Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
This story begins in the sleepy, remote Mexican coastal village of Tres Camarones, where most of the men have left to get work in the United States. Life is disrupted by the arrival of armed bandidos. And as apparently is often the case in Mexico, the bandidos are corrupt law enforcement officials. The village is ripe for their nefarious plucking because nearly all of the men have left to seek their fortunes in El Norte, across the American border.
One of the women of the village, nineteen year old ex-soccer star Nayeli, decides that it is necessary to find some men to come live in the village and protect them. She is inspired by the film, “The Magnificent Seven,” and its star, Yul Brynner, whom the ladies believe is Mexico’s greatest actor because of the perfect Spanish he speaks in the dubbed version of the movie. [“The Magnificent Seven” is a 1960 American western film about a group of hired gunmen protecting a Mexican village from bandits. It is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, “Seven Samurai.”] Nayeli convinces two of her girl friends and one gay restaurateur to accompany her on a quest to recruit seven Mexican he-men, preferably soldiers or former police, from north of the border to return to Mexico and save the village from the pillaging bandidos. Nayeli also has a hidden agenda to find her father, who left the family long ago and now lives in Kankakee, Illinois.
The little band encounters many dangers and barriers to travel, the worst of which are in Mexico in the form of corrupt officialdom. They finally cross the border at Tijuana, but are apprehended and returned to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol. Only after they are befriended by an experienced drug smuggler are they able to effect a safe crossing through a secret tunnel.
Their adventures continue in the States, where they are subjected to substantial discrimination, but ultimately they recruit many men willing to return to Mexico. First, however, Nayeli must complete her own private mission. She is able to borrow an old car from a former missionary who had once worked in Tres Camarones, and sets out on a cross-country trip to Kankakee to find her father. It is a tribute to Urrea’s prose that he depicts the long car ride in two short chapters, yet gives a wonderful overview of most of the western two-thirds of the United States. In Kankakee she meets people who are genuinely friendly and helpful to “illegals” like her, and she finds out what happened to her father.
Discussion: Urrea’s ear for Spanglish is acute. He is able to create a dialog that sounds very much like the mixed Spanish and English conversation of Mexican immigrants we experienced in Tucson. His short remarks and common words are Spanish slang, which takes a little getting used to, but the over-all effect is convincing. He uses clear English to convey more complicated conversation, so that single-language Americans need not consult their Spanish dictionaries very often.
The secondary characters are Dickensian in their eccentricity, and it would make the review over long to do them justice. Suffice to say that they are nearly always amusing and often hilarious.
Evaluation: Urrea offers perspicuous insights into the living conditions, aspirations, and perceptions of the undocumented aliens. I highly recommend this book.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009