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

By Luis Urrea
Sunday, December 20, 2009; B01


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.

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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