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Author Puts Faces on the Immigration Debate

July 25, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now a different take on the immigration debate, and to Ray Suarez for a book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.” The author is “Los Angeles Times” reporter Sam Quinones. I recently spoke with him at a day labor market just outside Washington, D.C.

Sam Quinones, welcome.

SAM QUINONES, Author, “Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration”: Thank you for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: “Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream” are separated by a long time. And I guess, right from the outset, you remind the reader that this relationship is an old one.

SAM QUINONES: Right, exactly.

I mean, the Antonio’s gun story is about a man in the ’20s who comes to the United States. The reason he comes here is to buy a gun to avenge the murder of his — of his father back in the village in Mexico where he’s from.

Delfino Juarez came here a few years ago. But the reason he came and the reason Antonio Carrillo came I think were very similar. One, they both wanted to put an end to the humiliation, end to the submission that they were experiencing in their own village. One came for a gun.

Delfino, however — Antonio comes for a gun, but Delfino comes really to make money to build a house. The house is kind of the symbol of his standing in the world. Before, he had a leaky shack. He comes to the United States, and, in two years, he’s able to build a nice two-story concrete — concrete home, with all the amenities, and changes his village, becomes a rather — an important man in his village, and in so doing kind of ends the humiliation, the submission that he was he was subjected to as one of the poorest kids in his village.

RAY SUAREZ: You, throughout the book, illustrate for us Delfino’s rise in the world and his sort of figuring out how to be a worker and support his family. But, even with his house rising in his village, you see a problem for Mexico in the very success of these men who cross the border.

SAM QUINONES: Correct, because, you know, the thing about Delfino is — the story that — what I really loved about his story was that he shows what — kind of what I think every immigrant brings, and what every immigrant takes away from Mexico, which is this kind of gumption, drive, energy, you know?

But that’s why I really believe immigration for Mexico is a complete, really a disaster, because there’s no — it’s not — these people who are leaving are — they’re unsophisticated. They’re uneducated. But they have that drive, that energy that is leaving Mexico and coming here.

Mexico's role in the debate

RAY SUAREZ: Well, right over your right shoulder is a day labor market.

SAM QUINONES: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: And these fellows are thousands of miles away from their hometown.

SAM QUINONES: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you think about how they might stay in their own country and build it instead?

SAM QUINONES: It's a very important possibility. It just requires Mexico to change. You know, that's another fundamental point of all this.

One of the problems with this debate we're having nowadays about -- with regard to immigration is that it doesn't involve Mexico at all. And where is Mexico in this debate, you know? I mean, it's a bilateral issue. We're trying to solve a bilateral, a global issue really with unilateral action.

And Mexico needs to be -- it needs to change fundamentally. Otherwise, in 10, 15 years, if it remains the country, the kind of country it is today, that poor people feel they have to leave, then in 10, 15 years we're going to have another 10, 15 million illegal immigrants from Mexico. We need to incorporate Mexico into this -- into this debate.

RAY SUAREZ: Several of your individual stories not only highlight this long relationship over the border between these two countries, but also how immigrants themselves are transformed by the experience of having come here.

Several of your characters do go home, but they have America with them, just as Mexicans have Mexico in them when they come here.

SAM QUINONES: Sure. One of those is the -- is the "Tomato King," Andres Bermudez, who came very poor, was -- who left Mexico extremely poor, in the trunk of a car, crossed over the day after he got married, comes to an agricultural area near Sacramento, California.

And, there, he becomes a well-to-do rancher, something he never could have been in Mexico. Thirty years later, he brings all that back to run for -- run for mayor of his hometown back in Mexico, feeling, rightfully so, that he has a lot to teach the benighted folks of his hometown, the elite and so on back home.

He wants to show people what he can do. He wants to -- he wants to kind of be vindicated in the long run for his -- for his life and for having to leave. It's a guy with a lot of complexity there. And I think that that's what you find across the immigrant story.

Characters go home confident

RAY SUAREZ: It seems like a lot of the characters that you give us the portraits of come back to Mexico, if they come back, confident, aspirational, but also dissatisfied with their own home, or they're not home anymore.

SAM QUINONES: Right, I think that that's what's going on.

People grow up in an area -- these little villages are places where, if you're not connected to power, everything is limited for you. You cannot do many things. Education is not possible. Economic development and growth is not possible.

You go away, you go to a place where the economy is massive and opportunities are prevalent everywhere, and all kinds of people are living in this -- in the area where you live, and it shows you the world, really.

And that's -- and that's why I really think immigration for lots of Mexican immigrants, particularly the ones who come from these little villages you're referring to, is a little bit like a kind of a self-help, self-realization experience, where they understand -- the blinders have come off, and they understand what they're capable of achieving, what they're capable of doing, and they can see that they were not capable of doing that back where they come from.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have come back to an America...

SAM QUINONES: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: ... that is right now in the middle of this pitched battle over immigration.

SAM QUINONES: Yes. Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And it looks like it's not going to happen this year.

Part of that debate is people who want to shut the tap off entirely, empty places like this out.

SAM QUINONES: Right. Uh-huh.

RAY SUAREZ: Can that happen?

SAM QUINONES: I don't believe so. I think we're getting too old, too wealthy, too chubby, too slow. And the economy kind of needs them.

On the other hand, I have to say, though, that there is -- it's not -- there's -- it's a very, very complex issue, and there are huge problems associated with bringing so many people from one country and having them spread out across the country.

Also, most immigrants used to -- they would come to the cities, the big towns, Chicago, for a perfect example. Mexican immigrants are going to small towns that you really couldn't find on a map, and that's where they're settling. They bring with them big issues with regard to education. Lack of civic involvement is a big one.

And it's there that they are -- they're fully economically integrated, but, politically, they're really absent. They're just a vacuum there.

Distance from Mexico City

RAY SUAREZ: You also give us some smaller portraits of people's dreams, and how they live them out, opera in Tijuana, velvet paintings across the American South.

SAM QUINONES: Those stories, I wanted to show -- I wrote those stories because I wanted to show how healthy it was to have distance in Mexico between yourself and Mexico City, and all that Mexico City represents, the center, the congregation of power, the privilege for the powerful, the elites, and so on, places where everything is denied poor people.

You know, that's what I believe they're escaping. Immigrants are -- they're coming kind of north to freedom, in a sense, you know? One place they find that, the ability to realize themselves, though, is along the border, because it was essentially a blank slate, and still is to a large extent, kind of un -- the rules are not written. There are no rules there.

And, so, people can create opera in Tijuana if they have enough drive. Or the velvet painting story was one I truly loved doing, because it's an outcast art made by outcasts, which is to say, people from -- who were kind of run out of the villages in the interior, in an outcast region.

And, yet there, along the border, they're able to create a very nice life for themselves. It's not something that you see very often happening in the interior of Mexico, but it is capable of happening along -- it's possible to happen along the border.

RAY SUAREZ: Delfino Juarez, how he's doing?

SAM QUINONES: Well, I spoke with him a couple weeks ago.

He's -- he tried to get back into the country, because he went back home, and, really, again, there's nothing for him back there. So, he's now in a shantytown in -- near Cabo San Lucas. He is trying to build another House.

And so he's down there remaking his life. I hope he stays there, because, to me, it was -- it's a better solution for him than immigrating illegally. He didn't like it. He was far from his wife, far from his kid. And this is the great horrible choice, of course, that is forced on poor Mexicans by the situation that they live in, in Mexico, starve or leave your family and go to another country, where you're not really welcome, and live illegally under the -- under the radar, and try to make money for your family and send it back home.

It's a horrible, brutal, brutal choice. And this is why I also feel that Mexico needs to be a part of this whole debate that we're having.

RAY SUAREZ: "Antonio's Gun, Delfino's Dream."

Sam Quinones, thanks a lot.

SAM QUINONES: Thank you.