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Book Review : Trying to Document the Undocumented Workers

August 27, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover (Vintage: $6.95, paperback, 272 pages)

One of the useful epiphanies of a novice writer of nonfiction is that moment when an editor boldly blue-pencils the first half-dozen pages of a manuscript and points triumphantly to one surviving paragraph:

"There," he announces. "That's where your story starts."

"Coyotes" starts on Page 148, more than halfway through Ted Conover's earnest but uneven account of his travels with undocumented workers from Mexico and the coyotes, or smugglers, who bring them across the border. After dragging us back and forth across the United States in the company of various bands of los mojados or wetbacks--a crossing of the Rio Grande at Laredo, a stretch in the citrus orchards outside Phoenix, an almost surrealistic jaunt to Los Angeles by airplane and then a madcap trek across the continent to Florida in a decrepit Ford station wagon that could not be driven more than 25 miles per hour--Conover abruptly turns his attention to the real subject of his work: the impoverished Mexican countryside that is the font of the floodtide of illegal immigration. By then, I regret to say, Conover has strained both our credulity and our patience.

Young Journalist

"Coyotes" is the confessional work of a young American journalist who attached himself to several groups of undocumented workers from Mexico as an exercise in first-person journalism. And Conover is very much the first person in his book, continually reporting his thoughts, his impressions, his fears. (He is nearly obsessed, for instance, by the threat that this investigative journalism will expose him to prosecution for aiding and abetting, a violation of United States immigration law.) "Coyotes" is a good example of the perils of what used to be called New Journalism--the writer injects himself into somebody else's life, somebody else's world, and then describes in meticulous detail how it feels to be an intruder.

The distortion of reality at the hands of a well-meaning but overweening journalist is illustrated by Conover's reminiscences about the jaunt to Los Angeles that he organized for his Mexican companions--Conover becomes a kind of coyote himself, although he persists in fretting about the legal perils that he faces. "If I get caught," he tells his charges, "it's a felony!" "No, no," says one of the illegals, saying much more than the author may have intended. "You want to write about it, yes? Then you are the one who is being helped." In any event, Conover is not much of a coyote--he outfits these rural Mexican farmers in contemporary clothing and meticulously briefs them on the rituals and protocols of air travel, but wholly neglects to coach them on metal detectors and X-ray machines at airport security checkpoints, where a pocketful of pesos nearly puts an end to the adventure.

Conover's perceptions of the sojourn in Los Angeles also alert us to the question of his credibility as a reporter. Although the Latino culture of Los Angeles is perhaps the most fully elaborated in the United States, we see almost nothing of it. In fact, the highlight of his excursion to Southern California is an after-hours tour through less savory precincts of Santa Monica, where he is befriended by the night clerk of a motel, a black man, and slugged by a drunken white man in an all-night doughnut shop ("White guy talkin' to some Messicans, huh?").

From these sparse and ambiguous experiences comes Conover's equally sparse and ambiguous impression of Los Angeles: "And so it went in L.A.," he concludes, "a city of races and racism."

Conover has captured at least some of the rhythm and texture of a life lived underground, on the run, and here and there we come across a truly memorable scene. Although it is not a violation of Mexican law to cross the border, the hapless farmworker who has already paid hundreds of dollars to the coyote is at risk of a shakedown by the Mexican police, who casually resort to "Tehuacanazo," a particularly inventive form of torture that utilizes a bottle of carbonated mineral water, Agua Tehuacanazo.

Even in the prettier passages of "Coyotes," however, I questioned whether Conover had found and reported the kind of hopeless rural poverty which, as he suggests, is the engine of illegal immigration. The village is the beneficiary of an agricultural cooperative supported by the Arizona Farmworkers Union (which also provided Conover with assistance in the domestic research for his book); the family in whose home Conover stays is hardly impoverished, and certainly not without hope. And so, when the village priest complains that the lure of America has turned the place into "a parish of widows and orphans," his words are strangely at odds with Conover's positively lyrical description of village life.

Indeed, Conover's account is so idyllic--especially in contrast to his narrative of the immigrant ordeal--that we begin to wonder why anyone would feel compelled to leave at all.

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