An Oral History of Mexican Immigration to the United States

By Marilyn P. Davis

Holt. 446 pp. $29.95

Anthropologist Marilyn P. Davis has compiled from 12 years of research an oral history of Mexicans who have crossed the border to El Norte, often illegally, with the dramatic testimony of center-stage soliloquy. Those interviewed for "Mexican Voices/American Dreams" came to the United States as far back as the 1920s and as recently as 1988. While some arrived illegally, others were invited by the United States through the bracero program, under which, between 1942 and 1964, 4.8 million braceros worked seasonally in agriculture.

Both the invited and the uninvited share poignant accounts of their journeys, which at times were dangerous -- hiding in car trunks and beneath seats, racing through the sun-scorched brush of San Ysidro, and in the case of classical guitarist Juan Montoya, stumbling nine days in a desert as he made his way to San Antonio. They arrived with one intention: to find work.

This history, then, is about work and how this work -- in their minds at least -- translates into a future.

Each subject steps up to tell his or her story. Among them are Vidal Olivares, a truck driver in Los Angeles; Martin del Campo, an architect in San Francisco; Ventura Gomez, a housewife in Muscatine, Iowa; Julia Garcia de Morales, a factory worker in Chicago; Lupe Macias, a babysitter in Lynwood, Calif. They think of the United States as home, and while they may be uncomfortable here, even lonely to the point of depression, most see the United States as an alternative to their corrupt and poverty-stricken homeland.

While most have left Mexico to escape the dead-end life of poverty, others see their exodus as a tradition, a rite of adulthood that can be traced to the beginning of the bracero program. Whereas America may go to Europe for the summer, Mexico travels north. And whereas America visits Europe for pleasure, Mexico comes with its sleeves rolled up, ready to work. The workers find themselves in the apple orchards of Washington, the celery and artichoke fields of Watsonville, Calif., and the vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley. The work is hard to the point of cruelty, and the pay is almost always minimum wage, if that. As recently as 1986, some of the workers were paid $2 an hour by employers who knew they had one up on their workers.

The stories are not without humor, and in fact humor often carries the narratives. In the late 1920s, what drove Don Benjamin Real was money -- money not to feed a family but to pay the hospital bills of a friend he'd shot (he was aiming at the stars and accidentally shot him in the leg) while celebrating the Fiesta of Independence. For him, it was a matter of honor to mend what he had broken. A half century later in 1985, Luis Rodolfo Dominguez fled Mexico because he had the classic confrontation between father and son, including a fistfight in front of his house with neighbors poking their noses from doors. He ends up in Loveland, Colo., working in a shoe-repair shop for $3.50 an hour.

"Mexican Voices/American Dreams" is as personal as travelogue yet contains enough facts to convince us the writer is more than just acquainted with her subject. It is also a collection of interviews with employers, disillusioned Mexicans who returned to their country and los coyotes such as Kevin Thomas, a college student who escorts his "clients" through air terminals before he goes to his morning classes. Among the employers is tired-sounding Cathy Sommer, a Los Angeles restaurant manager who can only muster up, "I'm happy with them," and ignores her workers' stoic quietness that keeps the owner in business. In Lone Tree, Iowa, Tom Bell says, "The fact of the matter is that these workers are helping farmers like us to put food on the tables of America. And I can assure you of this, no one else has come around to offer a hand in their place."

And maybe no one will come around. Maybe no one will take up these mundane jobs. What is evident is how the 34 or so interviews speak for the millions of others. They have walked, driven and hitchhiked hundred of miles. They have been beaten by the police on both sides of the border, and have been raped and held up by rateros (bandits). Some have been murdered. Still, they come in great numbers only to arrive to work under terrible conditions. One wonders just what nightmare lurks in Mexico that would drive so many to the United States, knowing very well that what awaits them could be the long rows of cotton fields and enough sun to dry any dream. The reviewer, an associate professor of Chicano studies and English at the University of California- Berkeley, is the author of "A Summer Life."