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Topical Storytelling

Sam Quinones' stories of Mexican emigration both enlighten and entertain

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All of the characters in Sam Quinones' splendid new collection of life tales are riding the tidal wave of Mexican-U.S. migration: Some are paddling doggedly just to stay afloat; others, with pluck or bravado, are balancing on the crest and relishing the ride.

Quinones, now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, went to Mexico in 1994 to learn Spanish. Ten years, much travel, some freelance articles and a nonfiction book later (True Tales From Another Mexico), he precipitously decamped--with one disgruntled Mexican German Mennonite cokehead hot on his heels.

This book illuminates individual lives in a historic movement and muses on the nature of the movement.

Quinones tells nine stories here (11 if you count the title's "Antonio's Gun" in his introduction and his own "Leaving Mexico" Mennonite adventure as epilogue), but he incorporates with them the tales of others. He also includes economic, political and social background, as well as vivid descriptions of Mexican settings.

The Antonio story sets the stage for the others: It's early in the 20th century, just after the Mexican Revolution. Jaripo, Michoacán. The town boss--the cacique--orders his henchman, Juan Muratalla, to kill the Carrillo brothers, poor rancheros, to get the girlfriend of one of them. Antonio, the son of the other, vows revenge, but he's so poor, he has no gun. So Antonio heads for the United States. He finds work; he saves his money; he buys a pistol; he sends Muratalla word that he'll be back to kill him. On the appointed day, Muratalla and a group of gunmen are waiting for him, but Antonio outsmarts them. He surprises Muratalla, challenges him and shoots him dead, for all to see.

Antonio never returns to the United States. He got what he needed.

The people whose experiences Quinones recounts here don't go to the United States because they want to become U.S. citizens; they go because of what they lack at home. Born poor in a rigidly hierarchical society without opportunities, they depart; they work hard; they send home money. Then many begin to build their dream houses in their home villages ... for all to see. And to which to return.

Although individuals might prosper, emigration hasn't solved fundamental problems in Mexico, Quinones observes; it has discouraged development, created a dependence on "remittances" and fostered further emigration. And in a sad irony, whole villages in Mexico with showy immigrant "dream" houses standlargely depopulated.

Quinones uses the story of Delfino Juárez to represent and explain the migration. At 12, the son of a drunk who didn't support his family, Delfino made his first migration--to Mexico City from his Veracruz mountain village--to work construction. Though he was young and small, he found work. (On one job, he joined a crew of boys who demolished a three-story building by tying themselves to the roof, leaning out and smacking it with sledgehammers.) He slept on the building sites and got into drugs, alcohol, sex and piercings. He tried out punk, and then cholo personas.

But he sent money every week. The kid supported his family.

When he straightened out, he married a nice Puebla girl, and they had a baby. Delfino wanted more for his son than his father had provided for him, so he headed north.

After about two years in the Los Angeles flooring trade, Delfino Juárez, once the poorest kid in town, had a concrete block house with indoor plumbing and smoked-glass front windows. That catalyzed a migration from his mountain town to the United States.

The other tales in Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream are as varied and rich as Mexico is complex and colorful. In "The Tomato King," a farm worker who'd built a large and successful agricultural business near Sacramento, Calif., got himself elected mayor of his Zacatecas hometown. "The Saga of South Gate" relates the "Mexicanization" of politics in a Mexican immigrant Los Angeles suburb (with an astounding and entertaining series of outrageous acts of corruption until the immigrants themselves exercise their American voting rights).

There's an all-Hispanic soccer team in Kansas, the terrific (Who would've thought?) history of painting on black velvet, a move-you-to-tears tale of opera in Tijuana, the double-sided success of Zacatecan taco-stand entrepreneurs in Chicago, and the inside story of a migrant death in Tucson's back yard.

Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream was scrupulously researched. Given today's immigration debate, it's topical and timely. But most of all, it's infused with life and spirit and affection--the multifaceted, complicated, sorrowful, joyful, compromised and celebratory spirit of Mexicans on both sides of the border. And Quinones is a hell of a storyteller.

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