An 'LA Times' correspondent follows the trail of Latin-American border crossers and finds a story as old as America
If de Tocqueville were to travel the nation today, the color he would see peaking through would not be aristocratic, but Latino. 2005 marks the first year that Latino-Americans have become the largest minority group in the country, and to see how exactly this has changed the texture of America - not just its color - Los Angeles Times correspondent Héctor Tobar hit the road and toured the Spanish-speaking United States. He traveled to Omaha and Atlanta, Salt Lake City and northern Michigan, even the woods of Maine. The hotbeds of Latino culture, really.
Translation Nation, his record of this journey, is an essential and illuminating read that is full of discoveries, one of the most immediate being that while immigration begins at the borders, its effects are felt all over the country. Like in Anniston, Alabama, where, disguised as a migrant in search of a job, Tobar travels by bus with several other mexicanos to do swing shift work dismembering chickens. It is mind-numbing, tiring work, "the kind ... that erases portions of your memory if you do it too long," Tobar writes. Once a week, a bus would come to the little town and take workers in for a day of shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. The only time Tobar sees a white person inside the plant is when it shuts down due to a contamination problem.
As bleak as these living conditions are, they do not always stay that way. Four years later, Tobar returned to Anniston and discovered a Catholic church had been erected, and the Latinos no longer living in trailers but in homes. In Dalton, Georgia, things were even better, as in a burst of "pure self interest" the town decided to spend $7,400 per child to provide a good public education to its new Latino-American population - to prevent social ills arising later on councilmembers say. The community now has a Spanish-language newspaper and neighbors who treat them for the most part with decency. At one point, Tobar is interviewing a man when a good ol' boy drives by in his pickup and waves.
"Do you know him?" I asked.
"I think he's one of my neighbors, but I'm not sure." Seeing that I was a bit confused, he added. "Sometimes, I'm out here working on the yard and white people, strangers, drive by and wave hello. In my pueblo people do that. But in Los Angeles, they're more likely to give you the finger."
| Translation Nation: |
Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States
By Héctor Tobar
$24.95, 320 pages
Tobar celebrates such cross-cultural moments, but they are not yet the norm. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has begun to set up detainment centers away from the borders, so when smugglers get pulled over for a busted taillight in Iowa or North Dakota, their cargo is not immediately set free. "I wonder if at a date in the distant future the travails of the desert crossers will become the institutionalized and mythologized narrative that the Underground Railroad is today," Tobar writes. If that day does indeed come, Translation Nation will be looked upon as both a cornerstone and a corrective, the kind of book that didn't just document American life, but showed us the way of the future, too. •