At once personal and political, this nuanced book is a sober reminder that today’s immigration challenges are the result of decades of misguided American policy.
If ever there were a time to read Alfredo Corchado’s latest book, Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration, this is it. Amid the frantic news of family separations, President Trump’s draconian “zero-tolerance” policy — another feather in the cap of his immigration vendetta — Corchado’s book offers much-needed nuance and serves as a sober reminder that today’s immigration challenges are the result of decades of misguided American policy.
Corchado begins with his own immigration tale. His father first came to Texas and later California through the bracero program, which allowed 4.5 million Mexican men to work in the United States. That paved the way for his family to follow a few years later, though Corchado did so reluctantly. Once they arrived in California, his parents worked tirelessly in the tomato fields that surrounded their ramshackle trailer. At the tender age of 5, Corchado felt lost and lonely. He wondered, “Why did we move here?”
Eventually, his parents would build a life beyond the fields in the United States. They moved to El Paso and started their own restaurant, Freddy’s Café. Still, Corchado’s sense of displacement lingered and functions as a refrain throughout the book as he matures and begins his career as a journalist.
When he moved to cold and colorless Philadelphia to work for the Wall Street Journal in the winter of 1987, Corchado befriended three others — a restauranteur, an attorney and an activist — with Mexican roots. Through their stories, he illustrates at once the sense of collectivity and individualism implicit to the immigrant experience in America.
His friend David Suro-Piñera’s Philly-based restaurant would become the site of debate for the four men, as well as a nostalgic nod to their shared heritage. This was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, just before the mass immigration of Mexicans would cut across middle America, and the restaurant was one of a few, if any, to serve authentic Mexican food in Philadelphia.
Corchado and his friends would indulge in Suro’s personal stash of fine tequilas while they discussed the monumental changes underfoot in both countries. In the United States, the demographics were rapidly changing, thanks to the high demand for labor, changing immigration policies and NAFTA — and yet many Americans were alarmed by the change.
Meanwhile in Mexico, the same policies contributed to a brain drain and the emptying-out of the Mexican countryside. “The displacement of millions of Mexicans after the implementation of NAFTA sent sectors of the Mexican economy into a tailspin. The treaty that was aimed at eliminating trade barriers and generating so much investment across North America led, in part, to drowning Mexico,” Corchado writes.
As they consider the course of history, Corchado’s childhood doubt takes a new form. He and his friends ponder, “Is the American dream a myth?” “How do we fit in?”
There is one immigrant story, perhaps, but Mexicans have always been the butt of an American double standard, Corchado argues — one tethered to a demand for labor, and Mexico’s convenient proximity to the United States. Again and again, in times of need, the United States welcomed Mexican workers and facilitated their passage into the country — only to turn around and tell them they were unwelcome. He writes: “Even as signs popped up across the Southwest stating ‘No Mexicans,’ particularly in Texas, the question persisted: Could Americans do without them?”
After years of pining for his homeland, Corchado returns to Mexico to work as a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, but his homecoming is underwhelming. Once there, he realizes that the Mexico of his nostalgic daydreams is no longer a reality, and that instead he “faced an unforgiving country still resentful we had left in the first place.” Like many immigrants, Corchado contends with the feeling of never fully belonging in either country.
But there is strength in unbelonging. Being at once an outsider and insider provides a more complete story. Corchado eventually recognizes that his place is straddling both countries, and that, like the hyphen between Mexican and American, and the river that runs between the United States and Mexico, his identity resides in a confluence of the two parts. Thanks to his decades of experience reporting on both sides of the border, his discussion of immigration is never one-sided.
Through his journey as a journalist and an immigrant in America, Corchado not only bears witness to this great Mexican-American migration, but also watches the adverse effects in his other homeland, Mexico, as increasingly, more people leave in search of higher wages and the elusive American dream.
In this dark political moment, as discussions over critical issues dissolve into bipartisan blame games and Twitter wars, Corchado’s book is a breath of fresh air. Amid yet another immigration crackdown that will undoubtedly carry its own consequences for decades to come, it would behoove policymakers to pick up Corchado’s book and take pause. History not only repeats itself; it compounds. The fate of both nations relies on reckoning with — as Corchado did within his personal life — their mutual interdependence.