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

Thorpe, a veteran reporter, brings a journalist's eye to her story. Her narrative is quick-paced and full of incident and clamor. Like her predecessors, she goes across the border to bang around in trucks and cough in the dust clouds. Yet her attention to ambience and detail lends a vibe that is enriched by her empathy. "We . . . lurched back onto the smooth blacktop that led to Durango," she writes. "Despair lurked back at the dusty crossroads . . . but why should we linger there, when the sun flared in the endless sky and crops flourished all around?"

Both the journey and the destination haunt the book, and the United States can seem as alien as the distant landscapes from which the immigrants have come. Rather than finding this whole scene enervating, Thorpe finds it exhilarating.

Black, a sociology professor, takes a slightly more scholarly bent. Along with narrative drama, he offers analysis. It's not dry, however. And his emphasis on Puerto Rican brothers is eye-opening. Whereas Thorpe's protagonists open up to their new lives, the men in Black's book lean into it, seem to clench, to turn to rock just to survive. Fausto, for example, is a prison veteran who is both tender-hearted and given to wildness; Sammy is a recovering addict trying to be a father. These mean streets could be Piri Thomas's or Martin Scorsese's.

Black understands that the debate (or propaganda avalanche) is slanted in one direction: invaders invading. One tends to forget the real struggles of Puerto Ricans in the second half of the last century, the daunting new-immigrant sagas that played out on our city streets. The "West Side Story" Sharks vs. Jets mythology may seem quaint to us today, but poets such as Martín Espada have dedicated their lives to keeping the story before us. Not keeping it alive, because it never died -- keeping it visible.

If silence equals death, I would suggest that invisibility equals death as well.

Even more than Thorpe, Black relies on oral history. Swaths of his book are given over to dialogue he often presents in script form. And I applaud his choice to allow the men to express themselves: Often they are not offering Latino wisdom or astounding tales, but quotidian details of a hardscrabble life. We hear voices we don't normally hear, and the book is filled with the poetry of the street. Black allows one of the brothers to lay it down in his own barbaric yawp: "I'll do whatever to take care of my family, you know what I'm saying? I don't care what I got to do, my family comes first. I've always worked, bro, but if I'm not working I still got to take care of them, you know. . . . My family will eat."

That's so American. The talk is cinematic, even when the data are not. The oddly melodious outbreaks of profanity are honest and, in their own way, poetic.

These are the stories of the new America.

I say, Sí.

Luis Urrea is a Pulitzer Prize nonfiction finalist for "The Devil's Highway: A True Story" and the author of 13 books. He is a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


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