Thursday, June 23, 2016

Into the Beautiful North: Nayeli’s Magnificent Border Story

The Jaguar’s Children, the brilliantly written novel by John Vaillant, tells of the harrowing journey of two young men who, for every different reasons, put their lives in the hands (and sealed up water tanker truck) of ruthless coyotes to make their way from Oaxaca and Mexico DF to “the North.”  Hector’s mother wants him to stay, but his father urges him to go –for reasons hidden in the father’s past and hoped for in the son’s future. César is on the run for a more urgent reason.  Their suspenseful saga calls forth the powers of the ancient symbol of the jaguar, sees strange new claims on their people’s life source: corn, and holds out the promise of a bright new future for smart young men who made it to university.   

Theirs is a tale of men, strong and able and intelligent and educated young men, leaving for El Norte.  Into the Beautiful North shows what remains of life – of family life and community life --in the villages where all the men – all but the very oldest – have left to cross the border in the collapse of their local economy.  Into the Beautiful North, by the poet, novelist and journalist Luis Alberto Urrea, is a laugh-out-loud picaresque novel about one such village, the absence of men, and a young woman who decides to do something about it. 

Nayeli, a 19-year-old former high school soccer star and server at La Mano Caída, “The Fallen Hand” taco stand.  She despairs that her father has gone north to “Los Yunaites,” as have all the eligible young men of her generation. Her village, Tres Camarones (Three Shrimp), is dying and she is dying of boredom from watching the town’s only movie, The Magnificent Seven.

The movie inspires her quixotic quest:  she will go to the North to round up her own “magnificent seven” men to move back to re-build, and re-populate, her village.  And she’ll find and bring home her father, who years ago quit coming back. 

The novel could be paired with Huckleberry Finn in their journey motif (his escape on a river, hers a river crossing), their picaresque and episodic structure, and the merging of social commentary into the adventures and mishaps and unforgettable people they meet at each new place.  Just as Huck Finn sees right through the piety of the “respectable” people, Nayeli and her side-kicks (yes, some colorful friends come along) learn that the most generous people are the family they encounter living on the Tijuana garbage dumps.   The book is full of contemporary cultural references high school students will recognize (Kanye West, Sabado Gigante, internet).  And, yes, political realities:  the Border Patrol and, by inference, NAFTA:  “Twenty pesos! You couldn’t even afford corn tortillas anymore on twenty pesos.  The Americans were buying up all the maize for fuel and none of the rancheros could afford to use it for food.”

Into the Beautiful North gives voice and unforgettable personality to the ones “left behind” in Mexico and, even more important, in delightfully painful and funny and startling clarity, the story holds a mirror up to taken-for-granted luxuries (electricity, elevators, “small cartons with mushrooms piled inside like snowballs and vegetable bins [that] periodically sang ‘Singin’ in the Rain’” when the sprinklers sprayed the produce”).  And it holds a mirror up to the absurdities that a single line of political geography can make in who has and who needs, who leaves and who stays.  The book provides great fun (and no small amount of poignancy) when Nayeli declares, “We didn’t come here to get boyfriends! We’re on a mission! …. We came to save Tres Camarones!”

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