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An Exploration of a Misunderstood 'Migrant Culture'

Ruben Martinez's book looks at the rich textures, and difficulties, of lives straddling two countries.


Struggling writers will like Ruben Martinez the minute they learn a certain, small detail about his book "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail" (Metropolitan, $26). Martinez missed his deadline by two years. "I did the romantic thing and got a house in the desert," he says. "But the words didn't come."

He makes this confession without apologies as he walks along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Past the Million Dollar Theatre, into the Grand Central Market, he takes it all in with quick glances, just enough to update his personal database. A lamp with a waterfall gushing through it reminds him of a beer ad in the L.A. restaurant his grandparents used to own.

Dressed in a black shirt and jeans with a gold chain around his neck, he doesn't stand out in this crowd. Martinez, 39, lives in Los Angeles and has made a career of studying Latino culture. As a features writer for L.A. Weekly in the '80s, covering news for KCET's "Life & Times Tonight" in the '90s and, most recently, as associate editor for the Pacific News Service, he has pursued topics ranging from lowrider culture to L.A.'s Latin jazz scene.

Martinez's new book is a portrait of Cheran, a town in Michoacan, Mexico. Many from the town live part of the year in U.S. cities, where they earn about $6 an hour, twice the day rate they would earn in Mexico. Martinez follows these migrant workers to places like Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Reviewers for major newspapers, including the Washington Post, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune, have called "Crossing Over" a major achievement for the way it gives voice to a vast subculture. The book goes beyond others on similar topics, they note, in its treatment of the impact migrant communities are having on the Midwest and Southeast.

Martinez got the idea for his book after reading news reports about the death of three brothers. In April 1996, Benjamin, Jamie and Salvador Chavez were killed on a mountain road in Temecula, Calif., when the truck they were riding in overturned. Benjamin, the oldest, was 30. They had entered the U.S. illegally, led by a "coyote," a Mexican smuggler of undocumented immigrants, who was speeding away from Border Patrol police when he lost control of the truck. It was not the first illegal crossing for any of the Chavez brothers.

"I'd known about migrant culture," says Martinez. "I knew it was a world of its own. But never in my wildest vision did I imagine how much there is to it." He uses the term "migrant culture" to define a way of life that thousands of Mexicans live. Curious to know more, he spent months in Cheran and the U.S. cities where the town's residents go for work.

From a migrant's perspective, Martinez explains in his book, the undocumented workers who have died crossing the border--in car wrecks and drownings and from overexposure in the desert--are martyrs to the cause of freedom. "Freedom to move," he writes, "or at least get the hell out of provincial towns like Cheran, whose timber-based economy is in tatters." He points out that an estimated 3,000 migrants died between 1994 and 1998, according to a study by the University of Houston.

In Michoacan, Martinez spent most of his time with the Chavez family matriarch, Marie Elena, and her 19-year-old daughter, Rosa, one of three surviving Chavez children. But he also got to know the rest of the town. The local sorceress told his fortune and advised him to get rid of the married girlfriend, she's nothing but trouble, he recounts in the book.

Teenage boys let him cruise the night with them, allowing him to listen as they argued about who shot Tupac Shakur, their hip-hop idol, and planned their gang wars. "No guns," Martinez says of street fighting in Cheran. "Mexican kids are assimilating American culture, but by and large they are innocent."

Encounters with the town's flamboyant residents helped confirm his earlier impressions. "I knew from my travels that Mexico has been undergoing dramatic transformations," Martinez says. Undocumented workers pump about $5 billion a year into Michoacan alone. Beyond that, he explains in the book, U.S. government figures from 1998 show that nearly 9,000 workers once legally employed in the U.S and now retired back in Mexico received a total of nearly $3 million a month from Social Security and pension funds.

These days, along with U.S. dollars, massive supplies of American culture are being carried across the border. Martinez saw workers travel home to Michoacan lugging microwave ovens, food processors, pop music CDs and gold jewelry. "I was shocked to see how much Cheran is like East Los Angeles, or South Los Angeles," he says.

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