Book review of 'Just Like Us' and 'When a Heart Turns Solid'

By Luis Urrea
Sunday, December 20, 2009


The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America

By Helen Thorpe

Scribner. 387 pp. $27.99


The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers on and off the Streets

By Timothy Black

Pantheon. 421 pp.$29.95

Border-related and immigration-themed books seem to fall into a few ironclad categories. You have the ever-popular he-man books, wherein a manly narrator infiltrates the region for a few days and returns with a piquant yet harrowing dystopian vision of curious brown folks scuttling around doing brown things. The next most popular is probably the thuddingly sincere (or hysterically alarmist) analytical doorstop that attempts to put this hubbub into a quantifiable framework. What is often lost on these writers is that border people, the citizens and characters portrayed in these books, are sick of being seen as zoo animals ready for a Kodak moment.

You'd think it's nothing but Mexicans and whiskey-swilling scribes out there, locked in sweaty mano-a-mano struggles in a surreal desert. The reality is, of course, more nuanced and more human. Human in a way that cries out for clear-eyed and insightful writing, which you will find in two intriguing new books.

On the surface, they seem related to the types of works mentioned above. But what sets them apart is the attempt to expose the human soul of their stories. Both books go beyond the nativist rhetoric of the blather-sphere (the deadly invasion of our pristine republic) and the turgid data spew of the polemicists. Here we have two authors (yes, gringos) who have a profound feeling for the subject, as well as narrative skill -- and who respect their sources. Each offers ample room for the testimony of the people involved. This is no my-day-at-the-zoo writing.

There is a curious similarity in design here: Both books offer a group portrait of sorts, turning their varied subjects into a kind of barrio Greek chorus. In "Just Like Us," Helen Thorpe tells the story of four young women, all from Mexico, all in the same Denver high school, two of them "illegal"; Timothy Black, in "When a Heart Turns Rock Solid," tells the story of four Puerto Rican brothers in Springfield, Mass., facing the challenges of street life, career and jobs, family, and even jail time. For those who remember Piri Thomas and his classic "Down These Mean Streets," and those who cherish the great Nuyorican literary boom that celebrated the Puerto Rican immigrant experience in all its glories and struggles, it is refreshing to ponder Puerto Ricans in the United States again.

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