“Just as there are two sides of the border, there are two narratives of the border,” author Oscar Casares said near the end of his June 15, 2019, appearance at the San Antonio Central Public Library. Casares came to San Antonio to read from his third publication and second novel, “Where We Come From,” set in his native Brownsville, right on the border between the United States and Mexico.
Yes, the novel’s plot centers on immigration but it’s more personal than that and less political than one might expect. The issue of immigration is not the novel’s focus but the impact of immigration: the human impact. And not just on the immigrants but those who live close enough to the border, along the border, close enough to see the faces of the immigrants, to live merely a few miles away from the so-called safe houses stashed with dozens of hungry, tired and scared illegal immigrants, and to drive alongside the Border Patrol vehicles whose job it is to safeguard the border.
Casares’ moving, eye-opening novel, however, moves in for an even closer focus on immigration’s impact on one family in Brownsville and characters with roots in Brownsville. The main character is Nina, whose real name is Hortencia, a former educator who now lives in her childhood home, caring for her sickly, elderly mother. Her godson, Orlando, or Orly as he is called, is set to visit for a few weeks when unexpectedly, a favor Nina does for her housekeeper plunges her unknowingly into the business of immigrant smuggling.
The book follows how she tries to keep the immigrants a secret from her mother, her nosy brother, and most importantly from her 12-year-old godson, Orly, into whose care her nephew and his father, Eduardo, has entrusted her.
Vignettes throughout the book tell the story of immigrants with whom the main characters interact, often unknowingly, as Casares pointed out.
“I wanted a way of bringing to life this cliché of immigrants ‘living in the shadows,’” Casares said. “We know who these people are… And I thought, ‘Was there a way I could bring them out and show their lives?”
The immigrants’ plight is highlighted and Casares includes the ugly, horrific conditions and experiences many immigrants routinely face on their road to the proverbial better life. Readers get to know the dynamics of a Mexican-American family who struggle with broken lives and dreams of their own and bicultural lives that create conflict for each family member in unique ways.
A visual companion to the novel, photographed by Joel Salcido, is featured on https://www.oscarcasares.com/the-border with photos from both sides of the border that “represent the book visually,” Salcido said
Salcido’s aim was to not just take photographs that followed the narrative but to create “poetic images” of life on the border and symbolically represent the border and its realities. An especially powerful image is the empty milk jug, used to hold lifesaving water for an unknown journey, and which Casares refers to in his book as a “plastic tumbleweed.” The photo represents life and death, hope and desperation. A water jug just strewn across a desert, a highway, a road. Where is the owner? Did they make it? Was the water enough to sustain them?
I read the book in a couple of days and as an aspiring writer, perhaps novelist one day, I told Casares that this is a book that I wish I had written, has inspired me and perhaps most importantly, a book that I feel I can call mine, meaning it is written beautifully and authentically, with Tex-Mex or Spanglish words sprinkled throughout, characters and family situations with which I can related and most of all, bringing to the surface that torn feeling that overcomes me when I consider immigration and all of its ramifications. I don’t know these immigrants, yet I do; I thank God my ancestors came to the United States when they did but wonder about what my life, like the life of these immigrants, would be if they hadn’t; and I hear the protestors who worry about national security and lack of resources to support increasing immigrant influxes but can’t help but pray for them and cry when I see people who look like me and my family suffering and searching.