Where We Come From

Based on Where We Come From, the first Oscar Cásares novel that I have read, this writer is a master of understated highlights. His discipline, his control of what happens on the page, is formidable. When Orly, staying reluctantly with his Aunt Nina on summer vacation, crosses the bridge from Brownsville into Matamoros, Mexico illegally to have a kid’s adventure, he’s detained by immigration authorities on the way back. No child looks more like an American kid than Orly, whose parents are an immigration success story. Orly’s solidly U.S. middle class, in his clothes, speech, social confidence and manners. But his Aunt Nina still must travel to the border station to get him released. When asked how she could have left Orly home alone with her invalid mother, who wasn’t capable of supervising him, Nina is stuck. She can’t admit that she left him in the care of her part-time maid because most such maids are illegal workers, and Nina can’t afford an investigation as to whether there are any illegals on her mother’s property in Brownsville where she lives…because there are.

How that happened is a “nose of the camel” kind of thing. Her maid Rumalda begged Nina to do her a favor as a friend (Since when were they friends? Nina thinks.) The favor is for Nina to let Rumalda’s daughter Noemi and her four-year-old hide at Nina’s house as a way station. They want to join Noemi’s husband who has a thriving business in Fort Worth. Noemi and her child will cross the bridge into Brownsville under pretext of a day trip. They will hide out at Nina’s until they can be picked up to continue on the rest of the way to Fort Worth.

Nina agrees with misgivings which prove justified. That operation goes smoothly but then Nina’s home is bookmarked as a convenient crossing station for “coyotes”, unscrupulous con men who make it a business to shepherd illegal immigrants across the border for a fee. Nina can’t say no-she’s already broken the law. She’s stuck.

After harboring one load overpacked and underfed in a small house that lies in the rear of her mother’s property, Nina lucks out, if you can call it that, when the coyotes are arrested in a motel further along their route. The illegals with the coyotes will be deported-except for the boy Daniel, Orly’s age, who was traveling with the group alone to join his father in Chicago. Daniel had a cell to stay in contact with his father, but he forgot it when he escapes from the motel before he was seized with the rest. Not knowing where else to go, with great difficulty he finds his way back to Nina’s house. He becomes the boy in hiding in the Pink House-that’s the small house in back where the immigrants originally hid out. The novel transmutes wonderfully into a classic YA story as well, as Orly makes a new, strangely alien, friend to spend his previously boring summer with.

I’ve taken some time to give you no more than a hint of the textual richness of Where We Come From. Nothing in this fine instant classic of a book will scream at you. There’s no occasion to overhype. Cásares tight-weaves his words together as if he were working a loom on a fabric that is guaranteed to last.

One of my favorite incidents in the book is where an empty water canister is seen blowing across a desert-like waste. Cásares pauses in his main story to give us the human anthropology of the container. It belonged to an elderly woman who was attempting to border cross to join the rest of her family in Texas. She was the only family member still left in Mexico but had a warm family embrace waiting for her in the U.S. if she could only reach it.

She is really too senior to undertake the physical strain of the trek across the border. But she tells a coyote she has been exercising, keeping herself fit for the ordeal of the wasteland crossing.

Almost immediately, she falls behind the group. The party sneaking across try waiting for her once or twice, increasing their risk. Finally, the coyote says they must leave her behind. She tries to follow after the group as best she can, but quickly becomes disoriented and lost. Exhausted, she drinks the last of her water and dies of thirst and exposure in the desert. And that’s why there’s an empty water container blowing around in the wind.