Sam Quinones came to be one of America’s pre-eminent border journalists almost by happenstance when, in 1994, he traveled to Mexico with the intent to study Spanish. Once there, he became enamored of the Mexican migrants he met and the stories they told. Quinones ultimately ended up living and writing in Mexico for the better part of a decade, spending his time like any other gringo visitor with the cojones to live out his border-adventure fantasies: cavorting with gang members, politicians, transvestites, and the last apostle of a splinter group of polygamous Mormons.
From there Quinones would go on to win an Alicia Patterson Fellowship in 1998 and write his first book (True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx) in 2001 before moving back to the United States-Los Angeles-in 2004.
Though moving from Mexico to L.A. isn’t necessarily that big a change-imagine leaving a girlfriend for her smaller, slightly smoggier, but equally Mexican twin sister-it gave him the opportunity to follow Delfino Juarez, the central character in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream, recently published in paperback.
The book-a collection of true-life tales of Mexican migration-is an exclamation point on Quinones’ career and solidifies its author’s membership in an elite fraternity of border journalists.
Quinones begins by recounting the tale of “Antonio’s Gun,” a story about a boy who, following his father’s murder at the behest of his village’s resident tyrant, journeys to the United States to earn money, buy a gun, and avenge his father’s death. He earns the money, gets the gun, and returns to Mexico, never to revisit the States again. Because Mexicans are nothing if not cognizant of other people’s schedules, Antonio even sends the tyrant a card announcing the day he will return to kill him (which is not only a badass move, but also has to be the worst kind of letter to find in your mailbox). I shouldn’t tell you whether Antonio kills the tyrant … but he does. Sorry.
Aside from its Tarantino-caliber plot, “Antonio’s Gun” serves as a “parable for what immigrants seek most,” highlighting what Quinones thinks is the underlying reason that immigrants immigrate: not to recolonize the United States, but to escape oppression and ultimately create a better life for themselves back home in Mexico.
Throughout Delfino’s Dream, Quinones introduces readers to a remarkable array of characters, giving each his own chapter. There’s the bumblingly Shakespearean Tomato King, Andres Bermudez, a common villager who improbably becomes mayor of Jerez and governs 57 villages despite his star-crossed destino. There are Chuy Moran and Doyle Harden, the unlikely duo responsible for countless advertisements of poor taste the world over (the two were seemingly almost single-handedly responsible for the velvet painting boom of the 1970s). There’s the petulant Albert Robles, a Penguinesque, small-time California politico who, ironically, draws a divided city together.
Then there’s Delfino Juarez, Quinones’ preferred protagonist, whose three chapters act as the book’s spine. Juarez is brazen and brave and arrogant and affable all at the same time, the one character in the book you find yourself consistently rooting for, and the one whose story you’re saddest to reach the end of.
That story is common enough: Born in an outskirt village, he ventures to the big city as a small child, finagling his way through the treacherous desert to America, all the while waiting for the day he can return home. Common as the tale may be, Quinones tells it in a manner that aligns Delfino with the historical trajectory of his nation. Delfino embodies everything that is right in Mexico, and his failure to fulfill his dreams magnifies everything that is wrong.
The desire for a glorious return to Mexico is the vehicle that drives these characters. It’s one of the book’s main ideas and serves as half of an answer to the fundamental Mexican migrant quandary: Why don’t Mexicans who are in the United States illegally attempt to assimilate more wholly into American life? You know how, when people go to Italy, they ride around on Vespas and smoke skinny cigarettes, but don’t really bother to learn anything about Italy because they don’t plan on staying? It’s kind of like that.
Quinones expends significant effort steering readers in this direction, but does so with such a light hand that when you reach your destination, you’re allowed to feel like the smart one who’s figured out how to piece everything together yourself.
The second half of Quinones’ answer to the Mexican migrant quandary is that many Mexicans are thoroughly jaded when it comes to anything and everything related to government. Quinones recounts the dictatorial and enfeebling hand of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party for more than 70 years, until 2000. Quinones suggests that this history is another reason Mexicans have been unable or unwilling to assimilate more completely. In short, they tend not to band together seeking change through politics, unlike some other immigrant populations.
Clearly the resolution to the Mexican-American immigration dilemma is unlikely to be gleaned from a single book. Any workable solution is going to require significant changes on both sides of the border, a bilateral communion too massive to expect reasonably, and an enormous amount of pragmatism from two equally dogmatic societies.
But to approach the tales in Delfino’s Dream as an attempt to “solve” the immigration problem would be a mistake. Quinones uses each of his book’s journeys to humanize immigration, while other chroniclers have too often hyped it. This is easily Quinones’ greatest feat in Delfino’s Dream. He personalizes portraits of immigrants with a seemingly bottomless supply of compassion, honesty, and forthrightness, foregoing the standard exaggerations often associated with illegal immigrants. These are not mere parasitic culture thieves, as Lou Dobbs would have you believe, nor are they the beacons of peasant nobility left-wing sympathizers insist you see. Illegal immigrants, like most everyone else, exist somewhere between their polar presentations in popular culture, mired in the gray area of argument, as people with aspirations and fears and families and stories all their own.
With the immigration debate inching closer and closer to shouting matches and sheer idiocy-a gigantic fence? Really? That’s the best we could come up with?-Quinones presents the matter with skill and insight refreshing to even the most migration-calloused ears.
Shea Serrano is a freelance writer living in Houston.