Among them were Benjamin, Jaime, and Salvador Chavez, three brothers killed in a single infamous incident. Why do people repeatedly risk their lives to make the illegal crossing? What is it like for them on both sides of the border? Some of the answers found here will surprise many readers, but few will be able to resist this remarkable account once the book has been opened. Martinez traveled to the Michoacan town of Cheran to find the Chavez family. This also proved to be a personal journey for him, triggering insights into his own cultural roots. Cheran is "an Indian town with one foot in pre-Columbian times and the other leaping toward the twenty-first century." Its deforested hills can no longer support its traditional logging-based economy, and each spring a third of its inhabitants travel-most of them illegally-to the U.S. to work, returning again for the town fiesta in the fall. The name of the ancient language that most residents still speak-Purepecha-actually means "a people who travel." Their medicine, music, religion, language, and family customs are a mixture of Indian traditions with Catholicism and modern globalization and, in highly colorful style, Martinez shows how this "negotiation of cultural identity continues to this day" on both sides of the border. At the fiesta, Martinez writes, "All of Cheran is spinning around me as I try to stand still." Reading his book feels a lot like that. It must be experienced.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thoughtful, politically charged narrative of travel in a little-known but much-discussed American subculture. There are now, writes Pacific News Service editor and NPR correspondent Martinez, as many as seven million Mexican migrant laborers living in the US. A disproportionate number come from small, mostly Indian villages and towns in the state of Michoacan, such as the small city of Zamora. "No one," he writes, "believes that there's a future here, neither the big-time landowner nor the cholo. There's a past: this is where your folks were born, where the streets smell like childhood and the traditional fiestas are still celebrated more or less the way they were before the Conquest. But a future? The more Zamora is aware of the world beyond the little green valley . . . the more Zamora wants to shed its skin." It does so by sending its people, young and old, across the border, mostly illegally, where the hardships are many but the potential rewards-including citizenship for the lucky few and rates of pay that are princely by Mexican standards if unimaginably low to middle-class gringos-outweigh the risks. Martinez begins and ends his voyage in Michoacan, visiting with the mother of a large family most of whose members have crossed the line; three of her sons died after a cocaine-snorting smuggler crashed his truck while fleeing US Border Patrol agents. (By the end, she too will have left Zamora, for a new home in St. Louis.) Other points in his eventful narrative find Martinez at home in California, walking the Arizona desert, talking with farmhands in Texas shantytowns. He resists the temptation to moralize, instead writing plainly-but with obvious sympathy-for people moved byeconomic disaster to flee their homes for an uncertain new country that often seems to hate them but that needs them all the same. First-rate reporting on an important, controversial subject. Author tour

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.02(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

I am close to the line.

The mostly invisible line that stretches two thousand miles along sand, yellow dirt dotted with scrub brush, and the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. Invisible, save for certain stretches near San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso, where the idea of the U.S.-Mexico border takes physical form through steel, chain links, barbed wire, concrete, and arc lamps that light the barren terrain at night. At these three crossing points — San Diego being the busiest port of entry in the world — the Border Patrol has cleared the land for miles around, so that the human figures who try to breach the line stand in stark relief and cast shadows. The Border Patrol swallows as many shadows as it can.

It is late summer in California and the hills that line I-15 in southern Riverside County are tinged rusty brown; the brilliant green wild grass of spring is a distant memory. This is one of my least favorite stretches of California highway, an interminable, mostly barren valley corridor.

I-15 is a necessary route for travelers and truckers shuttling between the Inland Empire and San Diego. It is also the preferred route of the "coyotes," the smugglers of human cargo who charge $1,000 a head or more to foil the designs of the Border Patrol and get their migrant clients on the road to their American future.

I am in the badlands of Southern California, en route to an appointment with the dead. I'm headed to Temecula, a growing city on the edge of Riverside County. It is arid country here, the westernmost point of the vast desert that spreads from the California beach all the way to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

For the American migrants who rode the wagon trains westward, California was once the "other side," just as it is today for the migrants heading north. Up from the fine yellow dust of these hills rise imported laurels, palms, sycamores, avocados, willows, oleander, eucalyptus. There are even apple and citrus orchards. But now and again, the old desert, a reminder of Mexican, or even Indian, California, appears in the form of an ancient, lonely stand of nopal cactus.

I take the exit at Rancho California Road. Temecula is picturesque, with its Western wagon-wheel décor. The elite live in the hills above town, in huge, recently built homes of the faux California Mission variety: red tile roofs, beige stucco, wrought iron. There are rose gardens and the occasional artificial pond gracing the spacious yards. One of the local realty agencies is called Sunshine Properties.

I head west along a winding two-lane that climbs into the Santa Rosa Mountains, a range that runs southward and eventually crosses the international line. The Santa Rosas are beautiful and bizarre: gently rolling hills of green give way suddenly to boulder-strewn peaks and chasms. On the Mexican side, the landscape is precipitous — and infamous. There, a stretch of Mexico Federal Highway 2 known as La Rumorosa (The Whispering One, for the haunted winds that blow through the canyons) has been the site of hundreds of fatal wrecks over the decades.

My destination is the intersection of Calle Capistrano and Avenida Del Oro. The names are, of course, Spanish — appropriated by the whites to romance their idyll with a dash of old California. The street signs are rendered in faux rustic, engraved wood. Most of the whites who live here now were once migrants themselves, belonging to subsequent waves of American wanderers — the Depression-era and post-war generations that pulled up stakes in the Midwest and on the East Coast to spend their lives in balmy paradise. This land was a final destination for them, the consummation of their California dream. You don't leave paradise once you've found it.

But for the Mexican migrants, Temecula is a stopover, not a final destination. Sure, there are Mexican gardeners tending to the rose bushes, cleaning the swimming pools, washing and folding the clothes, cooking the meals; brown women sing lullabies in Spanish to white babies. But the Mexicans are here for just as long as they have to be. They are mostly young and don't think of retiring, not only because they have no money to do so but also because they can't imagine themselves old yet. Most of the Mexicans in Temecula are literally just passing through, crammed into pickup trucks and vans driven by the coyotes. Temecula is just another of the hundred places they will blow through en route to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Chicago, Decatur. But even these are not final destinations. The migrants will follow trails determined by America's labor economy: they will keep moving, from one coast to another, from picking the fields to working in hotels and restaurants, from cities to heartland towns.

Temecula was long a quiet town. But to the retirees' dismay, it is now a staging area for the battle of the border, in which two armies face off, usually under cover of darkness. It is a battle in which, occasionally, blood is spilled, though usually only on one side.

I turn right at Avenida Del Oro and pick up speed on a steep down-hill grade. The road begins a long curve between hills dotted with rural mansions and avocado orchards. At the bottom of the gully, at the intersection with Calle Capistrano, I stop the car. The sun has fallen behind the hills to the west but still illuminates the higher terrain with a lush, classic California gold. Silvery plumes from the irrigation sprinklers arc over the fields.

This is where it happened. Where Benjamín, Jaime, and Salvador Chávez and five others, all of them undocumented Mexican migrants, "illegals," died crammed in a truck that sped along this rural road four and a half years ago.

I clamber down into the drainage ditch below the road. Yellow dirt and sickly weeds. I find a screen from the window of the truck's camper shell and a blue piece of plastic from the shell itself, about a foot long and six inches wide. And another piece of black plastic: a fragment of the truck's running board. I pick up and examine a faded, crumpled tube of Colgate toothpaste, its ingredients listed in Spanish. There is an equally faded and torn McDonald's medium-size Coca-Cola cup.

Above the ditch, an anonymous artisan has built a small altar by taking the trunk of a California oak, slicing it in half, and carving out seven small crosses that he has filled in with light blue paint. (There should be eight crosses; the artisan was apparently unaware of the last victim's death in a nearby hospital several days after the accident.) It is a simple, beautiful monument.

I walk a ways up the hill, the bed of dead avocado leaves crunching underfoot. There is very little traffic and it is quiet, except for the leaves of the avocados rustling in the warm wind and, suddenly and eerily, the voices of men. Men speaking in Spanish. It sounds like they are nearby, but it takes me a while to spot them, high on a hill south of me. They are Mexican farmworkers, chatting casually as they pick avocados. They are a good half mile away, but the wind has brought their voices very close. These men traveled the same road that Benjamin and his brothers did. They are farmworkers now. Benjamín, Salvador, and Jaime Chávez are not. This is where their road ended.

Copyright © 2001 Rubén Martínez

Meet the Author

Rubén Martínez, an Emmy-winning journalist and poet, is the author of Crossing Over and The New Americans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.

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Crossing over : A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
veronicac311 More than 1 year ago
I read this book to my husband as we were driving on a road trip. It was so interesting we didn't listen to the radio until we finished it. Even though my throat was getting tired from reading. The author writes very well so that the book stays interesting. This book puts the reader in a different place so that you feel like you are in Mexico going through what the poor people there face daily. This book opened up my eyes as to why America looks so wonderful that they would risk death and jail to get over here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at the Atlanta,GA Airport from the Employee Picks table and it's one of the best books I've ever had the pleasure of reading! Being African-American, I am usually sensitive to the plight of other cultures..but those things that I could not intuit, couldn't fully realize, were all made astonishingly clear to me through this book. The author details not only the facts, but he also captures the human interest side- full of passion, sacrifice, love, tears and joy. What an amazing journey. This is typically not my genre, but I will now make it a point to read at least one book a month dedicated to cultural exploration. Much appreciation for the dedication and tenacity of Mr. Martinez and to all of the families who've shared their stories.