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Neither Here Nor There

THE OTHER FACE OF AMERICA: Chronicles of the Immigrants Shaping Our Future, By Jorge Ramos, Rayo/HarperCollins: 252 pp., $24.95 OPERATION GATEKEEPER: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, By Joseph Nevins, Routledge: 286 pp., $17.95 paper

January 13, 2002|SAM QUINONES

THE OTHER FACE OF AMERICA: Chronicles of the Immigrants Shaping Our Future, By Jorge Ramos, Rayo/HarperCollins: 252 pp., $24.95

Shortly after moving to Mexico in 1993, I met a couple in a village in the west-central state of Michoacan. Their house had two stories, marble floors, a satellite dish and a large yard, but it was usually empty. The family lived most of the year in Stockton, where the man worked in a tomato-packing plant. There they rented a home near Eighth and Phelps streets, one of the most violent areas in the entire Central Valley. I'd been a crime reporter there. Shootings, robberies, carjackings, drug sales--every night it happened at Eighth and Phelps.

Immigration is a great story because of the beautiful contradictions you can find within it. My first taste of that was the surprise that this couple would rent a home amid urban chaos and send their children to the second-worst high school in Stockton while building a home in Mexico in which they spent only six weeks a year. Their dream, the couple told me, was to retire there one day.

That began my fascination with the stories of Mexican immigration and its essence: the return home. For many immigrants, the American Dream is not to assimilate but to return home wealthier than they left. Who would want to assimilate into America? It is lacerating to cut ties to home. Yet, for most of the last century, geography, the limits of transportation, war and economic and political turmoil forced immigrants to cut their ties to, say, Italy or Vietnam or China. It wasn't fair, but it was necessary. This focused them on investing in American businesses, educating their children and leaving areas like Eighth and Phelps.

Mexicans, though, can go home, and they do. Mexico is nearby, travel is cheap and the country is relatively stable yet poor, so their dollars buy a lot. These factors keep Mexicans coming to the U.S. and returning home every year.

Immigration to the United States from other countries has started and stopped, forcing those immigrants to assimilate. Mexicans alone have realized the true immigrant American Dream. This constant return hurts many Mexican immigrants. Proposition 187 in 1994 was possible because many Mexican immigrants, still yearning for Mexico, hadn't become U.S. citizens. So politicians like former California Gov. Pete Wilson didn't need to take them into account. (And I don't believe investing in a house in Mexico is a great idea if you have to rent a home at Eighth and Phelps for 20 years to do it.)

Yet it seems popular now to exalt nonassimilation, despite the harm it does to immigrants. This is one failing of "The Other Face of America" and "Operation Gatekeeper," two new books dealing with Mexican immigration.

"The Other Face of America" is a series of vignettes about Latino immigrants--Mexicans, Dominicans, Central Americans--written by Jorge Ramos, a Mexican immigrant and prime time news anchorman for the Spanish-language Univision network in Miami. Only a popular television anchorman could have persuaded HarperCollins to print a book this thinly reported. His book is the prose equivalent of television news. Every page shows that the reporter hasn't spent the time to make his characters come alive and understand their contradictions.

Instead of delving into immigrant stories, Ramos rants and weeps for them. On a woman about whom we learn little, except that she couldn't get into UCLA because she's undocumented, he writes: "Where are all the names of the legislators who prevented Margarita of Michoacan from being able to attend UCLA? Who among them would dare to look her in the face and tell her she does not have the right to continue studying? Who?"

Weeping for the downtrodden and preaching to the choir, not challenging it--this is a journalistic tradition in Mexico, where so many people are poor and working-class. Its real goal is to lift the crusading reporter in his public's eyes. But it makes for wooden journalism.

Ramos praises Mexican immigrants' deep ties to their native land. Then he bemoans their lack of political power in the U.S. He doesn't get it: The former causes the latter. Many Mexican immigrants haven't become American citizens. They can't vote and thus have no political power in their new country. Many are American citizens and still don't vote; the 2001 L.A. mayor's race showed that. But none of this has much to do with American racism, as Ramos implies.

Ramos' message, he reminds us at least five times, is that the United States "must admit that it is a multicultural society ... [and] must accept that reality and fully embrace its diversity."

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