[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Translation Nation': Spanglish

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'Translation Nation': Spanglish


    Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United
    By Héctor Tobar.
    307 pp. Riverhead Books. $24.95.

    EARLY in this chronicle of an emerging Latino United States, someone
    in Tijuana trying to make his way north remarks to Héctor Tobar, ''I
    think that the border will disappear before we lose the desire to
    cross.'' ''Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the
    Spanish-Speaking United States'' crosswires de Tocqueville's
    ''Democracy in America'' with Che Guevara's ''Motorcycle Diaries'' as
    Tobar makes the journey from West Coast to East, from America's future
    into its past, from Hollywood's ''seamier half'' -- is there another
    half? -- to Texas, Florida and New York, with stops in the heartland
    of Nebraska and Idaho, where a Hispanic America proves as enduring as
    it would seem unlikely. ''Today,'' Tobar notes, ''Los Angeles and
    California are quietly exporting their people and their way of life
    eastward across the continent.''

    Tobar's book is a triumph of observation. In one account after
    another, from that of the couple who work in a Tyson chicken plant in
    Alabama, where the author goes ''undercover'' as a factory worker,
    ''hoping to see America through the innocent eyes of the wandering
    migrant,'' to the story of the marine from Guatemala who dies in the
    Persian Gulf, Tobar vividly and movingly captures the conflict between
    the immigrant ideal to which America has always aspired and the
    presiding white culture's deep ambivalence about the immigrant

    While Tobar is an impressive reporter -- the former national Latino
    affairs correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, he is now the paper's
    Buenos Aires bureau chief -- ''Translation Nation'' is often most
    compelling when it's telling his own story, which begins in Los
    Angeles, ''my tierra,'' he calls it, ''my homeland.'' Los Angeles --
    ''the place to which I will always return'' -- is the nerve center for
    Tobar's quest. For Latinos, it's the ultimate American city, a city of
    immigrants in a country of them, trafficking in identity, reinvention
    and the opportunity for people to recast themselves in the image of
    their hopes.

    When Tobar was a young boy, the image of his hopes bore more
    resemblance to the Lakers basketball star Jerry West than to the
    revered Che, for Tobar's leftist parents and other Latinos a
    Jesus-like martyr whose hold on their imaginations was mythic. But as
    Los Angeles grew increasingly Hispanic over the next 40 years, Tobar
    was increasingly pulled back to the roots of his Guatemalan family.
    Che became a more complicated symbol, both of an oppressive immigrant
    past and of a utopian future that America at once promised and
    betrayed. Growing up, Tobar wrestled with notions of identity, and he
    still does. When he returns to Alabama, ''liberated of all
    disguises,'' four years after his reporting trip, he goes to the new
    Roman Catholic church the Latinos have built, and decides to take
    communion. Should he surrender to his ''middle-class squeamishness''
    and receive the wafer in his hand, or open his mouth to the priest's
    offering like ''a real hombre''? In a moment he decides: ''I opened my

    Tobar's life, and the life of a Spanish-speaking United States,
    contain the paradoxical story of the American dream -- pockmarked by
    the realities of racism and economic exploitation -- that transforms
    its aspirants and is in turn transformed by them. If ''Translation
    Nation'' is haunted by how America's border will disappear before the
    desire to cross it does, Tobar is more preoccupied with the border
    than with the desire. Therein lies what is most conspicuously absent
    from his otherwise fine book.

    ''What it means to be an American citizen,'' Tobar writes, ''and what
    makes you a citizen, has been a fluid concept throughout this
    country's history. . . . Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the
    time when most modern American political institutions were being
    founded, the dominant strain in political philosophy had it that only
    property owners were qualified to vote or hold office.'' True enough,
    but as those institutions have evolved so has the idea of citizenship.
    It is typical of ''Translation Nation'' that Tobar defines being an
    American not in terms of what it means but in terms of what it
    doesn't. Too many stories here, including that of Tobar's own parents,
    duck the question: Why is the desire to cross the border stronger than
    the border itself?

    ''Even if they catch us 100 times,'' that man in Tijuana goes on to
    say, ''we're going to get in one day.'' After finishing ''Translation
    Nation,'' the reader remains uncertain whether the determination to
    try 101 times is something that Tobar somehow finds too
    incomprehensible or unimportant to talk about, or whether he considers
    it an intangible too troublesome to contemplate for everything it

    For all the ways that America routinely fails its promise, it's also,
    uniquely, a country defined by an idea rather than by common territory
    or tradition. It wouldn't undercut Tobar's eloquent complaint about
    the injustices of the nation that so many Latinos sacrifice so much to
    adopt as their own -- if anything, it would inform it -- to
    acknowledge that, in a world of countries that build borders to keep
    people in, America has felt compelled to build borders to keep out the
    millions and millions of people for whom its allure involves more than
    just a better job.

    Steve Erickson is the author of ''Our Ecstatic Days'' and editor of
    the literary magazine Black Clock.

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