Jorge Ramos grew up in Mexico, where he began his broadcast work while still a student. In 1981, he was sent to Washington, D.C., to cover the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan; he was the only person on the staff of his small radio station who spoke some English and had his passport in order.
But as he reports in No Borders: A Journalist's Search for Home (Rayo, $24.95), he rapidly discovered that the media in Mexico were heavily censored; he prepared a television segment in which prominent writers criticized the government, and when the segment was rewritten, he left both his job and the country. His first years in the United States, spent at the University of California in Los Angeles, were a joyful, wide-eyed scramble. They were followed by broadcasting jobs, and eventually Ramos became a newscaster at Noticiero Univision in Miami, now the most-watched Spanish-language station in North America, where he won seven Emmys.
Ramos writes from the vantage point of a community that, while remaining almost invisible to the mainstream media, is reshaping U.S. culture and politics. He points out that North Americans hear far more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, than about the war in Colombia -- though the latter has caused as much carnage as the former and is closer to home.
No Borders is strongest when Ramos is talking about these and other issues of identity. Treated like a foreigner in the United States, originally vilified by Cubans in Florida for not being one of them, no longer fully identifying with his Mexican roots, "I live without a home," he says, "and without borders." Ramos is derisive about what he calls the "Christopher Columbus syndrome," "the cyclical practice of 'discovering' Hispanics every time there is a national election in the United States, and then almost completely forgetting about us." Nonetheless, he mentions frequently and with approval the manner in which George W. Bush courted Cuban voters in Florida, his attempts to speak Spanish and his role in the Elian Gonzalez affair.
Although Ramos tells us he was moved to write this book because it is impossible to do justice to complex issues on a television newscast, there's a casual, conversational tone to the writing that skirts depth. The narrative sums up key events rather than evoking them. Ramos visited Kosovo, interviewed a survivor of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador and stood at the site of the World Trade Center attack, but he has nothing incisive to say about these experiences.
He does, however, powerfully evoke the plight of the "sand children" he encountered after the recent war in Afghanistan: "Their skin, cracked like dried dirt, looked as if it were about to break open. . . . Their hair had become tough from years of wind, desert sand and the absence of shampoo and soap. Their hands were brown and rough, like sandpaper. Their faces said five, six or seven years old; their eyes, though, transmitted the anguish of an old person who had seen death close up. They had never had a glass of milk or washed their faces with clean water."
Recollected in Tranquility
There's something a little frustrating about Clearances, a memoir by poet and novelist Mairi MacInnes (Pantheon, $24), despite the clarity and beauty of the prose. Although she assures us that she eventually found both her voice as a poet and peace and warmth in her marriage to the American scholar John McCormick, MacInnes has lived a stifled life, and she describes it here with more detachment than apparent feeling. Yet the book is worth reading for the pleasure of making her acquaintance, and for the compressed wisdom evidenced on every page.
Clearances begins with MacInnes' visit to her childhood home in County Durham, England, and her search for the man -- an employee of her father's -- who taught her to see the natural world. It's an entirely seductive beginning. Then comes her year at Oxford, a stint as a driver in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II, and a love affair with a lieutenant commander named Freddy, who disappears; eventually she learns he has died. Her grief is subdued but, many years later, watching the Russian film "The Cranes Are Flying," MacInnes finds herself weeping inconsolably. "Lest there be misunderstanding, let me say clearly I was overwhelmed not by the memory of sorrow, which is purely sentimental, but by sorrow itself," she writes. "It stormed through the years and took me by surprise."
There's something about this passage that sums up the book -- the dignity and refreshing lack of self-pity, the very British attempt to put feeling in its place and just get on with it. Later, we see how MacInnes subordinated her life and work to McCormick's year after year; her description of the situation is concise and level-headed, devoid of identity politics or conventional feminist anger, although she does eventually muse about how difficult it is for a woman with a family to be a writer: "for where would she find the time, the space, the furious willfulness to write from a heart already engaged to the hilt? And who does she think she is, anyway?"
The couple moved to Mexico City, where McCormick discovered a passion for bullfighting (he eventually wrote a book on the topic). It's a passion his wife doesn't share. One of the most vivid passages in Clearances concerns the attempts of a politician, infatuated with the myth of the sport, to kill a very young bull. The little animal tires fast, and the politician stabs at him ineptly time and time again, sending blood running down his flanks and finally dispatching him with the help of two young men with capes.
In Black and White
The adoption of black infants by white families has long been controversial among blacks. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a position paper stating that a white home was no place for a black child and lamenting the loss of culture and identity caused by interracial adoption. Now here is Catherine E. McKinley, a black woman who grew up in a liberal white household, sharing her experience in The Book of Sarahs: A Memoir of Race and Identity (Counterpoint, $24). McKinley wants to tell us all the ways in which her story exemplifies this national dilemma, as well as the ways in which it departs from the script.
Not that McKinley herself entirely understands the contradictions defining her childhood. Some of the book's strength comes from her willingness to examine her own confusion, her rage toward and love for her adoptive mother, her ambivalence toward the birth mother she eventually found -- not the proud black figure she'd dreamed of, but a warm though deeply troubled Jewish woman named Estie, who gave away another daughter as well as Catherine but kept their young half-sister.
McKinley's adoptive mother tried to help her daughter connect with the black community, taking her to a black church, working earnestly with her hair, but could not be what McKinley wanted -- though the racial difference seems to be only part of the problem. The McKinley family tended toward a rugged outdoorsiness, while Catherine possessed a more urban sensibility.
McKinley's search for her biological mother was sporadic and dreamy at first, rooted as much in fantasy as fact: She attached herself emotionally to photographs, a woman seen at a market, another encountered at a social event. Eventually, after a more focused search, she found Estie. Though charmed by her at first, she soon realizes the full extent of this woman's fecklessness and unreliability. As for her long-romanticized artist father, he turned out to be a rootless con man.
Dense with emotion and sometimes suffocating, the language of this memoir isn't precise. Still, it fully communicates the elemental passion of the search for a parent -- in some ways, a search for one's very self. As described here, that quest contains all the heat and immediacy of a love affair and, as in most such affairs, the lover eventually finds herself alone.
Pieces of the Past
Infinite Refuge (Arte Publico; paperback, $14.95) is a collection of sketches, poems, memories and fragments of stories by Cuban-American writer Virgil Suarez, who teaches creative writing at Florida State University. Suarez twice describes the way his family left Cuba -- once in the context of watching on television as the Coast Guard attempted to keep a group of desperate Cubans from reaching the United States, and once later in the book, in almost identical language, in a free-standing, two-page segment. It's indicative of how slapped together this book feels that it's impossible to tell whether this is a mistake or a deliberate device. Suarez is a vivid, evocative writer, but the pieces in Infinite Refuge seem incomplete in themselves. Taken together, they still don't add up to a whole.
Jill Christman's Darkroom (Univ. of Georgia, $29.95) is a chronicle of suffering. It begins with an accident that occurred before Christman's birth when her brother was horribly burned in the bathtub. Soon after, her parents separated. At the age of 19, after years of bulimia (there are detailed descriptions of eating and throwing up), Christman visited a therapist and remembered having been sexually abused by a teenage neighbor from the age of 6 until 12 -- memories corroborated by a second teenager who had been present at the scene.
The rapes were by no means the only tragedy the young Christman encountered. Her beloved Uncle Mark was given a 10-year prison term for growing marijuana, and died while serving it. Her first love, Colin, was killed in an automobile accident.
Christman employs a kind of collage technique to tell her story. She writes well; her style is sensual and juicy, though sometimes thick and clogged with words. Photographs are central; they're described, pondered over, actually reproduced within the text and used as an ordering device. Mark's letters from prison are also patched in.
Darkroom could have been a maudlin read, but it's saved by Christman's insight and skill and leavened by occasional passages of humor, as when she describes how her mother converted to healthful eating when Christman was a little girl: "Nuked, scared food makes nuked, scared people," she says. "We were fair with our food. Carrots were chopped cleanly and quickly with a well-sharpened knife. Coffee grounds were splashed with a thoughtful dribble of boiling water, to wake them up, before drowning." *
Juliet Wittman is the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals."