Cover image for Crossing over : a Mexican family on the migrant trail
Crossing over : a Mexican family on the migrant trail
Martínez, Rubén.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, 2001.
Physical Description:
330 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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E184.M5 M386 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A moving account of a family's odyssey by "one of the brightest voices of a new generation of Hispanic writers" ( Washington Post )The U.S.-Mexican border is one of the most permeable boundaries in the world, breached daily by Mexicans in search of work. Yet the migrant gambit is perilous. Thousands die crossing the line and those who reach "the other side" are branded illegals, undocumented and unprotected.In Crossing Over , Ruben Martinez puts a human face on the phenomenon, following the exodus of the Chávez clan, an extended Mexican family with the grim distinction of having lost three sons in a tragic border incident. He charts the migrants' progress from their small south-Mexican town of Cherán through the harrowing underground railroad to the tomato farms of Missouri, the strawberry fields of California, and the slaughterhouses of Wisconsin. He reveals the effects of immigration on the family left behind and offers a powerful portrait of migrant culture, an exchange that deposits hip hop in Indian villages while bringing Mexican pop to the northern plains. Far from joining the melting pot, Martinez argues, the migrants - as many as seven million in the U.S. - are spawning a new culture that will alter both countries as Latin America and the U.S. come increasingly to resemble each other.Intimate, compelling, written with passion and engagement, Crossing Over tells the epic story of a family, a town, a world in motion.

Author Notes

Ruben Martinez , an Emmy Award-winning journalist and poet, is associate editor at Pacific News Service and a correspondent for PBS's religion and ethics news weekly. Author of The Other Side , he has appeared as a commentator on Nightline , Frontline , and CNN. He lives in Los Angeles.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Chronicling a family that lost three sons to a border crossing gone horribly wrong, Martinez travels repeatedly from San Diego to the city of Cheron, in the state of Michoacin, about 200 miles west of Mexico City. Though treated by some of the Mexicans he meets as more of a gringo than a norteno (a Mexican who has lived in the north), Martinez, an American of Mexican emigri parents, gets terrifically close to his subjects, following them from stultifying poverty in Mexico to mortally dangerous illegal crossings and harsh and also dangerous (and illegal) work in Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri and California. Martinez draws a wealth of social, ethnic, linguistic and economic nuance in completely absorbing narratives. Each of the 13 chapters begins with a facing-page photo by Joseph Rodriguez (with whom Martinez collaborated on East Side Stories), showing us the cholos (gang members), coyotes (crossing guides) and pollos ("chickens" being led across), and also the everyday people whose lives are spread, one way or another, across the border. Martinez is now at Harvard on a Loeb fellowship, has won an Emmy for his work as a journalist, is associate editor of Pacific News Service and a correspondent for PBS's Religion and Ethics News Weekly. His book is heroic in its honesty and self-examination, and in its determination to tell its story completely and fully. (Oct. 3) Forecast: With the legal status of Mexican workers apparently on the White House front burner, this will be a huge book for policy wonks; look for terrific reviews, and for Martinez to do many a news chat. This will be a big seller on campus and with left-leaning readers (possibly for years), but the topicality and the quality of the writing make a major breakout likely. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

The U.S. is "a nation of immigrants," but most Americans don't know much about the experience of immigration today. Martinez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service and correspondent for PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, aims to illuminate that experience in this involving story of an extended Mexican family's journey. Three of the Chavez brothers died in a border incident; Martinez goes to their small town in Michoacan and describes their funeral. But other family members have not given up hope, and Martinez documents what they find across the border, in Arkansas, Missouri, California, and Wisconsin. This is one of the strengths of Martinez's narrative: so much of the literature about Mexican immigrants, legal and undocumented, focuses on the Southwest, it's all too easy to forget that midwestern slaughterhouses and orchards also depend on immigrant labor. Martinez captures the terrors and small victories of the immigrants' journey, as well as the inexorable reciprocal flow of culture between a Mexican village and the new homes the immigrants find in el Norte. --Mary Carroll

Library Journal Review

Emmy Award-winning journalist Martinez here captures the human story of Hispanic migrants drawn north by a hunger for la vida mejor. Hundreds of "illegals" die each year attempting to cross the invisible line between Mexico and the United States. Among them were the Ch vez brothers, three undocumented farm workers who died in 1996 after a coyote's speeding truck flipped and crashed. Martinez spent a year traveling with the brothers' extended family, chronicling a four-generation-long journey northward. They begin in the family's hometown of Cher n, Michoac n, and travel across the southwestern desert to timber mills in Arkansas, meat-packing plants in Wisconsin, and greenhouses in Missouri, eventually arriving near the strawberry fields in California, the brothers' original destination. As he relates the passionate story of this migrant family on its never-ending search for identity, Martinez identifies components that contribute to the cultural swirl of the migrant experience and predicts the creation of a multiracial future. Martinez honestly articulates both the ideals and the enormous risks taken by migrants, showing how la tradici"n has foiled assimilation and the "melting pot" myth even as migration creates change on both sides of the border. Recommended for large public and academic libraries. Sylvia D. Hall-Ellis, Denver P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Both an award-winning journalist and a poet, Mart'nez should have the skills for this assignment: tracking a migrant family from Mexico and showing how migrant culture is changing America. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I am close to the line. The mostly invisible line that stretches two thousand miles along sand, yellow dirt dotted with scrub brush, and the muddy waters of the Rio Grande. Invisible, save for certain stretches near San Diego, Nogales, and El Paso, where the idea of the U.S.-Mexico border takes physical form through steel, chain links, barbed wire, concrete, and arc lamps that light the barren terrain at night. At these three crossing points -- San Diego being the busiest port of entry in the world -- the Border Patrol has cleared the land for miles around, so that the human figures who try to breach the line stand in stark relief and cast shadows. The Border Patrol swallows as many shadows as it can. It is late summer in California and the hills that line I-15 in southern Riverside County are tinged rusty brown; the brilliant green wild grass of spring is a distant memory. This is one of my least favorite stretches of California highway, an interminable, mostly barren valley corridor. I-15 is a necessary route for travelers and truckers shuttling between the Inland Empire and San Diego. It is also the preferred route of the "coyotes," the smugglers of human cargo who charge $1,000 a head or more to foil the designs of the Border Patrol and get their migrant clients on the road to their American future. I am in the badlands of Southern California, en route to an appointment with the dead. I'm headed to Temecula, a growing city on the edge of Riverside County. It is arid country here, the westernmost point of the vast desert that spreads from the California beach all the way to the Gulf Coast of Texas. For the American migrants who rode the wagon trains westward, California was once the "other side," just as it is today for the migrants heading north. Up from the fine yellow dust of these hills rise imported laurels, palms, sycamores, avocados, willows, oleander, eucalyptus. There are even apple and citrus orchards. But now and again, the old desert, a reminder of Mexican, or even Indian, California, appears in the form of an ancient, lonely stand of nopal cactus. I take the exit at Rancho California Road. Temecula is picturesque, with its Western wagon-wheel décor. The elite live in the hills above town, in huge, recently built homes of the faux California Mission variety: red tile roofs, beige stucco, wrought iron. There are rose gardens and the occasional artificial pond gracing the spacious yards. One of the local realty agencies is called Sunshine Properties. I head west along a winding two-lane that climbs into the Santa Rosa Mountains, a range that runs southward and eventually crosses the international line. The Santa Rosas are beautiful and bizarre: gently rolling hills of green give way suddenly to boulder-strewn peaks and chasms. On the Mexican side, the landscape is precipitous -- and infamous. There, a stretch of Mexico Federal Highway 2 known as La Rumorosa (The Whispering One, for the haunted winds that blow through the canyons) has been the site of hundreds of fatal wrecks over the decades. My destination is the intersection of Calle Capistrano and Avenida Del Oro. The names are, of course, Spanish -- appropriated by the whites to romance their idyll with a dash of old California. The street signs are rendered in faux rustic, engraved wood. Most of the whites who live here now were once migrants themselves, belonging to subsequent waves of American wanderers -- the Depression-era and post-war generations that pulled up stakes in the Midwest and on the East Coast to spend their lives in balmy paradise. This land was a final destination for them, the consummation of their California dream. You don't leave paradise once you've found it. But for the Mexican migrants, Temecula is a stopover, not a final destination. Sure, there are Mexican gardeners tending to the rose bushes, cleaning the swimming pools, washing and folding the clothes, cooking the meals; brown women sing lullabies in Spanish to white babies. But the Mexicans are here for just as long as they have to be. They are mostly young and don't think of retiring, not only because they have no money to do so but also because they can't imagine themselves old yet. Most of the Mexicans in Temecula are literally just passing through, crammed into pickup trucks and vans driven by the coyotes. Temecula is just another of the hundred places they will blow through en route to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Chicago, Decatur. But even these are not final destinations. The migrants will follow trails determined by America's labor economy: they will keep moving, from one coast to another, from picking the fields to working in hotels and restaurants, from cities to heartland towns. Temecula was long a quiet town. But to the retirees' dismay, it is now a staging area for the battle of the border, in which two armies face off, usually under cover of darkness. It is a battle in which, occasionally, blood is spilled, though usually only on one side. I turn right at Avenida Del Oro and pick up speed on a steep down-hill grade. The road begins a long curve between hills dotted with rural mansions and avocado orchards. At the bottom of the gully, at the intersection with Calle Capistrano, I stop the car. The sun has fallen behind the hills to the west but still illuminates the higher terrain with a lush, classic California gold. Silvery plumes from the irrigation sprinklers arc over the fields. This is where it happened. Where Benjamín, Jaime, and Salvador Chávez and five others, all of them undocumented Mexican migrants, "illegals," died crammed in a truck that sped along this rural road four and a half years ago. I clamber down into the drainage ditch below the road. Yellow dirt and sickly weeds. I find a screen from the window of the truck's camper shell and a blue piece of plastic from the shell itself, about a foot long and six inches wide. And another piece of black plastic: a fragment of the truck's running board. I pick up and examine a faded, crumpled tube of Colgate toothpaste, its ingredients listed in Spanish. There is an equally faded and torn McDonald's medium-size Coca-Cola cup. Above the ditch, an anonymous artisan has built a small altar by taking the trunk of a California oak, slicing it in half, and carving out seven small crosses that he has filled in with light blue paint. (There should be eight crosses; the artisan was apparently unaware of the last victim's death in a nearby hospital several days after the accident.) It is a simple, beautiful monument. I walk a ways up the hill, the bed of dead avocado leaves crunching underfoot. There is very little traffic and it is quiet, except for the leaves of the avocados rustling in the warm wind and, suddenly and eerily, the voices of men. Men speaking in Spanish. It sounds like they are nearby, but it takes me a while to spot them, high on a hill south of me. They are Mexican farmworkers, chatting casually as they pick avocados. They are a good half mile away, but the wind has brought their voices very close. These men traveled the same road that Benjamin and his brothers did. They are farmworkers now. Benjamín, Salvador, and Jaime Chávez are not. This is where their road ended. Copyright (c) 2001 Rubén Martínez Excerpted from Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail by Ruben Martinez All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Passionp. 1
Book 1 Points of Departure
1 Homep. 21
2 Paisanosp. 41
3 Familyp. 61
4 Waitingp. 85
5 Highland Hip Hopp. 119
6 Fiestap. 139
7 Harvestp. 169
8 Rosa's Journeyp. 177
Book 2 Another Country
9 The Linep. 195
10 Warren, Arkansasp. 221
11 Princes of Norwalkp. 237
12 St. Louis, Missourip. 267
13 Strawberry Fields Foreverp. 295
Epiloguep. 327
Acknowledgementsp. 329