Oscar Cásares Talks About “Where We Come From”

Dennis: Thanks very much, Oscar, for talking about Where We Come From. It’s a textually rich book. There’s a lot happening on each page and your characters have an exceptional memorability. Let’s start with the title. Who is “We”? Who is included in that word? And are they coming from a place or a state of mind? If so, what is it? People who are coming from somewhere are going somewhere. Where is that?

Oscar: That’s the first time I’ve been asked that and it’s a great question, Dennis. The line first appears when Nina is about to show Orly the family album and tell them some of their history. It was important to me to show a more complete picture of the Mexican-American experience in this country, which is generally depicted as working class and struggling to get ahead, while the fact is that many Mexican-Americans have moved out of the barrio and up into the middle or upper-middle class. So that was where the title was born, but as the novel evolved for me the line itself began to feel larger than simply that one experience and instead reflected more of a common experience that has to do with identity and what journey and physical place do you claim as your own. Now when someone asks me to sign their book, my first response is to asked them where they’re from. Then I’ll sign the book, “To Kevin, who comes from Naperville” or “To Lucy, who comes from East L.A.” At every signing there’s at least one person who can’t actually decide where he or she is from, because they moved around a lot or would rather not claim that particular locale as part of their journey.

Dennis: The first memorable character I encountered in your story is Nina. I felt a little ambivalent about her. Initially, I saw her as some kind of royal sucker. She’s seduced by degrees into taking care of her invalid mother. Of course, she loves her mother, but it appears the rest of her family has dumped the task of caring for the senior on her. Also, I loved the irony of her mother rubbing it in that she lives in her house. Nina has given up her own house and career to care for her mother. Later on, Nina seems to be manipulated into hiding illegal aliens on her mother’s property and from her mother who mustn’t find out. Nina slowly realizes that she has to help her illegal guests more than she has been doing by providing more food and amenities to relive the harshness of their condition. What do you think of Nina? Do you have any mixed feelings about the character? Or is she a saint?

Oscar: Nina, to me, feels like a lot of women I’ve known of an older generation, many who are Mexican American but not always. I had a white lady, maybe in her early 60s, tear up when she talked about the book and I thought it was because of the harsh conditions the immigrants were living through or the sexual assaults alluded to, but it was actually about the compromises she’d had to make in her family because of what had been expected of her and, in a way, that she’d been conditioned over many years to see as part of her familial obligations. I think some of what frustrates Nina about having to take care of her mother is that she knew this was a possibility and had taken steps to gain her independence by moving out of the house and putting herself through school. And yet, she got pulled right back in because that sense of obligation was so much stronger. (In my first novel, Amigoland, one of the main characters is placed in a nursing home by his daughter, who could make this decision only because she no longer lived near her father and so that distance made it easier to not get herself too involved.) The deal with the maid is complicated because she knows Rumalda is asking her to do something illegal, but by this point Rumalda has become way more than just her maid, and principally because Nina is trapped at the house taking care of her mother, so Rumalda has become her lifeline, the one person who she has any real contact with and the one person that allows her to stray from the house. But I never thought of Nina as a saint. She’s complicated and her motivations at times might appear to be saintly but are actually connected to some of her past grievances, whether in being obligated to be a caregiver or the falling-out with her old boyfriend or being coerced by the traffickers. Even when it comes to sheltering and caring for Daniel, we later learn it started off as an effort to help the boy, but eventually it became more selfish when she realized he could be the child she never had.

Dennis: I wondered if Where We Come From isn’t meant for me. I’m not Latino. I had to look up most of the Spanish words and it’s not my culture. But I admit that I often find mainstream North American culture boring. Am I patronizing Latino culture by reading your book? I like books about outsiders, and I feel “the outside” in your book. Do you think my attitude is screwed up?

Oscar: As someone who grew up on the border, not only a literal and physical one, but also a cultural one, all my work is meant to be fluid in nature. I never want to alienate a reader regardless of his or her background. (I’m writing this from Augsburg, Germany, by the way, where tonight I’ll be reading to many people who have never been to the States, much less the border with Mexico.) I’m happy to hear you looked up the Spanish words, as this hopefully gave you a more nuanced sense of what was happening, but even if a reader doesn’t take this extra step the Spanish phrases are written in a way to be understood, more or less, contextually, or, at the very least, not bump you out of the story. But ultimately, for me, it’s the story that has to stand on its own. It either brings you into its world and compels you to stay a while or it doesn’t.

Dennis: Many of the Latino families that you present in Where We Come From are North American success stories. Family members have successful careers and stable, happy lives. Why can’t the families so depicted have found that success south of the border? Or could they have, and it doesn’t matter what side of the border they are on?

It definitely matters what side of the river they’re on, though I suppose in some cases they would’ve made it regardless. But truth is, our neighboring countries to the south simply don’t provide the same opportunity for upward mobility that we have in this country. I should also say that these success stories in the book happened over many generations. My family made it to the U.S. in 1837, and I don’t know that we could’ve claimed any real mobility until maybe the 1980s.

Dennis: Citizens in many countries say that illegal immigration is their number one problem-that their countries are “full”. I don’t get it. Why not open all the borders and let people go where they want? Would that really be worse than what we have now?

Oscar: To me, it’s a question of resources and our ability to properly deal with a large influx of people. The problem we have right now is that there is no policy. The U.S. wants certain immigrants out of the country, but at the same is dependent on their labor. And this idea of wanting people to do the work but not the people themselves doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know that it would be worse letting everyone in, but I’m assuming that if it were worse, which is plausible, that fixing things at that point would be a hell of lot more difficult than addressing the issue now in a meaningful way.

Dennis: Where We Come From turns into a great YA classic in its depiction of the friendship of Orly, the North American kid, and Daniel, the Mexican child that gets separated from his group sneaking north and backtracks to Nina’s place. Tied in with that, the conclusion of your novel is quite moving. In my review of your book, I was bothered by my description of the migrating Daniel as “strangely alien” in relation to Orly. I nearly excised the phrase but decided to keep it since it represented a problem. In that context, my last question to you is: What is alien?

Oscar: Well, I’d say there’s a lot that happens throughout this novel that’s “alien,” and the first on that list, perhaps because this is where it started for me, is how alien Brownsville feels to Orly. His entire family is from here and yet he knows nothing about the place. Everything feels off to him, while it’s presumably a place where he should be feeling at home. What Nina ends up feeling for Daniel is also quite alien to her, especially since she has tried to maintain a bit of distance for the whole time she’s been there. In ways, Daniel seems like the least alien to me, even with his being literally in a foreign land. The difference is a matter of perspective, I think. In Daniel’s case, he’s focused on trying to survive long enough to make it to Chicago and be with his father, and the other two characters have the luxury, if that’s the right term, of considering their situation.