Bookforum | apr/may 2005

In these days of the War on Terror (or on Tyranny, depending which rationale for war the White House is using this week), immigration is discussed largely in the context of national security. If we give driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, will we unwittingly aid and abet terrorists in the sequel to 9/11? That Mexican day laborer on the street corner—is he an al Qaeda sleeper in disguise? Traditional prejudice against immigrants has become conflated with homeland defense—immigration as invasion; immigration as terrorism (indeed, the office of US Custom and Border Protection now falls under the Department
of Homeland Defense). Nevertheless, with or without licenses, triple border walls
be damned, immigrants from south of the United States continue to arrive. Regardless of the Beltway's reductionist rhetoric and mainstream journalism's yellow streak, argues Héctor Tobar, a new multilingual, multiracial America is being born, a "mestizo" land that will render "English only" laws (and one day even the border itself) a quaint anachronism.

Tobar's Translation Nation will certainly rile nativists, whose once-fringe discourse is, in the post–9/11 world, in the main (just tune in to Lou Dobbs Tonight, on CNN, which features a regular segment on immigration that is positively soaked in virulently xenophobic rhetoric.) Tobar ponders what we've lost sight of in the paranoid fog of war, which is only the latest chapter in that greatest of American tales, the negotiation between immigrant and "native" that constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs our identity as a nation. By all accounts, the current infusion of immigrants to the United States is one of historic proportions, on a par with the great influxes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The total Hispanic population of the United States now stands at thirty-five million, a nearly 60 percent increase over the past decade alone, and most of it is due to immigration. As these millions of migrants cross and recross the United States' southern border, they rapidly lay waste to any notion of "secure borders" in the demographic—and especially the cultural—sense.

Tobar, a longtime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, here takes to the road, traveling from the major cities of both coasts to the tiniest of heartland towns in a quest to document the awesome sweep of Latin American immigration in the United States. He tracks the migrant presence from Alabama poultry plants (where he takes participatory journalism seriously, disguising himself and actually slicing up chickens) to a number of suddenly "browned" school districts in Georgia. The book's best moments capture the awkward encounter between migrants and "natives," and the radically altered geographies that often result—for instance, a white DJ in Idaho who dramatically alters his playlist when his town is overrun by newcomers with a taste for "narcocorridos," the gangsta rap of the US-Mexican borderlands.

But the same ambition that fosters the book's exuberant tone is also a weakness. At times, Translation Nation reads like a reporter's greatest hits, an effort to connect disparate scenes and characters to fit a pithy "billboard" paragraph. What does the devastation wrought by heroin addiction among Hispanos in northern New Mexico have to do with aging Cuban exiles in Miami? Latin Americans refer to themselves in Spanish as la raza, but of course Latinos are not a race at all, and are more divided by class than they could ever be united by mythical bloodlines. Still, Tobar's heartfelt paean is a worthy contribution to the growing literature on a rapidly growing population: the newest Americans who will, like generations of immigrants before them, reshape everything from the language we speak to the way we experience culture, politics, and the very space of the streets we live on.



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