Few issues dominate our politics today more passionately than immigration, but we rarely see the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border dramatized in fiction. Now Texas author and border native Oscar Cásares has written what one critic calls a “quietly suspenseful” novel titled “Where We Come From.”
Cásares' story – about a woman who shelters undocumented immigrants – shows us desperate migrants but also the border inhabitants they first encounter before arriving in places like South Florida. Cásares will present his novel this weekend at the Miami Book Fair; he spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett from the studios of public radio station KUT in Austin, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Texas.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Shortly after “Where We Come From” was published this year, Americans were shocked by the drowning deaths of a Salvadoran migrant and his infant daughter in the Rio Grande. When you wrote the novel, were you anticipating a need to humanize the immigration crisis?
CASARES: You know, I wrote kind of far out from the immediate crisis that we’re in the midst of. I had started writing probably in 2014. But the closer we got to publication, the more we realized that somehow this was going to feel like it was right from the headlines.
Your novel’s hero is Nina, a weary but gutsy Mexican-American woman in Brownsville, Texas. She decides to allow a house in her backyard to be used as a sort of underground railroad for undocumented immigrants. She also gets involved with some pretty criminal characters who treat these immigrants like animals. Why was it important to tell the story through her eyes?
This was not some big plan of hers. She kind of stumbled into it. She did a favor for her maid, thinking it's a one-time deal. But the [migrant] traffickers see the little house and think this might be a great place to come back to. And then she finds herself entangled in this mess.
She's not opposed to immigration. She's not advocating for it. This is a person who didn't want to get involved, who had her own life, her own troubles already. But as it falls, literally, on her doorstep, she can't turn away anymore. And I think that issue of having to confront it and not be able to shy away from it was important for me.
We also see this border world through Nina's 12-year-old godson, Orly. How similar or how different is Orly from you and your own experience growing up on the border in Brownsville?
You know, my kids are here in Austin growing up 350 miles away from there. I talk about the border all the time to them. They know that that is some part of their ancestral homeland.
And just to reiterate, your family is Mexican-American.
Yes. And how do [those kids, like Orly,] make it back culturally? How do they stay connected to that?
MORE THAN A MIGRANT
The last and most important migrant Nina secretly shelters is Daniel, a boy who's escaping narco-violence in Mexico. You write that for Nina, Daniel is “more than her mojadito out back,” or more than just that slur for undocumented migrants, "wetback."
That’s right – she gets to know his yearnings, his dreams, his fears. He becomes something much more meaningful to her.
And yet Nina warns Orly not to get too emotionally involved with Daniel. I was wondering if you could read that passage for us.
Yeah, I'd be happy to:
“And you, why do you care so much if a stranger is alone, a boy you never met, from somewhere you will never go?” she says. “That’s not for you to worry about. You can feel sorry for him, but his problems are not your problems.”
“I thought Tío Beto was going to find a way to get inside. He was looking in all the windows.”
“You let me worry about him.”
“But it’s just weird, someone locked up and eating alone.”
She pulls out a chair and sits close enough to touch him.
“Don’t be saying weird this and weird that. You saw him one time and only a little bit until he left again. Who is he?”
“What do you mean?”
He knows she wants an answer but he doesn’t altogether understand the question.
“What is he to you? Is he your brother? Is he your primo or your tío? What is he to you that you care so much?”
He looks shaken, like she might have slapped him without raising a hand. “Nothing.”
She leans back in her chair, tilts her head to make eye contact. She wants him to think about his answer.
“Are you sure?”
He looks at up her and nods.
“Tell me again.”
“What you just said, say it again. What he is to you.”
“He’s nothing to me.”
“Nothing,” she says. “Then you can keep a secret about nothing.”
I also can't forget a vignette in your novel about an elderly Guatemalan woman who dies in the border’s harsh terrain, holding a picture of the grandchildren she wanted to join in Missouri. Do you foresee more novelists tackling border and immigration dramas like, say, family separation?
I think it's one of those unavoidable topics that we're living with. My novel just happened to catch this as things were escalating. But I think the longer that we are witnesses to this, it is going to be played out quite a bit more in fiction and film, for that matter.
Oscar Cásares will present his novel “Where We Come From” at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday at 3:30 pm at Building 8 of Miami-Dade College’s downtown campus, 300 NE 2nd Ave.