“Every morning there’s a long line of women on the bridge coming over to work, and then at night they go back across to their families in Matamoros. Right or wrong, legal or illegal, seen or ignored, that’s how things work here.” That’s how things work with the men, too, in Oscar Cásares’s new novel, Where We Come From, a story about a Mexican-American woman who becomes involved with human traffickers and tries to escape her connection with them. This novel, like his first book, the collection Brownsville: Stories (2003), is set mostly in the twin border towns Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. Cásares, who now lives and teaches in Austin, Texas, was born and raised in Brownsville, tells a compelling story about immigrants, drawing from his knowledge of the area and its people. He has written one other novel, Amigoland (2009), which revealed Cásares as a wonderful novelist in the manner of a T. C. Boyle, with the honesty and humanity of a John Steinbeck. He tackles the topical issue of immigration on the southern border without proselytizing. As Cásares says, “My only goal as far as the immigration part was to put a human face on this and to get it, I would hope, beyond the politics.”
Oscar CásaresWhere We Come From
Indeed, it is a story that transcends politics—a fiction to tell a truer truth. Where We Come From takes place around 2017, isn’t preachy, and makes no mention of Trump, but Cásares’s narrator refers to “the wall” at one point, and laments, “Nobody cares anymore, they let those selling las drogas go free. Or they think building a wall will solve all the problems, that the poor ones will stare up at it and forget their children are hungry.”
In this story, Nina, a childless woman in her late sixties, sells her house so she can live with and care for her bedridden ninety-four-year-old mother. Nina cares for Mamá Meche, in the blue house, one of two adjacent houses that Mother owns; Mother used to rent out the pink house but now everyone except Nina thinks it is empty. Cásares has a gift for creating elderly, cantankerous but likable characters like Amigoland’s ninety-one year-old Don Fidencio Rosales. Mamá Meche is certainly cantankerous but with good reason: She fell and though she didn’t break any bones, she couldn’t stand up. When Nina discovered her on the kitchen floor, she knew that she’d be living with her mother. Nina is also taking care of her twelve-year-old godson, Orly, while his dad, who lives in Houston, visits Los Angeles on business.
A former school teacher, Nina is always doing favors for everyone: first checking in on her ailing mother, then taking her to doctor’s appointments, and finally selling her own house, so she could live with and help Mamá Meche. But after doing a favor for a friend, her maid Rumalda, Nina finds herself entangled in human trafficking. Rumalda begs Nina to shelter her daughter and granddaughter after they are smuggled across the border. She lets them stay in the pink house while they wait to be taken farther into the U. S. The woman Nina deals with at first seems innocuous enough, but her associates El Kobe and Rigo are dangerous. After Nina does the favor for Rumalda, El Kobe and Rigo bring more Central American immigrants across the border to the pink house. El Kobe pays Nina $50 a day for the house, the food she makes, and to keep quiet. In a few days, Nina collects more money from El Kobe than Mamá Meche collected for a month’s rent.
But it soon becomes obvious that what she was doing is no longer just a favor; it was a business and a dangerous one. When Nina tries to object, the men threaten her, and she finds herself agreeing to do whatever they tell her to do. Not only does she fear to disobey their orders, she is afraid of getting caught by ICE, the Border Patrol, or the Brownsville Police Department. Her brother Beto accuses her of opening “a hotel for mojados in her backyard” and threatens to turn her in for the sake of their mother. Nina worries that if she is arrested there will be no one to take care of her godson and her mother would be put into a nursing home and would probably lose the houses. Her fear of the criminals and of the death of family members, however, is greater than her fear of the law. After temporarily housing several border-crossers, Nina is relieved when she sees on television that El Kobe and Rigo have been arrested:
Men and women were sitting in a motel room with their backs up against the wall, against the beds, against the dresser, against window and curtains. So many of them crammed together, almost sitting on top of one another. Like a dream, the faces were cloudy so nobody could recognize them, not how they showed their faces on the other channel, where it wasn’t news unless you could see the people who were suffering.
Nina’s relief is short-lived, however, when in a few days, a boy who escaped the raid, shows up at her back door. The boy, Daniel, is about Orly’s age, but he hasn’t lived the comfortable upper-middle-class life Orly has in Houston. To Daniel, even Nina seems rich. Nina feels enough compassion for Daniel to hide him in the pink house. In the meantime, Nina’s godson, Orly, who lives in Houston, is now temporarily staying with her while his widower father is on business in Los Angeles. As Cásares puts using Nina’s voice, “She had done a small favor for the woman, which led her to doing other favors that weren’t really favors, which led to another favor for a boy who knocked on her back door late one night, which was more like a favor but which she doubts her godson or his father or the officer sitting across from her would ever understand.” Nina tries to keep Mamá Meche, Orly and, Beto from discovering the boy in the pink house. She tells Orly that the aluminum foil over the pink house’s windows is to keep the house cool and save money when it is really there so no one can see inside.
In Amigoland, the story of two elderly Mexican brothers, Cásares depicted some universal truths about old age, death, and longing. The more ambitious Where We Come From covers a larger canvas and likewise reveals some truths about family roots, despair, poverty, and a dream for a better life. In order to tell this immense story effectively, Cásares uses a traditional, omniscient third-person viewpoint to portray the lives of immigrants, with a backdrop of human trafficking, drug cartels, and violent crime. That narrative viewpoint succeeds, for the most part, as characters are revealed from within as well as from the outside, a feat at which an objective third-person narration would fail. The risk, of course, is sentimentality and politicizing, both of which Cásares avoids. The viewpoint, however, switches among so many major and minor characters that reading it is more challenging than, say, reading third-person limited. Nina’s is the most prominent narrative viewpoint, followed by Orly, Daniel, and Beto, each of whose thoughts are communicated with a free, indirect monologue that is akin to stream-of-consciousness. The narrator even gets inside the heads of minor characters who sometimes appear for less than an italicized page, for instance: Mr. Domínguez who is deported to Veracruz after police inadvertently discover his work visa expired; Odilia Hernández, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, dies after being abandoned for refusing to pay the coyotes more to take her to another checkpoint; and the cop ironically named Daniel whose Salvadoran mother was once an illegal. Characters like those are essential elements on Cásares’s canvas as they portray a broad spectrum of life near the border and far beyond it, but their backstories occasionally break the flow of the narrative.
As he did in Brownsville and Amigoland, Cásares often uses Spanish phrases. Some are so familiar and simple like “un favor” where the meaning is obvious. Most other phrases are understandable in context, while others are translated in either the narrative, “he described these people as the load, la carga,” or in the dialogue:
“The food,” Nina said. “To eat.”
but occasionally you might need to buscar con Google.
Where We Come From is an imperfectly great novel, and in it Cásares tackles a subject that could easily fall apart due to sentimentality or by trying to make political points. Structurally the novel is a challenging read, what with the shifting viewpoints and several backstories, and the boy, Daniel, showing up Gatsby-like about sixty pages into the book to join Nina and Orly as a major character. The rest of the story revolves mostly around Daniel; and it is through Daniel that Cásares compares the life of a poor immigrant child to the life of an upper-middle class boy. As for politics—readers will draw their own conclusions, but ultimately, Where We Come From is a thought-provoking read from a master storyteller whose unrelenting realism is often heartrending.