The reader understands early in journalist Sam Quinones' new work of non-fiction, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream, a loving portrait of Mexican "immigrants," that Mexico is a country of losers. The country surrendered a third of its territory to the United States, has been saddled with a revolution that instituted a low-rent Stalinism which remains to this day, and Even worse, it has been failing in all-important soccer.
As a result, Quinones [send him mail]asserts, wanderings of Mexicans northward are as much about redemptive self-actualization to escape the mental oppression of Mexico as the money.
Of course the money is very important, But Quinones likes to explain things in terms a middle-class American can grasp.
To that end, Quinones made the comparison in a radio interview that the Mexicans' desire for visible success is similar to what Americans experience when they go to their high school reunions. Having a shiny new ride and the latest expensive Nikes is important for swaggering young fellows anxious to strut their stuff with evidence of prosperity.
The ultimate status symbol is a new house, the bigger the better, even if it is never inhabited except as an annual vacation home. One man built a huge house with a swimming pool, even though he couldn't swim and nearly drowned the only time he used it. The most important thing is to show the homies how successful you have been in El Norte.
America, Quinones implies, isn't just a convenient full-service refrigerator crammed with goodies, it's also the proving ground for Mexican males in need of an ego infusion.
Furthermore, the need for personal fulfillment trumps any concern with legality and immigration status. But Quinones is too concerned with the human stories to stoop to such trivialities that might disturb the dramatic flow.
Despite his American birth, Quinones clearly adores his subjects, and can hardly say anything unkind about them. The cover portrait of four young migrators is a black velvet painting done with a sympathetic golden aura suitable for the book's message. Title character Delfino (in the red ball cap) and his pals are filled with "gumption" and "energy." But these admirable qualities without an education to back them up can only go so far in a 21st century techno-economy. Yes, immigrants and illegal aliens are hard-working. But you would be too if you were an illiterate peasant trying to earn a living in a first-world society.
Even though Quinoner has some odd predilections, it would be wrong to think of him as a complete fool. He understands that the remittance culture is bad for Mexico and fosters an unhealthy dependence on easy money arriving in the mail. He further grasps that when uneducated villagers return from America with jean pockets full of cash, it doesn't encourage local kids to stay in school.
Quinones also wrote one of the most memorable articles ever in the LA Times about dysfunctional Mexicans in California. It was featured in a VDARE.com article by Steve Sailer: LA Times' Quinones Prints The Truth About Immigration!
"With two teenage daughters at home and triplets still in diapers, Angela Magdaleno's family overflowed from a one-bedroom apartment in South Los Angeles that they strained to afford… Diapers had to be changed 15 times a day, feedings held every three hours. One triplet, 3-year-old Alfredo Jr., needed special attention because he was born with liquid on his brain and partially paralyzed.
"And that was before the quadruplets arrived." [6 + 4 = 1 Tenuous Existence: An illegal immigrant couple with six children were already living in poverty. Then the quadruplets arrived..., Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2006]
Author Quinones imagines himself on the side of the oppressed and is therefore something of a slum-trawler, a tendency that was more pronounced in his previous book True Tales from Another Mexico which included Mexican drag queens, gangsters and (my favorite) Jesus Malverde the Narco-Saint, much revered by drug smugglers.
(Sinaloa saint Jesus Malverde, aka the Angel of the Poor, has his own hometown shrine. Mr. Malverde is believed to look down from heaven on drug haulers and aid the successful pursuit of their nefarious business dealings. The spiritually-aware dope smuggler will ask for the blessing of the Narco-Saint before sending his product north and will respond to success with some sincere expression of thanks, such as a special serenade by Jesus' in-house band or perhaps a memorial plaque reading "From Sinaloa to California.")
Quinones' main story, carried through three chapters at the beginning, middle and end of the book, concerns Delfino Juarez, the perfect example of a Mexican in need of self-esteem. He begins as a son of a bad drunk in a backwater town, and goes off to Mexico City as a teenager to get some cash. He came back with money and a mohawk, rapidly becoming the village's own Pied Piper of punk and breakdancing to other young people.
Success in Mexico City (and the requirements of an expanding family) induced him to try his hand in El Norte. He spent time working construction in Maywood, a town famous for its extreme Mexifornication.
Juarez was so successful that he inspired others to follow his example, including his father who quit drinking. Talk about redemption.
At the end, we see Delfino in a recent photo in front of his depressing cinder-block house in Xocotla, which is in the process of being expanded. In his village, he is an important man, and respected for his success.
Sam Quinones is not an obscure scribbler whose opinions don't matter. He is recognized as an expert on the subjects of Mexico and immigration, as evidenced by his interview on PBS' Newshour in July.
"You go away, you go to a place where the economy is massive and opportunities are prevalent everywhere, and all kinds of people are living in this—in the area where you live, and it shows you the world, really.
"And that's—and that's why I really think immigration for lots of Mexican immigrants, particularly the ones who come from these little villages you're referring to, is a little bit like a kind of a self-help, self-realization experience, where they understand—the blinders have come off, and they understand what they're capable of achieving, what they're capable of doing, and they can see that they were not capable of doing that back where they come from. [ Author Puts Faces on the Immigration Debate, PBS Newshour July 25, 2007]
See? Illegal immigration is better than psychotherapy.
"One night, driving a group of illegals into Birmingham, Alabama, his car broke down; [Diez] calmly walked them all night along the highway into town. This kind of accomplishment was liberating and left him trusting his own abilities." [P. 147]
If there is any deleterious effect on the people of the United States, Quinones simply does not consider it. His world has Mexico as its center. Anyone outside is a shadow.
Apparently Mexican women don't aspire much in the Quinones universe, and certainly not in the macho "look at me" style. There is only one female person featured in this book of personal stories, and her goal was about artistic fulfillment, not having the biggest truck.
In fact, the chapter with the lone important woman was by far the most satisfying to me. It described the efforts of several Mexicans determined to bring opera, and therefore a broader cultural experience, to Tijuana. Really. Mexicans working to improve Mexico—imagine that!
Indeed, the idea of opera in Tijuana does take some getting used to. It began with one man, Enrique Fuentes, who fell in love with the music during a youthful trip to Europe, and moved from laser disk parties for friends in his mom's garage to opening a humble opera cafe in a rough neighborhood.
There were other fans of opera and classical music who gradually came together as a real arts community. Being close to San Diego, the understanding grew that the arts could be privately funded, and did not necessarily require the cooperation of the local PRI apparatchiks to succeed. The first performance of a full opera occurred in 2001 and the blossoming continued. Kids took music lessons, and imagined a larger cultural life beyond the survival economics of poor Mexico.
Such opportunities did not exist for Mercedes Quinonez when she was young. A talented soprano, she sang in the church choir. But her musical aspirations had to be pursued in her spare time, as the responsibilities of running a hardware business and caring for her mother later took precedence. At age 45, after years of keeping her love for music alive by singing in church she entered the new conservatory of classical music run by Russian émigrés. Her years of quiet perseverance in studying music paid off for her. She began giving recitals and performing to great acclaim in Enrique Fuentes' successful opera cafe. By age 51, she was recognized as the premier soprano of Tijuana.
Her story contains the sort of pluck and determination that would make Yogi Berra say, "Only in America can a thing like this happen." Except it happened in Mexico.
But Mercedes' singular achievement stands apart from the recitation of empty houses being built as monuments to the egos of their owners in depopulated Mexican villages. In a book full of losers, she is a winner, along with the other opera enthusiasts who bloomed where they were planted in the rocky soil of Tijuana.
It would be a welcome relief from an American perspective to see other Mexicans working to achieve their dreams at home—and demanding the reforms required for opportunities to be expanded.
It would be even better for Mexicans and the rest of the world to cease using our own dear home as the stage for their tiresome psychodramas.
Brenda Walker (email her) lives in Northern California and publishes two websites, LimitsToGrowth.org and ImmigrationsHumanCost.org. She admires Mexico for its marvelous tequila, and that's about all.