Of Fences and Black Velvet 

A journalist’s intimate portraits of illegal immigration provide human faces, haunting insights

The most immediately arresting fact about the dozen or so Mexican immigrants portrayed in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream is that not one of them, from the wildly successful “Tomato King” to a young mother doomed to die of thirst in the desert, imagines their immigration is in any way permanent.

by Michael Ray Taylor

On April 9, President Bush toured fence construction along the Arizona-Mexico border before giving a speech in which he attempted to relaunch his flagging immigration policy, promising tighter border controls, a new guest worker program and better enforcement of laws regulating the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here. Yet given the widely varying views even within his own circle of advisers, Bush’s legacy may, in the end, be nothing more than thousands of miles of new chain link unspooling across the Southwestern desert.

As Bush spoke beneath the Yuma sun, it is virtually certain that desperate people nearby were already finding ways to bypass the fence he had come to praise. In Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, a collection of articles originally published in the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle and other major newspapers, journalist Sam Quinones paints rich, fully realized portraits of a few of them. Quinones’ first book, True Tales From Another Mexico, depicted a nation in which a corrupt ruling party penetrated—and petrified—all aspects of public life. When Quinones emigrated from the United States to Mexico in 1994, he found that corruption was usually rewarded and poverty was usually punished; yet he also saw amazing resourcefulness among poor people who found ways around these two essential facts of Mexican life.

That resourcefulness, Quinones explains in his new book, is why Mexico has become a nation of tiny villages full of empty new homes, villages that export nothing but immigrants. The only possibility a poor or even middle-class Mexican has of building a new home is to find work in the United States. Nearly all who make the dangerous crossing plan to stay north for no more than a year, perhaps two. They send money home and eventually construct dream homes, complete with Jacuzzis and satellite dishes, as the years stretch into decades. The empty homes serve no purpose, Quinones writes, but to point out to the young people of every village that illegal employment in the United States offers their best chance of advancement.

The most immediately arresting fact about the dozen or so Mexican immigrants portrayed in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream is that not one of them, from the wildly successful “Tomato King” to a young mother doomed to die of thirst in the desert, imagines their immigration is in any way permanent. They all view the United States as the means to a life they dream of in Mexico, even as their children grow up fully Americanized.

Of all the dreamers the book portrays, the most appealing may be Delfino, depicted with three young friends on the book’s cover. In separate stories at the beginning, middle and end of the book, Quinones follows this diminutive hip-hop-loving teenager from his mountain village to dangerous construction work in Mexico City, through the Arizona desert to a minimum wage job in California, and back to Mexico again. Along the way, the reader sees the increasingly wide world through Delfino’s eyes and begins to understand the brutal industries that illegal immigration spawns, especially the border traffic in human beings and narcotics.

Not all the stories are dark and hopeless: a kitschy comedy permeates “Doyle and Choy Wrap Juárez in Velvet,” an account of the international boom in black velvet paintings. That particular art form exploded from Mexico in the 1970s—years that, Quinones observes, “worked hard so that social critics could look back and proclaim them ‘The Most Embarrassing Decade of the Twentieth Century.’ ” Another story, “The Beautiful Insanity of Enrique Fuentes,” creates an ironic portrayal of a Tijuana opera lover that seems more Gabriel García Márquez than mainstream journalism. And “A Soccer Season in Kansas” may be only a revision away from a movie poster proclaiming it “The Feel-Good Story of the Year.”

In his final chapter, Quinones describes an investigation that ultimately forces him to flee Mexico in fear for his life. By the time he returns to the United States, Quinones is left with a deep insight into one the greatest mass migrations of human history—but with no answers that can be summed up in a political speech, no problems that can be solved by anything so simple as a fence.

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