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The road oft traveled

Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream True Tales of Mexican Migration Sam Quinones University of New Mexico Press: 318 pp., $24.95

May 13, 2007|Gustavo Arellano | Gustavo Arellano, a columnist for OC Weekly and a contributing editor to The Times' editorial pages, is the author of "¬°Ask a Mexican!"

NO one remembers when the first person from my mother's birthplace, El Cargadero, arrived in Anaheim. Nor do we know who it was. Maybe it was my great-grandfather Sabas Miranda, who left the idyllic Zacatecas hamlet nestled in the mountains of central Mexico in the early 1900s to pick oranges in the heart of California's citrus country, or maybe it was another courageous villager seeking a job. Regardless, those early pioneers set a precedent: So many townsfolk shuttled between Anaheim and El Cargadero that the towns have blurred into one transnational rancho.

It was this tradition of binationalism that Andres Bermudez tapped into when he made international headlines in 2001. Bermudez and his family left El Cargadero during the 1950s for Tijuana, where they stayed a few years before trekking illegally to El Norte. He bypassed Anaheim in favor of Northern California, where the burly man became a millionaire tomato grower. Bermudez could have retired as a success story, but -- like so many immigrants before him -- he wanted more. The farmer returned to Zacatecas to seek the mayor's seat of Jerez, the city in whose jurisdiction El Cargadero lies. He eventually won it. True to his life, Bermudez's victory party wasn't held in Jerez or even El Cargadero but in a Santa Ana labor hall, even as his countrymen down south were already plotting to boot the migrant out of office.

Bermudez's saga best sums up journalist Sam Quinones' latest collection of chronicles, "Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration." Far from the saintly paeans and doomsday screeds spun by commentators on the left and right, Mexican migration is a bittersweet phenomenon that brings joy and pain to nearly everyone involved, but it also makes for incredible yarns that are frequently overlooked in this country. Where others see unremarkable immigrants, Quinones finds gold.

The book jacket includes a quote by author Luis Alberto Urrea praising Quinones as a "border legend." The phrase would be overkill if it weren't true. Over the last 15 years, he has filed the best dispatches about Mexican migration and its effects on the United States and Mexico, bar none. His first book, "True Tales From Another Mexico" (2001), features Popsicle kings, drag queens and the late Chalino Sanchez, the norteno singer from Sinaloa who transformed Mexican music from his new home in a Los Angeles suburb and remains the most influential but unknown Angeleno of the past 25 years. This new collection continues in that vein, focusing on Mexico's outcasts, the men and women who can't find an honest chance in their mother country and chuck it all away for the promise and danger of El Norte.

Quinones, who became a Los Angeles Times staff writer in 2004, calls on his crime-reporter roots. His prose is descriptive but terse, devoid of the flowery metaphors that can plague literary journalism. Characters numbering in the dozens pop in and out of the narrative; the historical, cultural and sociological context in which he places everyone is worthy of a dissertation.

The book's anchor is the story of Delfino Juarez, a young man from Veracruz, on Mexico's Caribbean coast, who finds riches as a construction worker in the hedonistic world of Mexico City and survives a harrowing trek across the U.S.-Mexico border, only to miss his village, which he finds forever altered by immigration. Delfino's story warrants its own book, but Quinones devotes only three chapters to him.

It's hard to choose a favorite tale from this collection, so improbable and delightful are they to read. Is it the story of Albert Robles, the man who almost single-handedly ruined the working-class L.A. suburb of South Gate with political tricks so dirty that the epigraph from Shakespeare's "Richard III" not only seems perfect but also a prophecy? How about "A Soccer Season in Southwest Kansas," which involves assimilation, homesteaders, Asian immigration, college, unpredictable weather and a car? One of the most improbable chapters gives a detailed history of velvet paintings, from their origins in the 14th century to the master Mexican artists who learned their craft by toiling for hours over the perfectly glowing Elvis.

Quinones is passionately disengaged about the controversy over illegal immigration. He isn't afraid to reveal failures -- the second-generation Mexican kids in Kansas, for instance, who'd rather work as butchers after high school than accept college scholarship offers. The author also tries to penetrate a colony of drug-running Mennonites in Chihuahua but, instead, flees for his life. Because this story is half-finished, it seems tacked on, unworthy of the book's other gems.

But allow Quinones a bit of self-indulgence. He obviously admires the pluck and determination of his protagonists while despising the archaic Mexican society and government that forces talented people to abandon their homeland by the millions every year. "Antonio's Gun" is an instruction manual on how to approach our nation's continual problem with the masses who seek a new life here: Love the immigrant, but hate what makes them leave home.

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