Book Review: Translation Nation by Hector Tobar, from the New York Times

By STEVE ERICKSON
Published: May 15, 2005

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.”

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

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 presence.

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 mouth.”

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 insinuates.

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.

Hector Tobar on the Latino majority in Los Angeles:

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