Alfredo Corchado’s Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration (Bloomsbury, June 5) abides by the adage “The personal is political.” Corchado, the El Paso–based Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, has set himself the task of telling the story of the Americanization of Mexicans and the Mexicanization of the United States over the past thirty years, as well as the creation of the hybrid North American citizen of which he is an example. Corchado does so by weaving together two threads. The first is an autobiographical narrative about his career in journalism and his decades-long friendship with three fellow Mexican Americans. The second is a series of journalistic reports on the effects, on both the U.S. and Mexico, of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The passages on NAFTA and IRCA are, for the most part, rendered in a straightforward manner; anyone looking to understand the profound changes they have wrought will find these parts of the book edifying. According to Corchado, NAFTA’s push for globalization destroyed mom-and-pop stores and lowered wages in rural areas and small towns in both the United States and Mexico. In addition, IRCA’s granting of amnesty to three million people made it easier for large numbers of Mexican workers to find jobs in America just as the heartland had experienced a moment of great economic dislocation and rapid de-industrialization. This was the Reagan-era recipe for today’s anti-immigrant backlash.
Another Immigrant Success Story
The same day that Homelands comes out, a book on a similar topic will appear in stores: immigration expert Andrew Selee’s Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together (PublicAffairs). A fun fact gleaned from the book: Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was born and raised in Mexico City, and his bilingualism and biculturalism prompted the team to hire him, despite his slim background in baseball.
Informative as they are, though, these passages sit awkwardly next to the emotional heart of the book: the tale of four friends striving to find professional success, emotional connections, and a sense of identity far from the borderlands. In 1987, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango in 1960 and eventually settled in El Paso, left home for Philadelphia to work as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, which was committed to diversifying its staff. This was a difficult move for a young man from an impoverished border family; initially he was reluctant to leave his job at the El Paso Herald-Post and his tightly knit clan. In one of the book’s better set pieces, the Journal’s Philadelphia bureau chief, Frank Edward Allen, flies to El Paso to persuade Corchado’s parents to encourage their son to take the opportunity. After getting past at least one minor cultural miscue—Allen brings, as a gift, a bottle of red wine, which no one in the beer-drinking Corchado family knows what to do with—the negotiations get going.
“As I looked at Frank across the table, I began wishing my parents would just put me out of my misery and say, No, he can’t go,” Corchado writes. “He stays with his family, where he belongs. His family needs him. But instead my mother asked Frank if I could stay through Christmas; it was almost Thanksgiving, after all. Frank agreed.”
Once he arrives in Philadelphia, many of Corchado’s fears prove true. He spends much of his time homesick for the food, the music, and the people he left behind. He doesn’t know how to dress properly—when he wears the one sport coat he owns to the office, an off-the-rack number from J. C. Penney, Allen points out that he has failed to remove the cloth tag from his cuff—and he has trouble relating to his colleagues, whose Ivy League diplomas make him feel self-conscious about the years he spent at El Paso Community College.
Corchado does, though, quickly manage to establish one strong friendship, with Primitivo Rodríguez Oceguera, a human rights activist born and raised in Michoacán who had been described to Corchado as possibly “the only other Mexican in Philadelphia.” One night the two men decide to try out Tequilas, a local Mexican restaurant Oceguera had heard about. They’re skeptical, but when they walk inside, they notice that the place smells “surprisingly authentic. Not quite like my mother’s cooking—but close.” The food doesn’t disappoint. “I took a bite and swallowed,” Corchado writes. “For a second I wasn’t sure I knew where I was anymore.”
Eventually the restaurant’s owner, David Suro-Piñera, an immigrant from Guadalajara, comes over to their table and strikes up a conversation. A while later, they’re joined by another man, Kenneth I. Trujillo, a sharply dressed lawyer born and raised in New Mexico. After many hours and glasses of tequila, bonds of friendship are formed that serve as Homelands’ narrative spine.
The passages in which these four men drink tequila, savor meals that remind them of the food their mothers cooked, and talk about how they fit in—or don’t—in their new homes and whether any of them can ever go “home” again are vividly and entertainingly rendered. As someone who, like Corchado, grew up in El Paso and made the difficult move to the Northeast, I found much that was familiar and true in his struggles with self-doubt, the powerful pull of family, and the difficulties of trying to dress and talk and act in a way that doesn’t betray a lack of sophistication to big-city professional types.
People like Corchado and his friends, travelers between worlds, are often on the verge of giving up, questioning what they’ve lost in the name of ambition. Being from the border renders one permanently in the middle, neither here nor there. This uneasy perspective can illuminate both places as long as the observer resists nostalgia or bitterness, as Corchado mostly does.
Much to his credit, Corchado has found a way to stitch together his conflicted feelings: he has turned himself into a voice for the home he left behind for many years and for the Mexican immigrants living in the shadows in the United States. (His 2013 book, Midnight in Mexico, is a report on the ravages the drug cartels have visited on his native land, as well as the threats he faced while writing about them.) By doing so, he has managed to maintain his connection to his past homeland, while succeeding on his current homeland’s terms as well.
The dynamic of the friendship between Corchado, Suro-Piñera, Oceguera, and Trujillo is familiar; most cultures have traditions of men finding places to eat and drink and talk without women present. But Homelands’ all-male perspective is problematic. If Corchado is presenting himself as an example of one who has moved up from the border, the reader is left to wonder how much more difficult such a journey would have been for a Mexican American woman. Corchado’s initial reluctance to accept the job offer from the Journal reflects the lack of confidence typical of many poor Mexicans along the border, and it’s only worse for Chicanas. These women may be capable, they may have the intellectual chops to excel in places like the Ivy League or the Journal, but they often don’t believe in themselves, for a variety of reasons. Family ties. Racism. A lack of confidence in English. No experience with “aggressive” East Coast ways. Not enough practice with speaking up and fighting back. Yet their struggles are rarely mentioned in this book.
The patterns of Mexican migration to the U.S. often meant that the men who came here lived autonomous and unscrutinized lives. Some of these men had “other families” in the U.S. (Corchado offers a hint that this may have been the case with his father). A book with an important female perspective might cast a clearer light on this dynamic and offer a fuller portrait of the first- and second-generation Mexican American experience.
Paying attention to the Chicana point of view is important not just for Chicanas but for Mexican Americans as a whole. As Corchado notes, for years Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have caved to Republican demands for increased deportation and border security. It’s crucial for political activists to protest such moves, but they happen repeatedly for an important reason: voter turnout is famously low among Mexican Americans, so politicians can betray their hopes without much fear of electoral repercussions. If border communities and their residents want to see positive change, they’ll have to engage in politics both inside and outside the voting booth in greater numbers than they have. And it’s all the tougher to do that if they’re not paying attention to what half of their community has to say.
That complaint aside, Homelands performs a valuable service. Politics, after all, isn’t the only way that a disenfranchised and vilified community can counteract the stereotypes, misunderstandings, and even stupidities imposed by others. It can also do so if its expatriate sons and daughters, who have traveled far and succeeded, despite the odds, return to help. These voices, like Corchado’s, will make the voyage easier for those who will surely follow.
Sergio Troncoso is the author of five books, including Crossing Borders: Personal Essays and The Last Tortilla & Other Stories. He is vice president of the Texas Institute of Letters and a faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Workshop.